It was one of the few things George Washington wanted to do but never got around to: build a library to hold his official and personal papers.
On Thursday, more than 200 years after Washington wrote of the idea, dignitaries broke ground at his Mount Vernon estate on a $47 million presidential library of sorts that they hope will evolve into a "think tank" promoting scholarship about one of the nation's Founding Fathers.
The estate hopes the library will be a home to a centralized collection of Washington's his papers. The president wrote in a 1797 letter _ two years before his death _ about a library, saying his papers were "voluminous and may be interesting."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at Thursday's ceremonies that no one deserves a presidential library more than Washington. His leadership as president provides guidance even today, Gates said.
The defense secretary compared Washington's guidance during the French Revolution to the modern dilemma about how America should support democratic-leaning upheavals in the Middle East.
Washington, Gates said, was caught between Francophiles like Thomas Jefferson who saw a kindred spirit between French, and American revolutionaries and federalists like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton who were shocked by the French revolution's excesses.
Ultimately, Washington embarked on a cautious, pragmatic strategy that included a declaration of neutrality toward France and struck a peace treaty with the British, leading some to conclude Washington was "selling out the spirit of 1776," Gates said.
"From our earliest days American leaders have struggled with realistic versus idealistic approaches" to foreign policy, Gates said.
The lesson from Washington, he said, is that "we are compelled to defend our security and interests in ways that in the long run lead to the spread of democratic institutions."
The building will be called the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.
Mount Vernon Director James Rees said the term "presidential library" could mislead people into believing that the Mount Vernon library will receive federal funding, as modern presidential libraries do through their association with the National Archives. The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, which has run the estate since purchasing it from the Washington family in 1858, has never accepted government funds.
The biggest chunk of money for the library came from the Las Vegas-based Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, which contributed $38 million.
Fred W. Smith, the foundation's chairman, has been a Mount Vernon supporter since 2001, after becoming involved in efforts to keep a famous portrait of Washington from being sold at private auction.
Rees said the library will allow the estate to expand its existing teacher-training programs and host seminars for government and business groups on topics like Washington's vision of leadership.
The estate has not completed its fundraising. It has so far raised about $70 million of the $100 million that will be needed to build and endow the library, Rees said.
Completion is scheduled for 2013.