Grant will allow State House to display draft of famous Washington speech

Plan calls for $100,000 display case in chamber where he stepped down as commander in chief

September 24, 2010|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

As he prepared to resign his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, Gen. George Washington traveled to Annapolis and while staying at Mann's Tavern, put his thoughts on paper. His Dec. 23, 1783 address to Congress, which was then meeting in the Old Senate Chamber in what is today the State House, concluded with a farewell to public life.

Preparing to resign his commission as the Continental Army's commander in chief, Gen. George Washington put his thoughts on paper while staying at Mann's Tavern in Annapolis. His Dec. 23, 1783 address to Congress, which was then meeting in the Senate chambers in the Maryland State House, concluded with a farewell to public life.

"Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action and bid a fine and affectionate farewell to this august body," he wrote in an eloquent and humble speech. His listeners acknowledged the general's show of respect by doffing their hats to him.

His resignation firmly established the principal of American democracy that the military is deferential to civilian authority. The war hero would return to his home in Mount Vernon for Christmas.

Washington, then 51, did not seem to consider higher office, ending with "I take my leave of the employment of public life."

But, in April 1789, he was sworn in as the nation's first president.

Soon, State House visitors will be able to see Washington's draft in its entirety — ink blots and all — as the state prepares a new display in the same room in which he delivered it. A $60,000 grant from the Middendorf Foundation of Baltimore will help pay for a sophisticated display case designed to protect the fragile, yellowing document in perpetuity.

The case will contain temperature, environment and light controls. Those specifications push the cost to nearly $100,000. Since Washington wrote on both sides of the same paper, the case will be constructed to show the document in its entirety.

"This is a fragile object that will require extreme measures to protect," said Elaine Rice Bachmann, director for artistic property for the Maryland State Archives. "It is written in ink on paper. It can be damaged by light and changes in temperature. And we will have to make it viewable from 360 degrees."

The display of the speech will become the centerpiece of the old Senate chamber, which is undergoing a restoration expected to be completed by December 2014.

The state archives acquired that original draft, written in Washington's own longhand, in 2007. He penned the words in Old World script with great flourish, sometimes scratching out phrases and adding lines.

"He wrote it impromptu," said Bachmann. "You can actually see Washington's thought process from the notes and words crossed out on the paper. This is really good imagery."

He wrote on stationery that bore a watermark with the seal of Britannia, she said.

Generations of a family, who have never come forward publicly, preserved that two-sided paper, and allowed it to be displayed during the nation's bicentennial.

"It is in remarkably good condition," said Bachmann.

The family sold the speech for $1.25 million to the state archives, which has been raising money for its display ever since. The project has received contributions from the Sons of the Revolution and the Sons of the American Revolution. And now the Middendorf grant makes the effort possible, Bachmann said.

"We were so impressed with the historical and social significance of this document," said Linda McCleary, a foundation trustee. "It has to be preserved and it will be a major attraction."

It also fits well with the mission of the foundation, which supports efforts at job counseling and employment, historical preservation, human services, libraries, museums, and hospice and residential care.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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