Blog Excerpts

5 Years After Its Discovery, a Washingtonian Typo Lingers

Today is the federal observation of George Washington's birthday, also called Presidents' Day. Five years ago, an unfortunate typo was discovered in a quotation from Washington chiseled on the front of the New York State Supreme Courthouse. That typo still lingers today.

Ben Zimmer alerted us to the blunder in his Word Routes column for the 2009 commemoration of Washington's birthday:

The New York Post has breathlessly reported on a typo in a quote from Washington chiseled in granite on the front of the New York State Supreme Courthouse in lower Manhattan. The inscription above the columns reads: "The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government."

New York State Supreme Courthouse

These words have stood for more than eight decades without anyone noticing that the quote is just a wee bit off. If you go to the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress website, you can see a reproduction of the letter from which the quote was taken, written by Washington to Attorney General Edmund Randolph on September 28, 1789:

Impressed with a conviction that the due administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good Government, I have considered the first arrangement of the Judicial department as essential to the happiness of our Country, and to the stability of its political system; hence the selection of the fittest characters to expound the laws, and dispense justice, has been an invariable object of my anxious concern.

Washington's letter

Other than editing down a typically prolix 18th-century sentence (which wouldn't have fit on the front of the courthouse very well!), the designers inserted a minor change: instead of "the due administration of justice," it reads "the true adminstration of justice."

The Post, never one to underplay a story, announced that this long-standing typo is nothing less than "a stunning slap at the Father of our Country." I wouldn't go that far, but perhaps it does insult Washington's memory in a small yet important way. James Rees, executive director of the Washington estate in Mount Vernon, Virginia, is quoted as saying, "Washington was a real stickler for detail. He wasn't one to let small things slide, so it would make a little bit of difference to him that they got this one right."

(Read the rest of the column here.)

In the New York Post article that exposed the typo five years ago, New York County Clerk Norman Goodman is quoted as saying that even if it couldn't be fixed, the mistake would be noted in brochures about the courthouse. However, the and websites continue to give the "true administration" version of the quote without any indication that it is erroneous. One online history of the building by John F. Werner, the court's chief clerk, does mention the error, but in a peculiar way:

There are those who say that Washington wrote "the due administration," not "the true administration," but in this instance the stone carvers had the last "word."

The evidence is very clear that Washington indeed wrote "the due administration," and in honor of Washington's birthday we owe it to him not to simply sweep this misquotation under the rug!

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Comments from our users:

Monday February 17th 2014, 1:49 AM
Comment by: Marshall S. (Fairview, OR)
I'm on the stone carver's side. The quotation as incorrectly presented is more easily understood. As a representative of the non-literary masses, I note that I puzzled over just what Washington meant by the word due. Does it mean earned or on time?

Puzzlement is not a good thing when it comes to inscriptions in stone.
Monday February 17th 2014, 2:17 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Marshall: I believe this is due in the sense of "appropriate" or "sufficient." That meaning survives mostly in set expressions, as in "with all due respect," "in due course," or "due care." As I acknowledged in the column five years ago, " true administration of justice" does sound more idiomatic to modern ears, which helps explain why it was such an easy error to make in the first place and to overlook for so many years.
Monday February 17th 2014, 2:26 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
It seems to me that 'due' in this instance is being used in the sense of 'owed' as in the "right to due process."
Monday February 17th 2014, 5:23 AM
Comment by: Andrea D. (Cambridge, MA)
It should be fixed, and I bet it could be.
Monday February 17th 2014, 8:07 AM
Comment by: Phil H. (Thessaloniki Greece)
Mr. Werner reminds me of those prosecutors who persist in upholding a conviction in the face of subsequent evidence that shows it to have been erroneous. They put their own vanity above the miscarriage of justice. Mr. Werner's "There are those who say that Washington wrote (etc.)" is patent intellectual dishonesty, all the more shameful from the Chief Clerk of a court. If Americans can understand "due process of law," can't they make the leap to "due administration of justice?" Or should we amend the 5th and 14th amendments to "true process" for the benefit of S. Marshall and the "non-literary masses" this commenter claims to speak for? "True administration" makes little sense. It cannot mean 'true' as opposed to 'false' and is a weak synonym for 'faithful.' The careless misquotation of Washington's words is, unfortunately, set in stone, but the acquiescence of the clerks of New York in the error would appear to be a sign of disrespect for the man who had been inaugurated in their home state earlier in 1789, were it not so much more likely merely a symptom of their indifference to plain-as-day historical truth.
Monday February 17th 2014, 8:49 AM
Comment by: James R.
Fix it
Monday February 17th 2014, 11:34 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Something to keep in mind: as I noted in my column, the building is protected by New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission (it's been around since 1927), so any change to the exterior would be a big bureaucratic hassle, as well as an architectural challenge.
Monday February 17th 2014, 1:09 PM
Comment by: Lita (Abbotsford Canada)
When I first read it, "true" does indeed sound strange. It sounds like something written in a high school paper, ideological in tone, and way off to what George Washington meant. I agree with Zimmer, I am sure GW would have been ticked.
Monday February 17th 2014, 8:11 PM
Comment by: WordyGerty's girl
I thought it was Presidents' [pl.] Day joining the birthdays of both Washiington AND Lincoln to create yet another federal 3-day hiatus, uh--celebration--otherwise, why the plural form?

This is further enhanced in Great Lakes area schools by adding the Friday preceding, now set in snow as Winter Break.
--Yooper from Land o' Lincoln
Monday February 17th 2014, 10:19 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Ben Zimmer: You are on the right track. Often times a litigant will complain of trial errors on appeal and the appellate court will respond that we are all entitled to a fair trial (due) not a perfect one (true).

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