For nearly 160 years, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) has faithfully preserved George Washington’s estate to the year he died, 1799. The Virginian plantation provides visitors year round with a glimpse of Washington’s day-to-day life.
The MVLA recently broke ground on a $47 million library dedicated to all things George. The National Library for the Study of George Washington will pay tribute to the founding father with his original books and artifacts.
“It’s going to be a unique avenue for scholars,” said MVLA spokeswoman Melissa Wood.
It will not be open to the public, but for researchers seeking historic detail, the library will feature books decorated with Washington’s own notes. According to Wood, the collection’s centerpiece is the newly acquired “Acts of Congress”—leather-bound volumes purchased at auction for $8.7 million.
Unlike modern presidential libraries, Washington’s is not part of the National Archives, and it is not paid for with federal money. Funded largely by donations, the MVLA wants to renew scholarship in the first president because it says his relevance is fading fast.
“It starts in the schools,” said Wood. “According to one study, Marilyn Monroe had more copy in American history textbooks than George Washington.”
Pop culture is partly to blame, but according to Eliga Gould—history department chair at the University of New Hampshire and author of several books on the American Revolution—there is actually very little about Washington that would resonate with most modern Americans.
“Washington was a slaveholder, and his earlier career was an Indian fighter,” Gould said. “He’s still treated with tremendous respect and admiration in the academic history of the Revolution, but I think it becomes harder to make the case that he’s the kind of person Americans can automatically identify with.”
Most of what Americans do know about Washington today comes from stories written in the mid-19th century. The wooden dentures, his cannot-tell-a-lie cherry tree confession, kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge—they are enduring tales, but according to historians, they are more folklore than fact.
“A lot of it can be traced back to the period when slavery became such a divisive issue in our nation,” said Gould. “The mythical Washington in some ways became easier to stomach.”
Before he became the first U.S. president, Washington worked as both a land surveyor and a farmer, but he is best known for his military career. In his 20s, Washington gained notoriety in the French and Indian War, fighting alongside Virginia provincials and British officers. But when his request for a commission in the British army was declined, the young commander soon caught the eye of the patriot cause.
“The reason that Washington was given the command of the continental army in 1775 is that he was probably the best-known military man in the colonies who was siding with Congress,” said Gould. “And since the fighting started outside Boston, they really needed to convey a sense that this wasn’t just a New England struggle with Britain but in fact had widespread support elsewhere in the colonies.”
Mount Vernon offers dramatized highlights in their Revolutionary War Theatre. Snow falls on the audience, chairs rumble, and cannons fire in the distance. Wood said that when visitors see Washington’s mansion, they can better understand the sacrifice he made.
“They have a greater appreciation for his role in how America got to be where it is today,” Wood said. “Mt. Vernon is so gorgeous—so breathtakingly beautiful—and it starts to sink in that he left all this to go to Valley Forge in the winter.”
Not a King
Gould said that while Washington is remembered for his military genius, his greatest contributions were political, both at home and overseas.
In his latest book, “Among the Powers of the Earth,” Gould suggests that creating the United States was just as much about forging a new colonial power as it was winning independence. Even as the colonies were breaking free from British rule, American founders also wished to win the king’s blessing, and Washington was the man for the job.
“Washington always played well in the British press throughout the Revolutionary War,” said Gould. “After the war, the British needed someone involved in Congress and the rebellion that they could do business with, and they very early on decided that that person was George Washington.”
Once in office, President Washington faced an American public that was both admiring and suspicious. The U.S. government that formed after the war was more centralized than people expected, and many worried that the war hero’s new power might go to his head.
“Critics said Washington was creating a homegrown version of the British monarchy,” Gould said. “It was an open question in the early days of the United States government what kind of office the presidency would be, and there were people who feared, although without reason, that he might aspire to be king.”
Gould refers to a painting that shows Washington handing his sword over to Congress to illustrate the first president’s true aims. “It is a very clear sense that the civilian chain of command would always be superior to the military,” he said.
At the end of his second term, Washington was eager to retire, but he parted with words of advice for the new republic. In his farewell address, Washington singled out the danger he foresaw in party conflict—and the civil war that would erupt if America became too polarized—but he also cautioned against America’s involvement in European wars.
“Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation,” Washington wrote in his “Farewell Address of 1796.” “Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns.”
“These principles became a lightning rod during the wars of the 20th century,” Gould said. “Many felt the United States should not get involved in the first and second world wars and opposed the NATO alliance because of what was said in the farewell address.”
At the end of his life, Washington also came to see the evils of slavery—sensing that the very thing that had made America prosperous could also be its undoing. According to Washington’s will, once his wife had passed, his slaves were to be set free.
“He comes from a very different time,” Gould said,” but I think he knew slavery would haunt the nation.
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