Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Resignation: The State House Illuminated

On Christmas Day, 1783, James Tilton was a little disgruntled over his own behavior at a ball that had occurred three days prior. In a letter to fellow Delaware delegate, Gunning Bedford Jr., he bemoaned, “Such was my villainous awkwardness, that I could not venture to dance on this occasion, you must therefore annex to it a cleverer Idea, than is to be expected from such a mortified whelp as I am.”[1]

The particular ball that Tilton referred to was a rather important one, held at the State House on December 22, 1783 in honor of General Washington. After all, Washington’s public appearances in Annapolis in December 1783 were not only confined to the resignation ceremony, but also included several public celebrations held in his honor. Tilton’s letter to Bedford has since become a valuable resource in determining contemporary impressions of the resignation and the celebrations held on the eve of it.

James Tilton, a Delaware delegate in Congress, was present for the resignation. Lithography by Thomas Edwards, 1828. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.78.141.

On December 22, 1783, Mr. George Mann prepared a feast for around two hundred prominent citizens at the ball-room.[2] The affair was clearly meant to be a large one and Mann prepared as such. Apart from food, Mann also provided at least eight bottles of wine, two and a half gallons of spirits, music, waiting staff, candles, and packs of cards.[3]

Bill for John Shaw for work done during the resignation ceremonies. Maryland State Archives, Scharf Collection, MSA S1005-83-117.

The dinner was a huge success. James Tilton wrote, “The feast on Monday was the most extraordinary I ever attended...The number of cheerful voices, with the clangor of knives and forks made a din of a very extraordinary nature and most delightful influence.”[4]

As was custom, the guests drank to thirteen toasts, many in honor of the new country’s independence. Washington gave an additional toast, wishing, “Competent powers to congress for general purposes.” Each toast was commemorated with the discharge of a cannon.

The list of the thirteen toasts drank at the public dinner held for Washington was published in the Maryland Gazette. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 2731, The Maryland Gazette, 25 December 1783, p.2.

The dinner was followed by a grand ball in Washington’s honor hosted by Governor William Paca at the State House. The spectacle was just as impressive as the dinner. John Shaw, who had already provided the flag in honor of Congress’s arrival, also supplied 95lbs of candles, 80½lbs of which were ultimately used for the ball.[5] Tilton reported, “To light the rooms every window was illuminated. Here the company was equally numerous, and more brilliant, consisting of ladies and Gentn.”

Washington opened the ball by dancing with a prominent Annapolitan, Mrs. James Maccubbin. Tilton wrote, “The General danced every set, that all the ladies might have the pleasure of dancing with him, or as it has since been handsomely expressed, get a touch of him.”[6] Molly Ridout, who provided the only account of the resignation written by a woman, was likely among the prestigious guests in attendance that evening.

The next day, in the same building, Washington was to resign his commission in front of Congress.

[1] Letter from James Tilton to Gunning Bedford Jr., 25 December 1783. Bryn Mawr College Library, Seymour Adelman Letters and Document Collection, Box 24.
[2] Baker, William S., Itinerary of General Washington From June 15, 1775 to December 23, 1783. Philadelphia: J.P. Lipincott Company, 1892, p.319-320.
[3] Alvin Levin Richardson ed., The Maryland Original Research Society of Baltimore, 1979, 40. MSA SC 1584.
[4] Letter from James Tilton to Gunning Bedford Jr., 25 December 1783.
[5] Maryland State Papers (Scharf Collection), MSA S1005-83-117, MdHR 19,999-077-104.
[6] Ibid.

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