Thursday, June 26, 2014

Lafayette Becomes “Quite the Thing” in Annapolis

As recent visitors to the State House may have noticed, the Old Senate Chamber restoration impacts much more than just the closing of one room! Many paintings in the state art collection are currently undergoing conservation as part of the restoration, including several portraits of Maryland governors, which have recently been removed from the Archives Room. Walls in the State House rarely remain bare for long though, and we are pleased to use this opportunity to introduce a new exhibit to the Archives Room, featuring an eighteenth-century character with surprisingly strong connections to Annapolis! The Marquis de Lafayette, who first landed in the colonies on June 13, 1777, 237 years ago this month, visited the Maryland State House several times over the course of his long and heroic life.

Marquis de Lafayette by Robert Templeton after Charles Willson Peale, 1975. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1034.

Lafayette first arrived in Annapolis in 1781 to meet with French troops on a campaign into Virginia. His visit was met with great interest among all of the city’s inhabitants. Mrs. Benjamin Ogle, sister-in-law of Molly Ridout, best summed up the excitement when she remarked, “The divine Marquis de la Fayette is in town, and is quite the thing.”[1] Throughout the war, Lafayette sporadically passed through Annapolis, and the French occupation of the town made a distinct mark on the fashionable city’s social scene.

The French troops who arrived after Lafayette’s departure, and remained for some time in the town throughout 1781 further influenced the fashionable Annapolitan social scene and recorded their impressions of the city. The Abbé Robin wrote, “The opulence was particularly observable at Annapolis….out of the few buildings it contains, has at least three-fourths such as may be stiled elegant and grand. The state-house is a very beautiful building, I think the most so of any I have seen in America.”[2] Several other soldiers affirmed Robin’s impressions, and were particularly in awe of the State House. One Frenchman, Clermont-Crevecoeur, described the building as “the most beautiful of any in America….At either side of the hall, which one might call the lobby, are two other rooms of vast proportions that are lit by very large windows. A cornice made of wood, which one would think to be plaster, runs all around the interior; it is beautifully carved. In an alcove is the tribune, which is very handsomely finished….Everything is delightfully clean.”[3]

"The Frenchmen's Map," drawn in 1781 while Lafayette's troops were in Annapolis. State Circle and the State House can be seen in the lower right quadrant of the paper. Image taken by Marion E. Warren, MSA SC 1890-3254.

Washington’s close friendship with Lafayette meant that even while not in Annapolis, Lafayette received a poetic, if characteristically brief, account of the resignation from Washington. In a February 1784 letter, the former Commander-in-Chief wrote, “At length my Dear Marquis I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac...I am solacing myself with those tranquil enjoyments, of which the Soldier who is ever in pursuit of fame...can have very little conception….And to tell you....that at Annapolis, where Congress were then, and are now sitting, I did, on the 23d of December present them my Commission, & made them my last bow—& on the Eve of Christmas entered [Mt. Vernon] an older man by near nine years, than when I left them, is very uninteresting to any but myself.”[4]

A year after the resignation, Washington returned to Annapolis, this time accompanied by Lafayette. Though Washington was there on business to lobby for commercial fishing rights on the Potomac, the pair were welcomed with celebrations and balls to show the state’s gratitude. The Maryland Gazette reported, “The [ball] was crowned with the utmost joy and festivity, the whole company being made happy by the presence of two most amiable and all-accomplished men, to whom America is so deeply indebted for her preservation from tyranny and oppression.”[5] On December 28, 1784, the Maryland General Assembly further resolved “that the Marquis de la Fayette and his Heirs male forever shall be and they and each of them are hereby deemed adjudged and taken to be natural born Citizens of this State.”[6] “With the ardor of a most zealous heart,” Lafayette wished Maryland “will to the fullest extent improve her natural advantages, and in the Federal Union so necessary to all, attain the highest degree of particular happiness and prosperity.”[7]

The Maryland Gazette carefully documented many details of Lafayette's return to Annapolis in 1824. Maryland State Law Library, MSA SC 2311-1-34.

In 1824, Lafayette returned to Annapolis as part of his exhaustive tour of the United States, which ranged from New Hampshire to Louisiana. Though he was in the city for only four days, the excitement was nearly unparamounted, and the Maryland Gazette dedicated almost three-quarters of the December 23 edition to the occasion. As was the custom, Lafayette’s visit was filled with elaborately decorated balls and celebrations.

On December 17, 1824, Lafayette entered the State House to much pomp and circumstance. A semi-circle of girls dressed in white and holding banners that said “Lafayette- The friend of our fathers, will always be welcome to the hearts of their children” welcomed him to the rotunda and escorted him into the Old Senate Chamber. The audience crowded into the room, just as they had for the resignation forty-one years before, and the mayor of the city, Colonel James Boyle, read a speech in honor of Lafayette. “General!” Boyle said, “You have lately seen the place where the sword of the revolutionary war was drawn. You now stand in that very chamber, and on that very spot, where the father of his country returned it to the scabbard; an act which stands alone among the recorded annals of the world.” To which, Lafayette fondly replied, “Amidst these solemn recollections, there are personal remembrances, endearing and honorable, which the view of this city, of this state house, most particularly impress upon my mind…”[8]

The state’s portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette, painted by Robert Templeton after Charles Willson Peale’s, will be exhibited for the first time in several years on July 4, 2014 in the Archives Room of the State House. For those of you who can’t wait till December for your dose of Maryland revolutionary history, we hope you will pay a visit this summer to one of Maryland’s first honorary citizens!

[1] Mrs. Benjamin Ogle, March 1781. Atlantic Monthly, November 1890, vol. 66 no. 397, p651.
[2] The Abbé Robin, 'New Travels in America'--From Rhode Island to Maryland--Annapolis--The French Army in the Chesapeake--M. de LaFayette--Williamsburg--Tobacco--Yorktown after Siege--Billetting of the French Troops, trans. Phillip Freneau (Philadelphia, 1783) in Alfred J. Morrison, ed., Travels in Virginia in Revolutionary Times (Lynchburg, VA: J.P. Bell company, inc., c.1922), 21 September 1781, p. 32.
[3] Rice, Jr. Howard C., and Anne S. K. Brown, The American Campaigns of Rochambeau's Army, 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, (1972), vol. I, p. 55.
[4] George Washington to Marquis de Lafayette, 1 February 1784. Founders Online, National Archives (, ver. 2014-05-09). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 1,1 January 1784 – 17 July 1784, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992, pp. 87–90.
[5] Maryland Gazette, 2 December 1784.
[6] General Assembly, Hanson’s Laws of Maryland, November 1784 Session, p.378.
[7] Votes and Proceedings of the Senate, November 1784 Session, p.10, MSA SC M 3185.
[8] Maryland Gazette, 23 December 1824, from the Maryland State Law Library Collection of the Maryland Gazette, MSA SC 2311-1-34.

1 comment:

  1. And so when Lafayette came with Washington to Annapolis in December 1784 they both had the pleasure of seeing their newly painted portrait (also featuring Tench Tilghman) by Charles Willson Peale hanging in the House of Delegates.