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Chapter 12

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Annapolis: Its Colonial and Naval Story

Walter B. Norris

published by
Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1925

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 14
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p225  Chapter XIII

In Genteel Eclipse

With the departure of the French armies and the rapid economic development of the post-Revolutionary period, Annapolis suffered a decline which was noticeable to every traveller who visited the city. The settlement of the western parts of Maryland and the extension of the settled area even to the Ohio and beyond gave Baltimore, which was geographically the entrepôt and outlet for these sections, an advantage it soon exhibited by surpassing the capital city. It soon began to draw away the chief citizens, such as Samuel Chase, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and Charles Carroll the Barrister. Tobacco no longer occupied the place in Maryland's economic life that it once did, the lands in the vicinity of the Severn had been worn out by the exhausting cultivation that resulted, and wheat raising, for which the newer areas closer to the Blue Ridge were suitable, now assumed a more important place. All this  p226 destroyed the commercial supremacy of the town on the Severn.

Socially the backbone of Annapolis had been the Tories. Now that their power was over, their lands and wealth confiscated, and their members, many of them, settled in foreign parts, never to return, there was little hope that the brilliancy and luxury of that régime would be restored. Besides, there was already rising among the patriots and their descendants a spirit of democracy which was to play havoc with aristocratic traditions and introduce into American life a brusqueness and plainness which would destroy all class distinctions and make the typical American the very antithesis of the cultivated and foppish imitation of the eighteenth century Englishman which was seen in Annapolis before the break with the mother country.

Politically, however, Annapolis retained its prestige better than in any other way. In spite of occasional attempts on the part of Baltimore to have the seat of government moved there, it remained the capital of the State and the residence of the Governor. For a while indeed it  p227 became, as we have seen, the seat of the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, for on the 26th of November, 1783, Congress assembled here and continued in session until June 3, 1784. This had been secured by the efforts of James McHenry, who wrote to Governor Paca to know if the public buildings would be placed at its disposal. "Suit the price of boarding," he urges, "to the economical taste of the Eastern gentlemen."

It was while Congress was sitting here that it received official notification of the signing of a definitive treaty of peace with Great Britain, and it was here, on January 14, 1784, that it formally ratified the treaty. We have already dwelt upon the most important ceremony of the session, Washington's resigning his commission.

While the subject of a permanent capital for the country was under discussion, Annapolis made some efforts to secure the honor. The State buildings were to be offered to the United States and thirteen houses were to be erected for the accommodation of the representatives of the thirteen States. Furthermore, the city authorities declared themselves willing to be placed  p228 under the jurisdiction of the central government and be separated from the State. But nothing came of it. When the new capital was laid out on the banks of the Potomac it is interesting to note that the plan of Annapolis, a central circle from which the other streets led out in a "singular and whimsical manner," like rays from a center, was reproduced.

Perhaps the other important event that occurred during this period was the meeting of commissioners from several States in 1786 to discuss commercial restrictions, — a meeting which led directly to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. As it turned out that Virginia added an invitation to all the States to attend and seemed to wish to bring up other matters which would increase the power of Congress, Maryland failed to appoint commissioners. Thus on September 11, 1786, when the commissioners assembled it was found that only five States were represented, though four others had made appointments. Among the twelve men present, however, were such able leaders as Alexander Hamilton, John Dickinson, Edmund Randolph, and James Madison. Partly  p229 on account of the small attendance, and partly because its members saw that any thorough reform in the regulation of commerce must require a radical change in the Articles of Confederation, the convention recommended that the States call a constitutional convention in Philadelphia the following May and proceed to redraft their scheme of government. When that body met, the only Annapolitan nominated as a delegate had declined to serve and Annapolis was not represented, — an indication of its declining prestige.

The chief importance of Annapolis after these events seems to have been to act as the most convenient entrance to the new capital city on the Potomac as soon as that was established. Foreign ministers and our own, both of whom commonly travelled on ships of war, arrived or departed by way of Annapolis, and the traditions of hospitality which Annapolis seems to have been noted for were thus given exercise. As the Duc de la Rochefoucault-Liancourt wrote in 1796, when he visited the town,

"The capitalists, or those who have become rich, have quitted it to go and reside at Baltimore,  p230 and the inhabitants are in general families in easy circumstances who have property in the neighborhood, officers of the government, and gentlemen of the law, attracted by the vicinity of the courts of justice. The population diminishes every year; the houses are for the most part built of brick, and are spacious; many of them are very large and have fine gardens, in better order than any I have yet seen in America.

"Annapolis is . . . as to society, one of the most agreeable cities of the United States; hospitality and an obliging sincerity are in no part so general; all the families are united, and a stranger, always well received among them, soon finds himself at his ease there."1

Since the Revolution two improvements had been made in the appearance of the city. The dome which still surmounts the State House was erected and in place by the time Washington resigned his commission, but the interior work on it was not completed till about 1793. The dome has been criticized by some architects as being unduly high for its diameter, but all  p231 seem to agree that the lines and decoration of its interior as one gazes up into it from the first floor of the building are extremely beautiful. Indeed, situation and approach probably have as much to do with one's delight in viewing the State House as the details of the building. Placed upon the highest hill and seen at the end of all the streets which radiate from it, the slender dome and the simple lines of the building, its tall-pillared entrance breaking the monotony of its front, it is an object that fascinates the eye of every visitor and delights his sense of beauty. And whether approaching the town by land or water it is the first object of notice.

After the Revolution, also, also, a new church for St. Anne's Parish was erected, and by 1792 occupied by the congregation which had for nearly twenty years worshipped in the Hallam Theater. As travellers remarked, its size was adapted to its position as a State church and a growing parish, so that after the town began its decline it was far too large for the number of worshipers. And it had lost all the revenue it formerly secured from taxes. During the  p232 transition period between the overthrow of the Establishment and the organization of an American Episcopal Church, all churches were neglected and the rectors not always desirable. Many of them seem to have been pleasant companions and educated men, but with little earnestness in religion. Mr. Higginbotham, rector of St. Anne's at this time, was said to have been very fond of card playing. One Sunday morning while he was preaching he started to pull his handkerchief from his pocket, when streaming down from the high pulpit to the floor came a pack of cards which had been deposited there. And for a clergyman after performing the marriage ceremony at the house of the bride, where weddings were almost invariably celebrated, to play the fiddle for the dance was not uncommon.

From this period — 1785, to be exact — dates the organization of Methodism in the town, although as early as 1746 Whitefield preached here in the open air, probably under the Liberty Poplar. Francis Asbury, the real founder of American Methodism, also visited the city frequently after 1773. The most prominent pastor  p233 of the early days, when the society worshiped in the State Armory, was Jesse Lee, the first Methodist preacher in Boston.

The most distinguished product of Annapolis in the days between the end of the War of Independence and the Civil War was William Pinkney, born in Annapolis in 1764 of a Tory family whose entire property was confiscated. He grew up in Baltimore, where he became a protégé of Samuel Chase and studied law in the latter's office. Soon a leader at the Bar of Maryland he was sent in 1805 with James Monroe to England to secure settlements of claims for American vessels seized by the British during the wars with Napoleon. He remained in London prosecuting this mission till 1811, and his letters to Madison are especially valuable pictures of the difficulties in which neutrals were involved and which led finally to the War of 1812. He returned in the frigate Essex to Annapolis and began again the practice of law, but was soon appointed Attorney-General of the United States. Unlike most of his friends in Annapolis, he was a strong supporter of the party of Jefferson and Madison, the Republicans,  p234 and even fought at Bladensburg in the attempt to defend Washington in 1814.

In 1816, while in Congress, he was made Minister to St. Petersburg, but returned to Baltimore in 1818 and practiced law till his death in 1822. One of his most celebrated arguments was for the United States Bank in 1819 when Maryland attempted to tax it. Though a member of the Jeffersonians politically, his Tory ancestry and his long residence in European capitals inclined him to a fashionableness of dress which made him unpopular in some American circles. He is perhaps a true son of the old era in Annapolis, aristocratic in dress and manner, sensitive to all the niceties of polite society, keenly intellectual, as a lawyer eloquent and convincing, and noted for his use of language of the greatest felicity. The only dwelling in Annapolis which can be named as associated with him is the colonial structure on Charles Street opposite the home of Jonas Green, where tradition says he once lived. His brother, Ninian, as has been mentioned earlier, was one of the line of the owners of the Harwood House.

 p235  The decade following the Revolution also saw in Annapolis the beginning of a change in the mission of the town which has not yet been mentioned, from commerce to education. In colonial times its educational opportunities were centered in King William's School, where Pinkney himself is said to have been a student. With the coming of peace and independence, however, the people of Maryland desired better facilities for intellectual training and projected a State university which should embrace two colleges, one on the Eastern Shore and one on the Western, but both public institutions. In 1782 the Legislature had chartered Washington College at Chestertown and in 1784 granted a charter to a distinguished group of men to establish its western partner. Why the Legislature named it St. John's College has never been satisfactorily explained.

The promoters included such men as Samuel Chase, William Paca, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Thomas J. Claggett, recently made Bishop of Maryland, and to emphasize its non‑sectarian character Bishop Carroll of the Catholic Church was made President of the Board  p236 of Visitors and Governors, while a Presbyterian divine was one of the members. In 1785 the corporation of King William's School united its work and property with the new college, and on November 11, 1789, the institution opened its doors under the principalship of Dr. John McDowell in the building which the Legislature had given it, the ruined Governor's Palace of Thomas Bladen, which had meanwhile been finished and made habitable.

The original charter had granted to the college an appropriation of £1750 annually, but in 1805 the Legislature rescinded its action and almost killed the institution by cutting off all financial aid. This seems to have been due to a fear that the atmosphere of Annapolis was anti-democratic and that the poor man could not send his son there because of the fees required and the rich thus reaped all the advantages. This action produced almost another Dartmouth College case, as the college contended that the Legislature was without power to repeal the charter, the same having been granted in return for various sums of money furnished by friends of the college. But the  p237 college authorities were so much in need of funds that they later agreed to waive such legal claims in lieu of another annual appropriation. Another Legislature allowed the question to be taken to court, and the college won its point as to the validity of its contention, but when it tried to collect the money, found its previous action in waiving the point prevented payment of a single dollar.

In 1866, after the college had been in the possession of the Union army as a hospital during the Civil War, Dr. Henry Barnard, the pioneer in American public school education, was made President and reorganized the institution in the six months he was in office. He then resigned to become the United States Commissioner of Education. Apparently his interest in St. John's was due to his hope of making it the apex to a complete State system of education. When, however, he discovered that Maryland was not ripe for such an enterprise, he sought other fields of labor. Among its faculty brought from the North just after the Civil War, when anti-Southern influence controlled the college, was Hiram Corson, who served as  p238 a professor of English literature from 1867 to 1870, when he went to Cornell University.

In 1796 Francis Scott Key, author of "The Star Spangled Banner," graduated from St. John's. Though not born in Annapolis, Key spent much of his youth here in the Scott house, where his great aunt, Mrs. Upton Scott, lived. It is said that guests at the house on many occasions saw the young lad, clad in a white nightgown, stand on the landing of the stairs and repeat his evening prayer, a custom which his aunt seems to have insisted upon whatever the occasion. And it was to Annapolis that he returned in 1802, to wed, in the drawing room of the Chase House, Mary Tayloe Lloyd, daughter of its owner at that time.

St. John's also furnishes the last contact of Washington with Annapolis. In 1798 a letter to Dr. McDowell informed him that Washington was sending George Washington Parke Custis to Annapolis to study at the college, he having already spent a year at Princeton. The boy was seventeen years old and the son of the John Parke Custis who had been the pupil of Jonathan Boucher in the town in 1770.  p239 Washington writes that "Mr. Custis possesses competent talents to fit him for any studies, but they are counteracted by an indolence of mind which renders it difficult to draw them into action. . . . From drinking and gaming he is perfectly free, and if he has a propensity to any other impropriety it is hidden from me. He is generous and regardful of the truth."2

On March 12, 1798, Custis wrote his step-grandfather that he had arrived. "Annapolis," he says, "is a very pleasant place. I visited the principal inhabitants while the doctor was here and found them all very kind. Mr. McDowell is a very good and agreeable man. . . . I was so fortunate as to get in with a Mrs. Bruce, a remarkably clever3 woman, with whom I live very well and contented. There are several clever young men boarding in this house with whom I associate on the most friendly terms." On April 2d Custis writes: "I have received every kindness from the citizens of Annapolis, and could anything heighten my opinion of your  p240 character it would be their expressions of esteem and regard."

By June, however, Washington had to write Custis that they had not heard from him directly for five weeks, but that intimations had reached them that he was paying much attention to a certain young lady. It is, he says, "not a time for a boy of your age to enter into engagements which might end in sorrow and repentance." Custis' reply four days later is a confession of the truth of the rumors. He declares he is not engaged, but admits he gave the young lady reasons to believe he was attached to her, and he did solicit her affections and hoped to marry her sometime in the future. But he now says she has refused him and that the affair is all over.

The following September Washington has to write Dr. McDowell to keep him, if possible, from falling in love again. "Prevent," he urges, "as much as it can be done, without too great a restraint, a devotion of his time to visitations of the families in Annapolis, which, when carried to excess or beyond a certain point, cannot but tend to divert his mind from  p241 study and lead his thoughts to very different objects." At the end of the month Washington writes that Custis does not seem inclined to return to the college and he has decided to keep him at Mount Vernon. The spectacle of the "Father of His Country," after his years of participation in the monumental labor of military command and in the delicate but momentous tasks of statesmanship, expending his failing powers on the details of a school boy's life makes one realize anew the unsparing devotion to duty which Washington best symbolizes.

A cross-section, as it were, of all the various phases of Annapolis in this period before the War of 1812 is afforded us in a journal kept by David B. Warden, Secretary to the American legation in Paris, who spent several days in Annapolis in the summer of 1811 while waiting there to embark in the frigate Constitution for passage abroad. He writes:

"I am pleased with this city; it is beautifully situated. . . . The town has a romantic appearance. The houses are thinly scattered over a considerable extent of surface, and  p242 intervening gardens and lawns give it a very rural aspect. . . .

"I had often heard of the hospitality of the Annapolitans to strangers, of which I have had many proofs. Mr. Duval was pleased to give me a letter of introduction to Miss Chase, by which means I became acquainted with this amiable family. Mr., Mrs., and Miss Chase left town for some mineral waters, and after their departure I had the pleasure of passing many hours with the two sisters who remained. They are really fine young ladies; interesting in their appearance; gay without coquetry; social, amiable, and enlightened.

. . . . . . . . . .

"The doctor (Dr. Upton Scott) had some employment under the old government, to which, an exception to almost all his countrymen, he remained attached and fled to Ireland during the war, at the end of which he returned to Annapolis to the enjoyment of his property, which the generosity of the inhabitants would not permit them to confiscate, a strong proof of their esteem for the proprietor. This house is neat and elegantly situated and commands a  p243 view of that portion of the bay along which vessels ply to and from Baltimore. In Belfast Dr. S. had mixed with the convivial parties of that town, where indulgence in claret, according to his opinion, sowed the seeds of the gout, the only disease with which in his old age he is occasionally afflicted.

"He is fond of botany and has a number of rare plants and shrubs in his greenhouse and garden. I dined there in company with the Governor of the State [Edward Lloyd] and Dr. Murray, a venerable gentleman highly esteemed, the father of Mrs. Mason. In the parlor is a painting of Mrs. Mason and of her sister, Mrs. Lloyd, when very young, with the bust of Dr. Scott before them.

. . . . . . . . . .

"Annapolis appears to me to be a most economical and pleasing place of residence for those who have no particular profession or commercial pursuit; a family can live here much cheaper than in Washington. Vegetables, fish, crabs, and lobsters are purchased at a low rate. A large, elegant house with a garden, belonging to Mr. Pinkney, is offered for four thousand  p244 three hundred dollars. A very commodious building of three stories was sold the other day for six hundred dollars. . . . The people are gay and social, free from the anxiety and cares of commercial operations."4

A concluding word should be spoken for two natives of Annapolis who won more than local fame in the period between the Revolution and the Civil War. Dr. John Shaw, whose birthplace was the quaint Dutch colonial house which still stands opposite the State House, achieved some fame as a poet. Reverdy Johnson, Attorney-General of the United States under Zachary Taylor, and the American minister who had a prominent part in the negotiations with England over the Alabama claims, was born in the Bordley House, already described, and lived in later life in the old hip‑roofed dwelling which still remains opposite the Post Office on Northwest Street.

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The Author's Notes:

1 "Travels in North America," vol. III, p579.

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2 G. W. P. Custis, "Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington," p98.

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3 Probably clever used in the sense still prevailing in the South to mean agreeable.

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4 Maryland Historical Magazine, vol. XI, p129 ff.

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