A vital American document

Washington's handwritten speech was in private hands

February 23, 2006|By LINELL SMITH | LINELL SMITH,SUN REPORTER

In the summer of 1980, George Washington was lodging in Edward Papenfuse's mind.

Five years into his tenure as Maryland's state archivist, the young historian was planning the 200th anniversary of Washington's resignation as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. One of America's most historic moments had taken place in the State House of Annapolis on Dec. 23, 1783.

It was when he was deep into the details that he first heard about the existence of the speech: the original handwritten document of Washington's famous resignation address.

Not only did it exist, but it belonged to a family in Maryland. Through a mutual friend, Papenfuse was invited to see the manuscript, in which the general who would become the country's first president underscored the principles of American democracy. He received permission to make a facsimile for the anniversary exhibition in the State House, where it has remained.

More than 20 years later, that is all Papenfuse will say about its provenance. The history of the manuscript, as well as the identity of the family who has owned it "for a very long time," will remain a mystery for now.

But the original speech, with Washington's own inked-in revisions, may finally come into public view as soon as next year. Papenfuse this week announced Maryland's expected acquisition of the document, which he has called "the foundational basis for civilian government in the United States."

"It's truly a remarkable document. It's a draft in Washington's own hand that shows his thinking process as he crafts what he believes is one of the most important things he can say about his role in promoting the republic," Papenfuse says. "He has a vision of a republic run by civil authority, not by military rule. [The manuscript] shows how carefully and deliberately he was trying to word what he had to say."

The archivist began soliciting support to purchase the document several months ago after he learned that its owners were receptive to selling it. After approaching Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for public funding, he then sought matching funds from individuals.

Written on standard manuscript paper, the two-page speech has an appraised value of $1.25 million -- a price that will also purchase a letter describing Washington's resignation written by his physician and aide, James McHenry. (The documents were authenticated and appraised by William Reese, a manuscript and rare books dealer in New Haven, Conn.)

Pending approval by the legislature, the anonymous owners will receive $600,000 from the state. Baltimore businessmen Willard Hackerman and Henry A. Rosenberg Jr. have each pledged $200,000. The anonymous owners will donate the final $250,000.

The purchase price far exceeds the highest auction price ever paid for a Washington manuscript, says Chris Bready, owner of Baltimore Book Company Inc., a firm that does catalog and auction sales of rare books, documents and manuscripts.

In 2002, Christie's sold part of Washington's narrative account of his involvement in the French and Indian War for $834,500 (including buyer's premium). It had belonged to the late Malcolm Forbes.

"The big surprise to me is that the manuscript of Washington's speech was still in private hands," Bready says. "It's a direct item of American history, like Lincoln's original draft of his speech in Gettysburg. Washington's resigning of his commission when he had the opportunity to do otherwise steered the country in a certain direction. It's the kind of thing that the Smithsonian and the National Archives should have gotten hold of a long time ago."

Only a handful of Washington's speeches have come on the market, says Jeremy Markowitz, a specialist in autographs and Americana for Swann Galleries, an auction house in New York. "One page from his undelivered inaugural address -- with text written on both sides -- sold for $320,000 at auction in 2002.

"Collectors find the notion of owning this material fascinating," he says. "Letters and documents are history you can hold in your hands: George Washington created this, he wrote this. Such a closeness to history is exciting. It's very intimate."

Papenfuse says he was struck by penmanship he calls "some of the most beautiful boilerplate handwriting you'll ever see."

"There's something very special about seeing the document and being able to envision the process by which it came to be composed," he says. "Washington was always very careful about how he said what he said. ... He wasn't a spontaneous speaker. Generally you do not find drafts, you find the final product. That's the way he worked, but in this case, he had very short notice in regards to what the Continental Congress expected [in the manner of his formal resignation]."

The manuscript may require some conservation work and will be housed in a custom-built case protected against the harmful effects of temperature, humidity and light. Papenfuse hopes the document can go on permanent display by Feb. 22 next year -- Washington's 275th birthday.

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