LEGACY DEPT. / Leisure in America
221 Years Overdue: The Saga of George Washington's Infamous Library Book
In May 2010, after more than 200 years, authorities at the New York Society Library finally got their hands back on the copy of The Law of Nations by Emmerich de Vattel, which the nation's first president checked out but never returned. Here, a look back at America's longest-overdue library book:
Five months after George Washington takes the oath of office at Federal Hall on Wall Street, the new president checks out two books from the New York Society Library. The library was located in the same building as the president's office, in what was then the nation's capital. In a ledger, next to the names of the books — The Law of Nations by Emmerich de Vattel and Vol. 12 of the Commons Debates, containing transcripts from Britain's House of Commons — the librarian writes, "President."
The books are due. No sign of Washington. Fines begin accruing.
Librarians retire the leather-bound ledger where Washington's loan was recorded, and start a new one. At some point, the 18-pound record book covering 1789 to 1792 goes missing.
George Washington dies at his estate, Mount Vernon, in Virginia.
The missing ledger is found in a pile of trash in the basement of the library's fourth home, at 109 University Place in Manhattan. The library can find no evidence that Washington's books were ever returned.
Archivist Matthew Haugen stumbles upon the New York Society Library's long-lost 14-volume collection of the Commons Debates. Volume 12 — the one checked out by Washington — is missing, confirming the staff's secretly held suspicion that Washington never returned the books. The fine, adjusted for inflation, amounts to about $300,000. "We're not actively pursuing the overdue fines," says head librarian Mark Bartlett. "But we would be very happy if we were able to get the books back."
Mount Vernon staff returns a copy of The Law of Nations to the New York Society Library. After hearing of the missing books, employees at Washington's estate were unable to locate either of them. But they found an identical Law of Nations online for about $12,000. "We express our gratitude for your patience... and for your generosity in erasing the considerable funds that were probably owed by George Washington," James Rees, executive director of Washington's Mount Vernon Estate, told library staff. "He did not do his public duty." Nonetheless, the library has absolved Washington "and his representatives" of all fines.