National Library for the Study of George Washington Groundbreaking Ceremony as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Mt. Vernon, VA, Thursday, April 14, 2011

Article excerpt

Thank you, Senator Warner, for that most kind introduction. Senator Warner has introduced me to the United States Senate for confirmation four different times. The first time was almost exactly 25 years ago. That dates us both. He is a great Virginian, a great statesman, and a great American--someone for whom the term "distinguished gentleman" can be used without a hint of irony.

It is a singular honor to speak on these grounds at another important moment in its storied history. I'd like to thank the Mount Vernon Ladies Association for extending this invitation to me, and for your tireless efforts not only to preserve the mansion, but to sustain and strengthen the legacy of George Washington.

Seventy years ago this summer, one of Washington's successors, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, dedicated the first modern presidential library at his upstate New York residence, Hyde Park. At that ceremony, Roosevelt said that it reflected the nation's belief "in the capacity of its own people to learn from the past so that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future."

Today at Mount Vernon, we begin construction of the new National Library for the Study of George Washington. No American president deserves the honor of a presidential library more than George Washington. As an avid reader of history, I have found Washington to be a source of strength, wisdom, and inspiration throughout my life.

In my current position as Secretary of Defense, I take heart in George Washington's belief that to preserve the peace, we must be prepared for war. I can even relate to some of the challenges faced by his Secretary of War, Henry Knox. In response to the threat of piracy off the North African coast, Knox sought to build the first American naval fleet. To get the necessary support from the Congress, Knox eventually ended up with six frigates being built in six different shipyards in six different states. Some things never change.

Another example of this. Last December, I read Ron Chernow's new biography of Washington. And I so enjoyed it, I gave a copy to President Obama, singling out one passage I thought might cheer him up because of the perspective it provided on our current budget travails. In 1778, General and future President Washington wrote the following about Congress: "Party disputes and personal quarrels are the great business of the day," while "great and accumulated debt, ruined finances, depreciated money, and want of credit," were "postponed from day to day, from week to week, as if our affairs wore the most promising aspect."

Now all that said, Washington had great respect for the Congress and for civilian control of our military. The Chevalier de Chastellux wrote of Washington in 1782, "this is the seventh year that he has commanded the army and he has obeyed Congress: more need not be said."

I'm moved by the examples Washington set as a military leader at every rank--lessons I have often shared with aspiring military officers over the past four and a half years. Washington recognized early on that his success was built on the shoulders of the men under his command. When Washington--then only 26--resigned his commission as leader of the Virginia regiment during the French and Indian War, his officers composed a tribute to him. And Washington's response was to say: "if I have acquired any reputation, it is from you I derive it." As commander of the continental army during the revolutionary war, Washington held frequent war councils to hear all sides of an issue, and did not seek to quiet contrary opinions or criticism. As he told one of his closest aides, "I can bear to hear of imputed or real errors ... The man who wishes to stand well in the opinion of others must do this, because he is thereby enabled to correct his faults."

Washington also counseled his officers to lead by example, as he did. During the war, a man in civilian clothes rode past a small fortification being repaired by a group of exhausted-looking soldiers. …