The Greatest Moment in American History

Politics During the War (1775-1783)

March 12, 2013
by Thomas Fleming Also by this Author


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Gen. George Washington Resigning his Commission by John Trumbull. Source: Architect of the Capitol
Gen. George Washington Resigning his Commission by John Trumbull. Source: Architect of the Capitol

Cannon boomed 13 rounds and the stylishly dressed citizens of Annapolis, Maryland, swarmed into the streets.  General George Washington was arriving, accompanied by only two aides. The next day, Washington wrote to Thomas Mifflin, the president of Congress, informing him of his desire to resign his commission as commander in chief.

The president read Washington’s letter to Congress and they responded with plans for a public dinner on December 22, 1783, and an “audience” for the resignation ceremony on December 23.

The dinner was described by one guest as “the most extraordinary feast I ever attended.” There were between two and three hundred gentlemen in the ballroom of the Maryland state house and the “cheerful voices” blended with the “clangor of knives and forks” to make a “delightful” din. Even more extraordinary, “not a soul got drunk although there was wine in plenty.” Perhaps that miracle can be attributed to Washington’s sobering toast: “Competent powers to Congress for general purposes!”

At noon on the following day,  Washington walked to the state house, where Congress was meeting. He 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.”

President Mifflin began the proceedings: “Sir, the United States in Congress assembled are prepared to receive your communications.”

Washington stood up and bowed. The members of Congress briefly took off their hats in response to the general’s bow. The rulers of the United States numbered only twenty delegates from nine states. For the preceding weeks, so few delegates showed up, they had lacked a quorum. For a while, they had not even been able to ratify the definitive treaty of peace, ending the War for Independence.

Having spent almost a week with Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris in Philadelphia, General Washington knew he was face to face with bankrupt politicians who had accomplished nothing since Yorktown. They had ignored his advice for a peacetime army. They had sent his officers home penniless, embittered and disgusted with their country.

Nevertheless, Washington understood the significance of what he was doing. He was testifying to the vital importance of a federal government for the fragile American union.

The general drew his speech out of his coat pocket and unfolded it with hands that trembled with emotion. “Mr. President,” he began in a low strained voice. “The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place; 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.”

A former aide, Dr. James McHenry, was sitting as a delegate from Maryland. McHenry recalled that at this point, Washington’s voice “faultered and sunk…[and] the whole house felt his agitation.” But he recovered his composure and “proceeded…in the most penetrating manner.”

“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.” The general went on to express his gratitude for the support of “my countrymen” and the “army in general.”

Next Washington hoped Congress would do something special to acknowledge the “distinguished merits” of “the gentlemen who have been attached to my person during the war” — in particular the two young men who sat beside him.

This reference to his officers ignited feelings  so intense, he had to grip the speech with both hands to keep it steady. He continued: “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 Washington’s cheeks. These words touched a vein of religious faith in his inmost soul, born of battlefield experiences that had convinced him of the existence of a caring God. They also ignited the feelings of regret and frustration he had experienced in trying to persuade his opinionated countrymen to give Congress the power it needed to create a meaningful union.

The deeply moved spectators “all wept,” Congressman McHenry recalled. “And there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears.”

General Washington drew from his coat a parchment copy of his appointment as commander in chief, dated June 15, 1775 — eight and one half years ago. “Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theater of action and bidding farewell to this august body under whom I have long acted, I here offer my commission and take leave of all the employments of public life.” Stepping forward, Washington handed the document to President Mifflin.

This was — is — the most important moment in American history. This man could have been King George I of America, or President General for Life after dispersing a feckless Congress and obtaining for himself and his officers riches worthy of their courage. Instead he was renouncing absolute power to become a private citizen, at the mercy of politicians over whom he had no control. This visible incontrovertible act did more to affirm America’s faith in the government of the people than a thousand declarations by legislatures and treatises by philosophers.


  • I do not understand Mr Fleming’s assertion that, “They had sent his officers home penniless, embittered and disgusted with their country.” If he is referring to the “conspiracy”
    at Newburgh, NY earlier in 1783, that is not what happened. As William Hogeland notes in his book, Founding Finance (pp. 91-94), “each general received $10,000 worth of interest bearing federal bonds at a time when the average family income was $200 per year.”

  • I don’t understand JMS’s objection. Is he flatly declaring that the officers did NOT go home disgusted and embittered? If so, I urge him to read my book, The Perils of Peace, in which I devote not a few pages to demonstrating this reality. I summed it up in my essay, The Hard Fate of the Regulars, published last week on this site. The “facts” he quotes are irrelevant. The interest paying bonds the generals received (and other officers in proportion) were worthless paper. They couldn’t be cashed by our bankrupt Congress. Moreover, they were vastly less than the seven years half pay pension that Congress had promised them.

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