Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Furnishing the Restored Maryland Senate Chamber of 1783

From light into darkness?

by Edward C. Papenfuse, State Archivist, retired

The story of how Congress came to reside in  Annapolis in 1783-1784 is well known and well documented in http://mdstatehouse.net.  Some recent commentary has attempted to suggest that what they found in the way of accommodations in the State House and how they might have arranged themselves to accept General Washington’s resignation as Commander in Chief was rather spartan, without individual desks for the Congressmen and no lighting from a chandelier during one of the coldest, darkest winters on record.[14] Architectural historians and restoration architects of this ilk would do well to better verse themselves in the history of the communities in which the structures they are attempting to restore and interpret were built.  Annapolis is no exception.

In the summer of 1776, Maryland launched a new model of bicameral legislature that proved so inspiring as to have the upper house become the model for the United States Senate as envisioned by the Constitutional Convention of 1787.[1]

From its first meeting in the Armory behind the old State House, both adjacent to the one under construction by Charles Wallace in February of 1777, the Maryland Senate took equal, perhaps even a superior stand, to the House of Delegates resident in the large assembly hall, “the old one”, seen in Charles Willson Peale’s 1788 drawing.[2]


From its first session in 1777 when under the requirements of the 1776 Constitution at least 8 members needed to be present to conduct business, the Senate functioned according to its journals of proceedings with often as many as 11 members in attendance at any one session.[4]

The Senate met during the shortest days of the year and at one point, in its first year of existence, held its sessions after sunset.[5]  In the old Council chamber, which doubled as the Armory, they met with sufficient lighting from a twelve candle chandelier.[6]

Fortunately the Old State House (referred to by 1777 as the Assembly or the “Old One”) not only had sconces on the walls but at least one, and probably three chandeliers to provide sufficient lighting for the dark days of deliberation.[7]

The Maryland Senate prided itself from its first days of organization on proper procedure and protocol  with its fifteen members  ultimately drawn from the wealthiest citizens indirectly by the ballot of electors, but able to replace itself when duly elected members resigned or declined to serve.

How the Senate organized itself and provided working accommodations for its members beginning in 1777 is not known for certain, apart from following standard parliamentary procedure and having a doorkeeper, a secretary, and  a messenger.  Given the strict sense of order and the formality of public discourse, it is probable that considerable care was given to seating arrangements with every member of the Senate provided with a writing table/desk and chair suitable to his station.[8]

From the first day that the Senate convened, all fifteen members were expected to make their appearance at one time or another.  This was no longer the club of councilors selected by the proprietor to do his bidding as the upper house, but an elected (albeit indirectly elected) body of supposedly wise individuals intended to act as a break on the exuberance of the lower house.   As the Constitution of 1776 intended (to quote  Carl Everstine) “Members of the Senate were to be “men of the most wisdom, experience and virtue.”  [9]

Unfortunately we do not know for certain what those furnishings were like, but we can make a very good guess based upon what may be the only surviving example of that period of the Senate’s history.

William Voss Elder and Lou Bartlett first identified this desk in 1983 as ca. 1780 by John Shaw or John Shaw and Archibald Chisholm. It would have been the perfect size for a Senator accompanied by a chair that would have been the same or similar to those with which William Paca apparently lent for the use of Congress for additional seating at Washington’s resignation ceremonies on December 23, 1783.[10]  William Paca was a member of that first Maryland Senate in 1777 from the Western Shore.  It is difficult to contemplate that he and his wealthy brethren would sit on or at anything less than a chippendale chair before a finely made, but simple desk with candle slide.

In all likelihood the presiding officer (the Senate President who was chosen from among his peers) did not have a desk but sat on a raised platform just as the Speaker of Parliament was seated.  Before him would have been a double clerks desk, possibly like the one made by Shaw and Chisholm for the Loan Office  or currently owned by the Masons.  Both Richard Ridgely, the first Clerk, and James Maynard, the first messenger would have sat at such a desk, the one taking down the minutes, the other ready to take whatever the secretary or the President (in that case the future Intendant of the Revenue, Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer)  handed him for delivery to the House of Delegates and the officers of government. [11] 

When the Senate first met in the old Armory in February 1777, one of the first orders of business was to elect the Governor and his council (five members) to whom the furnishings of the old Council would have been allocated.  It is possible that they first convened at the Governor’s Mansion on what is now the Naval Academy grounds and where, by 1783, governor Paca was also holding forth with what the Maryland Journal described as the “Nursery of the Long Robe”.

Annapolis is a nursery of the long robe.  Its lawyers would do honor to any bar in Europe. The Governor [William Paca], who is of this profession, has instituted a society composed of students of the law, who meet at his house at stated periods to discuss law questions and questions in political economy.  He proposes the subject, sits as President and give judgment in conjunction with his council, the Chancellor and the Judges of the General Court.  When the debates are finished the company sup with the the Governor. [12]

By 1779 the Governor and Council had its own room over the Senate Chamber in the new State House, but the table called for in 1728 apparently was no longer extant in the State House, and more likely, remained at Government House to accommodate the “nursery” for discussion and dinner.

In 1779, when the Senate at last was able to move into its new quarters in the nearly finished State House (Stadthouse), it is likely that they took their writing table/desks and chairs with them.  The documentation for how any furnishings were acquired for both the House and the Senate in 1777 is obscured by summary journal entries, but the significant payments to John Shaw in 1777 leave no doubt in those who know the history of that cabinetmaker and cabinet making in Annapolis that he would have had a hand in crafting the furnishings for the Senate and the House.[13]

The story of how Congress came to Annapolis is well known and well documented in http://mdstatehouse.net.  Some recent commentary has attempted to suggest that what they found in the way of accommodations in the State House and how they might have arranged themselves to accept General Washington’s resignation as Commander in Chief was rather spartan, without individual desks for the Congressmen and no lighting from a chandelier during one of the coldest, darkest winters on record.[14]

For protocol for the ceremony and the furnishings on that day it is better not to have  recourse to a ceremony welcoming the representative of a King who needed to be treated with a higher level of respect and attention than a retiring General who was at all times, as he himself acknowledged, subservient to the Civil Authority.  It would be far more sensible to pay closer attention to the Journal of the Congress for December 1783,  and the ceremonial session it held on the eve of their move to Annapolis in May of 1782, in which the members of Congress sat at their “small” tables to celebrate the birth of the Dauphin, all of which is well documented in http://mdstatehouse.net:  

13 May 1782 - Public Audience for the announcement of the birth of the dauphin by a minister of France:
On May 2nd Congress had set Monday, May 13, for an audience to the minister of France for the purpose of reading a letter from the King to Congress announcing the birth of a dauphin, and on May 7 had adopted the ceremony for the occasion.
9 May - Letter from the Secretary of Congress to the Superintendent of Finance: "Sir, It is the desire of Congress that the table before the president and the tables before the Members be covered with green cloth on the day of the public Audience..."
12 May - Seating arrangement of the guests drawn up by Secretary Livingston:
"The Order in which the Guests shall sit at the entertainment given tomorrow by Congress shall be as follows...The president of Congress on a Chair in the center. The Minister of France on his right hand on a Chair; the Members of Congress in equal divisions on each side of him. The president and executive Council of Pennsylvania on the right of Congress, on the left, the Principals of three great executive Departments, (except the Secretary for foreign Affairs, who as Master of the Ceremonies shall sit opposite to the President of Congress). The Secretary of the United States in Congress assembled. The Secretary to the Legislation, shall sit on the left hand of the Secretary for foreign Affairs, and the Counsel of his left. The eldest General Officer on the right of the Secretary for foreign Affairs. The Genl. Officers Treasurer, Comptroller, and the Auditor General, and foreigners of distinction on his right and left without designation of Rank. The remainder of the Company seating themselves without and particular attention to rank. Governor Morris Esq. will do the honors at the Table at one end, Major Jackson at the other, Lewis Morris Esq. at the side of the table which is opposite and the farthest from the President." -- Papers of the Continental Congress, no. 79, vol. II, f. 197.
13 May - The Secretary of Congress, Report. Report contains descriptions of the arrangement of the room and details the protocol of the formal ceremony.
  • House arrangement: "The house was arranged in the following order--The President in a chair on a platform raised two steps from the floor with a large table before him. The members of Congress in chair son the floor to his right and left with small tables before them. The tables were all covered with green cloth...[Referring to the number of delegates present] The whole in a semi-circle...Next to the Members of Congress on the left of the chair stood the principals of the three executive departments namely the Superintendant of finance the Sec'ry at War and the Sec'ry for foreign affairs. The Secretary of the United States in Congress assembled stood on the right of the president on the first step of the platform. At his right on the floor stood the interpreter behind the chairs of the Members. The president and council of the State of Pennsylvania stood within the bar on the right as they entered and facing the president. The rest of the audience stood without the bar.
  • Protocol: "The Minister was conducted into the Congress Hall by the two members who had received him at the foot of the steps of the outward door. As he entered the bar the president and the house rose, the president being covered. The Minister as he advanced to his chair bowed to the president who took off his hat and returned the bow. The Minister being uncovered. The Minister then bowed to the members, on each side of the chair, who were standing uncovered but did not return the bow. The Minister then sat down and put on his Hat. A chair was prepared for him on the floor directly opposite the president and before it a table covered with green cloth. On each side of his chair was placed for the members and the Minister all took their seats at the same time..."[15]

It is my considered opinion based on the probable seating arrangement (with desks/writing tables provided by the Senate (in their possession since 1777-there were 15 Senators) that made for the “prettyest room”  in America) that the desks and chairs remained in the room with the observers above in the balcony and lining each side of the room.[16] The seated congressmen probably were arranged geographically with the states allotted one desk, seats as needed grouped around, lining each side of a central aisle in a room that was said by Charles Willson Peale to be about 45 foot square.  Following the congressional protocol of  voting by state and signing such important documents as the Articles of Confederation in geographical sequence, New Hampshire would have the lead desk to the left of the President, ending with Pennsylvania at their desk on the President’s right.  The desks may have been angled towards the central aisle, but there would have been only two rows with a center aisle.  Such an arrangement coincides with New Jersey Congressman Samuel Dick’s account of his own seating assignment the following summer, although he meant southwest corner and not northwest:

-I have not wrote any thing these two Minutes--my station at this Northwest Window of the Congress Room is not favourable to such a strict adherence to this Important Subject as it Merits. Any Digression you will do me the Justice I am perswaded with your usual Candor to attribute to the great variety of alluring Objects which prevent. That Young Lady with the Crimson [...] and that with the Green, [...] another blast and [...] the colour of her Garters walk this Windy Day on purpose to distract my attention.[17]

As the protocol created by the protocol committee required, Washington would have sat in a chair directly in front of the clerk’s desk flanked by two aides, with the President on the dias (seated) and the Secretary standing at his side.

The two best accounts of the actual ceremony are well known and available off of http:/mdstatehouse.net.  Congressman Tilton’s is the fullest and James McHenry’s (himself a member of the protocol committee and a former Aide to whom Washington gave the manuscript copy of his address now owned by the Maryland State Archives) the most moving.  From them it is clear that Washington arrived at noon and went directly to his chair following the protocol to the letter.  After giving his remarks, handing in his commission, and listening to the rather stilted response from President Mifflin, he retired to the Committee Room until all visitors were cleared, returned to the room, and left for an afternoon meal at South River before heading back to Mount Vernon.


1.  See http://www.foundingfathers.info/federalistpapers/fed63.htm, Federalist No. 63: If reason condemns the suspicion, the same sentence is pronounced by experience. The constitution of Maryland furnishes the most apposite example. The Senate of that State is elected, as the federal Senate will be, indirectly by the people, and for a term less by one year only than the federal Senate. It is distinguished, also, by the remarkable prerogative of filling up its own vacancies within the term of its appointment, and, at the same time, is not under the control of any such rotation as is provided for the federal Senate. There are some other lesser distinctions, which would expose the former to colorable objections, that do not lie against the latter. If the federal Senate, therefore, really contained the danger which has been so loudly proclaimed, some symptoms at least of a like danger ought by this time to have been betrayed by the Senate of Maryland, but no such symptoms have appeared. On the contrary, the jealousies at first entertained by men of the same description with those who view with terror the correspondent part of the federal Constitution, have been gradually extinguished by the progress of the experiment; and the Maryland constitution is daily deriving, from the salutary operation of this part of it, a reputation in which it will probably not be rivalled by that of any State in the Union.

2. Thomas Johnson was elected the first Governor of Maryland prior to the completion of the third state house. The General Assembly was still meeting in the second, or "old" state house at the time of Johnson's election. Confirmation of this is evident in the reference to the use of the "conference room" for counting the votes. The official declaration of the first Governor of Maryland took place in the second State House. The first inauguration of the Governor of Maryland took place on the grounds of the State House Hill near the location of the South Portico of the current State House. It  has long been argued that both of the Peale illustrations do not show the "Old Armory" as some have claimed, but rather the second State House with the armory barely visible behind.. Analysis of the first inauguration of Governor Thomas Johnson provides support for this assessment.  See: http://statehouse.msa.maryland.gov/description.cfm?item=7&serno=1,  When the order was given to John Shaw to tear down the Armory in 1796, it is clear that it was formerly the old council chamber that had been given for the use of Anne Arundel County and Annapolis, leaving the Old State House as the Anne Arundel County Courthouse. See: http://statehouse.msa.maryland.gov/description.cfm?item=32&serno=1,

4. See the proceedings for 1777.  The comings and goings of the Senators is apparent from the proceedings.  They generally, but not always maintained a working majority as required but the total number rose and fell during the course of the session.  For example see: http://aomol.msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc4800/sc4872/003185/html/m3185-0078.html

5. During the war members of the Senate were also members of the Council of Safety and both could not be in session at the same time so the Senate convened between 3 and 5 p.m. at a time when the sun set at 5 p.m. (see: http://aomol.msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc4800/sc4872/003185/html/m3185-0016.html).

6. see http://aomol.msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc2900/sc2908/000001/000025/html/am25--504.html, cited by Morris Radoff, Buildings of the State of Maryland at Annapolis, 1954, p. 51.  Dr. Radoff confuses the second statehouse with the old Armory.  The Armory was added to the back of the second statehouse and served as the upper house chamber when the Council  to the governor served as the upper house.

7. http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc5200/sc5287/000006/000000/000021/restricted/mhm_14_v3_rebecca_key.pdf. Note that Dr. Papenfuse has found Rebecca Key’s memories to be accurate in most
details including her story of the ‘re­discovered’ charter of Annapolis which confirmed the palimpsest which
he discovered  and documented.  The old state house was not initially torn down when the Assembly moved
to its new quarters in 1779 and was used as the Arundel County courthouse until the new one was built on
Church Circle.  She is also the eyewitness who relates her father’s incorporation of the two chandeliers into
the ‘Assembly’ or Old State House when they were confiscated from Governor Eden’s storage at the
Governor’s residence on the Naval Academy grounds. 

8.  see the proceedings of the Senate available on http://aomol.net 

9. Carl N. Everstine, The General Assembly of Maryland 1776­1850, 1982, p. 15.

10. William Voss Elder III and Lou Bartlett,  John Shaw Cabinetmaker of Annapolis, Baltimore: Baltimore
Museum of Art, 1983, pp. 66­67, Robert Wilson, “Wye Island,” Lippincott’s Magazine for Popular Literature
and Science,  vol. 19, April 1877, p. 470, and William Voss Elder, III, Maryland Queen Anne and
Chippendale Furniture of the Eighteenth Century, Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, 1968.

11.  http://aomol.msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc4800/sc4872/003185/html/m3185­0015.html.

12. see http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/stagsere/se1/se14/000014/html/ecp10_278.html.  The quote is
from the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser for Tuesday, September 30, 1783.

13.   8 November [1777] ­ John Shaw paid 254 pounds 11 shillings and 3 pence. One of many such entries.
(GOVERNOR AND COUNCIL (Proceedings) 1777­1779. MSA S 1071­23. Archives of Maryland Volume 16, Page
412.) http://statehouse.msa.maryland.gov/description.cfm?item=7&serno=1

14.  see: FURNISHING THE RESTORED SENATE CHAMBER, [2014] for details.  The report is available on line at mdstatehouse.net, a research web site that I designed and contributed to over my years as Archivist.  As to the weather, it was so cold, dark, and dreary that the supply of windsor chairs ordered for the use of Congress got held up by the ice in the Bay.

15  http://statehouse.msa.maryland.gov/description.cfm?item=2&serno=69.

16. http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc5200/sc5287/000001/000000/000009/unrestricted/congress_letters_williamson_to_blout_1783.pdf.

17  http://statehouse.msa.maryland.gov/description.cfm?item=12&serno=68.