Thursday, January 14, 2016

Remembering December 23, 1783 & January 14, 1784


Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse, Maryland State Archivists, retired

It has never been easy being President of the United States. On Tuesday evening, January 12, 2016, in his State of the Union address, President Obama presented his hopes for the future to a Congress that has been far from friendly over the past several years, and has persistently obstructed his proposals with a savagery of language that has been intensified on the campaign trail, as the time for the election of a new president nears.[1]

President Obama may take some solace from the fact that the press attacks on our first President under the Constitution, George Washington (1789-1797), were nearly as severe and have a familiar ring to them.[2] But Washington’s initial response to his critics were not as positive as President Obama’s address. In an early version of his famous 1796 farewell to the nation, Washington wrote:

"As this Address, Fellow citizens will be the last I shall ever make you, and as some of the [newspapers] ... have teemed with all the Invective that disappointment, ignorance of facts, and malicious falsehoods could invent, to misrepresent my politics and affections; to wound my reputation and feelings; and to weaken, if not entirely destroy the confidence you had been pleased to repose in me; it might be expected at the parting scene of my public life that I should take some notice of such virulent abuse. But, as heretofore, I shall pass them over in utter silence..." [3]

Charles Willson Peale, the Maryland Statehouse, Columbian Magazine, 1789


For the most part the words of George Washington’s contemporary critics have been forgotten and what remains is an appreciation of his efforts to mold a motley collection of often bickering states into a nation among nations in the form of another speech he gave earlier in Annapolis. You can learn a great deal about his efforts and Congress by visiting the Statehouse in Annapolis, both in person and virtually on line.

Washington was a frequent visitor to Annapolis. Prior to the war he attended the Annapolis races and dined with the colonial governor, among other prominent residents. His last visit was during his presidency in 1791 which turned out to be an unhappy one in more than one respect. He arrived on a boat from the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the midst of a storm with consequences that he relates in his diary:

Thursday [March] 24th [1791]. Left Chester town about 6 Oclock. Before nine I arrivd at Rock-Hall where we breakfasted and immediately; after which we began to embark… one of my Servants (Paris) & two horses were left [behind].[4]

Paris was Washington’s slave, nattily dressed with a new cap, who rode as post boy when they were on the road, and otherwise attended to the horses. Paris would not catch up to Washington until he reached Georgetown, after the president left Annapolis. Clearly Paris had enjoyed his taste of freedom as one of the 9 slaves that Washington had attending him in Philadelphia, and as one of the privileged slaves that accompanied the President on his visit to the Southern States in 1791.[5] By June, Washington would find Paris to be unsatisfactory, as he explained to his secretary, Tobias Lear:

Paris has become so lazy, self willed & impudent, that John (the Coachman) had no sort of government of him; on the contrary, Jno. say’s it was a maxim with Paris to do nothing he was ordered, and everything he was forbid. This conduct, added to the incapacity of Giles for a Postilion[6], who I believe will never be able to mount a horse again for that purpose, has induced me to find Paris some other employment than in the Stable—of course I shall leave him at home.[7]

Sadly, Paris would die of the ague or some other similar illness at Mount Vernon in 1794, and would not be one of the slaves that Washington set free in his will.[8]

With Paris left behind in Rock Hall in March of 1791, the President proceeded to Annapolis, as he notes in his diary:

Unluckily, embarking on board of a borrowed Boat because She was the largest, I was in imminent danger, from the unskilfulness of the hands, and the dulness of her sailing, added to the darkness and storminess of the night. For two hours after we hoisted Sail the Wind was light and a head. The next hour was a stark calm after which the wind sprung up at So. Et. and encreased until it blew a gale—about which time, and after 8 Oclock P.M. we made the mouth of Severn River (leading up to Annapolis) but the ignorance of the People on board, with respect to the navigation of it run us aground first on Greenbury point from whence with much exertion and difficulty we got off; & then, having no knowledge of the Channel and the night being immensely dark with heavy and variable squals of wind—constant lightning & tremendous thunder—we soon grounded again on what is called Hornes point where, finding all efforts in vain, & not knowing where we were we remained, not knowing what might happen, ’till morning.

Artist’s rendition of Washington’s Coach.

It does not depict Paris riding postilion which meant leading on a mounted horse to the left of the team of four.

It was the seated coachman with the whip who almost drowned on the voyage to Annapolis

Friday [March] 25th [1791]. Having lain all night in my Great Coat & Boots, in a birth not long enough for me by the head, & much cramped; we found ourselves in the morning with in about one mile of Annapolis & still fast aground. Whilst we were preparing our small Boat in order to land in it, a sailing Boat came … to our assistance in wch. with the Baggage I had on board I landed, & requested Mr. Man at whose Inn I intended lodging, to send off a Boat to take off two of my Horses & Chariot which I had left on board and with it my Coachman to see that it was properly done—but by mistake the latter not having notice of this order & attempting to get on board afterwards in a small Sailing Boat was overset and narrowly escaped drowning.

Was informed upon my arrival (when 15 Guns were fired) that all my other horses arrived safe, that embarked at the same time I did, about 8 Oclock last night.

John Eager Howard by Thomas Sully, 1834

Collection of the Maryland Commission on Artistic Property

MSA SC 1545-1134

Was waited upon by the Governor [John Eager Howard] (who came off in a Boat as soon as he heard I was on my passage from Rock hall to meet us, but turned back when it grew dark and squally) as soon as I arrived at Mans tavern, & was engaged by him to dine with the Citizens of Annapolis this day at Manns tavern and at his House tomorrow—the first I accordingly did.

Governor’s Mansion, Annapolis, private collection

Before dinner I walked with him, and several other Gentlemen to the State house, (which seems to be much out of repair)—the College of St. John at which there are about 80 Students of every description—and then by the way of the Governors (to see Mrs. Howard) home [to the Governor’s House].[9]

I suspect that most of you knew or have heard of one of Governor Howard’s direct descendants, Dr. William H. B. Howard, who died recently.[10]

Dr. William W. B. Howard co-founded the sports medicine center at Union Memorial Hospital.

(Sam Friedman / Patuxent Publishing)

I have fond memories of Dr. Howard from one of my many stays at Union Memorial when at my earnest request he personally removed a much disliked NG tube, with the observation that he doubted it was doing much good. He had come to talk about Maryland History, a passion of his, and we reflected on Governor Howard’s long association with Washington as well the important role Governor Howard played in the development of Baltimore. It was on Governor Howard’s Baltimore estate that the Robert Mills monument to George Washington was erected through public subscription, and which today dominates Mount Vernon Square.

One of Dr. Howard’s favorite paintings of Washington is one that has hung in the Maryland State House since the artist, Charles Willson Peale, delivered it in December 1784, shortly after the U. S. Congress had adjourned to Trenton, New Jersey. It is a remarkable full length portrait representing Washington and his aides, Lafayette and Tench Tilghman at Yorktown, the concluding battle of the American Revolution, and is accompanied on exhibit by the original sword worn by Tilghman.[11]

Washington, Lafayette & Tilghman at Yorktown

Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) 1784

Oil on canvas Signed lower left: "C.W.Peale pinxt 1782" MSA SC 1545-1120

One of the details of this remarkable painting is Washington’s standard, or flag, that he apparently carried at Yorktown and possibly before which bore what became one of the country’s most treasured symbols, an Eagle.

detail from Washington, Lafayette & Tilghman at Yorktown

Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) 1784 Oil on canvas Signed lower left: "C.W.Peale pinxt 1782" MSA SC 1545-1120

In 1776 Congress gave

Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams the job of designing an official seal for the new nation. However, the three Founding Fathers failed to come up with a design that won Congress’ approval, as did two later committees that were given the task. In mid-June 1782, the work of all three committees was handed over to Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress. Thomson chose what he thought were the best elements of the various designs and made the eagle—which had been introduced by artistically inclined Pennsylvania lawyer William Barton in a design submitted by the third committee—more prominent. (Since ancient times, the eagle has been considered a sign of strength; Roman legions used the animal as their standard, or symbol.)

J. Harold Cobb's George Washington Inaugural Button Collection


By then Washington had adopted it for his flag (as early as 1781) and would continue that design for the buttons worn at his Inauguration as president in 1789. Washington was always a stickler for ceremony and detail down to the buttons on his uniform, and a the cap that Paris wore, an obsession for his appearance that in later years would plague his Secretary of War, James McHenry (after whom Fort McHenry was named) as can seen in McHenry’s correspondence now in the collections of the Maryland State Archives.

James McHenry, courtesy of Independence National Historical Park

McHenry was important to Washington’s Annapolis story in a number of ways, not the least of which was his part as a member of the protocol committee that scripted the Congressional ceremony in which Washington resigned his commission as commander in chief on December 23, 1783 in the Old Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House.


In October of 2015, for $15 in support of Baltimore Heritage, you could have journeyed to Annapolis to tour the restored old Senate Chamber in the Maryland State House which an Annapolis staymaker and entrepreneur builder, Charles Wallace, first opened to public use in 1779. Today you are encouraged to do it yourself for free.

Woman's corset c. 1730–1740. Silkplain weave with supplementary weft-float patterning,

stiffened with baleen from Baleen whale. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.63.24.5.[1]

Charles Wallace, with his stay making business (corsets) , had a number of influential female clients who lent him money for his mercantile and building ventures in Annapolis, and assisted him in obtaining government contracts, the most spectacular of which was to build the Maryland State House, begun in 1772. Wallace had his problems as a government contractor and builder. The first roof of copper blew off in a storm and it was replaced with cedar shingles capped by a dome that always leaked, leading to its replacement in 1785-88 by the massive dome you see today. In the face of a British invasion of the bay, his workmen and most of the residents fled the town. Still, he managed to finish his contract before the war ended. His Senate Chamber with its balcony for the ladies and visitors, including the daughter, Molly Ridout, of one of his early backers and creditors, was a sight to behold. One contemporary writer called it “the prettyest room in America.” That a staymaker (with the help of his sister and her coffee house) could do so well was the essence and the practice of the American Dream.

In the fall of 1783,Wallace’s Senate Chamber became the home of the United States Congress, and Annapolis became the Capital of the United States for the next year. Ever since unpaid soldiers threatened them in Philadelphia, Congress had been on the move to smaller towns perceived of as less susceptible to mob influence. From Annapolis they would move on to Trenton, but then with a change of heart, landed in the bustling city of New York at Federal Hall, which would continue as the nation’s first capitol under the constitution, the place where George Washington would be inaugurated as the Nation’s first president.

Over the years since it was first opened, the Old Senate Chamber in the Maryland State House in Annapolis has undergone a number of renovations. Little of the fabric of the original room remained intact. Intensive research by the staff of the Maryland State Archives and some conjecture by a distinguished panel of architectural advisors, with funding by the State, led to the reopening of the restored room in pristine splendor for personal self guided, and privately led tours.

With a priceless document in George Washington’s hand on display outside its doors, Maryland’s Old Senate Chamber is one of the most important places to visit to experience the history of the creation of the United States. Here the principle of civilian authority over the military was established, and the treaty launching the United States as a nation on the world stage was ratified. As the announcement of the October 2015 Baltimore Heritage tour explained:

Tour the Restored Old Senate Chambers


Two hundred and thirty-one years ago, George Washington stood in the Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House in Annapolis and resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. With this simple act, he affirmed that the new United States of America would have civilian control of the military. After seven years of research, construction and conservation, the room has been restored back to its appearance between 1783 and 1784, when Congress held session in Annapolis, ratified the Treaty of Paris to end the Revolutionary War, and received Washington’s resignation. Ever wondered why George Washington is facing south on top of Baltimore’s own Washington Monument? Washington is pointed towards Annapolis and the State House Senate Chambers.[12]


George Washington atop Baltimore’s Washington Monument

The speech in the hand pointing south to Annapolis that Washington gave on December 23, 1783, was brief and to the point. He asked that Congress take good care of his officers and men and made it clear that the civil authority in the new nation should remain superior to the military. Like Cincinnatus, the Roman general, he meant to retire to his farm. The official copy of his remarks were recorded in the Congressional Record. What the public did not see for another two hundred and twenty-five years was his original draft which on the conclusion of the ceremony he gave to James McHenry, his former aide and future Secretary of War.

Archivist holding the original Washington speech, now on display in the Maryland State House

In 2007 I had the privilege of purchasing for the State, Washington’s original speech and McHenry’s eloquent letter describing the event written to his bride to be in Philadelphia.[13]

In what remains one of the best eyewitness accounts, McHenry described a “solemn and affecting spectacle,” and observed Washington’s hands shaking, forcing the Revolutionary War hero to hold his speech with both hands. “So many circumstances crowded into view and gave rise to so many affecting emotions,” McHenry wrote, “The events of the revolution just accomplished -- the new situation into which it had thrown the affairs of the world -- the great man who had borne so conspicuous a figure in it, in the act of relinquishing all public employments to return to private life -- the past -- the present -- the future -- the manner -- the occasion -- all conspired to render it a spectacle inexpressibly solemn and affecting.”[14]

courtesy of the Maryland State Archives

Restored Old Senate Chamber with bronze figures of

George Washington and Molly Ridout,

An Annapolitan, Mary Ridout was also present at the ceremony, witnessing it from the balcony. Molly, as he was known, had probably dined with Washington when he visited the Ridout household in 1771 and may have accompanied him to the theater.[15] Now in January 1784 she wrote her mother, then resident in London, her impressions of his speech:

Annapolis 16th January 1784

I wrote to you my Dear Mamma some weeks ago by a frigate that went from this place to Brest this you will certainly receive as it goes by a Gentleman that carrys a Copy of the definitive Treaty ratified by Congress who are in this Town at present, but I fear they will not make it their permanent residence it would make property here of value if they did. I went with several others to see Gen. Washington resign his Commission the Congress were assembled in the State House both Houses of Assembly were present as Spectators the Gallery full of Ladies, the General seemed so much affected himself that everybody felt for him, he addressed Congress in a short Speech but very affecting many tears were shed, he has retired from all public business & designs to spend the rest of his Days at his own Seat. I think the World never produced a greater man & very few so good – ....

I am my Madam your dutiful Affectionate daughter M Ridout


Perhaps as important as what Washington said on December 1783, was what he crossed out in the original draft which is now on display in the State House rotunda. With those deletions he made it clear that he did not consider it his ‘final’ farewell and that this was not his ‘ultimate’ “leave of all the employments of public life.” If called he would return, which he did three and a half years later, first serving as the chairman of the convention that wrote a new Constitution, and then as its first President.

Washington left for Mount Vernon on completing his speech, arriving in time for Christmas dinner.

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens and William Temple Franklin

in Benjamin West’s 1783-1784 painting. The British commissioners refused to pose, and the painting was never finished.


Congress remained in Annapolis for several more months attending to business, the most important of which was ratifying the Treaty of Paris that had been negotiated by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay, and Henry Laurens. That task was undertaken by Thomas Jefferson who had also served on the protocol committee for the resignation ceremony.


Thomas Jefferson, the son of land surveyor and mapmaker whose words were immortalized in the Declaration of Independence at the commencement of the war, was none too happy with the lack of speed with which Congress acted on the Treaty that was to end it.

Cover of The Treaty of Paris, 1783: Its Origin and Significance, by Jonathan R. Dull, 1983

with the final page of the original treaty, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Not until January 14, 1784 could Jefferson muster a quorum of states for its ratification.[16] In those days Congress voted by State delegation, one vote for each State. The treaty was despatched at once for London. Jefferson was relieved. He looked forward with pleasure to his next assignment which was to be Congress’s diplomatic envoy to the French court of Louis XVI, a post that he would fill for four years, bearing witness to the beginnings of another revolution that toppled the French monarchy, profoundly affecting his thinking, and the future course of American Democracy. He would become the principal motivator of the two-party system that has dominated American Politics ever since, and a successful advocate of expanding the voting franchise to all adult white males removing property restrictions. Indeed in the months before he left Annapolis, while his slave was being trained in Baltimore to be his hair stylist in Paris (ultimately the slave, a Hemings, refused to go), Jefferson would complete his Notes on Virginia and author a plan for the undeveloped lands north of the Ohio River in what was known as the Northwest Territory, a plan that called for neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any State created out of the territory. Although this aspect of his plan was initially defeated, much to his dismay, it was ultimately adopted in 1787 while he was in Paris.

In all I hope you will find time to visit the Maryland State House, although I would avoid going there during the 90 day session (January through the first week in April) of the General Assembly as parking is scarce and the State House is filled with politicians and lobbyists cheek by jowl with school groups and protesting constituents.

And don’t forget that December 23 and January 14 are memorable days in the history of the United States when General George Washington bowed to Congress, and the United States formally became a recognized nation on the world stage, with all of its attendant perils and tribulations.

[1] G.O.P. vs. Obama: Disrespect or Just Politics?

[2] see:, "Belisarius" cast harsh aspersions upon Washington's high-handed manner, which he saw as emblematic of the entire administration: "a brief but trite review of your six years administration, mark the progressive steps which have led the way to the present public evils that afflict your country. . .the unerring voice of posterity will not fail to render the just sentence of condemnation on the man who has entailed upon his country deep and incurable public evils."4

[3] source: For more on the earlier draft of the Farewell Address, see Washington on Washington, ed. Paul M. Zall (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003), 129.

[5] for Paris in Philadelphia and with Washington in 1791 see the Washington diaries, ibid., and

[6] A postilion (or postillion, occasionally Anglicised to "post-boy") rider was the driver of a horse-drawn coach or post chaise, mounted on one of the drawing horses. By contrast, a coachman would be mounted on the vehicle along with the passengers. Postilion riders normally rode the left (or "near") horse of a pair because horses usually were trained only to be mounted from the left. With a double team, either there would be two postilions, one for each pair, or one postilion would ride on the left rear horse in order to control all four horses. Source:

[15] See: Washington probably saw the Maid of the Mill with the Old Maid, a comic opera performed by the American Company at the new theater on West Street.

1 comment:

Reginald Neale said...

Thanks Ed for the fascinating historical background.