Last April, ground was broken in Mount Vernon and construction of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington commenced. The library will be a repository for Mount Vernon’s vast collection of books, manuscripts, and archival materials, and will be open to students, scholars, and other special groups. It is slated to open in September of 2013. Perhaps the most interesting wing will be the replication of George Washington’s own personal library, all 1,200 books, a project spearheaded by James Rees, president and chief executive of the Mount Vernon Estate, Museum, and Gardens.
Washington’s books were all catalogued prior to his death in 1799, making the replication possible. After his passing the books were split amongst family members, but by 1848 most had been acquired by Henry Stevens, a well known rare bookseller and bibliographer. Stevens made it known that he planned to sell the collection to the British Museum and a group in Boston was able to raise the funds necessary to purchase the collection. It was then donated to the Boston Athenaeum, where is remains today. Mount Vernon only has 50 original copies and 450 duplicate additions, but hopes to acquire the rest from the Athenaeum through purchases and/or donations. Otherwise, they will scan the books and replicate originals by putting them into an 18th century binding, complete with endpaper, leather, and gold tooling.
A handful of the books include: a play by Plutarch; a history of Cinncinatus; a book of “Rules of Civility”; 1787 edition of Don Quixote, purchased by Washington the same day the Constitution was approved by Congress; and a book by Alexander Hamilton on economics and taxation, inscribed by the author, “To His Excellency George Washington, Esq., President of the Congress of the States of America.”
Rees concedes that “you wouldn’t associate Washington with a library as much as you would guns”, but he hopes that by being able “to learn about his personality and likes and dislikes through what he was reading”, students and scholars will glean a more complete understanding of Washington. Moreover, as Rees so aptly notes, “A rare book library will send chills up your spine.”
Although the library will only be open to researchers, a temporary exhibit of selected volumes from the collection is planned.
Mount Vernon replicates George Washington’s personal library [Washington Post]