Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2010 Issue

George Washington Nabbed for Overdue Library Books

Nysoclib1789

Federal Hall, home of the New York Society Library when Washington borrowed his books.


By Michael Stillman

It seems that time trashes the memory of even our greatest heroes. First we learned that Thomas Jefferson slept with one of his slaves, had children, and allowed his own children to grow up as slaves. Now we learn that George Washington didn't always return his library books. While difficult enough to accept that Jefferson had such faults, it's virtually impossible to accept as truth that Washington could have committed such a wrong.

The news broke as a result of some entries in an old ledger book of the New York Society Library. While not as well known as the New York Public or other libraries in New York, such as the Morgan, it is, in fact, New York's first library. Formed in 1758 as a private society, it has continued in existence ever since, though it was effectively shut down and ransacked by the dastardly British during the Revolution. After the Revolution, the members regrouped, and in 1789, set up quarters in the old City Hall, recently renamed Federal Hall. In 1789, and for the first couple of years for the new republic, New York was its capital, only to be replaced first by Philadelphia, then Washington. One can only wonder whether those early Americans would have named their capital after this man if they knew then what we know now.

In 1789, Federal Hall was also home to Congress. The New York Society Library, the only one in the city, was effectively the Library of Congress too. It was at this time that Washington began borrowing books from it. On October 5, 1789, Washington borrowed copies of Law of Nations, a treatise on international affairs, and volume 12 of a 14-volume collection of debates from England's House of Commons. They were due on November 2. The library is still waiting.

The volumes were checked out simply to the "President." The ledger does not show a return date. Of course, one can argue that the librarian neglected to note their return when President Washington brought them back. I like to believe this is the answer. Unfortunately, there is one piece of damning evidence discovered by the librarians. The library still holds the set of House of Commons debates, and when the librarians looked them over, they discovered all were still there, except... volume 12. Obviously, these debates are not in such great demand as it took over 200 years for anyone to notice a volume was missing.

As we all know, libraries are desperate for funds these days, so the folks at the New York Society computed Washington's overdue book fees and adjusted them for inflation. It turns out the father of his country has wracked up the mother of all overdue book fines. The bill is now over $300,000 and rising. That's 300,000-plus images of this scofflaw. Though other notables such as Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and even the exceedingly seedy Aaron Burr all managed to return their books, the New York Society Library has decided not to press charges against Washington. I'm not sure whether this is a principled or simply practical decision. After all, it will be hard to collect from Washington, dead 210 years, and he left no descendants who can be hounded for his debts. You can't take your money with you, but neither do you have to take your debts. Washington is going to get away with this one.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Leslie Hindman Auctioneers: The Adventure & Exploration Library of Steve Fossett. October 31, 2018</b>
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> SHACKLETON, Ernest Henry, Sir. <i>Aurora Australis. Printed at the Winter Quarters of the British Antarctic Expedition, 1907, During the Winter Months of April, May, June, July, 1908.</i> $60,000 to $80,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> HUMBOLDT, Alexander von, and Aime J. A. BONPLAND. <i>Vues des Cordillères, et monumens des peuples indigènes de l'Amérique.</i> Paris, 1810. $30,000 to $40,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> COOK, James, Captain. [Collected Voyages]. London: Strahan and Cadell, 1773, 1777, 1784. First editions of the second and third voyages. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman Auctioneers: The Adventure & Exploration Library of Steve Fossett. October 31, 2018</b>
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> DARWIN, Charles. <i>A Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle, between the years 1826 and 1836.</i> $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> SPILBERGEN, Joris van (1568-1620). <i>Speculum orientalis occidentalisque Indiae navigationum.</i> Leiden: Nicolaus van Geelkercken, 1619. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> DRAKE, Francis, Sir. <i>Sir Francis Drake Revived. Who is or may be a Pattern to stirre up all Heroicke and active Spirits of these Times…</i> London, 1653 [i.e. 1652]. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman Auctioneers: The Adventure & Exploration Library of Steve Fossett. October 31, 2018</b>
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> SHACKLETON, Ernest Henry, Sir, Louis C. BERNACCHI, and Apsley George Benet CHERRY-GARRARD, editors. The South Polar Times. London, 1907-1914. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> ANSON, George. <i>A Voyage round the World, In the Years 1740...</i> 1744. London: John and Paul Knapton for the author, 1748. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> HERRERA Y TORDESILLAS, Antonio de. <i>Description des Indes Occidentales, Qu'on appelle aujourdhuy Le Nouveau Monde...</i> Amsterdam: Michel Colin, 1622. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman Auctioneers: The Adventure & Exploration Library of Steve Fossett. October 31, 2018</b>
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> NOORT, Olivier van. <i>Description du Penible Voyage fait entour de l'univers ou globe terrestre...</i> Amsterdam: Cornille Nicolas, 1610. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> LEO AFRICANUS, Johannes. <i>A Geographical Historie of Africa, Written in Arabicke and Italian.</i> London: George Bishop, 1600. $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Leslie Hindman, Oct 31:</b> SCHOUTEN, Willem Corneliszoon. <i>Journal ou Description du Merveilleux Voyage de Guillaume Schouten, Hollandois natif de Hoorn, fait es années 1615, 1616, & 1617.</i> 1619. $4,000 to $6,000
  • <b>Bonhams: Sale Results from <i>Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I.</i> September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>Aurora Australis.</i> Printed at the sign of 'The Penguins'; East Antarctica, 1908. Sold for $97,500
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>South Polar Times.</i> 1st edition, limited issue. from the library of Michael Barne. Sold for $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> General Washington's <i>Proceedings of a General Court Martial... of Major General Lee.</i> Philiadelphia, 1778. 100 copies printed for Congress. BOUND WITH: ...Court Martial... of St Clair and ...Schuyler. Sold for $87,50
    <b>Bonhams: Sale Results from <i>Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I.</i> September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> <i>The Voice of the People.</i> Boston, 1754. Rare pamphlet on the Excise Tax. Nathaniel Sparhawk's copy. Sold for $8,750
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> Autograph Letter Signed ("S.L. Clemens"), offering extensive hard-earned advice on writing, 5 pp, 1881. Sold for $37,500
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> Lewis, Meriwether. Contemporary manuscript true copy of his final power of attorney, 1809. Sold for $7,500
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> <i>A New Method of Macarony Making, as Practiced at Boston in North America.</i> Mezzotint. London, 1774. Sold for $6,875
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25 results:</b> <i>Scientific Base Ball Pitching: A Treatise on the Pitcher, Pitching, Origin and Philosophy of the Curve.</i> Chicago, 1897. Sold for $3,750
  • <center><b>William Bunch Auctions<br>October Fine Art and Prints<br>October 29, 2018</b>
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> Aegidius Sadeler (Flemish, 1570-1629), engraving on laid paper "Madonna and Child in a Landscape", after a drawing by Albrecht Durer. $800 to $1,200
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> Anders Zorn (Swedish, 1860-1920), drypoint etching on paper "On Hemso Island", 1917, pencil signed. $400 to $600
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> Joseph Pennell (American, 1860-1926), etching on paper "Setting Up Columns", pencil signed. $200 to $300
    <center><b>William Bunch Auctions<br>October Fine Art and Prints<br>October 29, 2018</b>
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> William Lee Hankey (British, 1869-1952), drypoint etching on paper "Affection", pencil signed. $200 to $300
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> William Walcot (English, 1874-1943), drypoint etching on paper "Lower Broadway, New York", 1924, pencil signed. $200 to $300
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> Auguste Brouet (French, 1872-1941), color etching "La Pirouette", pencil signed, ed 111/250. $400 to $600
    <center><b>William Bunch Auctions<br>October Fine Art and Prints<br>October 29, 2018</b>
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889-1975), lithograph on paper "The Boy", pencil signed. $2,000 to $3,000
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> John Stockton de Martelly (American, 1903-1979), lithograph on paper "Looking at the Sunshine", pencil signed, original AAA certificate. $400 to $600
    <b>William Bunch Auctions, Oct. 29:</b> Jacques Hnizdovsky (Ukrainian-American, 1915-1985), woodcut on paper "Moppet", pencil signed and dated 1965, ed 118/250. $400 to $600
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Kurt Vonnegut, archive of 12 letters, signed to his family, 6 illustrated, 1930s-40s. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Allen Ginsberg, 11 autograph manuscripts, including 10 drafts of poems & a page of notes, circa 1948. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Joan Miró, illustrated autograph note signed to MoMA Director of Exhibitions & Publications, 1959. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Carl Gustav Jung, typed letter signed to a colleague, 1948. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Gustav Mahler, ALS, arranging a meeting during his historic visit to New York, circa 1908. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Mark Twain, ALS, explaining the target of his new book, 1902. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Charles Dickens, ALS, accepting an invitation in the voice of a <i>Martin Chuzzlewit</i> character, 1843. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Jacob Lawrence, illustrated greeting card signed, 1960. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 8:</b> Robert E. Lee, ALS, to the colonel of the Kanawha Valley volunteers, boosting morale, 1861. $15,000 to $25,000
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>

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