Friday, December 6, 2013

Annapolis: A “School of Idleness"

Though Congress had opened session on November 26, 1783, very little was getting accomplished. Not enough delegates had arrived to reach even the minimum amount required to vote and pass legislature. In fact, on the day of Washington’s resignation, the Journals of Congress noted that only seven states were represented, and “most only by two delegates.”[1] Without nine states, legislation could not be passed, and with delegates arriving and leaving, the issue of representation was a reoccuring problem. In a letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson’s frustration was evident as even Maryland delegates at times failed to show up in their own state capitol: “We have eight states only and seven of these represented by two members... the other absent states are N. York, Maryland and Georgia. We have done nothing and can do nothing in this condition but waste our time, temper, and spirits in debating things for days or weeks and then losing them by the negative of one or two individuals.”[2]

With little business in Congress taking place, delegates occupied their time in other ways in their new city. Annapolis, in its heyday, elicited a diversity of opinions from the delegates.

Captaine Michel du Chesnoy's 1781 map of Annapolis, known as "The Frenchman's Map." Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1427-1-7.

Despite the lack of political activity, the delegates certainly had enough diversions to entertain themselves. New Jersey’s Samuel Dick quickly found himself in a whirl of social events and wrote to his wife, “Tho here but two days I have been Invited to three Dinners, have Eat four, and din’d with two hundred Gentlemen.”[3] According to letters from the delegates, a variety of entertainment included balls, theatre, and horse races - all occurring with great frequency. Of the native Annapolitans, Hugh Williamson of North Carolina wrote favorably, “The Acct given of the beauties of this City was not exaggerated. There really are several lovely girls here, a younger man perhaps would call them angels, and to their faces I believe I may have said as much.”[4]

Cropped image from John Trumbull's Washington Resigning His Commission in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, painted in 1824, owned by the Architect of the Capitol. David Howell is depicted in the middle far right, Thomas Jefferson in the center, and Hugh Williamson in the top left.

However, not all delegates were so thrilled with the city’s diversions. The Revolutionary War had delayed construction on the second St. Anne’s Church, and the lack of a church in town was a great problem for some. David Howell, a delegate from Rhode Island, wrote several times regarding his opinions of the city in comparison to his New England home. Of religion, he wrote most despairingly, “I have been witness to no act of public devotion since I have been here. The second night after my arrival being Saturday night, in the Edge of the evening the Servant brought into the room & set on the Table two candles & two packs of Cards. Some of the company soon spread around the Table & went to playing for money...In conversation I observed to the Company that in N. England the Table would have been furnished with a bible & Psalm book instead of two packs of Cards.” [5]

Charles DeWitt of New York described Annapolis as a “school of idleness” and complained, “Never did my eyes behold a set of people so totally devoted to pleasure, dress and extravagance of almost every kind as the Marylanders.”[6]

Opinions aside, letters from the delegates describing Annapolis provide historians with a valuable backdrop to the resignation story. A picture of the eighteenth-century city emerges as it was at the height of its elegance, creating a scene upon which monumental decisions were made that would shape the new nation.

[1] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, ed. Worthington C. Ford et al. (Washington, D.C., 1904-37), vol.25, p.836-839.
[2] Smith, Paul H., ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 2000. Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 16 March 1784, p.436.
[3] Ibid. Samuel Dick to Sarah Dick, 7 July 1784, vol. 21 p.715.
[4] Ibid. Hugh Williamson to William Blount, 5 December 1783, vol. 21 p.184.
[5] Ibid. David Howell to William Greene, 24 December 1783, vol. 21 p.225.
[6] Ibid. Charles DeWitt to Gerret DeWitt, 21 May 1784, vol. 21 p.635.

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