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Historic Mount Vernon Returns Copy of Rare Book Borrowed by George Washington in 1789 to The New York Society Library

Friday, May 21, 2010

New York, NY—A small missing piece of American history came home on May 19 after 221 years: a copy of a book borrowed by the first President of the United States was returned to the library from which he borrowed it in New York City.

In October 1789, The New York Society Library, New York City's oldest library, shared a building with the federal government in Federal Hall, at Wall and Broad Streets in lower Manhattan. The Library's collection was used by Members of Congress, the Cabinet and the President himself. According to the Library's meticulous borrowing records or what is called a "charging ledger," President Washington took out The Law of Nations by Emer de Vattel on October 5, 1789. The book was not returned, nor any overdue book fine paid. Earlier this year the New York Society Library completed restoration of its 1789-1792 charging ledger, which will be available to the public in a digital version on its website in the fall of 2010. The ledger features the borrowing history of Washington, John Adams, John Jay, Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, George Clinton, James Duane, and over 450 other New Yorkers. The Library also conducted an inventory of books mentioned in the ledger and confirmed that the book checked out by President Washington was still missing.

Although this was a well-kept secret at the Library for years, it became public recently in an article in The New York Daily News. A few days after learning of the situation, staff at Washington's home in Virginia, Mount Vernon, offered to replace Vattel's Law of Nations with another copy of the same edition. To observe this auspicious occasion, the Library hosted a ceremony on May 19 at 11 a.m. at which Mount Vernon's President, James C. Rees, and Librarian, Joan Stahl, presented the errant volume to Charles G. Berry, Chairman of the Library's Board of Trustees and Mark Bartlett, Head Librarian. The event took place in the Members' Room at the building the Library has occupied since 1937, 53 East 79th Street.

Download a PDF copy of the full press release