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Overdue: Shedding some light on the George Washington library book story

The copy of Vattel's The Law of Nations that was given to the New York Society Library by George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate

I’m at once amused and fascinated by the matter of George Washington’s overdue library books.  Amused because, after all, Washington sewed seeds that changed the world.  Men of his honor and caliber rarely grace the history pages.  Considering the political scandals of present, it’s fun to look back on trivialities of the past.

My fascination with this story is based less on the historical facts themselves and more on the process of connecting the jigsaw puzzle.  I hated history in high school (no offense, Mr. Madsen) because the work had been done for me.  My grade depended on memorization and regurgitation, not investigation.  I wonder how many kids who think they hate history would realize they actually love it if their teachers thought outside the textbook.

My post about Washington’s library books last week was supposed to be a simple Friday blurb about an interesting historical factoid (a great date night conversation piece!).

But the more I researched this story, the more questions arose. Not big conspiratorial questions– just curious questions about the timeline and some inconsistencies in the press reports. Some news reports had mentioned two books, others mentioned only one. Beyond this, I wished somebody had taken time to flesh the story out a little more.

I started by contacting the New York Society Library and the media office at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens to ask for help. Both parties were extremely helpful, taking time to answer my questions and send me all sorts of good information. The information presented below was culled from Washington’s diary, press kits, and my interviews with NYSL and Mount Vernon staff. So, I’d like to present you what the late Paul Harvey would call “the rest of the story.”

In 1789, the U.S. government was based out of Federal Hall at Wall and Broad Streets in Lower Manhattan. Occupying the top floor of the building was the New York Society Library, which was founded in 1754. The library was a useful resource for government officials and it was frequented by the likes of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, John Jay, and sometimes the president himself.

By fall of 1789, Congress was in recess and the president was preparing to tackle the touchy issue of diplomatic affairs with Britain. In fact, he’d be meeting with Chief Justice John Jay and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton about these matters on October 7. Given these circumstances, it’s no surprise that Washington would check out library material on British parliamentary dealings and international diplomacy.

Federal Hall, the shared location of the New York Society Library and the Federal government in 1789 (courtesy of the New York Society Library)

October 5, 1789: Washington (or an aide- we don’t know) walked upstairs and checked out two books from the library: The Law of Nations by Emmerich de Vattel and Vol. 12 of the Commons Debates. The transaction is recorded in the library’s leather-bound charging ledger. In the borrower column, the librarian simply writes “President.”

October 15, 1789: Washington leaves New York for a tour of New England. Though he keeps a detailed diary, no mention of the books is made.

November 2, 1789: The books are due, but Washington is fishing for cod off of New Hampshire’s Portsmouth Harbour. Washington notes in his diary that he and his companions only caught two fish between them. Then, in true fisherman tradition, he justifies the skunking by blaming an improper tide. The  library books are likely the last things on his mind. Though no official fine record exists, a pennies-per-day fine would begin accruing after this date.

April 1792: The 18 lb. ledger is filled and is filed away. It is later misplaced– likely during one of the library’s re-locations.

Dec. 14, 1799: George Washington dies at Mount Vernon. Most of his belongings, including books, are divided up among his family.

1934: NYSL staff rediscover the deteriorating ledger in the basement of the library’s fourth Manhattan location. The ledger’s pages crumble to the touch, so it is used only rarely for reference until the beginning of its restoration in 2007. NYSL staffer Sara Holliday suspects that the Washington transaction was noticed sometime after the ledger was found, as it had been discussed unofficially and anecdotally among library staff for years.

2007: NYSL begins restoring and digitizing the ledger.

2010: Restoration complete, NYSL staff check their inventory again. Washington’s books are still missing. The New York Daily news picks up on the Washington transaction and breaks the story. The fine estimate of $300,000, according to Holliday, was calculated by the Daily News, not the NYSL. She says fine policies changed over time, and that an exact total would be tough to determine. Anyway, it’s something the NYSL has no interest in tracking.

Upon hearing about the overdue books, staff at Mount Vernon search their own archives with no luck. Considering The Law of Nations the much more significant of the two books, they purchase an identical copy online for an undisclosed amount (I’m told the price reported by one outlet and echoed in several others is inaccurate).

May 19, 2010: In a ceremony at NYSL, Mount Vernon President James Rees and Librarian Joan Stahl present the replaced book.   Most media reports focus only on the return of The Law of Nations, making no mention of the still missing Commons Debates.

Holliday says restoring the ledger familiarized NYSL staff with habits of their 18th Century counterparts. Patrons from the Federal government were commonly referred to by their titles, which is why the informal “President” appears next to Washington’s checkouts in the images below.

Exhibit A: the portion of NYSL's charging ledger that shows the Washington transaction. I've highlighted the relevant rows.

Exhibit A.1: The same portion of the ledger, but I've identified the columns.

Washington is off the hook– at least for The Law of Nations.  And that’s where the media called it good and skipped out.   But the father of our country still has one overdue book out, and though history has certainly forgiven this oversight, it’s going to drive me nuts until somebody finds it.  Maybe it’s time to book a trip back east!


Copyright 2010  All images courtesy of the New York Society Library.  Special thanks to the NYSL‘s Sara Holliday and Mount Vernon‘s Melissa Wood and Joan Stahl.


Posted by on May 27, 2010 in Americana, History


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