Friday, December 19, 2014

There At the Resignation: James McHenry

Over the past several months, we have covered many of the key players in the Old Senate Chamber’s history, several of whom will be featured in our exhibit. From Molly Ridout to John Shaw, we have introduced you to famous attendees and artisans alike. Now, with only a short time to go until the opening of the restored room, we bring you one last biography of the man who provided one of the most significant accounts of the resignation - one of Maryland’s delegates in Congress, James McHenry.

Pastel portrait of James McHenry, by De Nyse W. Turner after James Sharples, 1975. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-1029.

After arriving in Philadelphia from Ireland in 1771, McHenry quickly developed a sense of patriotism for the colonies and became one of the first to volunteer his services as a surgeon to the Continental Army, even serving as aide-de-camp to Washington and later to the Marquis de Lafayette. After his time in the war, he served the new country as a delegate to Congress, participated in the Constitutional Convention, and served in several facets in Maryland’s state government.

As a delegate to Congress, one of McHenry’s most prominent contributions to the state of Maryland was his campaign in 1783 to relocate Congress from Trenton to Annapolis, thereby making Annapolis the first peacetime capital of the United States and securing the Maryland State House a permanent spot in American history.

Due to his earlier ties to Washington during the American Revolution, or perhaps because he had witnessed some earlier Congressional ceremonies, McHenry was selected along with delegates Thomas Jefferson and Elbridge Gerry to create the protocol for Washington’s resignation.

George Washington Surrendering His Commission by Francis Blackwell Mayer, 1883. Image courtesy of the Mint Museum, 1971.14.

However, it is not merely his spot in the room or participation in the protocol committee that makes McHenry such a remembered a figure in the resignation drama. When the Maryland State Archives acquired Washington’s draft of his resignation speech, they also received the original copy of McHenry’s account of the resignation. In what remains one of the best eyewitness accounts, McHenry described a “solemn and affecting spectacle,” and observed Washington’s hands shaking, forcing the Revolutionary War hero to hold his speech with both hands. “So many circumstances crowded into view and gave rise to so many affecting emotions,” McHenry wrote, “The events of the revolution just accomplished -- the new situation into which it had thrown the affairs of the world -- the great man who had borne so conspicuous a figure in it, in the act of relinquishing all public employments to return to private life -- the past -- the present -- the future -- the manner -- the occasion -- all conspired to render it a spectacle inexpressibly solemn and affecting.”[1]

Perhaps some readers are wondering just what would motivate some of the attendees to have written such descriptive and emotional accounts of the event. McHenry was lovesick and smitten with his fiance, Margaret “Peggy” Caldwell, who he would later marry on January 8, 1784. On the day of the resignation, McHenry was distracted not with the scene before him, but with the worry that he had not heard from Caldwell in some time. His letter describing Washington’s resignation opened with, “Had I been obliged to count the sands as they fall from the hour glass, since last Friday, I could not have done it with more exactness than I have counted the minutes of the day. It is, my dear Peggy, impossible for me to tell or you to feel the solicitudes and suspenses I have experienced….,” he wrote, “I suppose that some sufficient cause must have intervened to prevent me getting your letter, as clouds intervene and prevent the sight of the sun.”[2]

Miniatures of James McHenry and his future wife, Margaret Caldwell, painted by Charles Willson Peale, c.1778.

McHenry was certainly not the only attendee distracted with thoughts not concerning the resignation. During December 1783, Brigadier General Otho Holland Williams had similar thoughts on his mind - but with an unfortunately different conclusion. For some time, Williams had been entangled in a romance with a young Baltimore woman, who had begun to falter in her affections. While Washington was on his way to the Annapolis city gates, Henry Lee Jr. was writing to Williams to encourage the young woman to elope with him and General Washington could “take it up with the family” while he was in town.[3] Unfortunately, for Williams, “at a time when I had every reason to expect that she was prepared to execute her own plan and throw herself under my own protection….I received a letter in her own hand…she proposes an exchange of Letters, and pledges:...that ‘the only thing in which I can oblige her is never to see or speak of her again.’”[4]

Another attendee and Delaware delegate of Congress, James Tilton, was preoccupied with a similar distraction at the ball held in honor of Washington the night before. In a letter that has since become one of the most useful sources for the ball, Tilton could not help but add, “Such was my villainous awkwardness, that I could not venture to dance on this occasion, you must therefore annex to it a cleverer Idea, than is to expected from such a mortified whelp as I am.”[5]

Over the course of this blog and through the exhibits in the Old Senate Chamber, we have been thrilled to have provided accounts of many of the artisans and prominent characters who walked through the State House over the centuries. However, we cannot forget that every attendee had their own story, and their own impression of the events that unfolded on December 23, 1783. The accounts we have and feature are only an excerpt of the lives that became inextricably connected to the history of the room. You can learn more about some of these key players when the Old Senate Chamber exhibit opens soon!

[1] Smith, Paul H., ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 2000. James McHenry to Margaret Caldwell, 23 December 1783, page 222.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Henry Lee Jr. to Otho Holland Williams, 15 December 1783. Otho Holland Williams Papers, Maryland Historical Society.
[4] Otho Holland Williams to Nathanael Greene, 14 January 1784. Otho Holland Williams Papers, Maryland Historical Society.
[5] Letter from James Tilton to Gunning Bedford Jr., 25 December 1783. Bryn Mawr College Library, Seymour Adelman Letters and Document Collection, Box 24.

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