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.
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.