This Week in History
December 18-24, 1783
Washington Resigns His Commission; —
Returns to Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve
On Dec. 23, 1783, George Washington entered the Maryland Statehouse at Annapolis and returned his commission as Major General of the Continental Army to the President of the Continental Congress. This was a source of wonder to many in Europe, who had assumed that the victorious general could now claim a throne or even a total dictatorship. But Washington was aiming toward the establishment of a true republic, and his words and actions during the fall and winter of 1783-84 made his ultimate goal crystal clear.
During the summer and fall, while the final negotiations for independence were taking place, Washington was planning for the settlement of Ohio and the new lines of transportation infrastructure which would be built to the west. When he penned his farewell orders to the Continental Army, he reminded his soldiers of the extraordinary nature of what they had accomplished:
"The singular interpositions of Providence in our feeble condition were such, as could scarcely escape the attention of the most unobserving; while the unparalleled perseverance of the armies of the United States, through almost every possible suffering and discouragement for the space of eight long years, was little short of a standing miracle."
On Nov. 25, the Continental Army escorted the Governor of New York as he reestablished civilian rule over New York City. Then, Washington bade an emotional farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern and boarded a barge which took him across the harbor to New Jersey. In Philadelphia, he was greeted with parades and illuminations, and he managed to take the time to buy Christmas gifts for his wife Martha and their two adopted children, Eleanor and George Washington Parke Custis. The Washingtons had adopted their two youngest grandchildren after Martha's son, Jack Custis, had died of camp fever shortly after serving at the Battle of Yorktown.
General Washington then left Philadelphia for the Maryland Statehouse in Annapolis, where the Continental Congress was meeting. He took his written commission out of his coat and addressed the President of Congress:
"Mr. President: 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."
Although George Washington was able to reach Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve, as he had promised Martha, his resignation from the military did not mean that he would not be active as a private citizen. As soon as the new year began, he again took up his campaign to ensure that the weak and bankrupt American Government under the Articles of Confederation would be replaced by a superior form of republic. As he had written to the Marquis de Lafayette in 1783,
"We stand, now, an Independent People, and have yet to learn political Tactics. We are placed among the nations of the Earth, and have a character to establish; but how we shall acquit ourselves, time must discover.
"The probability (at least I fear it), is that local or State politics will interfere too much with the more liberal and extensive plan of government, which wisdom and foresight, freed from the mist of prejudice, would dictate; and that we shall be guilty of many blunders in treading this boundless theatre, before we shall have arrived at any perfection in this art; in a word, that the experience, which is purchased at the price of difficulties and distress, will alone convince us that the honor, power, and true Interest of this Country must be measured by a Continental scale, and that every departure therefrom weakens the Union, and may ultimately break the band which holds us together."