A great Washington speech is coming home

December 21, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Almost 223 years to the day after George Washington strode into the Maryland State House to resign as head of the Continental Army, the state Board of Public Works agreed to buy the notes written by the future president for a speech that marked a turning point for the young republic.

The event, commemorated by a 14-foot-wide oil painting in the capitol, is considered the moment that cemented the new nation's commitment to democratic, civilian rule. State officials said they expect Washington's Dec. 23, 1783, speech and an accompanying letter from a witness to be the centerpieces of the State House's history collection.

"The state will acquire one of the most significant documents in U.S. history, the draft of the speech George Washington made when he resigned his commission, the actual paper he held in his hands downstairs when he resigned his commission and bowed to civil authority," state archivist Edward C. Papenfuse said.

The Board of Public Works approved the purchase, which will cost the state $750,000. The documents are appraised at $1.5 million, and the remainder of the price was made up by a gift from the owners, who have asked to remain anonymous, and private donors.

Papenfuse said Washington arrived in Annapolis, which was the nation's capital at the time, with the intention of resigning his commission. He asked Congress whether it expected him to simply hand in his resignation or to make remarks. They asked him to give a speech.

He retired to the inn where he was staying and wrote out a speech, and it is that document the state is now buying.

Papenfuse said the draft, which includes crossed-out words and revisions, shows a great deal about Washington's thinking. For example, he changed an initial draft to leave open the possibility that the nation could call him back to service again, though not in a military capacity. A few years later, it would.

"Rarely do we find compositions in Washington's hand that show how carefully he crafted his words," Papenfuse said.

The members of the Board of Public Works, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, said they were honored to have the chance, amid voting on mundane contracts, to have a role in bringing a piece of history back to Annapolis.

"It's really unfortunate that more people don't read about and talk about George Washington, who really was an extraordinary man," said Kopp. "He said here that the civilians rule, and he returned to his farm, an extraordinary act, an unprecedented act."

Upon hearing of Washington's plan to resign his commission, King George III of England is said to have remarked that the general was "the greatest man alive."

andy.green@baltsun.com

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