1783 Two Hundred Years Ago

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The war was over and it was settled (after much negotiation) that the British rear guard would leave New York on December 4. George Washington’s work was done. There remained two emotionally charged tasks for him to perform: he would say farewell to his officers and resign his commission to the Congress of the United States.

The farewells were made on Friday, the fourth, at Fraunces Tavern in New York City. Washington entered the room a little after twelve and found the company—not a large one—waiting. They were not all of high rank nor were they all close acquaintances. It didn’t matter. Washington was overwhelmed; he tried to eat something, couldn’t do it, and poured a glass of wine. After a moment he trusted himself to begin: “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your later days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”

 

There was a general response. Washington now said simply: “I cannot come to each of you, but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.” The nearest officer was Henry Knox, chief of artillery, the man who had brought the cannon over the ice from Ticonderoga at the beginning of the war, eight years earlier. Knox stepped forward and held out his hand. His commander put his arms around him and kissed him. He then embraced every man present and left the tavern without another word.

On the twenty-third, he delivered his commission to Congress, which was convened in Annapolis. A ball had been given in his honor the night before, and Washington danced every set so that, as one guest observed, “all the ladies might have the pleasure of dancing with him. ” He started for the statehouse a little before noon and, on the hour, entered the room. Thomas Mifflin, president of the Congress, addressed him thus: “Sir, the United States in Congress assembled are prepared to receive your communications.” Washington bowed to the twenty-odd delegates and read from a manuscript. His hands were shaking. “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.” As he approached the end of his manuscript, he made a pause: he was too close to tears. “Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of action. … I here offer my commission, and take leave of all the employments of public life.”

He took from his pocket the commission he had received in 1775 and handed it to Mifflin. His horse was waiting, and he made it back to Mount Vernon before Christmas Eve, as he had promised his wife he would.