Tuesday, December 23, 2014

George Washington Resigns His Commission on December 23, 1783

On this day in 1783, General George Washington strode into the State Capitol Building in Annapolis, Maryland and did one of the most remarkable things anyone has ever done in the history of the world. The phrase may be trite, but Washington was "on top of the world" or at least his world. Many Americans already regarded him as the father of his country, and more than a few expected him (and were even calling upon him) to become dictator of the new nation just as Oliver Cromwell had done in England over a century prior. It was the natural order of things, but Washington flatly refused such a suggestion and instead did something virtually unheard of.

Other than Vietnam and the 21st century's "War on Terror," the American Revolution (aka the Revolutionary War) was the longest war in U.S. history. Next to the American Civil War, it was also the war that hurt Americans at home more than any other. And at the end of the war in 1783, the new nation was in disarray and desperate for strong leadership. They weren't getting such leadership from Congress, which was impotent under the Articles of Confederation. They needed a strong national leader to bring the various states and factions together, heal the nation's economy, shore up the nation's security, project strength abroad, and forge a path toward progress. The temptation for Washington to be that guy must have been enormous, but Washington knew the cost of giving into such pressure. This new nation, in Washington's mind, should not be characterized by dictators, kings, martial law, violent insurrections, or the bloody transfer of power. As difficult and frustrating as the path might be, Washington believed the only sure path to national success was one that honored the Rule of Law and popular consent.

With this in mind, Washington kept his army in the field after the victory in Yorktown to keep pressure on the British, while at the same time doing his best to keep peace in the Continental Army itself - an army torn with strife over inadequate supplies and unpaid wages. In early 1783, he talked down his officers from leading an open revolt against Congress (even resorting to a display of theatrics with his spectacles) and turned away any and all suggestions that he become king or dictator. Though such an offer was never formally made, the prospect was dangled in front of him continually throughout 1783. Finally, in December of that year, just weeks after the British formally recognized American independence (bringing the American Revolution to an official end), Washington made his decision. He would leave the army and go home as a private citizen. And he would leave the success of America in the hands of civilian authority.

On December 23, 1783, Washington made good on his promise. Appearing before the Congress in Annapolis, the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army (and, as such, the most powerful man in America) resigned his military commission and (in his words) took "leave of all the employments of public life." In his brief remarks Washington offered: "I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life, by commending the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping." According to one observer, there was in the Congress that day a "shedding of copious tears."

We now know, of course, that Washington's retirement was not permanent. But he (in 1783) didn't know that, and neither did the nation. It was only with great reluctance that Washington answered the call to public life again in 1787 with the Constitutional Convention and then in 1789 to take the oath as the first President of the United States under the U.S. Constitution.

The day after resigning his commission before Congress in 1783, George Washington rode his horse back to his beloved Mount Vernon as a private citizen to spend Christmas with his loving wife, Martha. This was the greatest Christmas present Washington could give to the United States. We still benefit from this gift today, though we take it for granted. So remarkable was it for a victorious leader of a revolution and a new nation to walk away from power that King George III called Washington "the greatest man in the world." Indeed he was, and in my opinion, he remains one of the greatest men in human history.

**For more on George Washington's character, check out The Religion of George Washington: The Faith and Moral Philosophy of our Greatest Founding Father

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.