John Trumbull, who would memorialize this great event in a painting which—commissioned in 1817 by Congress—now hangs in the United States Capitol Rotunda, called Washington’s resignation “one of the highest moral lessons ever given to the world.”
In an example of unrivaled statesmanship, General George Washington resigned his military commission at the State House in Annapolis, Maryland on December 23, 1783 to return to his Mount Vernon, Virginia home as a private citizen. Washington’s resignation was pivotal for American history because he willingly gave up power. He later participated in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia, and was unanimously elected president of the United States in 1789. He reluctantly accepted the presidency and rejected any form of kingship. In 1797, Washington again surrendered his position, allowing a fellow American to serve as president. The example Washington set for America’s republican form of government was that of a peaceful transfer of power, a requirement the nation would need to serve by leadership and freedom rather than dictatorship.
On December 4, 1783, George Washington said goodbye to his Generals, a poignant moment captured in a piece of iconic artwork, Washington’s Farewell to His Officers in an engraving by Phillebrown, from a painting by Alonzo Chappel. “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.”
The General then mounted his horse and turned towards Annapolis, Maryland. There was an appointment with destiny to keep. Washington was soon to become, in the words of King George III, “the greatest character of the age.”
The General and his entourage arrived in Annapolis on December 19, 1783. The normal 4-5-day trip had taken three times as long. They were feted along the 215 miles in every town and village they entered. Banquets, toasts, cannonades and the occasional militia demonstration had become familiar. Yet, this was no time for the General’s two aides to relax. Preparations and protocols had to be completed.
Promptly at noon on December 23, 1783, the highly scripted event began. Only twenty delegates from seven states were attending the Congress, greatly outnumbered by the Maryland Assembly whose larger chamber was borrowed for the event. The low attendance in Congress was not unusual. Three years later, little had changed. In a 1786 letter to Elbridge Gerry, Delegate Rufus King complained: “We are without money or the prospect of it in the Federal Treasury; and the States, many of them, care so little about the Union, that they take no measures to keep a representation in Congress.”
Historian Thomas Fleming explains what happened next:
Washington took a designated seat in the assembly chamber, and his two aides sat down beside him. The three soldiers wore their blue and buff Continental Army uniforms. The doors of the assembly room were opened and Maryland’s governor and the members of the state’s legislature crowded into the room, along with, in the words of one eyewitness, ‘the principal ladies and gentlemen of the city.’
Other ladies filled every seat in a small gallery above the chamber. The President of Congress, Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania, began the proceedings: “Sir, the United States in Congress assembled are prepared to receive your communications.”
“Mr. President,” Washington began,
The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place (the peace treaty with England) I now have 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.
Washington’s voice faltered, but he quickly recovered his composure and proceeded:
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.
He thanked the country and the army for its support and added that he hoped Congress would acknowledge the “distinguished merits” of “the gentlemen who have been attached to my person during the war”—his aides. At the reference to his aides, Washington became so emotional that he reportedly had to grip the speech with both hands to hold it steady.
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.
Tears streamed down the General’s ruddy cheeks.
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 handed his commission and a copy of his remarks to President Mifflin.
John Trumbull, himself a former aide-de-camp to Washington, who would memorialize this great event in a painting which, commissioned in 1817 by Congress, now hangs in the United States Capitol Rotunda, entitled General George Washington Resigning His Commission, called Washington’s resignation: “one of the highest moral lessons ever given to the world.”
Now unencumbered by his commission, Private Citizen George Washington, accompanied by Col. David Humphreys, literally galloped the 47 remaining miles to his beloved Mount Vernon home, arriving in time for Christmas Eve.
Republished with gracious permission from Constituting America.
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The featured image is “General George Washington Resigning His Commission” (commissioned in 1817, placed in the rotunda in 1824) by John Trumbull (1756–1843) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.