On December 23, 1783 General George Washington strode into the State House in Annapolis, Maryland, wearing his finest uniform. Waiting for him was the entire Continental Congress and a full gallery of spectators. The General was there to return his commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, a commission accepted from Congress at Philadelphia on June 16, 1775. He'd held it for eight and a half years, a longer span than the Civil War and World War Two combined; of longer duration than the two terms Washington would serve as our first President.
There were times during those years that the new nation's prospects seemed dim, particularly in November 1776 (see The Jersey Campaign), and again in September 1780, when on top of a series of battlefield reversals he was betrayed by a highly trusted subordinate, General Benedict Arnold. There were conspiracies to replace him as Commander in Chief with one of his rivals. He and the army endured a terrible winter at Valley Forge (1777-8), and an even worse one at Morristown (1779-80), along with continued frustration at the failure of Congress to adequately supply and pay his troops, culminating in a potential revolt by his own officers at Newburgh, NY, earlier in 1783 which he'd defused by declaring his opposition and invoking their own sense of honor:
And let me conjure you, in the name of our common Country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the Military and National character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our Country, and who wickedly attempts to open the flood Gates of Civil discord, and deluge our rising Empire in blood. By thus determining, and thus acting, you … will, by the dignity of your Conduct, afford occasion for Posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to Mankind, ‘had this day been wanting, the World had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining’And then, in his closing remarks, upon pulling out a letter to read to the assemblage, reaching into his pocket to pull out a pair of spectacles, remarking:
"Gentleman, you must pardon me, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in service to my country."The army and the nation had persevered and now it was time for the General to go home to his beloved Mount Vernon, to which he'd returned only once since leaving in May 1775.
All involved understood the significance of the moment. Not only at Newburgh, but throughout the war, as well as in his Farewell Order to the Army in November 1783, Washington stressed the subordination of the military to the civilian government. He would be Cincinnatus, returning to his plow, not Caesar nor, looking to the future, Bonaparte. He and Congress planned every detail to emphasize this point.
Washington left New York City on December 5, after a farewell meeting with his officers at Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan. Accompanied by several aides, he rode through New Jersey to Philadelphia and then on to Annapolis via Delaware, feted along the way by officials and citizens, along roads frequently lit by bonfires in his honor.
The day after his arrival, he wrote Thomas Mifflin, President of Congress, inquiring as to the desire of Congress regarding the proper way for Washington to return his commission, whether by letter or in person. Congress decided on a public audience to be held on the 23rd, as well as appointing Thomas Jefferson, Elbridge Gerry and James McHenry to draft a response to the General's speech. While Jefferson is a figure familiar to us today, the others were also well-known at the time. Mifflin was a Pennsylvania merchant and first Quartermaster General of the Continental Army. He became President of Congress in November 1783, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and first governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, serving for nine years. Gerry was a Massachusetts merchant, an early supporter of independence, serving in the Continental Congress in 1776. Although a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, he was one of three to vote against the document. Later elected governor of Massachusetts, he also served as Vice-President during the second term of James Madison. McHenry, a physician from Maryland and aide to Washington and Lafayette during the war, delegate to the Constitutional Convention and, from 1796 to 1800, Secretary of War under Washington and John Adams, is the man for whom Ft McHenry in Baltimore Harbor was named.
An entertainment was held the evening before at Mann's Tavern, followed by a ball given by the Maryland General Assembly. The General opened by dancing with one of the ladies, and reportedly danced every dance that evening (George was reputed to be a very good dancer).
When Washington entered the State House late the next morning, members of Congress remained seated, a gesture meant to emphasize the primacy of civilian over military. The General also took a seat, though the surrounding crowd remained standing. President Mifflin announced Congress was in session and assembled to hear a communication from General Washington. The General rose and spoke:
The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place; 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, and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the Service of my Country.
Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable Nation, I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence. A diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task, which however was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our Cause, the support of the Supreme Power of the Union, and the patronage of Heaven.
The Successful termination of the War has verified the most sanguine expectations, and my gratitude for the interposition of Providence, and the assistance I have received from my Countrymen, increases with every review of the momentous Contest.
While I repeat my obligations to the Army in general, I should do injustice to my own feelings not to acknowledge in this place the peculiar Services and distinguished merits of the Gentlemen who have been attached to my person during the War. It was impossible the choice of confidential Officers to compose my family should have been more fortunate. Permit me Sir, to recommend in particular those, who have continued in Service to the present moment, as worthy of the favorable notice and patronage of Congress.
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.
Having now finished the work assigned me, 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 my leave of all the employments of public life.
Washington then handed his commission and a copy of the speech to President Mifflin, who responded, ". . . Called upon by your country to defend its invaded rights, you accepted the sacred charge, before it had formed alliances, and whilst it was without funds or a government to support you . . .", ending with these words:
And for you we address to him our earnest prayers, that a life so beloved may be fostered with all his care; that your days may be happy as they have been illustrious; and that he will finally give you that reward which this world cannot give.
With that the ceremony ended. Washington and his aides quickly rode off and by Christmas Day he had reached Mount Vernon. Three and a half years later he would return to public life to preside over the Constitutional Convention.
Of the commission ceremony, the Maryland Gazette would write, "Few tragedies ever drew so many tears from so many beautiful eyes as the moving manner in which his Excellency took his final leave of Congress".
Later that day, James McHenry wrote a letter to his future wife, Margaret (Peggy) Caldwell, describing Washington's speech and reflecting on the meaning of the event:
The event also evoked astonishment and admiration in Europe. The artist John Trumbull (40 years later to paint the picture of the event that hangs in our capitol), was in London when news arrived of Washington's resignation, writing that it:. . . It was a solemn and affecting spectacle; such an one as history does not present. The spectators all wept, and there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears. The General’s hand which held the address shook as he read it. When he spoke of the officers who had composed his family, and recommended those who had continued in it to the present moment to the favorable notice of Congress he was obliged to support the paper with both hands. But when he commended the interests of his dearest country to almighty God, and those who had the superintendence of them to his holy keeping, his voice faultered and sunk, and the whole house felt his agitations . . .So many circumstances crowded into view and gave rise to so many affecting emotions. The events of the revolution just accomplished—the new situation into which it had thrown the affairs of the world—the great man who had borne so conspicuous a figure in it, in the act of relinquishing all public employments to return to private life—the past—the present—the future—the manner—the occasion—all conspired to render it a spectacle inexpressibly solemn and affecting.
“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.”And let us end with the response of Washington's foe, King George III, who, when informed by American artist Benjamin West of the general's planned resignation, reportedly exclaimed:
"If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."