On December 4, 1783, George Washington bid farewell to his officers in prelude to resigning his commission in the Continental Army. This simple act affirmed Washington’s absolute commitment to republican government and cemented his reputation as a virtuous leader.
On that occasion, Washington said to his officers, “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”
Gen. Henry Knox then went to shake Washington’s hand and then embraced the tearful, departing hero.
American values are embodied, if at times somewhat inaccurately, in some of America’s most notable Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson is often seen as representing the commitment to individual liberty and equality, Alexander Hamilton the establishment of finance capitalism and Benjamin Franklin, ingenuity and inquisitiveness.
George Washington, undoubtedly, demonstrated the epitome of civic virtue.
Washington’s decision to resign from the Continental Army at the height of his power stemmed from the heart of what made the man tick. This seemingly simple act sealed his claim to the title, “Father of our country.”
In March of the previous year, Washington received a letter from one of his officers suggesting that because the republic had been so weak in time of war, he should make himself king. Washington’s response was ferocious and absolute.
Be assured, Sir, no occurrence in the course of the War, has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the army as you have expressed [which] I must view with abhorrence, and reprehend with severity. If I am not deceived in the knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable… Let me conjure you then, if you have any regard for your Country, concern for yourself or posterity, or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your Mind…
Monarchy, once considered an acceptable part of republican government, had become an entirely rejected concept in the colonies, as Americans had gone from appealing to King George III in the days before the revolution to damning his name and the very existence of kings. Although no scholar or political theorist, Washington knew by reason, instinct and experience that republican government would require both civilian control and a powerful chief executive in time of war.
Washington rose to the challenge when his country called on him to take command of the ragtag Continental Army in 1775. Washington had been a wealthy and comfortable man under British rule, but liberty was under threat and his new country needed him.
Following Washington’s acceptance as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he fought an uneven, but ultimately brilliant military campaign to dislodge the British from the newly formed United States. Although often denigrated as a military commander by revisionist historians, Washington sent home many talented British generals and defeated the British Army in North America, all while dealing with a weak and vacillating congress that lacked the cohesion and the finances to wage an effective war against the world’s foremost power.
Gen. David Palmer, in the Regnery Publishing book, George Washington’s Military Genius, convincingly counters Washington’s critics and explains why he was a brilliant strategist.
(You can read my review of George Washington’s Military Genius and interview with Gen. Palmer here.)
Although Washington was not an expert in constitutional government like many of his contemporaries, his understanding of history and love of the classics informed his opinion about how he should act at the close of the war. This would be the ultimate test of character for the “indispensable man” of the American Revolution.
Washington , like most educated Americans during the Revolution, was inspired by the story of Cincinnatus, a Roman senator and farmer who was appointed dictator to fight a foreign army in a time of incredible distress for the republic. After defeating his enemies, Cincinnatus retired back to his farm and returned to his plow. This was the model for civic virtue and was undoubtedly on the minds of Americans when Washington departed from his army.
The play Cato: A Tragedy, by English playwright Joseph Addison was another of Washington’s influences. The tale, set in the final days of the Roman republic, revolves around the great Roman senator, Cato the Younger, who opposed the absolute rule by Julius Caesar and denounced the military chieftain publicly. Ultimately, Cato ends up falling on his sword rather than make a deal with the tyrant. Cato: A Tragedy was enormously popular amongst Americans during the Revolution, and Washington loved it so much that he had it performed at Valley Forge.
So when Washington was presented with the great question of whether to seize power or preserve constitutional government, he had no doubt about which path to choose. Washington would not become a tyrant like Julius Caesar, and, like Cincinnatus, he would return to his plantation, abandoning military life when his task was finished.
Washington’s act was so shocking to leaders in Europe that when King George III heard that Washington was going to resign he exclaimed, “If he does that he will be the greatest man in the world.”
One of Washington’s biographers, James Thomas Flexner, said in his introduction to Washington: The Indispensable Man, “…George Washington is alive. Or to put it more accurately, millions of George Washington’s are alive. Washington’s have been born and have died for some two centuries.”
Whenever an American decides to serve his country by donning the nation’s uniform and swearing to defend the Constitution, he is embodying the civic virtue that made Washington great, America strong and our country a republic.