Friday, July 25, 2014

Are You Sitting Down? Finding a Chair Fit for the Resignation

When Congress first arrived in Annapolis to hold session in the Maryland State House, the state’s General Assembly was faced with a rather embarrassing problem. Maryland’s Intendant of the Revenue, Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, had ordered five dozen Windsor chairs from Matthew Ridley and Mark Pringle in November 1783, likely as a means to accommodate the rush of delegates who would be occupying the Old Senate Chamber. However, due to an unusually cold winter, the Baltimore harbor froze and the chairs did not arrive until April 1784.[1]

Annapolis had won the right to become the first peacetime capital of America, yet had suddenly found itself offering a room that would not have enough chairs to actually host the delegates. While some furniture could likely have been pulled from other offices in the State House, an event as crowded and historic as Washington’s resignation meant that chairs for Congress would have to be procured from another source as well.

William Paca's armchair, now in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society and on loan to Historic Annapolis, Inc., MHS 20.39.2. Iverson, Marion Day, The American Chair 1630-1890. New York: Hastings House, p.112.

In 1877, a story appeared with a fascinating oral legend attached to it. In Robert Wilson’s travel narrative on Wye Island, Wilson visited William Paca’s home, Wye Hall, just before it burned down in 1879. Wilson included in his description of the mansion a set of furniture of particular interest to the Old Senate Chamber restoration:
Here, too, are the antique chairs which graced the gubernatorial mansion at Annapolis, and were loaned for Congressional use when Washington resigned his commission. Of course, among them is the inevitable chair in which Washington sat, but fortunately its identity has been lost among its half dozen fellows, as like as so many peas, and the visitor may take his choice. [2]
At the time of the resignation, William Paca was serving as Governor of Maryland. A former congressional delegate and one of the four Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence, Paca was particularly noted for his hospitality. In a letter to Paca’s son, Thomas Marsh Foreman remembered, “If Governor Paca had vices, I never heard of them, of his virtues, I can say that he was a true patriot, a sincere friend, an uncommon good parent, and possessed of a most kindly disposition; he was charitable to the extent of his means. He had a high relish for social intercourse, and the [polish] of his manners, added to a most amiable temper, gave him an enviable standing in every circle he moved in.”[3] It would make sense, then, that the Governor, who was at the time living in town at Jennings House (and hosting the President of Congress, Thomas Mifflin) may have assisted Congress in the provision of some elegant furniture suitable for the occasion.

Portrait of William Paca, by Charles Willson Peale, 1772. Paca, whose chair is being studied as part of the Old Senate Chamber restoration, was the Governor of Maryland at the time of Washington's resignation. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 4680-10-0083.

After its initial appearance, the legend of William Paca’s chairs being loaned to Congress took hold and several more accounts were published, all seemingly derived from the original. Despite the interest of these stories, they seemed to have raised more questions than answers. Why was there no written account of the legend until 1877, and, if the chairs are what they claim to be, what happened to them? Unfortunately, the stories generally agree that most of the set remained at Wye Hall, and perished in the 1879 fire along with many other artifacts connected with the Maryland signer.[4]

However, there is one chair that escaped the supposed fate of the rest. In 1866, William Paca’s grandson and heir to Wye Hall, William Bennett Paca, presented a chair to Dr. Joshua I. Cohen that was said to have been owned by William Paca. The question then remained - was this chair one of the prized set that were in the Old Senate Chamber on the day of the resignation?

Research notes taken by MSA staff in order to trace the provenance of the Paca chair. This family tree, though not comprehensive of the actual Paca family, traces possible candidates who may have owned the chair. All known probate records of members in this family tree had been searched for the Old Senate Chamber restoration project. Family tree created through Family Echo, October 2013.

By 1877, the legendary set of armchairs in Wye Hall had only numbered to six, suggesting that other chairs, like Dr. Joshua I. Cohen’s, may have been removed from the set prior to Wilson’s visit. The question of what happened to William Paca’s chairs and whether any of the famous set had survived sparked an in-depth study of probate records of the Paca family. While every record of mahogany armchairs in the family’s probate records was noted, ultimately, it is impossible to determine which referred to the set supposedly used by Congress.

Left without many clues from the Paca family, we then looked to the Cohen family of Baltimore, who were given the surviving chair. A prominent and educated family in the mid-nineteenth-century, the Cohens were noted collectors of early American relics. It would make sense, then, that when searching for a gift for his friend, William Bennett Paca would have selected a chair in his home belonging to the historic set.

Label on the chair: "Wm. Paca. Presented by his Grand Son Wm. Paca to his friend Dr. Joshua I. Cohen in 1866." Taken during an examination of the chair in the William Paca House, 6 February 2014.

The search to verify oral history on William Paca’s chair may seem exhaustive to some. In fact, it is the perfect example of research conducted behind the current restoration of the Old Senate Chamber. The objective of this restoration is to improve upon previous attempts, by placing nothing in the room without making a convincing case for its presence in the Old Senate Chamber while Congress was there. While this objective certainly applies to all architectural decisions, it also includes tracing and analyzing more movable items, like furnishings, that have possible ties to the room.

Paca’s chair is currently on long-term loan to Historic Annapolis’ William Paca House. Recently, the chair has been removed from the house to be closely examined by leading experts on early American furniture in order to see if more information can be gleaned from the actual chair. The chair will be returning to Historic Annapolis toward the end of the summer, where you can see it for yourself.

So, was this the exact chair loaned by William Paca to Congress, or was there another potential candidate that Washington may have used on the day of his resignation? We’re afraid the answer to that question is going to have to remain a mystery for blog readers until the Old Senate Chamber opens on December 23, 2014!

[1] Maryland State Papers (Series A) MSA S 1004-65-18448, MdHR 6636-46-91.
[2] Robert Wilson, “Wye Island.” Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science, vol.19, April 1877, p. 470.
[3] Russo, Jean B., A Question of Reputation: William Paca’s Courtship of Polly Tilghman. Annapolis, MD: Historic Annapolis Foundation, 2000, p.18.
[4] Mary Selden Kennedy, Seldens of Virginia and Allied Families, vol. II. New York: Frank Allaben Genealogical Company, 1911, p. 282.

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