J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Buying George Washington’s Books

After George Washington died in 1799, his library of 900+ volumes was catalogued and divided among family members. Like about 300 more volumes he had owned at some time, many of those copies included the first President’s bookplate, signature, or notes. Washington’s heirs treated them like relics. Until then they needed money.

In the late 1840s, Vermont-born bookseller Henry Stevens bought most of the books still at Mount Vernon. Stevens had established his main office in London and become the British Museum’s agent for acquiring American material, so people suspected he was ready to ship the Washington books overseas. The Boston Athenaeum offers its take on what happened next:
In the spring of 1848, a group of patriotic Bostonians, horrified that the largest surviving portion of George Washington’s library from Mount Vernon might be sold to the British Museum, created a subscription fund, at $50 a share, to secure the collection for Boston. They succeeded. When the new Boston Athenæum building opened at 10½ Beacon Street just a few months later, the Washington Library became one of its principal and best-loved treasures.
According to LibraryThing, of 1,284 known volumes from Washington’s library, the Athenaeum owns 881.

A few years ago, something similar happened with Gilbert Stuart’s “Landsdowne portrait” of Washington, which had hung in the Smithsonian for decades. Rumors circulated that it, too, would be shipped overseas and end up in the hands of foreigners! (Never mind that portrait had been commissioned as a gift to the first Marquess of Landsdowne, the British prime minister who had signed off on American independence. His heirs had loaned it to the Smithsonian in the 1960s, but were thinking of selling it at auction.)

The retired newspaper executive Fred W. Smith, then president of his late boss’s Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, sprang into action. The foundation donated millions of dollars for the Smithsonian to buy the portrait and refurbish its gallery.

Over the next few years, Smith developed ties to Mount Vernon, and in 2010 the Reynolds Foundation gave that institution $38 million to build a research center. It will become the repository of documents from the Papers of George Washington, an ongoing publishing project at the Unversity of Virginia. The library website describes some other projects.

Among them, earlier this spring Mount Vernon announced plans to replicate Washington’s entire library. The Washington Post reported:
Mount Vernon has fewer than 50 of the original books and 450 duplicate additions [i.e., editions] — same book, same printing. The rest will hopefully come from the Boston Athenaeum, through purchases or donations, or they will be replicated with pages scanned from the Athenaeum’s collection and put into an 18th-century-style binding with endpaper and leather and gold tooling.
Like me, the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America read that story to indicate that Mount Vernon hopes to obtain the Athenaeum’s treasured Washington collection. That would be an interesting story to watch.

Reynolds Foundation money was also behind the Mount Vernon Ladies Association’s purchase this month of Washington’s copy of the 1789 Acts of Congress, shown above. That book includes the text of the new Constitution (with Washington’s notes on presidential duties) and Rep. James Madison’s proposed Bill of Rights. At $9,826,500, it’s the most expensive single item Mount Vernon has ever bought. According to Jeremy Dibbell at PhiloBiblos, that’s also the second-highest auction price ever for a printed book, and the highest for one without pretty color pictures.

One more mystery: Who was the underbidder for Washington’s Acts of Congress, the other party willing to pay over $9 million? Who else has the money?

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