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What's Up Magazine

Annapolis: The Once and Future Athens of America

Jun 06, 2018 12:00AM

By Ellen Moyer

What do you want to be when you grow up? From elementary school through college, students are encouraged to think about their future, to “know thy self” even though they’ve yet to face
the challenges and experiences of living on their own. Adults, facing changes in life styles or careers ask the same question of themselves. How many times did you hear this quote in jest
at the change of the New Year? 

But its not just people, cities and towns have character and identities too. Impacted by growth, planning, and land use policies, cities may change appearance yet stay the same in character—building on their authentic nature. Who would describe Las Vegas as anything other than the entertainment, gaming, and mega resort center of the world? Founded in 1905 at a former trade and leisure stop on the way to Los Angeles, it grew into a favorite entertainment place for the Rat Pack of Frank Sinatra fame and mushroomed from there. Closer to home, Ocean City, founded in 1875 as a resort town, remains Maryland’s premier seaside resort.

Recently, Annapolis has been challenged by some to “figure out what it wants to be.” But Annapolis has a long history of what and who it is. Some things about it are not about to change, nor should they. This city, through ups and downs, confidence and confusion, has always been a government town on the water. Not just one government but several. It is a state capital, a county seat, and a municipality; and within it is the federal government presence of the United States Naval Academy (USNA). All of this in seven square miles. 

Maryland was originally a proprietary colony named after a Catholic queen and was founded on principles of religious tolerance by the Catholic Calvert family. Cecil Calvert supported and funded by his wealthy Catholic father-in-law, Thomas Arundell, governed the colony. In response to increasing tension in England over the Catholic Church, Calvert was instrumental in passing the 1649 Act of Religious Toleration. In the same year, his wife of 21 years, Anne Arundell, died. Out of respect for her, the General Assembly, in 1650, created the colonies third county with 533 miles of waterfront and named it Anne Arundel. In 1695, when Francis Nicholson came to town,

Annapolis became the county seat of government. It has remained so ever since. 
Annapolis became the colonial capital of Maryland in 1694. It was not the first capital. That was St. Mary’s City, which proved to be too far south and out of the growing population center, as well as steeped in Catholicism, the religion of its founder, to continue as the statecapital. Even though the colony was founded on the principal of religious freedom, the colony did not escape the politics of the home country and the actions of Oliver Cromwell to stamp out popery and the Catholic Church. St. Mary’s had to go.


Francis Nicholson, an apt administrator from Yorkshire, England, served as the Royal Colony’s Governor from 1694 to 1699. He possessed a sharp sense of what would secure a new town. He laid out the street grid and land use of this new capital in what would be described as one of the best-designed towns in the British Empire. He ordered construction of a new state house on the highest hill. Sensing how important education was to the future stability of a city, he established the first school, the King Williams School in 1696, on the street that bears his name, Francis Street. Thinking ahead to the future and the value of the English connection, he had the foresight to name the new capital, that had been known by many names since its beginning in 1649, Annapolis, after Princess Anne who would, one day, become Queen of England and give her regal authority to our fair city.

Annapolis, the City of Anne, would receive its municipal charter on November 22nd, 1708 and was identified as “the town that excelled all other towns and portes in our said province” by Governor John Seymour, whose relative Jane was the third wife of King Henry VIII. Broad powers were granted: a mayor, six aldermen, a recorder, and provision for a common council of 10 was established. Two members would be appointed to represent the City in the General Assembly.


This representation would be changed later by a court challenge that diminished the power of municipalities. Counties have been primary for local government in Maryland for two centuries, although Annapolis is certainly the most politically vocal—perhaps a carryover from the charter provision that the City have two market days a week and two fairs per year, which helped establish the town as the cultural and hospitality center of the colonies. Nicholson’s new state house did not last long. It burned, was struck by lightning, and built anew in 1772. It is the State House—its wooden dome with nary a nail watches over our town, its grounds ringed by a brick wall originally built to keep cattle off site and is the oldest state capitol building in the nation in continuous use. It is the first state house of the first capital of the United States.

It was here that the Maryland colony passed its first State Constitution in 1776. Its Declaration of Rights went back to its roots on Freedom of Religion, which granted free-blacks the right to vote if they met the property qualifications. The Constitution declared all power emanated from the people (though only 20,000 of 300,000 residents met voting qualifications), acknowledged the power of county government to manage their own affairs, and did not refer to Parliament or the King. It was in Annapolis that George Washington resigned his Commission from the Continental Army. Washington said, “No to his becoming King and ushered in the radical civil government of, by, and for the people.” It was here that the decree ending the Revolutionary War was signed.
Another constitution in 1851 readjusted the number of representatives in the lower House. By this time, Maryland housed over 125,000 free blacks. Efforts to re-enslave them had been defeated and the third constitution in 1864 established freedom for all slaves. Fifty percent of the population, including union soldiers stationed in Annapolis and Baltimore, supported this constitution. 

Three years later, the State’s fourth constitution, the very one that governs us today, was ratified by popular vote. The 1867 constitution—all 47,000 words of it—is one of the longest in the nation. By comparison, the U.S. Constitution is only 8,700 words. The state’s Declaration of Rights incorporates the National Rights but one. Ours does not guarantee the right of individuals to bear arms; only the militia. It established Annapolis as the only place where the legislature will convene; created the City of Baltimore; and declared that the right of the people to participate in the legislature is the best security of liberty, the foundation of all free government, and that the trial of facts secures our liberty. It did, however, delete the provision in the 1864 document that asserted we are all born equal.

Since 1694, Annapolis has been the political center of our State. America’s founding fathers walked our streets, Tories and Patriots too. International leaders from France, Germany, Holland, and Scotland convened here in a beehive of conversation, negotiation, and thought that identified Annapolis as the Athens of America.  Athens, the ancient town where the consideration of justice and pursuit of goodness began with Socrates 2000 years earlier. 

Nicholson’s King William School would be chartered in 1784 as the third oldest college in the country. At one time a military school, it shifted to a new curriculum in 1937 based on a Great Books, the study of western philosophers, historians, and mathematicians, using the Socratic method of inquiry where the question has priority. Walter Lippman praised the liberal arts college as a new seedbed in an American Renaissance and the greatest bulwark against fascism. Its unique academic community saved the college from take over for expansion by the USNA in 1947. Today, St. Johns College thrives as one of the top 100 liberal arts colleges. For sport, it challenges USNA in a great athletic croquet contest attended by thousands on the grounds in front of 250-year-old McDowell Hall. 

College Creek borders St. Johns’ property and fingers its way to the Severn River through the Naval Academy. A deep-water creek, ships in 1781 picked up American and French soldiers for transport to Yorktown in a battle that ended the War for Independence in favor of the rag tag Americans and elite French Navy. A narrow river, with forts along both its sides, the Severn ensured that Annapolis would be protected from attack. In a display of might makes right, ships during the Civil War off-loaded 15,000 Union troops in the city; their tent homes lined West Street from Spa Road toward Parole.

In search for a school to train the Nation’s new Navy, Fort Severn at the mouth of Spa Creek and the river was selected as the home for the new Naval School on October 10, 1845. Annapolis, being surrounded by water, was described by Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft as “healthy and secluded,” away from the distractions of a big city for midshipmen. The once busy port had moved north to Baltimore and the once city of merriment was a sleepy small town. The original student body of 50 has grown to 4,000 and the original 10 acres to 338. Annapolis, by population, is still a small town with some of its past like a still photo frozen in time.

Annapolis maritime roots are deep. From its very beginning in 1651 with Thomas Todd’s shipbuilding business, the city grew to be the principle port for exporting tobacco and importing slaves and the goods needed in a prosperous town. Dock Street was lined with chandlery. Middleton Tavern, a favorite place for a pint of grog, still serves visitors today. A ferry transported horses and people across the Chesapeake Bay to Rockhall, where a road connected travelers, such as George Washington, to Philadelphia. Another ferry at the USNA carried Abraham Lincoln south to negotiate an end to the Civil War (unsuccessfully). Eventually, the ferries were replaced by steamboats carrying visitors to the delights of shopping in downtown. In addition, as time changed, boat building of wartime PT boats and watermen searching for oysters and crabs shifted to sailboat racing, luxury yachts, and leisure water activities, which secured the City the name “Sailing Capital of America.” In a county with 533 miles of waterfront, the City is never far from water-based businesses or the vagaries of an increasing high tide.

Back at St. Johns College, McDowell Hall began its life as Bladen’s Folly, one of the grandest planned governor’s mansions in the colonies that never happened. For 50 years, it sat abandoned after a tightwad legislature in 1744 refused additional dollars for what they thought was a too extravagant governor. Governor Thomas Bladen, an American by birth, thought the Colony deserved a home for its governors and proposed an elegant 14,000-square-foot dwelling with an entertainment salon for dancing, which was popular in Europe. The legislature appropriated 4,000 pounds for its design and construction by Scottish architect Simon Duff. Two floors were built with steps made of Portland stone, a limestone quarried in Dorset, England, and a favorite of Christopher Wren in the rebuilding of London.

As in most construction-projects, more money was needed to complete the roof. The legislature refused. All work stopped and this most magnificent of Georgian architecture sat vacant for 50 years.

After the Revolutionary War and with a college charter in place, St. Johns College acquired the property from the British and proceeded to complete Bladen’s Folly as its first school. Architect Joseph Clark, who also designed the State House dome, completed the folly with a third floor, a roof, and a cupola converting the salon into The Great Hall and the building we see and visit today.  


Bladen was a little bit ahead of his time. While he failed in his effort to secure a governor’s mansion for all time, the new gentry of an increasingly wealthy city soon provided for themselves what would become more genuine architectural masterpieces than in any other American city. Within twenty years, the Paca House, the Chase Lloyd House, the Ogle home, the Hammond Harwood House, the Dulaney House, the Upton Scott House, the Ridout home, and the Thomas Stone and Charles Carroll estates were built of brick from the clay of the Severn River. All of these homes exist today as an exhibit of life in the 1700s, the golden years of the State Capital, an era frozen in time. Unduplicated in such quantity and quality anywhere else in America, it is the reason why Annapolis is a National Historic Landmark City. 

State capitals are Meccas for hospitality. Legislators are the first tourists. They need a place to stay and a place to dine. They seek entertainment to relax from days of debate and argument. Annapolis’ hospitality flourished. Homes surrounding the State House offered accommodations: stables, food, and drink often managed by widow women. Reynolds Tavern, built in 1747 on Church Circle, with a time-out as a library, is still in the tavern business. Not far from it the City’s center, the first theater for the performing arts was built along a street that served as a racetrack for the best racing horses in the colonies.

Annapolis and Anne Arundel County were the center of the gentlemen’s thoroughbred business. A racetrack to be cleared was first ordered by the town council in 1719, to be held at the city fairs in the spring and the fall. The colonies first silver was smithed for trophies for the winners. Promoted by the Charter, Race Week became the social event of the colonies attracting people from Virginia and the Carolinas—even occasionally from the stiff-necked northeast, until the advent of war called a halt to this merriment and competition for almost a decade. Today, horses do not race down West Street to three-mile oak or around a racetrack near the city gate, but hospitality thrives. 

Annapolis is often sited as a special place to live. National Geographic’s Traveler magazine lists Annapolis as number five among its best small cities, based on metrics that led to feelings of happiness including the environment and green spaces, art galleries, coffee shops, music venues, social moments, and a place of human scale that celebrates people. It is the first American city (in 2009) to receive an International Sustainability award, based on similar metrics. Recently, Washingtonian magazine tagged Annapolis as a culinary destination
and listed two of the city restaurants among its top 100. 

So, Annapolis doesn’t have to think about what it wants to be. It is an authentic government town; its business from the beginning in 1651 has been maritime and visitor flavored. It is a town that cares about thought, entertainment, and hospitality and shares a portrait of 350 years of the best of times amid some strife. It is the Athens of America, the town of culture and social ability, the Sailing Capital of America, a National Historic Landmark, and a state, county, city, and federal government center. It doesn’t need to decide what it wants to be when it grows up, it is grown up. Its community leaders and populace just need to remember and embrace its roots and honor them as the City moves into the future. This is our community character.