George Washington’s Overdue Books

George Washington portrait (Source: Wikipedia)
Would you give this man a library card?

George Washington may have never told a lie, but he certainly was a little bit forgetful. In April of 2010, the New York Society Library was going through the process of restoring and digitizing their holdings when an employee stumbled across the long lost fourteen-volume collection, Common Debates, a collection of transcripts from the English House of Commons. But, the collection was missing a volume. A check of the old circulation ledger proved that volume #12 had last been checked out by library patron George Washington October 5, 1789, along with a book by Emer de Vattel, entitled Law of Nations.

The books were due back on November 2, but according to the records, neither was ever returned.[1]

So, George Washington, the father of our country, was a deadbeat book borrower? Apparently so.

The news of the first president’s gaffe was met with widespread interest by the media in 2010. (Adult Swim even did a spoof about it... which was translated to Chinese... and posted on YouTube.) But, to the librarians, the idea was nothing new. They had long suspected Washington had forgotten to return the books, they just didn't have the evidence they needed to prove it until the re-discovery of the other 13 volumes of Common Debates.

After hearing of the missing books, curators at Mount Vernon scoured their collection but were were unable to locate either title. They were, however, able to find another copy of Law of Nations online, which they purchased for $12,000 and gifted to the New York Society Library. The library waived the overdue charges, which Mount Vernon's executive director, James Rees appreciated, "We express our gratitude for your patience... and for your generosity in erasing the considerable funds that were probably owed by George Washington." Considerable funds, indeed! Factoring in inflation, 220+ years of daily overdue fines would amount to around $300,000 today![2]

One last footnote...

Washington almost got off scot-free. The historical circulation ledger that proved to be his undoing was, itself, almost thrown out in the 1930s. It went missing sometime after it had been retired in 1792 and was rediscovered in a trash heap in the basement of the library’s fourth home in 1934.[3]


  1. ^ "George Washington's 221-year overdue library book: A timeline The first president never lied — but he also didn't return his library books," The Week, May 21, 2010. (accessed 11/20/2012)
  2. ^ Dean, William J. “Book Selections of the Founding Fathers” New York Journal of Law, February 8, 2007. (accessed on 11/2/2012)
  3. ^ Pilkington, Ed. “Fine owed by George Washington for overdue library books now $300,000” The Guardian, April 18, 2010. (accessed 10/20/2012)
Last Updated: 
October 15, 2021