[guest post by JVW]
This is my annual post about the Greatest American of Them All, published on his birthday. Here for reference are the past posts commemorating the event:
This year as we observe the return to power in the House of Representatives of the political party who ran things eight years ago, including pretty much the very same leadership team in place now as was then, it’s probably worthwhile to take a moment to consider the Cincinnatian nature of George Washington’s willingness to relinquish power and return to life as a private citizen — not just once, but like Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus before him, twice in his eventful lifetime.
By the beginning of the fall of 1783, the Treaty of Paris had been negotiated and the draft was circulating throughout the former colonies inviting speculation and debate, but also signaling to Americans that freedom was indeed at hand. General Washington, who by now had been in command of the Continental Army for over eight years, had already dismissed the notion of becoming a king of the new nation, and desired to return to Mount Vernon to once again ride around his plantation watching the wheat and rye grow, counting the chickens and hogs, brewing beer and distilling whiskey. With peace about to go into effect, the time was now right for him to step down. In March of 1783 the Commander-in-Chief had used his guile and theatrical presence to quell the Newburgh Conspiracy (our 2016 post), and by the end of the summer most of the issues regarding soldiers’ back-pay and bonuses had been settled. At last, Washington could surrender his command and go home, having gone the past eight years without so much as a weekend furlough.
That June, General Washington drafted a final Circular Letter to the States intending it to be distributed throughout the land, a practice in which he had engaged throughout the war whenever he felt it advisable to do so. In it, he sought to take stock of the accomplishments of the young nation over the past several years:
The Citizens of America, placed in the most enviable condition, as the Sole Lords and Proprietors of a vast tract of Continent, comprehending all the various soils and climates of the World, and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniences of life, are now by the late satisfactory pacification, acknowledged to be possessed of absolute freedom and Independency; They are, for this period, to be considered as Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designed by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity.
Here, it would seem, the Father of his Country was telling his children that the good fight had been fought, the race had been run, the faith had been kept, and they needed to understand that their leader should now be allowed to take his leave. When his friend and devoted protégé the Marquis de Lafayette suggested a grand tour of Europe, visiting the capital cities (presumably not London) in triumph, the General made it clear that he intended to remain on the banks of the Potomac and could do without the overseas folderol.
That November, word arrived from Paris that the signatories had all agreed to the treaty that formally ended the American Revolution. He bade an emotional farewell to the soldiers, deeming them “one patriotic band of brothers,” then on December 4 he gathered his officers at the Fraunces Tavern in New York for a goodbye to his commanders who had performed so valiantly. Never a man for physical contact — he was no fan of shaking hands and preferred instead a more formal bow as a greeting — the General invited each of the men present to come and take his hand in a gesture of fellowship and respect.
His final farewell came nineteen days later in Annapolis, where the Confederation Congress was temporarily in session. There, in what was later said to be a poignant and heart-rendering ceremony, General George Washington surrendered his command and once again became a private citizen: “Having now finished the work assigned me,” he told the gathering, “I retire from the great theater of action. [. . .] I here offer my commission, and take my leave all of the enjoyments of public life.” He then turned on his heel, strode to the door where a horse was waiting for him, mounted and rode off into legend. The Indispensable Man had taught his countrymen that in a true republic no one need be indispensable.