Friday, November 1, 2013

Major Anniversaries at the State House

Washington's resignation is far from the only piece of significant history to have occurred in the Maryland State House.  Today the State House celebrates two anniversaries of significant events in Maryland's history: the first occupancy of the current State House, and Maryland's abolition of slavery.

On November 1, 1779, two hundred and thirty-four years ago, the Proceedings of the House of Delegates recorded "Monday, November 1, 1779, being the day appointed for a receiving of the General Assembly, appeared at the Stadt-house, in the city of Annapolis."[1] This entry marks the day that the legislature first moved into the third and current State House, and making today the start of the building's current streak of continuous occupancy--the longest such streak in the nation. 

A conjectural image of the third State House when it first opened. Even though the legislature had begun to occupy the State House in 1779, the roof was not finished until nearly a decade later. By 1788, the dome had been redone and completed by architect, Joseph Clark. Sketch by Elizabeth Ridout, Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1444.
The current State House that the delegates moved into in 1779 was not the first State House built on top of Annapolis' State Circle. In fact, there had been two prior. The first, constructed in 1695, was short-lived and burned down in 1704. The second was completed in 1709, and had begun to show its age after sixty years of use. In 1769, William Eddis, the Surveyor of Customs in Annapolis, wrote, "The public buildings do not impress the mind with any idea of magnificence...nothing expressive of the great purpose to which it is appropriated; and by a strange neglect; is suffered to fall continually into decay."[2]

In early 1772, Governor Sir Robert Eden laid the cornerstone for a new State House and construction was underway with Charles Wallace as the "undertaker" and Joseph Horatio Anderson as the architect. Despite at least one hurricane and the strain on work brought about by the Revolutionary War, the legislative houses were finally able to open their sessions in the State House in 1779. The House of Delegates held its first session on November 1, and the Senate followed suit several days later.

A report on Charles Wallace's work by a committee in December of that year provides one of the best descriptions of the original appearance of the third State House. The committee wrote, "many parts thereof are finished with more elegance than was required by the contract, particularly the front door, great hall, and court, the Senate house and house of assembly, the president's and speaker's seats, and the galleries. The other parts of the building appear to be done in a masterly and workmanlike manner, except the upper floor over the Senate house, which is indifferent."[3] This document has been an important piece of evidence for the team overseeing the restoration of the Old Senate Chamber.

The completion of the State House in 1779 is not the only anniversary that the State House celebrates on November 1. Exactly eighty-five years after the opening of the third State House, the Maryland Constitution of 1864 officially took effect.

The Constitutional Conventions for 1864 and 1867 were held in the House of Delegates Chamber, shown here. This photograph shows the appearance of the chamber following extensive renovations in 1876-7. Photographer unknown, 1898. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 5788.

The Maryland Constitution of 1864 was the third of Maryland's four constitutions. President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freed all slaves from Confederate states, but neglected to free the slaves of Union-allied Maryland. Furthermore, the Maryland Constitution of 1851 had specifically forbidden "any law abolishing the relation of master or slave, as it now exists in this State."[4] A Constitutional Convention was called in April 1864, immediately after the end of the 1864 legislative session. Over the next five months, delegates to the convention crowded into the Old House of Delegates Chamber for extensive debates. The Constitution of 1864 received voter approval in October, and took effect on November 1, 1864. Most notably, the constitution abolished slavery in Maryland.

The Constitution of 1864 proved itself to be controversial from the very beginning. In fact, the initial vote did not pass and it was only when the Unionist party gained power that the constitution returned to the table. Unfortunately, it did not offer complete freedom for former slaves, and did not necessarily abolish slavery altogether. "Term slavery" was still legal for those who had committed crimes. Governmental power was also kept in the hands of the elite by altering representation in the General Assembly based on the white population of counties.

The Maryland Constitution of 1864 was in effect for only three years when it was replaced by the Maryland's current constitution in 1867. The 1867 Constitution eliminated any reference to slavery, which had been abolished in the United States under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

For those looking ahead, November 1, 2014 will be the 150th anniversary of emancipation and the 235th anniversary of the opening of the Maryland State House.

For more information on the Maryland Constitution of 1864 and the history of the State House, please follow these links.

[1] Votes and Proceedings of the House of Delegates, November Session, 1779, MSA SC 3204, page 1.
[2] Letter II, Letters from America, Historical and Descriptive; Compromising Occurrences from 1769 to 1777, inclusive by William Eddis. London, 1792.
[3] Votes and Proceedings of the House of Delegates, November Session, 1779, MSA SC 3204, page 68.
[4] Maryland Constitution of 1851, art. 3, sec. 43. 

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