Channelling George Washington: Book Return

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Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

“Instead of worrying about the happiness of the whole country, what do you say to devoting tonight’s visit to the sort of thing that keeps an ex-president happy?”

“I’m all for that. Who else deserves a reward for doing that incredibly difficult job?”

“A seemingly small recent event, unnoticed by the so-called major media, has given me a great deal of satisfaction.”

“What can that be?”

“It has to do with a book I borrowed in 1789 from the New York Society Library—and forgot to return.  Even if the fine was only a nickel a day, it would add up to a lot of money.”

“I happen to be a member of that library.  I’ve done a great deal of research there.  They have a veritable treasure trove of books about you.”

“That’s also nice to hear.  But when the story got out about this book, I was—well—a little upset.”

“What was the name of the book?” 

“The Law of Nations, by a Swiss writer named Vattel.  It was very helpful reading for man who had just become president.  It dealt with the rights and obligations of citizens and states.  I don’t think I ever finished reading it.  I had two very bad bouts of sickness during that year I spent in New York.  Then came the decision to move the government to Philadelphia.  It added up to a lot of confusion and that’s how the book sort of drifted into being part of my library, most of which disappeared in Mount Vernon’s bleak years before it was rescued by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.  Then, in the third week in May, came news that the whole problem had been solved!

“How?  You didn’t descend in person with a copy, I trust?”

“That’s against the rules. The folks who run my old homestead these days, in the name of those wonderful women of the Ladies Association, heard about the newspaper story and they not only found another copy—they bought it for $1,200 and decided to deliver it in person!”

“This gets better and better.”

“On May 19, Jim Rees, the president of Mount Vernon, and the head librarian, Joan Stahl, journeyed to New York and presented the missing volume to Mark Bartlett, head of the New York Society Library, and Charles Berry, the head of their board of trustees.  Mr. Berry grandly declared that any and all overdue fines were herewith “cancelled.”  That was good news!  It shows that New Yorkers, so famous for their worship of the dollar, know when to do the right thing!”

“As a New Yorker, I accept that compliment with pleasure!”

“We’re only warming up on our way to the climax of this memorable day.  Jim Rees now took over the podium in the New York Society Library’s members room, and said all this good feeling about a venerable book made it a good time to announce that Mount Vernon was about to acquire a library of its own, in a separate building on the grounds of my old estate!”

“More good news and then some!”

“It’s going to be called the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.  Mr. Smith has donated $38 million to get construction under way next year.  It’s BIG—45,000 square feet, on a 55 acre plot within walking distance of the mansion.  Its goal is to make twenty-first century Americans a little more aware of what I was doing in my sojourn on the planet.”

“I was shocked by a recent report that coverage of your era in history textbooks has declined to about ten percent of what it was fifty years ago.  In one supposedly well-educated state, only 26 percent of the high school students were able to give the correct answer to who was the first president.”

“Sad but true.  That’s one of the problems this new library is hoping to tackle.  It will contain copies of virtually every worthwhile book written about me, as well as thousands of important nineteenth century newspapers, manuscripts documents.  Eventually it will have digital copies of all the letters to and from me assembled by the scholars working on The Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia.”

“I hope I stay around long enough to do some research there!”

“At least as important are plans to assemble a team of media experts who will work on circulating the latest research to universities, state school systems, movie producers—even computer game creators!  If they pull it off, I may soon be giving Tom Jefferson a run for his money in the fame game!”

“To think this cascade of good news started with an overdue book!”

“Maybe we should revise Murphy’s Law.  Instead of everything going wrong most of the time, things can occasionally go right!”

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