“There is a Christmas story at the birth of this country,” writes Thomas Fleming, “that very few Americans know.” As Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, “Washington had become as much a chief executive as the United States then had,” in the words of James Thomas Flexner. In May 1782, Colonel Lewis Nicola had urged Washington to accept the responsibility of becoming king of the United States. You can hear, courtesy of Charlton Heston, that Washington was not amused.
On December 23, 1783, Washington resigned his commission as Commander in Chief to the Continental army at the Maryland State House in Annapolis, where Congress was assembled. Washington could have seized the moment to don the mantle of a tyrant; instead he chose to return to private life. Washington concluded his brief remarks:
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.
Fleming designates Washington’s resignation “the most important moment in American history.” Fleming writes:
The man who could have dispersed this feckless Congress and obtained for himself and his soldiers rewards worthy of their courage was renouncing absolute power. By this visible, incontrovertible act, Washington did more to affirm America’s government of the people than a thousand declarations by legislatures and treatises by philosophers.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the greatest of these declarations, witnessed this drama as a delegate from Virginia. Intuitively, he understood its historic dimension. “The moderation. . . . of a single character,” he later wrote, “probably prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”
In Europe, Washington’s resignation restored America’s battered prestige. It was reported with awe and amazement in newspapers from London to Vienna. The Connecticut painter John Trumbull, studying in England, wrote that it had earned the “astonishment and admiration of this part of the world.”
Washington shook hands with each member of Congress and not a few of the spectators. Meanwhile, his aides were bringing their horses and baggage wagons from their hotel. They had left orders for everything to be packed and ready for an immediate departure.
The next day, after an overnight stop at a tavern, they rode at a steady pace toward Mount Vernon. Finally, as twilight shrouded the winter sky, the house came into view beside the Potomac River. Past bare trees and wintry fields the three horsemen trotted toward the white-pillared porch and the green shuttered windows, aglow with candlelight. Waiting for them at the door was Martha Washington and two grandchildren. It was Christmas eve. Ex-Gen. Washington–and the United States of America–had survived the perils of both war and peace.