This is a mostly encore post, emphasizing George Washington’s astounding ability to draw from history just exactly the right lesson, and then set the example that makes history.
Washington, though having never attended college, was an inveterate reader, and a sharp student of history. Early he read the story of the great Roman, Cincinnatus, who made the Roman Republic great with his refusal to lust for power. Cincinnatus twice was named Dictator, and both times resigned the commission rather than personally profit as others did — after saving Rome both times, of course.
In his own life, Washington also twice cast off the mantle of top leader, once when he resigned his commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army when so many assumed he would just keep on, and add the title of “King of America;” and the second time when, as president, he stepped aside and retired, leaving the leadership of the nation up to the Constitutional processes that had never before been tried successfully in any nation.
Washington’s resignation from the army command came on December 23, 1783 — such an important anniversary usually gets lost in preparations for Christmas, so I’ll post it a bit early. In your holiday toasts, lift a glass to George Washington, who gave us civilian rule, an end to monarchy, and an example of responsible leadership making way for peaceful succession.
In 2007, I wrote:
On December 23, 1783, Commander of the Continental Army, Gen. George Washington resigned his commission, to the Continental Congress sitting in Annapolis, Maryland. Washington modeled his actions on the life of Roman general and patriot Cincinnatus. (See especially this site, the Society of the Cincinnati)
- John Trumbull’s painting of Washington resigning his commission; one of eight great paintings hanging in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol
Washington had been thought to be in a position to take over the government and declare himself king, if he chose. Instead, at some cost to himself he personally put down a rebellion of the officers of the army who proposed a coup d’etat against the Continental Congress, angered that they had not been paid. Washington quietly asked that the men act honorably and not sully the great victory they had won against Britain. Then Washington reviewed the army, wrapped up affairs, journeyed to Annapolis to resign, and returned to his farm and holdings at Mount Vernon, Virginia.
Because Washington could have turned into a tyrant, it is reported that King George III of England, upon hearing the news of Washington’s resignation, refused to believe it. If the report were true, George is reported to have said, Washington was the greatest man who ever lived.
Washington’s resignation set precedent: Civilian government controlled the military; Americans served, then went back to their private lives and private business; Americans would act nobly, sometimes when least expected.
From the Library of Congress American Memory site, “Today in History”:
George Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army on December 23, 1783, in the senate chamber of the Maryland State House in Annapolis, where the Continental Congress was then meeting.
Although the British had recognized American independence with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, British troops did not evacuate New York until December 4. After the last British ships left the harbor, Washington bid an emotional farewell to his officers and set out for Annapolis. On the journey south he was met with throngs of well-wishers paying him tribute for his role in the nation’s military victory over Great Britain.
Washington left Annapolis at dawn on December 24 and set out for Mount Vernon, his plantation on the Potomac River in Virginia. He arrived home before nightfall on Christmas Eve, a private citizen for the first time in almost nine years.
Maryland State House, Annapolis, Maryland
William Henry Jackson, photographer, circa 1892.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America, 1880-1920
When Washington visited The Maryland State House in 1783, the structure was incomplete and suffered from a leaking roof. By 1786, when representatives from Maryland and Virginia meeting at the State House rallied support for the movement to remedy defects in the Articles of Confederation, construction of a new dome had begun. Today, the building begun in 1772 is the oldest state house still in legislative use.
Located at the mouth of the Severn River on the Chesapeake Bay, Annapolis was settled in 1649 by Puritans who moved there from Virginia. The town was known in the seventeenth century as Town of Proctor’s, Town at the Severn, and Anne Arundel Town before it was named for Queen Anne in 1695. It is home to the U.S. Naval Academy and to St. John’s College, founded in 1696.