The words “presidential” and “scandal” unfortunately show up together far too often. It has gotten to the point where it is assumed that every presidential administration will have at least one significant scandal reporters can compare to Watergate.
How far back does this distressing trend go? Sadly, even the nation’s first president was not immune. Less than one year into the first term of George Washington, the Father of the Country, was entrenched in misconduct that would take over 200 years to rectify.
Whether you label the misconduct as misappropriation of government property, attempted theft, or simply chalk it up to reckless disregard for the law will depend upon the level of charity you are willing to ascribe to the man who allegedly could not tell a lie.
The distressing act of executive malfeasance that paved the way for successive presidential scandals occurred on October 5, 1789. It was that day that Washington visited the New York Society Library and checked out The Law of Nations by Elder de Vattel and a Volume 12 of a collection of transcripts of the debates in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons. Both books were due on November 2, 1789.
New York City temporarily hosted the country’s seat of government at that time. The library shared a building with the federal government in lower Manhattan and served as the first official Library of Congress.
Washington served until 1797. Although he made history and set precedent by willingly leaving behind the reins of power, one thing he took with him was The Law of Nations.
The missing books came to light as the library restored its 1789-1792 charging ledger. The ledger, alarmingly, was almost discarded and was discovered in a trash heap in the library’s basement in 1934. In addition to Washington, the ledger showed books that had been lent to John Adams, Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and other famous men of that period. Curiously, it was only the Father of the Country who failed to return books.
For over 200 years, the book remained checked out in Washington’s name. The library did not publicize this fact, nor did it take any action to collect on the ever-increasing fine. When news of the missing books was reported in the media, the curators of Mount Vernon did a thorough search and were unable to locate the missing items. They did, however, acquire another copy of The Law of Nations for $12,000 and presented it to the library on May 19, 2010.
Grateful for the replacement of the book, the library graciously waived all outstanding fines — including those accumulated for the still-missing Volume 13 of Commons Debates.
How much in overdue fees did Washington rack up? That remains a matter of debate. Some sources assert the fees added up to over $300,000, but we have been unable to find sources to indicate how this was calculated. Additionally, it seems to be grossly exaggerated.
The books were overdue by 80,552 days. We have been unable to determine the fee schedule adopted by the New York Society Library. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it was 10 cents per day. That’s highly unlikely since that would be roughly akin to $31 per day in 1789’s economy. Even at that rate, each book would have racked up only $8,055.20 in that time, for a total of $16,110.40. The New York Library system does not charge interest on fines. For that matter, they don’t assess fines beyond 30 days and instead require the borrower to pay to replace the book.
Regardless of how you calculate the fines, Mount Vernon’s replacement of The Law of Nations for $12,000 was a pretty good deal for the library. This is especially true when you consider that the New York Public Library eliminated all late fees in October 2021.
In other words, had Mount Vernon held off on settling up with the library for just 11 more years, Washington could have escaped all consequences for the first presidential scandal.
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