Annapolis takes a break from its colonial past to step into modern diplomacy

Published 6:02 pm Friday, November 23, 2007

World leaders gathering here next week for Mideast peace negotiations won’t be far from the brick streets where diplomats of centuries past ratified a major peace treaty and ensured the future of the United States as a civilian, democratic state.

This small city on the banks of the Severn River and Chesapeake Bay figured prominently in the nation’s colonial past, and it was the new nation’s first peacetime capital. Nowadays, taverns where the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson raised a glass are frequented by tourists, not international diplomats.

When leaders of Israel and Arab states meet next week at the U.S. Naval Academy, established here in 1845, the peace gathering won’t be far from the sites of history-making events.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Congress briefly met under the wooden dome of Maryland’s Capitol, the nation’s oldest in continuous legislative use. It also was here that Congress formally ratified the Treaty of Paris in 1783, ending the Revolutionary War with England.

And on Christmas Eve 1783, Annapolis witnessed its best-known event when a victorious Washington resigned his commission in the Continental Army — a signal that civilians, not military generals or kings, would rule the new nation.

“Washington was not going to declare himself king, but rather he was going to hand back the military authority that was handed to him by Congress,” said Glenn Campbell, historian at the Historic Annapolis Foundation.

Washington’s resignation, when he could have declared himself king, took the world by surprise, Campbell said.

“It seemed inconceivable to some of the old-world powers,” he said.

The departure of Congress from Annapolis in 1784 ended the city’s prominence in national affairs. But the city, about 30 miles east of Washington D.C., still views itself as a place to resolve differences. After all, the city first came to prominence more than 300 years ago because of a religious dispute.

Maryland, founded as a haven for English Catholics in the 17th century, first made its capital in predominantly Catholic St. Mary’s City, south of Annapolis.

Bickering between Catholics and Protestants, who held prominence in England and its colonies, led to the capital being moved in 1694 to more Protestant Annapolis. The state’s government has been in Annapolis, named for England’s Protestant Queen Anne, ever since.

“There really weren’t any Catholics in the Annapolis area, and it was moved to get away from Catholicism,” said Thomas V. Mike Miller, president of Maryland’s Senate and a scholar of state history.

Even the city’s design, plotted in the colonial era, speaks to the delicate interplay of government and religion. Streets radiate from two circles, one containing a church (then an Anglican body, now an Episcopalian congregation) and another the state capitol. Directions in the historic part of Annapolis usually include a reference to either Church Circle or State Circle.

“We’ve got the street plan going around those institutions of church and state, so anywhere you go in Annapolis you get vistas of these important buildings,” Campbell said.

On the Net:

City of Annapolis:

Historic Annapolis Foundation:

Maryland State House:

St. Anne’s Church: