Washington’s Historic Decision in 1783

by Nancy Spannaus

Dec. 23, 2023 –On this day 240 years ago, George Washington took an historic step toward ensuring that the newly victorious United States would become a republic.  In a small but  portentous ceremony held in Annapolis, Maryland, the General surrendered his commission, and put the future of the young nation in the hands of the Confederation Congress.

To say that the future of the nation was uncertain is a huge understatement. Very little had been resolved in terms of the country’s future in December of 1783. A series of near-mutinies by the unpaid soldiers of the Continental Army had been defused, but Congress had retreated out of Philadelphia for its own safety.  Attendance was spotty, a testament to the weakness of the body. After five months in Princeton, the country’s central legislative body had moved to Annapolis, and would soon migrate to Trenton, before taking up residence in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention in 1787. 

The peace treaty with Great Britain, France, and Spain had been signed in Paris in September, but Congress itself had not affixed its signature. Controversy swirled over issues like the continued British occupation of various forts, promised payments of debts to the Loyalists, and navigation on the Mississippi. On the economy, the British pursued a policy that threatened to cripple U.S. independence — restrictions on U.S. exports to the Caribbean, and a flooding of the U.S. market with cheap exports, in particular. Debts from the war remained unpaid, and in many states, taxation reached onerous proportions. Conflicts between the states over territorial claims and tariff rights were raging.

There was no lack of discussion in those days about the need to “restore order,” and as a victorious general, George Washington was the only available candidate to play that role. But Washington stuck by the policy he had pursued throughout the war — respecting civilian control over the military. The army had been mostly furloughed, and its General was committed to retiring. The elected representatives of the people were to be the determiners of the nation’s future. Whether they would live up to that responsibility remained to be seen.

In the following post, written two years ago, you will find more details on this momentous event.

Washington Resigns His Commission

By Edward and Nancy Spannaus

Dec. 27, 2021–On December 23, the Maryland Society Sons of the American Revolution (MDSSAR) held an event at the Maryland State House in Annapolis, to reenact and commemorate the anniversary of George Washington’s appearance before the Continental Congress to resign his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. As members of the SAR and DAR, we were pleased to attend this historic re-enactment, and learn more about this historic event.

A depiction of Washington resignation as Commander-in-Chief in 1783.

The December 23 event was held in the State House’s Old Senate Chamber, which has been restored to its 1783 appearance. It was opened by MDSSAR President Mark D. Deeds, who emphasized the “revolutionary” nature of General Washington’s action. He put it his way:

The Commander of all American Forces walked into this room and made history.  General George Washington resigned his military commission and placed the Continental Army under civilian control.  This was a first in modern history, that a conquering hero voluntarily gave military control back to a duly constituted civilian government.  This document is oft considered the 4th most important document in American History, after the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.  It also set the precedent that the American military would remain under civilian control.

The Protocol Is Set

Deeds then described the context for that solemn event in some detail. He noted that General Washington traveled to Maryland from New York City, where the General had celebrated “Evacuation Day” on Nov. 25; that was the day the British Army finally left Manhattan Island. The General then said farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern. When he arrived in Annapolis, which was then the seat of the Continental Congress, the General wrote to that body to inform them of his intent to resign his commission.

President of the Congress Thomas Mifflin, himself a General and a former strong critic of General Washington, established a committee consisting of Thomas Jefferson, James McHenry, and Elbridge Gerry to  script the events. That committee created a detailed protocol for the General’s presentation and the behavior of the members of Congress present.

When the day for the presentation came, the room and its gallery were crowded, heavily with onlookers.  The gallery was filled with female observers. Only five states were represented by Congressional delegates: Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Virginia. (Congress seldom had a quorum those days.) The General was accompanied by aides, and several other generals attended the event as well.

The statue of Washington in the Annapolis room where it happened. Photo by Ed Spannaus

The General entered the room at precisely 12 noon, in order to formally present his resignation. He delivered the following remarks:

Washington’s Resignation Speech

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.

This Historic Event Re-enacted

At the re-enactment ceremony, General Washington’s speech was presented by Major-General James Atkins, (USA retired). MDSSAR Deeds then listed those who were in the room at the original delivery, and turned to the reactions of both those present, and notable public figures at home and abroad.

The re-enactors at the 2021 event at the Annapolis state house.

The most prominent among them was a description of the event by a private audience member, Annapolis citizen Molly Ridout. DAR member Vicki Embrey, dressed in period costume, acted the part of Molly and read her letter to her mother, Ridout described the emotional tone of the event as follows:

… the General seemed so much affected himself that everybody felt for him, he addressed Congress in a short Speech but very affecting many tears were shed, he has retired from all public business & designs to spend the rest of his Days at his own Seat. I think the World never produced a greater man & very few so good – .

Deeds cited two other prominent responses to Washington’s renunciation of power. The first was from King George III. As reported by American painter Benjamin West to U.S. ambassador to Britain Rufus King, King George said the following to West in May of 1797:

In regard to General Washington, he told him since his resignation that in his opinion “that act closing and finishing what had gone before and viewed in connection with it, place him in a light the most distinguished of any man living, and that he thought him the greatest character of the age.”

The second was from the American artist, John Trumbull, a former aide-de-camp to Washington. After receiving word of Washington’s resignation in London, where he was at the time, he wrote to his brother that it “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.” Later, in describing his painting General George Washington Resigning His Commission, Trumbull said he considered Washington’s resignation “one of the highest moral lessons ever given to the world.”

Washington’s resignation of his command has led to the widespread comparison of him with the Roman General Cincinnatus, who similarly returned to civilian life (“his farm”) after having been drafted by his countrymen to wage war against threats to the Roman republic. Unlike Washington, Cincinnatus actually had dictatorial powers, which he then gave up as soon as victory over the threat had been achieved.

Washington’s decision to resign his position as Commander-in-Chief, however, had the utmost importance in establishing the principle of a republican form of government where the civilian authorities hold sway: a principle which the United States of America has upheld up to this day.

Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics and the just-published Defeating Slavery: Hamilton’s American System Showed the Way.

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