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 NYC.gov and NYCourts.gov 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!