According to the majority of eighteenth and nineteenth century historians, the most remarkable event during America's Founding Era did not take place on a battlefield. It did not occur during the course of the constitutional debates. It was not recorded during the great diplomatic negotiations with France, Spain, or Holland. It did not take place at sea, or in the assemblies of the states, or in the counsels of war. It was instead when the field commander of the continental armies surrendered his commission to the congressional authorities at Annapolis.
It was instead a humble demonstration of servanthood. It was when General George Washington resigned his officer's commission.
At the time, he was the idol of the country and his soldiers. The army was unpaid, and the veteran troops, well armed and fresh from their victory at Yorktown, were eager to have him take control of the disordered country. Some wanted to crown him king. Others thought to make him a dictator--rather like Cromwell had been a century earlier in England.
With the loyal support of the army and the enthusiasm of the populous, it would have been easy enough for Washington to make himself the ruler of the new nation. But instead, he resigned. He appeared before President Thomas Mifflin, his cabinet, and the assembled Congress of the United States and submitted himself to their governance on December 23, 1783.
Writing of the remarkable scene that then ensued, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, exclaimed, “Which was the most splendid spectacle ever witnessed--the opening feast of Prince George in London, or the resignation of Washington? Which is the noble character for after-ages to admire--yon fribble dancing in lace and spangles, or yon hero who sheathes his sword after a life of spotless honor, a purity unreproached, a courage indomitable, and a consummate victory?”
The answer to most Americans was obvious: Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
Though he had often wrangled in disagreement with his superiors over matters of military strategy, pay schedules, supply shipments, troop deployment, and the overlap of civil and martial responsibilities, there was never any question of his ultimate loyalty or allegiance. In the end, he always submitted himself to the authority God had placed over him. And that was no mean feat.
“His true greatness was evidenced,” said Henry Adams, “in the fact that he never sought greatness, but rather service.” The dean of American historians, Francis Parkman concurred that it was this “remarkable spirit of the servant” that ultimately “elevated him even higher in his countrymen's estimations than he already was.” And biographer Paul Butterfield, wrote, “He never countenanced the sin of omission when it came to duty to God or country. His was a life of constant service in the face of mankind's gravest need.” Thus, historian John Richard Green commented, “no nobler figure ever stood in the forefront of a country's life. Never did he shrink from meeting the need of the hour. He was our national guardian.”
Following the surrender of his commission Washington quietly retired to private life at his home on the Potomac River, Mount Vernon—becoming an American Cincinnatius.
Of course, it would only be a short retirement. The controversy over the ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation, the wrangling of rival states, and the need for a new form of republican federalism ultimately brought him back into public life and ultimately to the presidency itself.
John Greenleaf Whittier would later write a ballad to celebrate Washington's extraordinary commitment to liberty and his submission to authority. It is among the greatest of Washington's memorials:
The sword was sheathed: In April's sun
Lay green the fields by Freedom won;
And severed sections, weary of debates,
Joined hands at last and were United States.
O City sitting by the Sea!
How proud the day that dawned on thee,
When the new era, long desired, began,
And, in its need, the hour had found the man!
One thought the cannon salvos spoke,
The resonant bell-tower's vibrant stroke,
The voiceful streets, the plaudit-echoing halls,
And prayer and hymn borne from Saint Paul's!
How felt the land in every part
The strong throb of a nation's heart,
As its great leader gave, with reverent awe,
His pledge to Union, Liberty, and Law!
That pledge the heavens above him heard,
That vow the sleep of centuries stirred;
In world-wide wonder listening peoples bent
Their gaze on Freedom's great experiment.
Could it succeed? Of honor sold
And hopes deceived all history told.
Above the wrecks that strewed the mournful past,
Was the long dream true at last?
Thank God! The people's choice was just,
The one man equal to his trust,
Wise beyond lore, and without weakness good,
Calm in the strength of flawless rectitude!
His rule of justice, order, peace,
Made possible the world's release;
Taught prince and serf that power is but a trust,
And rule alone, which serves the ruled, is just.
That Freedom generous is, but strong
In hate of fraud and selfish wrong,
Pretence that turns her holy truth to lies,
And lawless license masking in her guise.
Land of his love! With one glad voice
Let thy great sisterhood rejoice;
A century's suns o'er thee have risen and set,
And, God be praised, we are one nation yet.
And still we trust the years to be
Shall prove his hope was destiny,
Leaving our flag, with all its added stars,
Unrent by faction and unstained by wars.
Lo! Where with patient toil he nursed
And trained the new-set plant at first,
The widening ranches of a stately tree
Stretch from the sunrise to the sunset sea.
And in its broad and sheltering shade,
Sitting with none to make afraid,
Were we now silent, through mighty limb,
The winds of heaven would sing the praise of him.