CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A state, a nation's capital, 33 counties and nine colleges are named after him, but only this week will George Washington get a presidential library.
The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington is not affiliated with the 13 libraries run by the National Archives to house materials of every president since Herbert Hoover. The funds for this $100 million facility were raised through the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, an organization that has been in charge of his estate since 1850.
The opening today of a presidential library on the grounds of Washington's Mount Vernon estate is ironic. For America's first chief executive was known for his laconic nature.
He may have been "first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen," but in public and private he was first in few words. The Washington Monument may be the tallest structure in D.C., but it has no engraved words on the outside. Visitors to Mount Vernon often noted less what Washington said to them than the silences between what he said.
Verbal reticence suited Washington both in his personality and his leadership. It was not his dentures that inhibited his words, but his belief that leadership rested on restraint in words as well as actions.
As commander of the Continental Army, Washington spent most of the war avoiding battles with the better trained English troops. While his inaction infuriated his critics in the Continental Congress, it reflected his priority on keeping the Continental Army intact until he could successfully strike. That opportunity occurred when he confronted General Cornwallis trapped in Yorktown, Va., in 1781.
After the Revolutionary War ended in 1783 Washington's most noble action was his inaction. The successful general returned to his estate rather than become his nation's leader. In doing so he followed in the tradition of Cincinnatus -- the Roman general who returned literally to the plow instead of accepting dictatorial power from a grateful nation.
When a new constitution was enacted in 1787, Washington did win the presidency. But in that office he again showed political restraint when he refused to serve a third term.