George Washington gets his presidential library

(CBS News) Countless books have been written about George Washington. To see books actually OWNED by George Washington you have to go to his Mount Vernon home, and the new presidential library that opened this past Friday. Chip Reid takes us on a tour:


Ann Bookout is chairman of the board of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which has maintained George Washington's home since 1853.

Why is she so passionate about George Washington?

"Because I really believe that George Washington is the indispensable man, without whom this nation would not have been created," she told Reid. "He led us to our freedom, gave up power, and came home to his beloved Mount Vernon."

Shortly before his death, Washington wrote a friend that it was his dream to build a library to hold his papers and books.

On Friday, to the sound of a colonial fife and drum band, Washington's dream finally came true -- more than 200 years later -- with the opening of his presidential library.

It's a short walk from his Mount Vernon home. The cost: $100 million, all of it raised by the ladies association -- not a penny of taxpayer money.

In the main reading room of the library, where scholars will come to study Washington, six founding fathers (as they appeared at the time of the constitutional convention) look down from the walls.

"You know, some would say Franklin was wiser and Jefferson was more intellectually complex, but Washington was a man of action," said Curt Viebranz, president of Mount Vernon, "and I think they realized that if he led it, things would get done."

Viebranz says part of the library's mission is separating fact from fiction about Washington.

Did he cut down a cherry tree? "No, he did not cut down a cherry tree," Viebranz said.

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Did he throw a silver dollar across the Potomac River? "No, also a myth."

The heart of the museum is the vault that holds Washington's personal collection of books and papers, including his copy of Edward Gibbons' "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."

Washington had no formal education, but library director Doug Bradburn says he read voraciously. Novels include "Don Quixote"; other titles range from military history to gardening.

But the crown jewel of the collection is Washington's Acts of Congress, which was purchased at auction last year for $9.8 million, and includes the just-ratified U.S. Constitution.

Washington's copy of the Constitution, which he read to see what his powers as president were, include his handwriting: "We can see him writing these annotations in the text as a way of focusing the mind, as a way of organizing what he's going to do with this new office," said Bradburn.

Martha Washington destroyed her husband's letters after he died. But one was found years later in the back of a desk drawer; Washington wrote it as he was leaving to take command of the Continental Army.

"My dearest, I retain an unalterable affection for you which neither time nor distance can change ..."

"It really shows the emotions and the connection between Martha and George," said Bradburn.

"A real romantic, that Washington," said Reid.

"Beautiful sentiment, yeah," said Bradburn.

More than 5,000 books have been written about Washington, but Curt Viebranz says there's still a lot to learn -- for example, how his early acceptance of slavery changed, slowly, over time.

"By the end of his life he realized that he needed to free his slaves, and that it was evolving to a point where he thought they were all actually real human beings and that they should live as free men and women," he said.

The library, Viebranz predicts, will reveal new surprises about Washington, to go along with those already uncovered -- for example, he owned the largest distillery in America. Mount Vernon still makes and sells his potent brand of whiskey.

The George Washington we know, and the one we don't know, now open to scholarly inspection at the library the father of our country waited for . . . for 216 years.


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