Thursday, December 04, 2014

General Washington Bids Farewell to His Officers

On this day (December 4) in 1783, General George Washington held a private reception in the Long Room of Fraunces Tavern for his officers, many of whom had served alongside him for most, if not all, of the American Revolution. This reception was one of the few times in Washington's life where he was unable to contain his emotions. As the reception drew to a close, Washington toasted his officers, saying: "With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable." He then asked his officers to come to him, so that he could greet them individually and wish them well. 

General Henry Knox, one of Washington's most loyal and steadfast officers, was the first to take the hand of his retiring commander. The normally granite, self-controlled Washington was, according to Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge, "suffused in tears" and "incapable of utterance." As each officer came by to take the general's hand and express their appreciation, Washington's emotions were "too strong to be concealed." In his memoirs, Tallmadge wrote: "Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I had never before witnessed and fondly hope I may never be called to witness again.

While we should rightly be moved by the mutual affection felt between Washington and his officers, we must also recognize what this moment meant for the United States of America. The greatest act of George Washington's life was when he voluntarily resigned as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army upon Britain's official recognition of American independence. This marked one of the ONLY times in recorded history where the victor of a revolution walked away from power willingly. Washington would do this once again when he voluntarily left office after two terms as President, but this resignation beats even that. For in 1783, George Washington was, without dispute, the most powerful man in the country, and a majority of Americans at that time would have gladly accepted him as king or dictator. Given the chaotic conditions of the infant nation in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution and before the current Constitution was ratified, it had to be tempting. But Washington flatly refused any suggestion of dictatorship. Instead, he returned his commission to Congress and returned to his beloved Mount Vernon as a private citizen. For this act alone, Washington deserves every monument erected to him and every school, building, city, or state named in his honor. And he deserves the gratitude of every American living today.

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