Friday, March 28, 2014

Washington’s Britannia: Authenticating the Resignation Speech

As the clock continues to tick closer to the opening of the restored Old Senate Chamber in December 2014, we have already begun planning for the unveiling of Washington’s copy of the resignation speech. New followers of the project may be asking themselves why this speech is so important in the first place. In an age where documents can readily be viewed online and the frequent danger of forgeries, how, exactly, do we know that this is actually Washington’s copy of the speech?

Britannia watermark on Washington's resignation speech.
Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 5664-1.

In our last post, we discussed the importance of watermarks for dating receipts concerning the Old Senate Chamber. Today, we will look at one of the most important functions of watermark analysis in determining the legitimacy of the Washington’s resignation speech. More often than you might imagine, significant documents or pieces of art may pass as originals when they are actually later copies. Before displaying this speech, therefore, it was important to verify that this document actually dated to 1783 and had been in Washington’s possession.

To learn more about that, we turn to the paper. An analysis of the original speech by then Maryland State Archivist, Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse, revealed a watermark in the image of Britannia, which can be connected to several other pieces of Washington’s stationery bearing the same watermark. These papers have been traced to a possible papermill from Kent County, England. Further study into the paper also included a comparison of Washington's handwriting to ensure that our speech had been written in his hand. Because the paper and script can be attributed to Washington, we can be sure that our document is the very paper on which Washington composed his final draft in preparation for his resignation in the Old Senate Chamber on December 23, 1783.

While the digitization of documents is significant to preserve records and make them accessible to a wider audience, a scan of a paper record cannot always show the details that authenticate the record, or have the impact that seeing an original document has on a viewer. For that reason, the authentication, acquisition, and conservation of Washington’s draft of his resignation speech is of great importance to the restoration and future visitor experiences in the State House.

Washington's final draft of the resignation speech will return to the State House in a new display case in December 2014. Photo taken 23 December 2008.

In January 2007, the Maryland State Archives finally acquired the speech, along with a letter from James McHenry to his fiance, Margaret Caldwell, describing the resignation ceremony. We are excited to share the original speech when it returns to the Maryland State House’s rotunda in December 2014, in conjunction with the Old Senate Chamber restoration. As part of its installation in the rotunda, a sophisticated case is being designed to allow the document to be safely and securely exhibited.

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