First president of US failed to return two volumes borrowed in 1789 from New York Society Library
Founder of a nation, trouncer of the English, God-fearing family man: all in all, George Washington has enjoyed a pretty decent reputation. Until now, that is.
The hero who crossed the Delaware river may not have been quite so squeaky clean when it came to borrowing library books.
The New York Society Library, the city’s only lender of books at the time of Washington’s presidency, has revealed that the first American president took out two volumes and pointedly failed to return them.
At today’s prices, adjusted for inflation, he would face a late fine of $300,000.
The library’s ledgers show that Washington took out the books on 5 October 1789, some five months into his presidency at a time when New York was still the capital. They were an essay on international affairs called Law of Nations and the twelfth volume of a 14-volume collection of debates from the English House of Commons.
The ledger simply referred to the borrower as “President” in quill pen, and had no return date.
Sure enough, when the librarians checked their holdings they found all 14 volumes of the Commons debates bar volume 12.
Under the rules of the library, the books should have been handed back by 2 November that same year, and their borrower and presumably his descendants have been liable to fines of a few cents a day ever since.
Other prominent borrowers who used the collection did not appear to have the same problems with returning titles.
The first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, the first chief justice, John Jay, and Thomas Jefferson’s vice-president, Aaron Burr, are all listed in the ledger under both borrowing and return dates.
“We’re not actively pursuing the overdue fines,” the head librarian Mark Bartlett said. “But we would be very happy if we were able to get the books back.”