Friday, May 30, 2014

Congress Assembled: Why We Care About Ceremonial Protocol

On December 21, 1783, Thomas Jefferson sent a carefully drafted speech intended for the President of Congress to the rest of the Committee of Procedures for Washington’s resignation ceremony. To Elbridge Gerry and James McHenry, who were furiously drafting a set of ceremonial instructions known as protocol, he wrote “I send you the sketch, which I have been obliged to obliterate and blot after making what I intended for a fair copy…. Perhaps this answer is too short; perhaps it is too warm. A want of time must apologize for the one, and an exalted esteem for the other faults.”[1] Together, the three men came up with the adopted protocol for the resignation ceremony that today remains one of the most important written records to describe what happened on that day.

While protocol may seem like a boring list of who was bowing when, we have discovered that eighteenth-century ceremonial protocol is actually much more complex and revealing than originally thought. Protocol actually provides a contemporary account of how eighteenth-century people saw each other. What’s more, by learning exactly who was sitting and where, we can get one of the most accurate and contemporary descriptions of the Old Senate Chamber on the very day Washington resigned! Our staff has conducted months of intensive research to study every ceremony conducted by Congress between 1778 and 1783 in the hopes of putting together the puzzle pieces to recreate what exactly happened on December 23, 1783.

This print of Benjamin Franklin's reception at the French court is a perfect example of the American colonies, and later the United States, trying to communicate with other countries based around monarchies. Franklin's Reception at the Court of France, 1778, by Anton Hohenstein in the 1860s. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

William Buckland's Annapolis

For those of you who are desperate for a sneak preview of the Old Senate Chamber, you may be surprised to find that hints are all around you! Our architectural historians have conducted months of research on interiors in many colonial structures in the Annapolis area, and the architects who created them.

One man in particular had a long-standing association with the Old Senate Chamber that merited attention. We encourage anyone who is paying a visit to Maryland’s capital this holiday weekend to keep a special eye out for the works of Virginia and Maryland architect, William Buckland.

Portrait of William Buckland by Charles Willson Peale, 1774 and 1789, completed thirteen years after Buckland's death. Before Buckland is the floor plan to his masterpiece, Hammond-Harwood House in Annapolis. Image courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Evolution of the Niche

Of all the architectural features of the Old Senate Chamber, one of the most remarkable is the niche, a crescent-shaped indent in the wall situated opposite the entrance. While almost every other point in the room will be recreated to resemble its eighteenth-century appearance, the niche has miraculously survived centuries of makeovers and is one of the only original features of the room. Which of course, begs the question, how did the niche, where Thomas Mifflin once sat to famously receive Washington’s commission, survive?

Elevation drawing of the niche by J. Appleton Wilson, c. 1905. Image courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

The niche was first conceived during the construction of the third (and current) State House between 1772-1779 as a location for the President of the Senate. The room, constructed in the Palladian style popular at the time, emphasized symmetry above all else. The door that led to the Senate Committee Room, for instance, was balanced out with a fake door on the opposite side of the fireplace. Likewise, the main entrance to the room was mirrored by a niche, situated on top of a platform known as the dais. The spot was intended for the President of the Senate to sit and preside over meetings of the legislature, ironically creating an elevated space that resembled a throne.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Thomas Jefferson's Appointment

While Continental Congress was holding session in Annapolis in the Old Senate Chamber, the room inevitably bore witness to several significant events in our nation’s history. Visitors to the State House will undoubtedly hear about Washington's resignation and even the ratification of the Treaty of Paris, but sometimes overlook another event that occurred toward the end of the Congress’ time in the State House. A little over 230 years ago today, on May 7, 1784, Thomas Jefferson was appointed a trade commissioner in the Old Senate Chamber, making him the first official representative of the independent United States to a foreign government.

Thomas Jefferson painted by Mather Brown in London, 1786. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Commemorating George

In the early twentieth-century, Annapolis lawyer and amateur historian George Forbes would give lectures using vintage photographs of Annapolis that he had collected over the years. When one picture of Edwin White’s Washington Resigning would appear on the slideshow’s projector, Forbes would read a speech from his lecture notes on the history of the painting, and wouldn’t be able to resist adding, “Something should be done to commemorate this scene either by marking the place with a star, where Washington stood; by erecting a statue of him thereon, or in a way which I think better still, and which I urged in an address before the Municipal Art Society, to reproduce the entire scene in wax, after the works of Eden Musee, and Madam [Tussauds] in London.”[1]

Forbes was far from the first person to believe that the momentous occasion of Washington’s resignation needed to be immortalized in the room where it took place. Though perhaps not as eclectic as Forbes’ wax sculpture scene, people over the years have come up with a multitude of creative ways to immortalize the resignation.

Plastic mannequin of George Washington - one of the most recent incarnations of a tribute to the resignation. Gift of the Maryland Society of Senates Past and the Colonial Dames of America, Chapter One, Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-808.