How George Washington racked up a $300,000 fine for overdue library books

In 1789 George Washington checked out a pair of books from a New York library. Their return is still awaited.

Gilbert Stuart's Portrait of George Washington/NY Public Library
Did George Washington forget to return his library books?

He may never have told a lie, but neither, apparently, did he always return his library books. In the light of more recent presidential scandals, this one might not seem like much, but George Washington is making headlines on both sides of the Atlantic today for the $300,000 fine incurred by a pair of very overdue library books.

In 1789, while Washington was busy being the first president of the United States, he checked two volumes out of the New York Society Library – the only lending library in New York at the time. According to The Guardian, "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."

It now appears that the books were never returned.

In today's dollars, adjusted for inflation, the fine – accumulated at the rate of a few pennies a day – is estimated at about $300,000.

The library told the Guardian that they have no interest in collecting the fine – they'd simply like the books back, if possible.

Perhaps it was an early claim of executive privilege. The library's ledger – the same one that incriminates Washington – apparently tells a different story when it comes to other politicians of the day who were also patrons of the New York Society Library. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Aaron Burr are all reported to have checked library books out as well, but they managed to return them on time.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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