The return of history

More than 300 lawmakers, state officials and history buffs packed the cavernous State House rotunda last night to witness one of George Washington's most famous speeches -- one of the nation's most important documents -- return to its rightful home.

Just steps from the Old Senate Chamber in which Washington delivered the speech more than 200 years ago, officials unveiled his handwritten manuscript -- a fragile, yellowing slip of paper, covered on each side with Old World script and encased in protected glass.


Gov. Martin O'Malley took part in the pageantry, which included musicians dressed in period costume -- and an actor portraying the nation's first president, whose 275th birthday (Feb. 22) was being officially observed.

"To Washington, the ultimate authority in government had to be the will of the people as expressed through their representatives, no matter how rowdy, wrong and impulsive those representatives from time to time might become," O'Malley told the crowd, evoking a few chuckles.


"It is that priceless link on paper to the mind of the man who believed that civilian government and leadership was the only answer to the future of the Republic," said State Archivist Edward C. Papenfuse.

Washington's speech, delivered Dec. 23, 1783, was as eloquent as it was brief, a humble farewell from a war hero who easily could have become king. Instead, the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army told members of the Continental Congress sitting in Annapolis that he preferred to re-enter civilian life. By doing so, Washington established the bedrock principle of American democracy that the military is subservient to civilian authority.

Last night's ceremony added touches of authenticity, including the portrayal of Washington by Jim Gibson, who delivered the speech without the aid of a microphone. He paused at the start to put on his spectacles in the same manner as Washington. Tall and white-haired, Gibson towered above the other lawmakers in the hall, much as Washington did at the emotional five-minute address in what was then the young nation's capital.

Papenfuse noted that the speech was only slightly longer than Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

The state paid $600,000 to an anonymous individual for Washington's manuscript. In addition, two Baltimore philanthropists -- Willard Hackerman and Henry A. Rosenberg Jr. -- each donated $200,000 toward its purchase.

Besides the speech, the state received a letter written by Marylander James McHenry to his wife-to-be, Peggy Caldwell, describing Washington's resignation. Together, the speech and the letter have an estimated value of $1.5 million, Papenfuse said.

Two decades ago, Papenfuse was delighted to learn that the original manuscript existed and that it had been in private hands. But it would take the owners years to part with it.

"I first saw the document 22 years ago," he said yesterday. "I was staggered by it then and am absolutely thrilled with it now."


Washington's speech will be on display through the end of the week. State archivists want to make it a permanent exhibit but must first construct the appropriate case for it.

The speech is considered one of the most significant events to have taken place at the State House, where the Old Senate Chamber has been re-created.

"Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action -- and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life," wrote Washington, who was 51 at the time.

He took pains to show his respect to the Congress as the civilian authority, referring to this "august body." It was only then that his listeners took off their hats to him.

But he wouldn't retire to his Mount Vernon plantation for long, returning to public life in answering the call to become the nation's first president.


Sun reporter Jamie Stiehm contributed to the article.

For the record

An article in the Maryland section Tuesday misidentified the actor who portrayed George Washington during the General Assembly's Presidents Day ceremony. The actor is Dean Malissa.The Sun regrets the errors.