In Rule 18 of “Rules of Civility,” George Washington gives some sage advice that is easily applicable to today’s lunch-table texters: “Read no Letters, Books, or Papers in Company, but when there is a Necessity for the doing of it you must ask leave…”
This and other bits of wisdom from America’s first president, will forever live in the latest addition to Mount Vernon, the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.
A mention of George Washington conjures in most Americans a vision of stoic leadership and bravery. Yet, few ponder what the most celebrated General in our nation’s history read.
Washington’s own colleagues questioned whether he was suited to his position. “That Washington was not a scholar is certain. That he was too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station is equally past dispute,” declared fellow founder John Adams, who served as Washington’s vice president and succeeded him in the presidency.
At times, Washington questioned his own intelligence. When his secretary, David Humphreys, suggested that he write an autobiography, Washington replied, “A consciousness of a defective education, and a certainty of the want of time, unfit me for such an undertaking.”
Following George Washington’s death in 1799, an inventory of his library at Mount Vernon was made. Though some of the library’s contents were sold off and passed down over time, the newly constructed Smith National Library has retrieved many of the original documents.
The 45,000 square-foot Presidential Library was unveiled to more than 1,000 invited attendees on Friday, September 27th, according to the Associated Press. Doug Bradburn, Founding Director of the National Library, discussed the library’s mission in a recent Q&A:
“The Library should be understood to be more than the books, manuscript collections, and digital archives that we are holding and building. Although it will take some time, we intend to become the leading center for the study of George Washington and the Founding of the United States, so that anyone working seriously to interpret the past will feel like they need to spend at least some time in our Library, as a fellow, a researcher, or a participant in one of our programs.
“As part of that mission we need to help stimulate, patronize, and circulate new thoughtful understandings of George Washington and his era. But this will be a place of serious debate, not of hagiography. Finally, we need to continue to be a leader in historic preservation and interpretation, and the Library intends to serve those constituencies as well.”