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.
George Washington's Constitution. Photographs courtesy of Mount Vernon Estate.
George Washington's Constitution. Photographs courtesy of Mount Vernon Estate.

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
.

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