Still leading by example

February 22, 2006

So deeply is this nation in debt to George Washington that most Americans aren't even aware of the full extent of his contributions.

Victorious commander in the Revolutionary War, first president, father of the country - that's the most obvious stuff. His subtler and more fundamental gift to the fledging nation was to establish the principle that the democratically chosen civilian government was paramount; the military would never be more than its servant, and sovereigns had no place in government at all.

Today, in honor of the founding father's 274th birthday, historians are celebrating one of those extraordinary occasions on which such standards were set, when General Washington appeared before the Continental Congress in Annapolis at the end of the war, just before Christmas 1783, to resign his military commission and "take my leave of all the employments of public life."

Commemorations are all the more meaningful this year because Maryland has been given the chance to buy General Washington's original, handwritten draft of the speech - complete with cross-outs and false starts - and put it on display in the State House not far from where the address once fluttered in the warrior's trembling grasp as he read it to an audience awash in tears.

An old-line Maryland family that has privately guarded the document for two centuries has agreed to accept $1 million for it. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is proposing to spend $600,000 in state funds; another $400,000 has been contributed by two Baltimore business leaders, Willard Hackerman and Henry A. Rosenberg Jr.

Landing the general's speech draft is a well-deserved coup for State Archivist Edward C. Papenfuse, who has had his eye on it for nearly 20 years. He called the document unique among Washington's papers because it reveals the thinking through which the speech was crafted.

The nation is fortunate, too, that the document will remain in Annapolis, where it will be open to public view. If it had gone to the National Archives in today's super-secret environment, those cross-outs and false starts just might be regarded as classified material.

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