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The book was bound in 1789 by Thomas Allen, whose shop in New York City was located just blocks from Washington’s presidential residence. Washington ordered three copies: One was given to Thomas Jefferson; another to John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court.

The inside cover of Washington’s copy — known as a bookplate — was made in England and features a colorful design. Pasted atop the bookplate is a print of the Washington family coat of arms and the Latin motto “exitus acta probat” (“the ends justify the means”). Washington ordered 300 copies from a London printer at a cost of 6 shillings, reserving their use for the most important books in his library.

“At the time, we were still very dependent on Great Britain for paper manufacturing and printing,” Mr. Lengel said. “A lot of Washington’s furniture was imported from Britain, too.”

After Lawrence Washington’s 1876 auction, the book changed hands in 1892, when it was sold for $1,150. It is thought to have belonged later to newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst.

“We weren’t able to find that Hearst owned it from the record,” Mr. Cooper said. “But we were told that by a usually reliable source. Ownership history is not an exact science. There are gaps in the record that will never be filled in.”

In 1964, Pennsylvania businessman and Colonial art collector H. Richard Dietrich Jr. purchased the book at a New York City auction for $27,000 — roughly the cost of a new home at the time and $200,000 in today’s value.

Mr. Lengel said the market for Washington’s books and papers has waxed and waned. In the early 1800s, ample supply kept costs low; by the middle of the century, a reduced number of items made forgeries commonplace; in the 20th century, preservation efforts by institutions and libraries further constricted supply, driving up prices to current highs.

“There’s so much more interest in the Founding Fathers in the last three decades, especially since the [Ronald] Reagan years,” he said. “Interest and demand for everything Washington has increased exponentially.”

Scarce and significant

Self-conscious about his lack of formal education, Washington was an avid and studious reader who often kept meticulous private notes while absorbing and comparing texts.

Nevertheless, Mr. Lengel said, only a few other books featuring Washington’s handwritten annotations are known to exist — most notably a copy of James Monroe’s “A View of the Conduct of the Executive in the Foreign Affairs of the United States,” published in 1797 and highly critical of Washington’s diplomacy with France.

“That drove Washington nuts,” Mr. Lengel said. “He wrote very extensive comments, striking back rather savagely at Monroe. His comments were never published. I think they were to clear his mind and let his temper out.

“Still, it shows that if Washington was studying something very carefully and wanted to understand it better, he would do that.”

For Washington, his copy of the Constitution wasn’t so much a historical document as an employee manual, a guidebook to an office that largely was created with him in mind. The first president was keenly aware that every decision he made would set precedents for his successors, and that faith and trust in government would hinge largely on his careful interpretation and execution of the fledgling nation’s foundational laws.

As such, his sparse notations say little — and in doing so, say everything.

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