Someone once said to me many years ago that it was regrettable that the Rockefellers did not buy Annapolis as they did Williamsburg, Va. Though the speaker was being facetious, the underlying meaning was clear:
Annapolis would have become a mecca of historical tourism comparable to the unparalleled attraction of Williamsburg as a living history venue, a place where the ambitious and bright Thomas Jefferson studied law under the renowned George Wythe. Other dignitaries like George Washington and James Madison left their footprints on the original capital of Virginia.
Through the leadership of Historic Annapolis, whose founder, Anne St. Clair Wright, almost single-handedly preserved the historic district from becoming a non-descript commercial enclave amid the splendor of the state capital and site of the U.S. Naval Academy, the city is a repository of rich American history accessible to the public and scholars.
Historic Annapolis was founded in 1952. Its preservation efforts culminated in the designation of the colonial historic area in 1965 as a National Historic Landmark.
The city on the Chesapeake Bay deserves greater recognition for its role in our nation’s short but complicated history. That acclaim is happening.
Most notably, the newly restored Old Senate Chamber in the Maryland State House will forever be known as the place where General Washington resigned his commission, thus institutionalizing the primacy of civilian authority over the military. This resignation event has had long-term national security implications.
I have always loved our state and its illustrious history. This heritage provides a sense of place. Though we did not produce four American presidents, unlike Virginia, we can point with pride to the continued existence of four homes in Annapolis belonging to our signers of the Declaration of Independence: Thomas Stone, Samuel Chase, William Paca and George Carroll of Carrollton. Their descendants still roam the Old Line State.
And, of course, we produced a disgraced U.S. Vice President, Spiro Agnew, who viewed his political positions as Baltimore County‘s county executive, governor and VP as an opportunity to earn money by trading favors. He played by old rules that considered ethics a foreign concept.
His forced resignation was a significant event during the ill-fated Nixon Administration. His successor, Gerald Ford, eventual president, pardoned Nixon, another earthshaking occasion in American history.
Every community has its rogues.
A new exhibit organized by Historic Annapolis (I sit on the board), “Annapolis: An American Story, shines a spotlight on a city that has hosted an impressive record of achievements. No longer is it hiding its historical light under a bushel of crabs. Instead, it is telling the world that Annapolis and its bountiful history and colonial homes are open for public scrutiny and insight.
A point of constant pride is the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA), situated in Annapolis on the Severn River and founded in 1845. Annapolitans, many of them USNA graduates, embrace the Naval Academy as their beloved hometown school. Former President Jimmy Carter and the late John McCain are graduates of this premier leadership academy.
St. John’s College, known for its Great Books curriculum and independent study and founded in 1695 as Prince William’s School, seems to draw glancing attention from Annapolis residents. One of the most highly regarded liberal arts schools in our country, St. John’s stands out publicly and superficially for its scruffy looking students in comparison with the uniform-wearing, short-haired midshipman. I suspect that the “Johnnies” and the future Navy and Marine Corps officers have more in common than is readily apparent.
One of the homes that has always caught my attention is the all- wood Sands residence owned by the same family for 237 years. The son of the mariner-owner, whose name Sands still marks the house, served as part of the Maryland 400, which fought to protect General Washington’s retreat across East River during the disastrous Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, during the Revolutionary War. William Sands was one of 250 Marylanders who died in Brooklyn.
This long-overlooked battle allowed Washington and his troops to fight another day. William Sands and his fellow soldiers fought heroically against the better-trained and-equipped British forces.
Annapolis’ strong ties to our national history are undeniable.
As the Civil War was ripping apart our young country, the Maryland General Assembly met in Frederick in 1861 to decide whether to secede from the Union. The governor considered the anti-Union so strong in Annapolis he chose to meet in Frederick; he knew that Annapolitans were outraged that President Lincoln had deployed federal troops to the state capital, because he feared the secession of a state abutting the nation’s capital.
Truly a border state with highly charged mixed sentiments, Maryland drew urgent attention from Lincoln, who remembered the assault in April 1861 on Massachusetts soldiers as they marched to a Baltimore train station, now Camden Yards. This skirmish was one of the first during the Civil War.
Annapolis also was the site of one of the oldest newspapers in the country, The Maryland Gazette, founded in 1727. It exists now in the form of the Capital Gazette (or just The Capital), a daily paper sadly diminished in its news content due to its ownership by Alden Capital Fund, a hedge fund proficient in eviscerating its newspapers.
Back to The Gazette (I seem to be digressing a fair amount in this column) and its early years. Its second owner-editor-publisher was Jonas Green, a protege of the inestimable Ben Franklin, my hero. Green assumed ownership in 1734. After he died in 1767, his wife, Anne Catherine Hoof Green, took control, becoming the second woman in the colonies to operate a newspaper.
Like her husband, Anne Green was unafraid to tweak the British governor of Maryland by railing against the Stamp Act and other punitive measures imposed by our British overlords.
As readers know, my wife and I are newcomers to Annapolis after 44 wonderful years in Easton and Talbot County. After 13 months here, we are still learning about a city with a long heritage linked to events of national importance. Our allegiance to the Shore will never waver.
Yet, we are adapting to a city with more traffic lights, more traffic, more emergency-vehicle sirens and more delays. Amid the challenges of living in a city more than twice the size of Easton, I feel comforted and energized by the consequential history of our state capital.
Did you know that thoroughbred horse racing in America began in Annapolis? Grist for another column.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.