Maryland to Unveil the Page That Began a New Chapter

George Washington's resignation as commander in chief, delivered in 1783 at the State House in Annapolis, established civilian control of military power.
George Washington's resignation as commander in chief, delivered in 1783 at the State House in Annapolis, established civilian control of military power. (Maryland State Archives)
By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 19, 2007

It was a speech so moving the crowd wept. It was a speech so personally important George Washington's hand shook as he read it until he had to hold the paper still with both hands. After the ceremony, he handed the thing to a friend and sped out the door of the State House in Annapolis, riding off by horse.

For centuries, his words have resonated in American democracy even as the speech itself -- the small piece of paper that shook in his hands that day -- was quietly put away, out of the public eye and largely forgotten.

Today, however, amid festivities celebrating his birthday, Maryland officials plan to unveil the original document -- worth $1.5 million -- after acquiring it in a private sale from a family in Maryland who had kept it all these years. It took two years to negotiate the deal and raise money for the speech, which experts consider the most significant Washington document to change hands in the past 50 years.

The speech, scholars say, was a turning point in U.S. history. As the Revolutionary War was winding down, some wanted to make Washington king. Some whispered conspiracy, trying to seduce him with the trappings of power. But Washington renounced them all.

By resigning his commission as commander in chief to the Continental Congress -- then housed at the Annapolis capitol -- Washington laid the cornerstone for an American principle that persists today: Civilians, not generals, are ultimately in charge of military power.

A little more than 223 years later, the manuscript at the heart of this ideal has faded into a brownish-beige tinge. The page is lighter along its borders, where it was held in a frame and hung on a family's wall for generations.

But the words remain bold -- dark ink set in Washington's ornate 18th-century handwriting.

"I've looked it over so many times, and the magical feeling never goes away, you know?" State Archivist Edward Papenfuse said as he buzzed through a secure storeroom in the state archives last week for yet another look.

He stopped in front of a black, fireproof vault, locked by two number combinations kept secret -- and separate -- by two archives employees. And from within the temperature- and humidity-controlled walls, Papenfuse pulled out the speech, lying flat in an acid-neutral beige folder, encased in slips of clear plastic Mylar.

The manuscript includes the crossed-out lines and penned-in additions as Washington searched for the right words and exact phrasing to formally resign as commander in chief of the Continental Army.

It is short, about 350 words on a single page, front and back.

Papenfuse was the architect behind the secretive deal over the past two years that secured the speech for Maryland. Even now, with the document safely in state hands, he will say little about its origins.

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