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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)

The family who owned it required anonymity. State officials say the page was probably given to Washington's former aide, Maryland congressman James McHenry, who kept it among his papers. And it was passed down among his descendants along with an account of the day McHenry wrote to his bride-to-be (also turned over to the state in the recent deal).

To acquire it, the state paid $600,000. Two Baltimore businessmen, Willard Hackerman and Henry A. Rosenberg Jr., gave an additional $200,000 each, and the owners donated the remaining value of $500,000.

Had the speech been sold publicly, the state would have faced stiff competition from large institutions and private collectors, said Chris Coover, a specialist for Christie's auction house. The highest auction price paid for a Washington manuscript was $834,500 in 2002 for a letter he wrote about his military adventures during the French and Indian War, Coover said.

There are two other final versions of Washington's speech: one in the Library of Congress and another in the National Archives. But this draft is the original.

Drawing from historical accounts, Papenfuse and others believe Washington wrote it at an Annapolis inn a few weeks after the last British soldiers withdrew. He had just bid his troops a tearful farewell in New York after leading them through bitter winters and near starvation, and rode into Annapolis, intent on resigning but unsure of how to go about it.

A letter was sent to Congress, asking for direction. Recognizing the importance of what was about to unfold, Congress set up a protocol committee chaired by Virginia's Thomas Jefferson. They wrote back, asking for a formal speech.

Then, at noon Dec. 23, 1783, the doors of Congress were thrown open, and in walked Washington. A throng had crowded the avenues. The Senate chamber was packed with delegates and spectators. Ladies filled the gallery.

Washington had carefully prepared his speech that day, according to the revisions in the newly acquired manuscript. It appears that he wanted to stress the importance of Congress and his subservience to it. He crossed out, for example, the word "deliver" and said instead, "I here offer my commission," leaving his resignation up to the will of Congress.

When he read it aloud, "the spectators all wept, and there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears," McHenry writes in his account. "His voice faultered and sunk, and the whole house felt his agitations."

Washington paused to recover from the emotion.

From there, the draft originally ended: "bidding an affectionate, a final farewell to this August body . . . I here today deliver my Commission, and take my ultimate leave of all the employments of public life."

What is notable in the manuscript, however, is that Washington crossed out the words "final" and "ultimate," as though saying to Congress after years of wearying war and service he would be willing to serve again, if needed.

Five years later, he would indeed be called back into service -- this time, as the first president of the United States of America.

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