Five weeks into my tenure as university archivist at George Washington University, I am working hard to learn its history. In the course of my study, I came across an incident that I thought was interesting from both a historical and a records management perspective: the 1826 scandal over recordkeeping that precipitated the institution’s first major financial crisis, and nearly caused its early demise.
Luther Rice is generally remembered today as a founder of the college that became GW, as well as a tireless fundraiser for both the college and the international missionary work of the Baptist church. Beginning in 1820, the year before the congressional charter for the college was passed, Rice served as the fledgling institution’s agent and treasurer.
For the next five years, Rice tirelessly traveled throughout the country soliciting subscriptions (conditional promises of donations) and collecting on earlier subscriptions for the support of both the college and Baptist missionary work. As treasurer for the college, he was also responsible for the outlay of funds and the maintenance of financial records. While universally praised for his abilities as agent, or fundraiser, his weaknesses as treasurer nearly derailed both the college and his legacy.