When the librarian at Hillspoint Elementary School wanted to know who had crayoned a red smiley face onto Babar’s butt, she stared our class down, demanding to know. We all fidgeted but no one confessed. (To me, the drawing on the cover of the library book was not a crime but a plot extension. I recall that in the story, the elephants cleverly disguised themselves and scared off an enemy by painting large faces on their butts.) To encourage a confession, the librarian told us the story of how George Washington did not conceal from his father the fact that, in his enthusiasm to test a new hatchet, he had chopped down a prized cherry tree. “George Washington could not tell a lie,” the librarian intoned, “nor should you.” Her lesson about lying went past me. I was more interested in the fate of the cherries. I was very fond of the sweet red fruit, and I pictured young George axing the tree at the moment of peak ripeness so that he could gather and gobble cherries that would otherwise have been beyond his reach.
The story of the cherry tree is undoubtedly a myth. But its rendition in a school library is especially amusing in light of this week’s confirmation that Washington was a library-fine scofflaw. On Oct. 5, 1789, five months after he was sworn in as the first President of the United States, the 57-year-old statesman borrowed two books from the New York Society Library. (New York City was the nation’s capitol then, and the library, located on Wall St., was the only library in town). One of the books was “Law of Nations,” about international relations, and the other was the twelfth volume of a fourteen-volume set of transcripts of debates in Britain’s House of Commons.
Washington’s library habits have been known since 1934, when the library came across a quill-penned ledger of the people who had borrowed books between 1789 and 1792. The ledger shows the dates on which Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay took out books from the New York Society Library and the dates on which the men returned them. For the two books Washington “borrowed,” no return date is indicated. All fourteen volumes of the Commons debates had been missing from the library’s shelves until this week, when a staff member stumbled on the set and found all the volumes except the twelfth. The fines for the two books Washington checked out amount to an inflation-adjusted $300,000.