Excerpt from ‘The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789’

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‘The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789’

It was and remains one of the most remarkable events in the history of war, revolution, and politics. General George Washington retired. Although a spoken act, like so much that set him apart, it was less what he said than what he did.

On Tuesday, December 23, 1783, the Commander in Chief of American forces during the just-concluded Revolutionary War, accompanied only by two trusted aides, David Humphreys and Tench Tilghman, strode into the Assembly Chamber of the Maryland State House in Annapolis. Congress had been meeting there ever since fleeing from its own mutinous troops in Philadelphia, the United States’ customary capital.  Self describedly gray at age 51 following nearly nine years of war-time service, Washington stood erect – still a towering figure on a solid frame. Only twenty members representing but seven states remained in attendance at the little respected and largely ineffectual Confederation Congress. Washington had arrived in Annapolis the previous Friday to a cannon salute that brought a throng of well-dressed citizens into the streets to hail him as the country’s liberator. On Saturday, in accord with his oft-stated intent, he inquired of Congress about the manner of resigning his commission and returning to private life now that the war had ended.  Congress requested a formal audience.

Following a script prepared over the weekend by a congressional committee chaired by Thomas Jefferson, Washington entered the Assembly Chamber at noon on the 23rd and took a seat opposite the seated President of Congress, his former aide-de-camp, Thomas Mifflin.  The other members of Congress also sat and all wore hats.  The French ambassador, Maryland state officials, and leading citizens of Annapolis then entered the hall – men standing at the rear; women in the gallery above.   Once the spectators settled in their places, the President addressed the General, “Sir, The U.S. in Congress Assembled are prepared to receive your Communications.”   Washington rose and bowed to Congress.  On this cue, the members doffed their hats but did not stand.  This stiff protocol maintained that the members of Congress were respectfully superior to the Commander in Chief.  Drawing a paper written in his own hand from a coat pocket, Washington then read his final address as a military commander.  Scarcely 300 words long, it made history.

“The great events on which my resignation depended, having at length taken place,” Washington began, his hand visibly trembling as it held the speech, “I have now the honor of offering my sincere Congratulations to Congress, and of presenting myself before them, to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me.”  Soon he needed both hands to steady the page.  After noting the “diffidence” with which he initially accepted the post, acknowledging the “obligations” he owned to the army in general and his closest aides in particular, and “commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God,” Washington concluded, “I retire from the great theatre of action, and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body, under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take me leave of all the employments of public life.”   By this point all the spectators were weeping, one observer noted, “and there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears.”   Drawing his commission from his coat pocket, Washington then stepped forward and handed it to the President.

A future American government chose to memorialize precisely this moment in one of eight historical paintings decorating the rotunda of the United States Capitol.  Turned slightly to the right toward Congress, Washington dominates the image at center framed by a broad pilaster, added to the background by the artist John Trumbull to convey stability.  His left hand on a riding whip to suggest the haste with which he rode to Congress to relinquish power, Washington reaches out his right hand with the commission toward Mifflin, who stands on a raised platform, slightly higher than the General to show civilian authority but still smaller than him and painted in flat profile within a formal group portrait of all twenty congressmen.  To depict the four future Virginia presidents as united for this foundational episode, Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe are identifiable in this stylized grouping even though Madison had not rejoined Congress following its remove to Annapolis.  Behind Washington on his left stand an equal number of spectators, with his wife Martha, who was not actually there, gazing down from the gallery in domestic garb.         

At this point in the actual proceedings, President Mifflin stiffly read the elegant response that Jefferson’s committee had drafted for the occasion, on behalf of the entire country.  “The U.S. in congress assembled receive with emotions too affecting for utterance this solemn Resignation of the authorities under which you have led their troops with Success through a perilous and doubtful war,” it began in soaring words that surely came from Jefferson, who had penned the lofty Declaration of Independence eight long years before.  “Having defended the standard of liberty in this new world … you retire from the great theatre of action with the blessings of your fellow citizens, but the glory of your virtues will not terminate with your military command, it will continue to animate remotest ages.” …

Extolled by later historians as a signal event that set the country’s political course – Thomas Fleming called it “the most important moment in American history”  – Washington’s retirement was similarly praised at the time.  Citing examples from Julius Caesar to Oliver Cromwell, British leaders during the war had scoffed at Americans for rebelling against one King George only to gain another in George Washington.  Successful rebel leaders inevitably become tyrants, they charged.  Indeed, in England, when expatriate American painter Benjamin West predicted that Washington would retire upon the cessation of hostilities, a skeptical King George III reportedly replied, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”   Writing from London after word of Washington’s resignation reached that city, West’s American student, John Trumbull, wrote to his brother in Connecticut that the act “excites the astonishment and admiration of this part of the world.  ‘Tis a Conduct so novel, so inconceivable to People, who, far from giving up powers they possess, are willing to convulse the Empire to acquire more.”   No wonder Trumbull later painted the scene with such feeling.

In America, Washington at once became a second Cincinnatus, the legendary ancient leader twice called from his farm and given supreme power to rescue republican Rome from its enemies only to relinquish power and return to his farm once the dangers had passed.  A first-hand account from Annapolis, printed in countless American newspapers during January 1784, described the event as “extraordinary, and to the General more honourable than any that is recorded in history.” … After three-month’s reflection on what he had transpired, Jefferson commented, “The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”   Even more than the Commander in Chief’s distinguished and disinterested service during the Revolutionary War, which was performed without salary or leave for over eight and one half years, voluntarily surrendering the trappings of power for private life on a Virginia plantation, made Washington a venerated American hero and world-renown personification of republican virtue.