Back in April, 2010 Michael picked up on a story making the rounds in several news outlets regarding the fact George Washington had two books that were over 220 years late he had borrowed from the New York Society Library.
Michael’s post stated, “The library says they aren’t interested in pursuing the fine (that would be pretty hard!), but would like to find the original books.”
So, were the original books found tucked away on some book shelf at Mount Vernon?
Did The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association have to cough up the hefty fine of $300,000 which had been accruing since November, 1789 for the wayward books?
Well, here’s the rest of the story.
In 1789, the government of the United States was located in New York City at Federal Hall on Wall Street. The building which was demolished in 1812 housed Congress as well as the offices of the President in 1789.
The building was also home to The New York Society Library, the oldest library in the city.Their webpage advises it served as the first Library of Congress since it was used by members of Congress and the Cabinet including men such as Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.
Records have been found that indicate President George Washington borrowed two books from the library on October 5, 1789 – five months after being sworn in as President of the United States.
One volume was titled Law of Nations by Emerich de Vattel described as a dissertation on international relations. Published in 1758, the book was very popular with many of the Founding Fathers including Benjamin Franklin. Upon receiving three original copies of the book Franklin wrote in a thank you note, “It came to us in good season, when the circumstances of a rising State make it necessary to frequently consult the Law of Nations.”
The other book was Volume 12 from the British House of Commons Debates also known as The Debates or as Hansards. This was a set of 14 volumes regarding what was said in Parliament – equivalent to our Congressional Record.
At any rate the books weren’t exactly light reading, but it is understandable the President would want to consult those books since historical sources indicate Washington was getting ready to tackle some diplomacy issues with Great Britain that Fall and his diary indicates a meeting with Chief Justice John Jay and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton on October 7, 1789.
The library’s ledger does not contain the President’s signature and does not indicate if he checked the books out himself or if an assistant did it for him. Someone did write the word “President” next to the title entries.
The books were due one month later, but they probably weren't on the President’s mind. He had left New York on October 15, 1789 for a tour of New England.
This article from The Week advises in April, 1792 the librarians retired the leather-bound ledger because it was filled and started a new one. At some point the records showing which books had been checked out during the late 1770s and early 1780s went missing.
Hey, if we can lose a library book they can misplace a ledger, right?
So, the library isn’t keeping track of their wayward books and President Washington has things on his mind as well such as the Whiskey Rebellion, planning a new national capital along the Potomac River, and then there was the matter of returning to Mount Vernon and getting settled back into private life. I hardly think he had time to worry about two books.
In 1934, one hundred and forty two years after the library misplaced the ledger it was found in a pile of trash at the library. Apparently it had survived four moves since 1792, and finally made itself known at 109 University Place in Manhattan.
This Reuters article advises the library conducted an inventory of books mentioned in the ledger and confirmed the books President Washington borrowed were still missing from the library’s inventory.
The situation was kept secret for years until 2010 when The New York Daily News reported it. In today’s instant news world I can’t even imagine a secret being held for that long.
Once the staff at Mount Vernon heard the news they instantly began to search for the books, but were unable to locate either book.
Considering how President Washington’s books had been scattered over the years I’m not surprised.
At the time of his death Washington’s personal library contained over 900 volumes. His nephew, Judge Bushrod Washington inherited the President’s papers, his home and of course, his books.
In 1847 many of the books that remained were sold to a bookseller by the name of Henry Stevens. His goal was to send the books to the British Museum.
A group quickly raised $4,250 and saved the books. They were purchased for the Boston Athenaeum – one of the oldest independent libraries operating in the United States. Even today members pay an annual subscription fee to use the library’s resources.
The collection is all we have of the original 900 volume library since other books owned by the President were sold at auction in 1876 and again in the 1890s.
Getting back to Washington’s late library books……
The folks at Mount Vernon finally searched the Internet and found a copy of The Law of Nations and purchased it for $12,000.
The book was finally returned to the library on May 20, 2010 during a ceremony where James Rees, executive director of Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, told library staff, “We express gratitude for your patience….and for your generosity in erasing the considerable funds that were probably owed by George Washington. He did not do his public duty.”
Rees statement seems a little harsh in comparison to all of the things President Washington accomplished.
What do you think?