Dec. 23, 2011
Its the Generals Highway in my hometown of Annapolis. Few of the Christmas shoppers at the Mall probably stop to read the roadside marker. But it is so called because its the route that General George Washington took in 1783 to resign his commission to the American Congress. Congress had been meeting in Marylands capital city. The members had been run out of Philadelphia for failure to pay the troops. Some things dont change. A handsome flag, Americas first peacetime flag, was hanging from the Old State House where Congress was sitting.
Congress was eager then, as now, to get out of town. Christmas was fast approaching.
But this was important business. George Washington would appear before the civil authorities that had given him his power and voluntarily lay it down before the representatives of a free people. Eight long years of war had brought them to this point.
Few Americans dreamed of such a long war when Massachusetts Minutemen stood up to their red-coated British masters and fought for their liberty. That was in 1775.
Poets would later memorialize that day in stirring lines. School children in America used to memorize Ralph Waldo Emersons Concord Hymn.
By the rude bridge that archd the flood/Their flag to Aprils breeze unfurld/Here once the embattled farmers stood/And fired the shot heard round the world.
Washington had assumed command of the grandly named Continental Army in that year.
Chosen unanimously by the Continental Congress, this wealthy Virginia landholder was called His Excellency throughout the war. And, though he bombarded Congress with pleading, sometimes petulant letters, he never once hesitated to obey its orders or showed contempt for its endless dithering. Washington wrote of his men leaving bloody footprints in the snow, starving, and ill-clothed. He wanted Congress to meet its responsibilities to his brave men.
At Newburgh, New York, earlier in that year of 1783, His Excellency strode onto the stage in front of a hastily called grievance meeting of army officers. This was a point of maximum peril. Many a revolution had dissolved into mutiny and sedition at such a point. Grumbling against Congress had reached a high pitch. Uninvited, Washington nonetheless appeared, unarmed, before this embittered gathering. How easy it would have been for some young revolutionary to assassinate Washington on the spot and seize power at the head of an armed force. Knowing all this, Washington dramatically took his eyeglasses from his pocket to read a Congressmans letter to them. The letter would provide answers to their demands. Most of them had never seen the general wearing glasses before. Long a student of the theater, Washington paused, dramatically, then said quietly above the hush: You will pardon me, gentlemen, for I have grown not only gray but nearly blind in the service of my country.
Hardened veterans of many battles wept openly. The incipient mutiny collapsed and America was spared a bloody civil warright at the start.
Now, Washington was to appear before that very Congress. His appearance was no casual thing. He did not tell Congress he would address them. He asked to be permitted to speak. A committee that included Thomas Jefferson carefully prepared Congress response. Members would be seated, wearing their hats. The General would stand before The United States in Congress Assembled. In doing this, Mr. Jefferson thought it important to reverse the practices of the British House of Commons. Washington was no king. There would be no more kings in America.
Marylands Old State House was packed with congressmen, guests, young Army officers,
and ladies and gentlemen of Annapolis. Washington had not flinched when he faced British cannon at Princeton, but now his hands shook as he read his prepared text.
Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty…I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence. A diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task, which however was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our Cause, the support of the Supreme Power of the Union, and the patronage of Heaven.
Again, he emphasized, his gratitude for the interposition of Providence. When you have been shot at, had bullets pierce your hat and coat, had horses shot out from underneath, you have an appreciation of Gods Providence that perhaps exceeds that of ordinary men. In the presence of such a Power, its not surprising that Washingtons hands shook.
Everyone on the floor of Congress, it is recorded, wept. So, too, did all the visitors, including fine ladies, in the gallery. The President of Congress, Thomas Mifflin, delivered the response, drafted for him by Jefferson.
And then the General was off. He was in a hurry to get home to Mount Vernon for Christmas. It would be his first Christmas with his family in eight years. We can think this Christmas of all our brave soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen who are standing duty defending us. They march along the Generals Highway, too.
When King George III, Washingtons enemy, heard that he planned to resign his commission to Congress, the king exclaimed: If he does that, he will be the greatest man on earth. He did and he was.