President Accused of Theft, Failing to Pay Massive Library Fines

LTB logo

Yet another presidential scandal broke over the weekend, as a library in New York accused George Washington of failing to return valuable library materials checked out during his presidency.

The former president could not be reached for comment.

The New York Society Library said its ledger showed that in October of 1789, Washington borrowed one book on international law and another that contained transcripts of debates in Britain’s House of Commons. Both were due on November 2, 1789, but there is no indication that either book was ever returned. If the allegations are true, this would mean that that, setting aside the value of the items themselves, and adjusting for inflation, Washington currently owes about $100,000 in late fees.

According to its website, the New York Society Library was formed in 1754, and served as the first Library of Congress when New York was the capital. The ledger from that time period was lost for many years, but was rediscovered in the 1930s. It shows that many “founding fathers” besides Washington used the Library at that time, including Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Aaron Burr. According to the ledger, they all got their books back on time, but not the Father-in-Chief.

“We’re not actively pursuing the overdue fines,” said head librarian Mark Bartlett, “but we would be very happy if we were able to get the books back.” Fat chance, Bartlett, given that Washington died in 1799 and so his family has almost certainly grabbed all the good stuff by now. And for those of you hoping that this might be a case of mistaken paperwork rather than a book-swiping chief executive, further evidence came to light just last week that the two books are actually gone. A librarian apparently stumbled upon the set of “Commons Debates” volumes, which it seems had been misplaced, and all 14 volumes were there—except for Volume 12, the one Washington checked out.

There may be some dispute as to how much Washington owes—the New York Daily News said it was $300,000 in today’s dollars, but it did not explain how it got that number. The amount of the fine Washington would have been faced with was described as “a few pennies per day.” Since the books have been overdue now for 80,521 days, and assuming “a few” means five, Washington would now owe a total of $4026.05 in late fees. For the sake of simplicity and in the interests of me getting at least some sleep tonight, I am just going to note that $4026.05 in 1790 dollars would be the equivalent of $98,288.33 today:

The Mounting Value of George Washington's Unpaid Library Fines

So unless the library charges interest on its fees, that seems like the most George would have to come up with. My guess is that he would not have much trouble paying it—since his face is actually on our money, they probably would even take a personal check—although he would likely just stick John Adams with the tab as usual.

As it happens, the ledger also shows that Adams checked out at least one book that does not seem to have been returned, so both the President and the Vice-President may be guilty of abusing the public trust by stealing our Nation’s reading material. Who knows what else they may have squirreled away? Of course, probably nothing will come of these shocking revelations. It’s just one more example of how things work in this society—regular guys who don’t return stuff end up doing time, but if you own a plantation or two you get away with this kind of thing scot-free.

Personally, I would be willing to cut Washington some slack on this one, given that he is largely responsible for the country’s independence and, by retiring after two terms, helped ensure the long-term survival of our democracy. But what kind of message would that send?