George Washington may be the most popular American in history. He adorns the quarter and the dollar bill, lends his name to the national capital and several prominent universities and stares out from Mount Rushmore in a 60-foot-high carving. And he is honored with a federal holiday, the third Monday in February.
Although Washington is more often associated with Virginia, where he was born and died, he had connections to Maryland while Annapolis was the capital of the newly created United States and many of his acquaintances worked in the State House. Maryland also holds claim to an important artifact: his handwritten letter of resignation as commander of the Continental Army.
After delivering the speech on Dec. 23, 1783, Washington handed it to his aide and raced back to Mount Vernon to be home in time for Christmas. For more than two centuries, his personal copy was in private hands; it was purchased for $1.2 million by the Friends of Maryland State Archives in 2007.
The draft was put on display in the rotunda of the State House on Presidents Day in 2007, and remained there for about a week. It's back at the state archives now. After the State House receives an eight-month, $8.4 million renovation, the draft or a facsimile will reside permanently in the Old State Chamber - the room in which Washington gave his resignation to Congress.
With State House renovations due to start in April, we asked Edward C. Papenfuse, state archivist and commissioner of land patents, about the speech.
What is the significance of what you do here at the archives?
We preserve the memory of Washington's association with Maryland and his role here in Annapolis. It has contributions to both the government of the United States but also the whole concept of the public's participation in the public world ... and the role that he plays here as both commander in chief resigning his commission and also reinforcing ... the concept of democracy that we treasure today. ... So you've got a precedent here that says yes, military activity is necessary sometimes in the defense of the republic, but what is at the heart of the future of our nation and our world is a stable, concerned government that really reflects the needs and the interests of the people. Who the people are and who participates in all of this will change over time, but if you've got a framework in which you can constantly enlarge participation, that's an extraordinary achievement. And that's what Washington helped the nation achieve.
How did Washington's speech come to belong to the archives?
There's always been a public copy of the speech. What we believe is, and there's enough circumstantial evidence to support this argument, that his reading copy is what we now own - what he actually took out of his pocket and ... held in a hand that trembled so badly that he had to hold it with his other hand. When he finished this speech, he gave [it] to his closest aide. And that aide kept it in the family ... [until] we acquired it from the family. We have an agreement with the previous owners that we not disclose who they are and how they got it.
How did they keep it - was it in an attic somewhere or framed?
The family probably found it in a chest or the equivalent of the attic at one point, probably about 1890 or thereabouts. ... And the family then kept it in a frame and it literally stayed on the wall of the family home from that period right until the time that we got it. If you look at the original, you'll notice that there is a rim around the document. That's the part of the document that was not exposed to light.
Is it in good condition?
Yes, considering the fragility of it, it's in very good shape.
It is very likely that this ink is iron gall ink. And iron gall ink, the ink used in the 18th century, is an ink that literally eats into the paper. If not stored under the proper conditions, it is decidedly possible that this document could eat itself to death. ...
Our acquiring this document is happening at approximately the same time that we are attempting to really understand and interpret the chamber in which Washington actually resigned his commission. ... [As] often happens, we started out with a small problem in the chamber, where it looks like you've got a leak in the corner. ... Before you know it, all the plaster in the room was gone because we had some really serious issues as to how preserve this space in which such a significant event took place.
What will that room look like when the renovations are done?
That is a wonderful question. That's really what we're looking for now.
A very famous painter wanted to paint a painting of Washington resigning his commission, and that was John Trumbull ... Elaine [Bachmann, curator] figured out that we ought to look very closely at ... how Trumbull documented [his paintings] ... As Elaine discovered, an art historian had done a very good piece of work on Trumbull and had published some of his sketches, which then we brought in to the people who are working in that area.
We've got a pretty good idea of where we're headed. It's a question of what we're going to be able to do with the resources we've got to carry it out.
How do you take care of the document?
It's simple and plain the way in which we care for it, but it's cared for under the best possible conditions - temperature and humidity control and an inner plastic environment that allows for breathing, because parchment needs to breathe, and then on top of that an acid-neutral folder. ... Sometimes there has to be some repair. You make the [physical quality of the] document better than it was - you stabilize it. You can take acid out of it if it's highly acidic, you can treat the iron gall ink - there are things that you can do to be sure that you preserve the state that it's in.
Once the State House renovations are done, will the speech be housed there permanently?
Yes. You will always be able to see the speech there. You may not always be able to see the original there, because in the care and preservation of the original, it is not always a good idea to have it on constant public display. But I guarantee that the public will never know the difference.