- Historic Sites
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
These gentlemen established the .protocol. It would seem to speak for itself. They advised Washington that he would be accorded a public audience and set the time for noon, December 23. He was to come accompanied by two aides. On entering the hall, he would be shown to a seat, but his aides should remain standing. He should wait until the president of the Congress gave him leave to speak. At the close of his address, he should return his commission to the president and hear the president’s reply. Thus went the stipulations for the routine of the ceremony. Added was a provision for the spirit.
This stated that, until the resignation was finished, the members of Congress would remain seated and would keep their hats on. They would not rise in honor of General Washington, nor would they spontaneously give him the courtesy of bared heads. On the contrary, he was to bow to Congress, when he rose to make his address, and again when he ended, and the members—such is the curious specification of the protocol—were to acknowledge his obeisances only by briefly lifting their hats. They were not to bow. They were not even to stand up.
Today, even keeping in mind the punctilio of the Eighteenth Century, anyone will feel that Congress’ emphasis on its own dignity had a defensive quality. What Congress had forgotten was that George Washington, more than any one man in the country, was responsible for representative government.
He had three days to wait after he received these stipulations. They were filled with tribute. He received visits from all the distinguished people of the countryside. He was honored by a great public banquet and a brilliant state ball. One act of his stands out significantly from this excitement of acclaim. It came at the banquet on the twenty-second. Thirteen toasts had been drunk, each to the discharge of cannon. The last was to Washington himself. He capped it. He offered, “Competent Powers to Congress for General Purposes.”
The next day he came to the State House—to resign. The ceremony took place in the room now known as the Old Senate Chamber. There were as many visitors present as the space could accommodate. The names, combined with those of the congressmen, make a virtual roster of our early history. There were Maryland’s four signers of the Declaration—Charles Carroll, Samuel Chase, Thomas Stone, William Paca. There were two future Presidents, besides Washington himself—Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. There were four Revolutionary generals—Horatio Gates, Arthur St. Clair, William Smallwood, and Thomas Mifflin. There were future Cabinet members—as Elbridge Gerry and McHenry.
Before the eyes of all these servants of our country, George Washington, the first man of the land, played out the servant’s part. At every point he conformed to the rules laid down by Congress, whose members were keeping their hats on in his presence. Only at the last, when he “drew out from his bosom” his commission, and placed the document in Thomas Mifflin’s hands, did he introduce any element not in the instructions. At that second his memories overcame him, and tears coursed down his cheeks. Then Washington once again bowed, and Congress uncovered. By that time, many of the audience were weeping too.
Today, the room where this drama occurred is kept by the state of Maryland as a virtual shrine. My duties as governor of Maryland take me past the door, and sometimes I stop. In that still and beautiful chamber, the presences seem always to live. And, as I see them in my mind, the moment is always the same—the one in which Washington bowed. As a civil officer of the American government, I shall always think that was his greatest hour.
Once the record has been brought up to date, the biographer commonly rounds off his work with the nominating speech delivered in the convention and the candidate’s speech of acceptance. Then, for a final section of all-out encomium, which makes the preceding material look niggardly, there is a conclusion whose title may be anything from “The Candidate at Home” to “General Remarks” or “His Character.” Here is the place to explain away any slight oddities, such as membership in a small or unusual sect whose tenets need full and favorable explication.
The candidate is naturally always religious but, even though General Harrison was once discovered praying “when he could not have supposed that any eye save that of God was resting on him,” over the years it has seemingly been thought less and less appropriate to stress piety. Church affiliation is expected, but freedom from church dictates is always emphasized for fear that voters may think a particular denomination will influence the candidate’s ideas.
By and large, however, no tribute is too great and no analogy too fantastic for the conclusion. For it the linotypist, or the hand printer before him, could keep conveniently set such words as: pure, noble, generous, brave, humane, upright, practical, intrepid, affable, independent, prudent, industrious, frank, honest, quick, authoritative, vigorous, and amiable. These are a few of the adjectives that pepper and salt the campaign biography as often as the hackneyed phrases: a man of the people, humble before God, a warrior and a friend of peace.