October 15, 2007


The Most Important Moment in American History By Thomas Fleming

At noon on December 23, 1783, General George Washington walked to the state house in Annapolis, Md, where the Continental Congress was meeting. Congress had fled from Philadelphia earlier in the year when a few hundred soldiers demanding long overdue pay had surrounded Independence Hall. The solons had wandered first to the village of Princeton, New Jersey and then to this state capital on Chesapeake Bay. Their dolorous lack of courage and their total bankruptcy had made the so-called lawmakers the laughing stock of America and Europe. [...]

Congress had failed to keep its word– failed miserably. Instead of gratitude, they had heaped abuse on the officers, accusing them of wanting to become “leeches” living off the labor of their patriotic fellow citizens. Yet here was General Washington, bowing to the politicians who had callously dismissed the men who had won the eight year struggle with England.

How did Washington do it? To an uncanny degree, he combined realism about politics and human nature with an ability to see beyond the moment, to retain a vision of what the United States of America could become, if it found political leaders with courage and integrity.

The General drew his speech out of his coat pocket and unfolded it with hands that trembled with emotion. "Mr. President," he began in a low strained voice. "The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place (the peace treaty with England) I now have 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."

Washington’s former aide de camp, Colonel James McHenry, was sitting as a delegate from Maryland. McHenry recalled that at this point, Washington's voice "faultered and sunk...[and] the whole house felt his agitation." But he recovered his composure and "proceeded...in the most penetrating manner."

"Happy in the confirmation of our independence and sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable nation, I resign with satisfaction the appointment I accepted with diffidence." Washington thanked the country and the army for its support. He added that he hoped Congress would do something to acknowledge the "distinguished merits" of "the gentlemen who have been attached to my person during the war" -- his aides.

This reference to the officers that were also personal friends, members of his military “family,” ignited some of the painful emotions Washington had felt when he predicted that that Congress’s failure to keep its promise to pay all the officers would embitter every moment of his future life. The feelings were still so intense, he had to grip the speech with both hands to keep it steady. He continued: "I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping."

For a long moment, Washington could not say another word. Tears streamed down his cheeks. These words touched a vein of religious faith in his inmost soul, born of battlefield experiences that had convinced him of the existence of a caring God. This faith now included the belief that the birth of the American nation was part of God’s plan. But it did not stifle the doubt and anger and frustration with which he had wrestled in recent months. The tears bore witness to his inner anguish – and his continuing hope.

General Washington drew from his coat a parchment copy of his appointment as commander in chief, dated June 15, 1775 -- eight and one half years ago. "Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theater of action and bidding farewell to this august body under whom I have long acted, I here offer my commission and take leave of all the employments of public life." Stepping forward, Washington handed the document to President Mifflin.

This was -- is -- the most important moment in American history. The man who could have dispersed a feckless Congress and obtained for himself and his officers riches worthy of their courage was renouncing absolute power to become a private citizen. He was putting himself at the mercy of politicians over whom he had no control and in whom he had little confidence. This visible incontrovertible act did more to affirm America's faith in the government of the people than a thousand declarations by legislatures and treatises by philosophers.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 15, 2007 12:00 AM
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