Shutdowns and sequestrations don’t bother the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. It will stay open throughout the government follies, because not a penny of government money was included in the $47 million it took to build the library in Mount Vernon, which opened Friday. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association announced in July that it had raised $106.4 million for the library, and the government had nothing to do with that, either.
Washington, whom Gen. Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, his comrade-in-arms, eulogized as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” was first as well among the Founding Fathers — commander of the Continental army that won the Revolution and then the first president of the United States. Several presidents have tied their legacies to brick, mortar and marble, but Washington’s is a presidential legacy that took time to ripen, and has grown over the centuries.
Now it has a library to call its own. Washington wrote to a friend in 1797 that he wanted a place to house his letters and papers. The handsome structure built at Mount Vernon will give visitors and scholars a chance to get to know the first president anew, and weigh what’s true and what’s not. Time has punctured a few myths. Washington did not cut down a cherry tree (that was a myth spun by Parson Weems), and he did not have wooden teeth. He did have debts. But he benefited from a combination of luck and common sense.
“The expression ‘land rich, cash poor,’” writes Andrew G. Gardner in the latest issue of the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, “applied to Washington at times in his mid-life career as tobacco farmer. Although his long-term goal of accumulating acres paid off after his death, there were periods when debts mounted and his financial outlook lost its rosy glow. As Washington prepared for his inauguration in New York City in 1789, he borrowed a hundred pounds sterling at 6 percent interest from a friend just to make the trip. The Mount Vernon farm was often fraught with cash-flow problems.
“The difficulty stemmed from Washington’s pretensions to ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ or, in his case, the Fairfaxes, Carters, and Robinsons of Virginia. He lived beyond his means, and he pushed the limits. Buying outlandish, expensive fripperies from London merchant Robert Cary led Washington into debt.”
Washington settled his debt to Cary with money left to him by his stepdaughter Patsy Custis, who died in 1773. He learned over time that “farming was not the easy route to riches.” Curt Viebranz, president of Mount Vernon, observes that “some would say Franklin was wiser and Jefferson was more intellectually complex, but Washington was a man of action, and I think they realized if he led [the new nation], things would get done.”
He had an acute understanding of human nature: “Worry is the interest paid by those who borrow trouble.” Today we might ask, “What did the first president know, and when did he know it?” We can thank the Ladies of Mount Vernon that now there’s a place to find out.