Friday, November 21, 2014

Martha Wasn't There! And Other Common Misconceptions

With the Old Senate Chamber opening in just over a month, no one can ignore the myths that have taken hold over the past several centuries surrounding the room. While the Old Senate Chamber is filled with many fascinating tales, some true and some less so, it’s time to set the record straight on at least a few of these favorite stories.

The ladies in the gallery during the resignation, including Martha Washington at the center. Crop from General George Washington Resigning His Commission by John Trumbull, 1824. U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

Did Martha Washington attend the resignation?

Though Martha Washington makes an appearance in nearly every depiction of Washington’s resignation in the Old Senate Chamber, the answer to this question is a resounding no! On December 23, 1783, Martha, who did follow her husband to several campsites throughout the war, was actually at Mt. Vernon, making Christmas preparations to welcome Washington to his beloved home for his first extended stay in nearly eight years.

However, there is one thing about the ladies that John Trumbull does get right in his depiction of the resignation scene, which you can visit at the U.S. Capitol’s Rotunda. Several ladies were in attendance, and witnessed Washington surrender his commission to Congress from the Old Senate Chamber’s gallery exactly where Trumbull shows them. While the names of many of the citizen attendees have never been recorded, we do know of one woman who stood in the gallery. Molly Ridout not only attended the ceremony, but also provided the only known citizen account of the resignation. Keep an eye out for her up in the gallery when you visit the restored room this December!

Plaque presented by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1915 and formerly in the Old Senate Chamber, marking the spot where Washington stood.

Did Washington really stand on the spot that the D.A.R. plaque was placed to resign his commission?

In the late nineteenth-century, a fascinating oral legend took hold that Washington resigned standing just to the right of the Secretary of Congress, Charles Thomson. Though no specific evidence pointed to such, the D.A.R.’s plaque, and Edwin White’s painting provided convincing evidence that the oral legend had some credence.

However, during this restoration, we have delved deeply into research behind eighteenth-century ceremonial protocol and analyzed several contemporary accounts of similar ceremonies to better understand just what happened on December 23, 1783. At this point, we can’t tell you much - but we can tell you that the spot long considered to be the place where Washington had stood may not be correct! You’ll find our new bronze George Washington standing on the historic spot when the Old Senate Chamber reopens.

Image of the Old Senate Chamber after the 1904-1906 restoration. Maryland State Archives, George Forbes Collection, MSA SC 182-2-86.

Are the desks in the 1905 restoration really eighteenth-century?

When J. Appleton Wilson and Francis Blackwell Mayer assessed the ability to restore the Old Senate Chamber in the 1890s, they conducted what appeared to have been extensive research on the appearance of the eighteenth-century room. With this in mind, the desks visible in photographs of the restored 1905 room are particularly amusing. One thing is certainly clear: the desks are clearly Victorian and resemble nothing that would have been produced in the eighteenth-century.

Over the course of the Old Senate Chamber’s several restoration campaigns in the twentieth-century, small errors like this have been made to keep the room from being a completely accurate portrayal of how it looked in the 1780s. In 2007, when the Old Senate Chamber Architectural Advisory Committee was formed for the current restoration, the first task was to assess just whether we had the research tools and technology to make this restoration more accurate than previous attempts. When it was decided that this could be done, it has been our continual goal throughout this project to hold true to the promise that nothing would be added or placed in the room without plausible evidence of its presence there in 1783 -- and that includes Victorian desks.

The Old Senate Chamber relics, showing the original architectural fragments of the eighteenth-century gallery. Maryland State Archives, George Forbes Collection, MSA SC 182-2-186.

What happened to the original columns of the gallery?

When the eighteenth-century gallery was dismantled during the 1876-1878 “desecration,” efforts almost immediately began to locate original pieces of the architectural feature. Twelve-year old Daniel R. Randall, a descendant of one of the men who had worked in the State House in the eighteenth-century, was said to have used his first pay working on the Victorian renovations to purchase two of the original columns, which he then stored in his family’s hay loft, should Maryland ever have need of them.

These original columns were supposedly discovered and used in the reconstruction of the gallery in the 1904-1906 renovations, but without written record, the story was long supposed to be a legend. However, when architectural historians examined the gallery - they found that two of the original eighteenth-century columns were there!

The columns were not the only feature to have made a reappearance after the desecration. One of the most significant and mysterious artifacts discovered in our most recent research efforts on the Old Senate Chamber were two pictures depicting architectural “relics” of the original gallery. These relics, saved during the desecration, were displayed in several different locations throughout the late nineteenth-century, until their disappearance sometime in the twentieth-century, leaving only two photographs as evidence of their existence. However, the significance of these images cannot be emphasized enough, and they have been extensively researched throughout the restoration of the gallery to answer the question of just how exactly the original feature of the room would have looked.

Have any more questions about the history of the Old Senate Chamber? Please do not hesitate to contact us!


  1. The 11/21 blog sez: "Keep an eye out for her up in the gallery when you visit the restored room this December!" Is "this December" accurate?


  3. The Old Senate Chamber is currently scheduled to open to the public in early January 2015. And additional information regarding opening will be posted as information becomes available. Thank you for your interest in the Old Senate Chamber.