The Acts of Congress
Learn more about Mount Vernon's copy of the Acts of Congress - Washington's very own annotated edition.
One of the early responsibilities of the Congress' official printer was to prepare bound copies of the laws passed by the legislative branch. These bound books were presented as permanent keepsakes to prominent members of the early federal government. Notable recipients of such works included Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, and George Washington.
Each of these figures were sent bound versions of the Acts of the First Congress. In fact, Washington received seven bound versions, which he retained as President and eventually placed in his study at Mount Vernon upon his retirement from public office in March of 1797.
On June 22, 2012, a surviving copy of the Acts of the First Congress owned by George Washington was purchased by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. The title is housed at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, which opened in fall 2013.
This version of the Acts of the First Congress was expertly bound for Washington with a label embossed in gilt letters reading, "President of the United States." The personalized copy contains the United States Constitution, the proposed Bill of Rights, and other lesser-known legislative acts adopted by the first Congress. The binding of the book has been attributed to Thomas Allen of New York, who bound similar copies of the book for both Thomas Jefferson and John Jay in 1789.
The copy purchased by Mount Vernon includes penciled marginalia, personal notes written by Washington throughout the text. Washington rarely wrote inside of books, often preferring to take notes on separate pieces of paper. Notations appear in a series of locations next to the text of the Constitution. Each note refers to the duties of the President and identifies sections where Washington believed the President held authority.
George Washington acquired the book soon after taking the Oath of Office on April 30, 1789 at Federal Hall in New York City. Washington brought the book to Mount Vernon in March 1797 upon his retirement from the presidency. The inventory prepared upon Washington's death in December 1799 listed this book as one of seven folio volumes under the title "Laws of the United States," valued in total at $28.1
The book was initially willed to Washington's nephew, Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, who inherited Mount Vernon upon Martha Washington's passing in 1802. The copy remained in family possession until November 1876, when descendant Lawrence Washington sold the book through M. Thomas & Sons, Auctioneers of Philadelphia.
The book was acquired by art expert C. H. Hart, who resold it in April of 1892. It is unclear who owned the book for the first half of the twentieth century. However, it was eventually purchased in 1964 from the Heritage Foundation of Deerfield, Massachusetts by George Sessler on behalf of fellow Philadelphian Richard Dietrich, Jr. and his Dietrich American Foundation. The book remained with the Dietrich Foundation until it was purchased by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association in 2012.
1. Inventory of the Contents of Mount Vernon, 1810, ed. Worthington Chauncey Ford (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1909), 25.