Learn to Think Like a Historian at George Washington’s ‘House’

It was the day before the 2017 Presidential inauguration when a school bus filled with students from Lake Forest Academy in Illinois pulled into Mount Vernon for a visit.

Their mission was to explore the plantation that was home to the nation’s first president — and to learn about the treasures in the stacks of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.

“These students are very interested in history and politics,” explains Dozois. “Being that we are in town to experience a historic occasion, we also thought it was essential that they see firsthand the places that they’d usually only read about in history books.”

What they saw throughout Mount Vernon didn’t disappoint Kayla, a high school junior: “I am realizing more and more how important it is to preserve history. Today, we had the chance to look up close at the leaders who lived during the American Revolution, and I think that’s really important because it makes it easier to understand what they did, and why they did it. I really enjoy getting to look into their daily lives.”

The students’ interest intensified during their visit to the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, which is adjacent to the first president’s home and plantation.

They were intrigued by a bas-relief featured in the library (shown above) is a large version of George Washington’s bookplate. Created by Washington, DC, area sculptor Raymond Kaskey, it displays the maxim “exitus acta probat” — “the outcome justifies the deed.”

But it was the $9.8 million book — the Acts of Congress — acquired by the Library in June of 2012, that impressed Caleb, a sophomore. “The artifacts that we were shown in the Library really stunned me, especially seeing that in the collection there is a book from Washington’s era that today is worth nearly $10 million. I think that’s amazing! I had no clue that such a book existed!”

That book is one of the most treasured items in the collection, explains Chief Librarian and Archivist Mark Santangelo (pictured right).

“Our copy is a replica, of course, which is why I can handle it,” Santangelo says. “Its value is tremendous, not only because of its financial value, but also because of what is inside the book, which is the president’s first draft of his own job description.”

Making it all the more valuable are Washington’s handwritten notes, penciled in the margins.

“This book is a tremendous asset to have in the Library, and it wasn’t very easy to acquire,” Santangelo admits, noting there was a gentleman overseas who wanted it as much as the Library. That’s when a bidding war began, with the Library being the victor. “We all knew it was essential to secure this book so that the American public could have access to it.”

The students’ enthusiasm about the Library’s manuscripts and artifacts came as a happy surprise to teachers Vaughn and Dozois.

“We didn’t realize the students would appreciate the scholarly area of the estate as much as they did the main house and plantation, which is more of a glimpse into living history,” Vaughn says with a smile. “But the students were really curious to see what a presidential library looks like and even more intrigued by the historical importance of the items in the collection.”

Seeing students engaged and excited on their tour of the Library is always a thrill for the vice president for education at the Library, Allison Wickens (pictured right).

“The 45,000 square-foot facility that safeguards Washington’s books and manuscripts was built to be a resource for scholars, students, and all those interested in George Washington, Colonial America, and the Revolutionary and founding eras,” she says.

“The Library has more than 1,500 18th-century books, and thousands of important 19th-century newspapers, manuscripts, and documents,” she adds. “And, it serves as a scholarly retreat, creates educational outreach programs, and provides seminars and training programs with a special focus on Washington’s leadership. The Library emphasizes educational outreach, touching the lives of students, teachers, and scholars around the world.”

Most importantly, she notes, visitors of all ages are welcome to take a tour, and do research in the beautifully appointed main research area, the Karen Buchwald Wright Reading Room (pictured right).

“Each year, hundreds of students and adults experience what it’s like to be a researcher,” she says. “We don’t care at what age level they are. In fact, we love to have students come and utilize the collection, whether it’s a digital version or our primary resources. We can put so much information about George Washington at the fingertips of so many people, and we’re doing our best to make that access as seamless as possible.”

Here’s a little bit of history about the Library at Mount Vernon:

  • In 1986, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) broadened its vision beyond the preservation of Mount Vernon, to include Washington’s life, achievements, and character.
  • By 2010, that mission had expanded to the construction of a new research library. The MVLA announced the creation of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington to advance the appreciation/ understanding of George Washington.
  • The Library was funded in part by a gift of $38 million from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, the largest received in the history of the MVLA.
  • The Campaign for the Library — with Gay Hart Gaines, the vice regent for Florida, as chair — set an ambitious goal: to raise $100 million to construct the Library.
  • The Campaign exceeded its goal; it raised $106.4 million by June 2013 — all provided by private donors. Groundbreaking took place in April 2011, and the Library opened on Sept. 27, 2013.

Click here to learn more about the Library.

Click here to watch our interview with the founding director of Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith National Library, Dr. Douglas Bradburn.