Humble Statesman: How George Washington’s Selfless Resignation Ensured Power Remained With the American People
George Washington deserves to be remembered as possibly the greatest figure in American history. He led the Continental Army to victory over the British in the American Revolution against unbelievable odds. He was the only president in U.S. history to be unanimously elected. Washington served as the first president of the United States for two terms, establishing the office and its precedents and customs for all future presidents to follow. We may not even have had a United States of America without Washington’s contributions. Twice during his life, Washington achieved great accomplishments by doing something very uncharacteristic. He gave up. More specifically, he gave up power.
Washington was honored and humbled to have been commissioned as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army by the 2nd Continental Congress in June of 1775. He did not think that he was adequate for the task given to him and even tried to avoid it, but Washington’s unending commitment to duty, honor, and his country prevailed. The humble statesman reluctantly accepted the position as commander-in-chief. General Washington proved himself an inspiring leader and innovative soldier as he commanded his men throughout the remainder of the war.
When military victory was secured at Yorktown in 1781, General Washington believed that he needed to stay in charge of the army until peace was secured. He could not step down until the British army left the United States, the American Revolution was totally resolved and the new nation was firmly standing on its own, ready to take its place in the world. Only then would he feel comfortable resigning the powers given to him by Congress in 1775.
General Washington was given great powers by the 2nd Continental Congress. The civil and military control he received were similar to a military dictator. He could have simply grabbed power and served over the United States as an absolute ruler or an “American King.” There were also some who felt that this should be what Washington should do to maintain stability for the new government and nation. But, like the story of the Roman general, Cincinnatus, Washington gave his power back to the people, where he felt it belonged.
Washington would have been familiar with the classical story of the Roman general, Cincinnatus, who was a former Roman general given military and political power back when Rome was invaded. After repelling the invasion, Cincinnatus resigned his position and returned to his retirement. Washington longed to do the same thing. Because of the similarities between the two men, Washington is sometimes referred to as the “American Cincinnatus.”
Washington actually “retired” for the first time in 1758 and returned to his Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon, to be a farmer and gentleman for the rest of his life or so he thought. But, as tension mounted in the American colonies in the 1770s, Washington came out of retirement and attended meetings of the 1st and 2nd Continental Congresses. Because of his military experience and reputation, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1775 and served in that capacity until 1783.
In late 1783, Washington felt it was time to retire again. British soldiers had left New York, the Treaty of Paris was signed, and peace appeared to be a reality in the new nation. He was anxious to go home to Mount Vernon again and live out his days in the company of his wife, family and friends. He decided to give his powers and position back to the Congress and the people that had granted them to him in 1775.
He arrived in December of 1783 in Annapolis, Maryland, the then capital of the United States and delivered his remarks to the assembly present at the Maryland State House. He thanked Congress for their trust in him and stated his intent to resign from the service of his nation. Washington thanked the officers who had served with him throughout the war and whom he considered members of his family. Washington recommended Congress take notice of those officers and their service to the young nation. He then prayed that God would watch over the United States and its people. Washington followed by resigning his commission and departing to spend Christmas at Mount Vernon with his family.
Rarely in history do you find someone giving up power. The more power you possess, the tougher it may be to let it go. But, when you are selfless and think of what is best for others, specifically your nation, the decision may come easily. George Washington was this rare, selfless leader who had a tremendous love for this nation which he helped create. He knew that if the nation were to move along, he needed to give his power back to the people. By doing so, he helped to finish the final act of the war and to make the American Revolution a true revolution of power from kings to the people.
The quote by King George III of Great Britain in 1797 poetically and fittingly describes the impact of Washington’s selfless act of resigning his commission. When discussing the legacy of George Washington, the king said that Washington’s actions in giving up his commission made him the “most distinguished of any man living.” Now, we can add that Washington is one of the most distinguished men in history.
Val Crofts is a Social Studies teacher from Janesville, Wisconsin. He teaches as Milton High School in Milton, Wisconsin and has been there 16 years. He teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics, U.S. History and U.S. Military History. Val has also taught for the Wisconsin Virtual School for seven years, teaching several Social Studies courses for them. Val is also a member of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission celebrating the 250th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
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