Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Congress Arrives in Annapolis

On this day, two hundred and thirty years ago, Congress officially arrived in Annapolis to begin holding sessions in the Maryland State House’s Old Senate Chamber. Though it would take several more weeks for enough delegates to trickle into Annapolis to officially meet the quorum, November 26, 1783 marked the beginning of a congressional session that would witness the resignation of George Washington, the ratification of the Treaty of Paris, and the appointment of Thomas Jefferson as foreign minister. The next nine months would not only set the course for America’s future, but also mark the Maryland State House as the nation’s first peacetime capitol and the only state house to ever serve as the nation’s capitol.

Portrait of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of Maryland's signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Senate President in 1783. Painted by Thomas Sully, 1834, Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1114.

On October 1781, the British surrendered at Yorktown, but the struggles of establishing a strong government to run the new country were just beginning. The Continental Congress faced staggering war debts and soldiers demanding pensions that the government couldn’t afford to pay, causing civil unrest and dramatic inflation. In June 1783, riots in Philadelphia threatened the safety of the delegates, then meeting in Independence Hall, and Congress relocated to Princeton, New Jersey in the first of a series of congressional venues between 1783 and 1787.

Congressmen frequently encouraged the cities of their own states to serve as the new capital for a variety of reasons. When a city was chosen as the seat of the nation’s government, that state gained a certain advantage to influence the government. Furthermore, delegates would have an easier time travelling to a city within their own state for session, ideally increasing that state’s representation.

Maryland’s Senate President, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, delivered the message to the House of Delegates on May 15, 1783, that, should the General Assembly agree to it, Congress would accept the invitation of Annapolis Mayor James Brice to come to the Maryland State House as their residence. Maryland sought to be named the permanent capital of the United States, though Congress would only agree to a temporary stay.[1] The General Assembly agreed to giving the State House and State Circle to the use of Congress, even requesting thirty thousand pounds be used to construct thirteen houses for the residence of the delegates, with the President to reside in the Governor’s House.[2] Ultimately, no new houses were built specifically for Congress, and many delegates found lodging at Mann’s Tavern.

Nassau Hall, where Congress met before relocating to the Maryland State House. Image courtesy of the Princeton University Archives, 1853.

On November 4, 1783, Congress adjourned at Nassau Hall in Princeton, New Jersey with the intent of reconvening on November 26, 1783 at the Maryland State House in Annapolis. Thomas Jefferson was one of the first of the delegates to arrive on November 25, 1783. On November 27th, in anticipation of Congress starting to meet in the State House, the Maryland Senate advised the House of Delegates, “Gentlemen, It is the intention of the senate, till it be known how much of the stadt-house may be necessary for the use of congress, to sit in the [second floor] room at present occupied by the intendant of the revenue as an office, to which place they propose to remove on Monday next."[3] With this message, the Senate announced that it would vacate the Senate Chamber for the use of Congress. Despite these arrangements, a quorum of Congress members was not reached until December 13, 1783. In the meantime, delegates who had arrived settled into the new seat of the national government and took in the surroundings of Annapolis.

In the upcoming weeks, we will continue to follow the progress of the congressional session leading up to Washington’s resignation, two hundred and thirty years ago.

[1] You can learn more about Annapolis as the potential permanent national capital here.
[2] The Papers of the Continental Congress: Proposals on Locating Seat of Government and Printing the Journals, 177-1789. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, M247, Item 46, Roll 60.
[3] Votes of Proceedings of the Senate, November 1783 Session, page 8.

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