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The title page of Vattel's Law of Nations, presented to the Library by the Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens.
The title page of Vattel's Law of Nations, presented to the Library by the Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens.

Remarks by the Chairman of the Board

Charles Berry

A small but historic ceremony took place on May 19, 2010: George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens presented to the Library a replacement copy for The Law of Nations, which Washington checked out in 1789 and never returned. These were some of Chairman of the Board Charles G. Berry's remarks on the occasion.

I am pleased to welcome you today on the happy occasion of the gift to our Library of a book borrowed by the first President of the United States but never returned.

Our library is the oldest in New York City. We were founded in 1754, just before the French and Indian War, when the city was mostly located south of Wall Street and had only 15,000 people. George Washington was 22. We received our charter from another George—King George III of England. Our founders were a group of leading citizens dedicated to promoting culture and learning in a town that needed both.

For more than 250 years we have been a repository of literature, history and popular reading and a unique resource for many of our country's greatest writers: Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore were trustees; Ralph Waldo Emerson lectured to our audience; Herman Melville borrowed books on whaling when writing Moby Dick; members have included Willa Cather, W.H. Auden, John Cheever, David Halberstam, Wendy Wasserstein, Tom Wolfe, and many more.

But today we are here to celebrate an association from our earliest days. In 1789, New York was the seat of the federal government, and on April 30 of that year George Washington was inaugurated as first President of the United States in what had been City Hall and was renamed Federal Hall. The Library was located in a room on the second floor of that building, at the intersection of Wall, Broad and Nassau Streets. Many of the founding fathers used the Library, which had reopened its doors just the year before. (We were closed from 1774 until 1788 during the Revolutionary War and occupation by the British, which included the burning of much of New York on September 21, 1776.)

But in 1789 things were looking up, and the leaders of the nation were among our regular patrons. One of those was President Washington himself. According to the scrupulous records maintained by our librarian George Wright, on October 5, 1789, our foremost founding father took out of the Library a serious tome, Emer de Vattel's The Law of Nations. Not bedtime reading, but the kind of work that the greatest architect of our great nation might be expected to digest.

In fact, this book was an important one, particularly popular and influential in the early days of the Republic. A treatise on international law and relations, it became a classic text in the universities and for 100 years or more was cited as legal authority in scores of decisions by the United States Supreme Court and other courts of law. First published in 1758 by Vattel, a Swiss diplomat, lawyer and philosopher, The Law of Nations sets forth a theory of the rights of nations based on principles of the rights of the individual that historians view as central to both the American Revolution and the French Revolution.

We don't know exactly why Washington wanted to read this popular book. Maybe he was prompted by the events in France: the French had helped us win the war against Great Britain and were entering into their own revolution that very year, with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. Or maybe he was thinking about the cohesiveness of his own country: his journal for that day of October 5 shows that he spoke with Treasury Secretary (and Library patron) Alexander Hamilton about making a tour of the eastern states to gauge support for the new government.

But we do know one sad fact. President Washington never returned the book to the Library. We recently undertook a project to restore and digitize our original charging ledger for 1789-1792, which shows every book borrowed and lists the name of the borrower and the date the book was taken out and returned. Vattel's Law of Nations was due back on November 2, 1789, but the ledger shows that it didn't arrive. A recent check of our rare books confirms that the volume is still missing, and there is no record of its having been borrowed after the first President took it out.

The fine for overdue books at that time was three pence a day. Some have speculated that the accumulated fines for 221 years would amount to many thousands of dollars. The Library was not about to pursue such a fine, but we were delighted to learn recently that a copy of this long-missing volume would be coming back to us. When the press broke a story a few weeks ago about Washington's library fine, word reached Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens. Their President, James. C. Rees, and Head Librarian Joan Stahl contacted us to say they had located a copy of the same edition as the missing one and wanted to give it to us.

We are very pleased to have this important part of our history back with us. And I am particularly pleased to welcome Jim Rees and Joan Stahl, who are in the process of launching an important library of their own at Mount Vernon.

When receiving the volume, Mr. Berry added:

On behalf of The New York Society Library, we are pleased to accept this generous gift, which rekindles our ties with the man who was and is "first in the hearts of his countrymen." We are proud of our ties with George Washington and his ties with our great city. He was with us in good times and bad. His courage and resourcefulness helped avoid what came very close to defeat by the British in the Revolutionary War on this very island of Manhattan in September 1776. And his inauguration here in 1789 served to focus all the positive energy of our young nation. This book will be cherished as part of The New York Society Library's special connection with this great man.

And by the authority vested in me by no one in particular, I hereby absolve George Washington and his representatives from any and all overdue fines, and I am pleased to extend the privileges of membership in our Library to Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens. Thank you.