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Hats On For General Washington
Resigning his commission, the military hero joined Congress in acting out a strict protocol to symbolize the supremacy of civil government
August 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 5
It was my privilege some time ago to discuss the fundamentals of American government with President Eisenhower. The talk led to George Washington. Mr. Eisenhower said that, in his view, the great hour of Washington’s life came at Valley Forge where, militarily speaking, Washington achieved a miracle.
I doubt anyone will want to gainsay Mr. Eisenhower on a military opinion. On the other hand, civilians may turn their eyes on Washington’s civil career to see if they discern similar evidence of divine inspiration there.
I am quite satisfied on the subject. There were times when, acting to influence our nation’s future, Washington so divested himself of the ambitions common to men in his position as to take on the semblance of an instrument of Providence. He did this, for instance, when he resigned his commission.
It was just a year after the Revolution—December 33, 1783—and the nation was in a dangerous crisis. The war was won, but not the peace. The central authority was the Continental Congress, and it, for two reasons, was incapable of performing the acts of government. One of these reasons was a lack of executive power. The other was a monstrous indifference that extended through the mechanism of representative government, from top to bottom.
Some of the states simply did not bother to elect any representatives to the national legislature whatever, while a good many of the men who were elected did not bother to travel to the city where Congress met, and—worse—numbers of those who were elected and did go did not bother to attend the sessions.
The Continental Congress, in short, was without prestige. The place of its meeting, that memorable winter, was the capital of Maryland, Annapolis, and the very fact of being there was a reminder of a recent humiliation. For the preceding summer, meeting in Philadelphia, its members had had to flee the city for safety’s sake. A mob of mutinous soldiers, angry because their pay was late, had surrounded the congressional hall and threatened to come in and do violence if their demands were not satisfied. What Congress had done was simply to go away, with what dignity it could muster. It moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where it finished out the session. It then chose Annapolis for its next place of assembly.
When it arrived in the new meeting place, however, it continued to be plagued with the old indifference. Only nine states were represented, and two of these—New Hampshire and South Carolina—had to be discounted, as each had sent but one man. So it was actually a count of seven states out of thirteen that could be called present, and they only by reason of partial delegations. In all, just eighteen men were present.
Beside this distraction in the civil government, the prestige enjoyed by George Washington, the soldier, makes a striking contrast. At the time he was looked up to as a superman. He occupied a position, indeed, that has brought fatality to many free governments—he was the beloved Strong Man. He chose this time to visit Congress.
On December 4, in New York City, he had bidden his military family a professional and personal farewell. He had then set out for Annapolis, letting it be known that he intended to resign his commission—take his officiai farewell from public service—as soon as he reached Congress. But he had not yet done so. He was still the general in fact and he was the hero in popular estimation.
He had constant evidence of the latter condition as he went along. In the three cities through which he passed—Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore—he was received with town-wide celebration. To the official welcomes, moreover, there was added a frenzy of popular acclaim. How many men, seeing a nation thus at their feet, have put principle above ambition? It has happened again and again in history that a liberator has fallen into temptation —and ended as a tyrant. It could have happened to us, had God not vouchsafed us George Washington.
The triumphal quality of his journey came to a climax as he approached Annapolis. He was met outside the city by a welcoming committee of distinguished civil and military officers. Thirteen cannon were discharged in salute as he entered the town. He was in a position to hold a veritable court—but he took no advantage of the fact. Instead, early the next day, he made it his first act to pay dutiful respect to the president of the Congress.
A personal shading enters in here, that throws Washington’s invincible correctness into wonderful relief. For it happened that the president was Thomas Mifflin, a former general of Washington’s staff who had not rated high in Washington’s estimation. Washington, indeed, had felt he had reason to suspect Mifflin’s loyalty to himself. But Mifflin was now the civil head of the nation Washington served, and Washington unhesitatingly paid him deference.
The same day, December so, he sent a letter to Congress, asking permission to resign, and—still with his awe-inspiring correctness—requesting that he be notified as to the manner in which Congress wished to receive the resignation —in writing or by audience. Congress, the meantime, had been making its preparation. It had appointed Thomas Jefferson, Elbridge Gerry, and James McHenry a committee to arrange the resignation ceremony.