See that white dome on the Annapolis skyline? It almost looks like a layered wedding cake, right? Well, that dome is the top of our Maryland State House, where the Commander-in-Chief really did resign. Here you can witness four centuries of some pretty amazing history.
It’s easy to visit this inspiring building. The State House is open to the public, no charge, every day from 9:00am to 5:00pm, except on Christmas and New Year’s Day. Just be sure to bring a photo ID.
Enter from Lawyers Mall on State Circle, and you’ll begin to feel the majesty as you climb the wide outdoor stone staircase and pass under the columned edifice. Hushed indoor voices and echoing footsteps add to the awe as you cross the black and white marble floor to the rotunda. You’re passing through the newer part of the building, and we’ll come back to that in a minute.
First, walk across the black limestone line in the floor, embedded with fossils, which separates the twentieth-century State House “annex” from the older 1772 structure. Head toward the gorgeous rotunda to the solemn glass case displaying a single sheet of paper. This just boggles the mind: you are looking at George Washington’s actual personal copy of his 1783 resignation speech to Congress, the very paper he held in his hands and scribbled with notes in his own handwriting.
Washington read these words to Congress here in the State House in December 1783, during Annapolis’s brief tenure as the American government’s first capitol. The Revolutionary War was over, and Washington chose to resign his military commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army to return to civilian life.
This event was super important because it reinforced the supremacy of civil authority over the new nation and its military. Otherwise, we might have ended up with a monarchy or a military dictatorship.
That peaceful transition of power laid the foundation for our democracy and is the reason that today’s President is both the head of the civilian federal government and the Commander-in-Chief of our military forces. Washington’s speech also left open the window for Washington to return to civilian service, which he did later as leader of the Constitutional Convention and the first President elected under the new Constitution.
After Washington read his speech, he folded it up and handed it to a congressman, whose descendants kept the document until they sold it to the Maryland State Archives in 2007. Today’s state-of-the-art display case preserves the now 233-year old document, considered to be the fourth most important document in American history.
Three weeks after Washington’s resignation speech, Congress ratified the Treaty of Paris, officially ending the Revolutionary War. All these historic events occurred in the recently restored Old Senate Chamber.
Stand next to George’s life-size statue, and then learn more through the interpretive exhibits in the adjoining rooms. Across the hall are the Old House of Delegates Chamber, recreated to look as it did in Victorian times, and the Caucus Room with its gleaming USS Maryland silver service.
Look up at the magnificent rotunda interior. The intricate plaster ceiling you see is actually the inner of two wood domes, with an off-limits wood staircase winding upward between the inner and outer domes. Built entirely without metal nails, the exterior of the dome was completed in 1788 and remains the largest wooden dome in North America.
The structure is the third State House to stand in State Circle, the first destroyed by fire and the second becoming too dilapidated. The Maryland State House is a National Historic Landmark and the oldest U.S. state house still in continuous legislative use.
Now enter the two stunning Chambers you passed earlier on either side of the grand hallway. Gorgeous Tiffany skylights illuminate the array of legislators’ desks around you, where the two houses of our Maryland Legislature meet January through March each year. The Maryland Senate meets in one chamber and the House of Delegates in the other. (Remember learning about bicameral legislatures in civics class?)
Next time you’re strolling the streets of Annapolis, look up at the white dome of the Maryland State House. Better yet, pay a visit to the Maryland State House and immerse yourself in its impressive four centuries of history.
Photos courtesy of Ann Powell.