Opening power lies in stick with tradition

Symbol: The 300-year-old wooden rod used to signal the start of the House session has a place in legislative lore.

Making Maryland Law

The Mace

General Assembly

January 14, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

When the House of Delegates convenes today, it will observe a 300-year-old tradition distinctive among the world's legislative bodies.

Mary K. Monahan, chief clerk of the House, will carefully withdraw a 2-foot long "speaker's mace" of wood and silver from a State House vault and place it in its cradle on the lower rostrum of the marble-walled chamber -- marking the start of the 418th session of the General Assembly with a flourish that dates to 1698, when the Colonial governor presented the staff to the House.

The mace, its wood reddish-black and darkly grained, its silver ends tarnished pink, has been on hand at every session since. Like its monetary value, its exact composition is unknown, possibly ebony or stained oak, but its power is unambiguous: Legislators have been known to shyly ask Monahan for permission to touch it.

"It is pomp and circumstance all by itself," Monahan explained yesterday, cradling the piece in her office, "probably the most valuable object in the House."

Maryland's mace was patterned after one used by the British House of Commons. Next to the British version, it is the oldest such device still in use by a representative body in the world, according to Edward C. Papenfuse, the state's archivist.

Modeled after ancient weapons, the staff's symbolic value dates to the 1620s, when a sergeant-at-arms wielded one to free a House of Commons legislator imprisoned by King Charles I, turning a simple rod into an emblem of independence and authority.

Maryland Gov. Francis Nicholson, who led the state from 1694 to 1698, introduced the mace to this country to signify the legislature's independence from the executive branch.

Historians believe Maryland's mace served as a model when the U.S. House of Representatives sought to fashion its own symbol of authority. That body has had three maces in its history. The first, a 10-pound bundle of 13 thin ebony rods bound with sterling silver bands and topped by a silver eagle perched on a orb, was created in 1789 and destroyed 25 years later when British soldiers burned the Capitol in 1814.

Lawmakers made do with a substitute -- a dowel of painted pine -- until a New York silversmith crafted a $400 replica of the original in 1841.

It sits in a locked glass case when the House is not in session. It requires an act of Congress to remove it for a gentle cleaning, once a decade, at the Smithsonian.

"It's priceless," said deputy sergeant-at-arms Kerri Hanley, who places the mace in position when the House of Representatives is in session. "It's a thrill, quite honestly, just to hold it."

In Annapolis, Maryland's venerated mace rested humbly on top of a pile of documents on a scuffed bookcase behind the doors of a walk-in vault in the Monahan's office.

No one dares clean it, said Monahan: "You'd hate to damage it."

A dozen tiny knots and gouges texture its 24 1/2 inches. Thin nail heads secure the scalloped silver caps added in 1794, the work of Maryland artist Charles Willson Peale. One side reads "the State of Maryland;" the other, "House of Delegates." In good light, it is possible to see faint images of the Great Seal of Maryland on the ends.

Historically, sergeants-at-arms wielded the ceremonial staff to summon witnesses and maintain order. Today, Monahan will enter the House floor carrying the mace in both hands. Before the roll is called, she will stand it in its felt-lined holder, to the right of the House speaker. "That's when the legislators know the session has really begun," she said.

Its removal is also a sign -- a fact a statesman in the 1970s tried to drive home when he seized the mace on the final day of the session, a time characterized by Hail Mary tactics.

"He thought he could stop the session," Monahan shrugged. "But he wasn't able. We guard the mace very well."

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