George Washington’s Constitution to Return to Mount Vernon

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association acquired the book at an auction today for nearly $10 million.

By: Garrett M. Graff

George Washington’s Constitution is coming home again, after the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association won an auction today at Christie’s for the rare book that far exceeded the estimated sale.

In furious bidding, the book, which pre-sale estimates suggested might fetch $3 million, went instead for nearly $10 million, bought by the Ladies’ Association, the private nonprofit that runs Mount Vernon.

The 106-page book, though, is historically priceless: Containing his handwritten notes and the family bookplate (the motto Exitus acta probat, “the end justifies the deed,” along with the Washington coat of arms), the book has the first President’s personal copy of the US Constitution, a draft of the Bill of Rights, and other documents recording the early acts of the new Congress. Washington received the book in 1789, his first year in office as US president, and brought it with him to Mount Vernon upon his retirement from public office in 1797.

“Washington himself once wrote, ‘The Constitution is our guide, which I will never abandon.’ By acquiring this book—his personal copy of the Constitution—we are taking him quite literally,” said Ann Bookout, regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, in a statement released after the auction. “It is extremely rare to see a book of such significance change hands, and we felt it was essential to muster our resources to bring this extraordinary document home to Mount Vernon.”

Indeed, the marginalia shows Washington wrestling with the powers granted to his office by the then-new document. For instance, in Article II, Section 2, dealing with the executive branch, Washington wrote “President” and “Powers” in the margins, bracketing several of the clauses, including Clause 1: “The President shall be Commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in cases of Impeachment.”

Identical copies of the 1789 document were given to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Chief Justice John Jay, among others.

Washington’s copy, which had been at Mount Vernon until it was sold at auction during the US centennial in 1876, will return home and go on display this fall as part of the privately funded Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.

The book came to auction as part of the Americana collection of H. Richard Dietrich Jr., who bought it at auction for $27,000 in 1964, according to Bloomberg.

Official presidential libraries only began with Herbert Hoover, although there’s been recent energy to build libraries for preceding presidents, as well—a movement given a major boost by the $38 million gift that underwrote the Smith National Library.