by Robert Morrison
December 23, 2013
The day will doubtless pass quietly in Maryland’s capital. Christmas shoppers will crowd onto Generals Highway, mostly unaware that its name comes from General Washington’s visit to this little town two hundred thirty years ago. Still, General Washington’s resigning his commission in Annapolis deserves to be remembered.
It was the final scene of the American Revolution. Congress had been meeting for months in Annapolis, working on ratification of the Treaty of Paris. That was the signed and sealed document by which Great Britain would officially recognize our Independence. The final great military clash of the war, the Battle of Yorktown, more than two years earlier, had resulted in an American victory with the indispensable aid of thousands of French soldiers and sailors.
A tall and powerful figure in the saddle, Washington was described by his fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, as the best horseman of the age. Washington had ridden all the way from New York to Annapolis for this occasion, his journey interrupted by countless tributes and toasts. Many of the towns through which he passed saluted his arrival with booming cannon and ringing church bells.
Now, nearing the holidays, Gen. Washington had one last duty to perform before returning to his beloved Mount Vernon plantation for Christmas Eve. Washington spent four days in Annapolis in a round of dinners and receptions. The night before his resignation was spent in dancing. He was a superb dancer and the ladies of what was called “first fashion” wanted to dance with him. He danced every dance.
The General entered the Old State House to appear before Congress. The members made a point of remaining seated; there would be no bowing to Washington, as if he were a monarch. Instead, His Excellency bowed to them. It was his way of showing his deference to the civilian authority that he had obeyed faithfully throughout his eight years as Commanding General of the armies and navy of the United States.
Jefferson, a member from Virginia, especially appreciated this in Washington. Years later, he would reflect: “The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”
Washington was not abandoning the country he loved. He commended the nation to “the protection of Almighty God” and asked Him to keep those who governed America in His “holy keeping.” Washington’s hands shook as he pronounced the words. A cloud of witnesses recorded the scene in letters and diaries. And the Maryland Archives proudly preserves his handwritten speech. Yet, today, some historians persist in telling us Washington was not very religious.
Perhaps no other military figure in American history deserves such acclaim. Most of Washington’s battles were defeats. Yet, Washington held the Army and the Union together with his firm leadership.
Author Richard Brookhiser tells this remarkable story of Washington’s steadying presence, not at a great victory, but at a planned and carefully staged retreat. A Rhode Island veteran of the Continental Army described the scene. You can tell the men were on the verge of panic, but:
There was only one bridge over the stream, and as his unit was hurrying across it, he saw that Washington had posted himself on the other side, to oversee the retreat. All the while there was an artillery duel going on between the British and the Americans on the other side of the creek. As he crossed the bridge, [the teenage soldier] was jostled against Washington’s boot and the flank of his horse. He remembered — 50 years later — that the horse was as firm as the rider and seemed to know that he was not to quit his station. What the man did not say is that, at the moment of contact, he also knew this because Washington’s presence gave him a sense that all was not chaos, that the battle was under control,
Before Annapolis, some of Washington’s young officers pleaded with him not to surrender his commission to Congress, but to seize the reins of power. The country was adrift, they said, and the hard-won prize of Independence was in jeopardy as the economy languished and foreign states — including Muslim hostage takers along the Barbary Coast of North Africa — held American liberties in contempt.
I cannot act, Washington firmly replied, the people must act. But, Your Excellency, his worried young aides retorted, the people do not understand how bad things really are. Unmoved, Washington answered with that same firmness he had shown at the bridge, at a hundred bridges: “The people must feel an evil before they can see it.”
It’s worth considering as we face another critical period in our country’s life. At home, ObamaCare threatens basic freedoms as no other measure has in 230 years, especially religious freedom. Abroad, hateful regimes that murder missionaries and imprison pastors are bent on obtaining nuclear weapons. Americans are certainly feeling the evil.
Our task is to remember that steadfastness of Washington at the bridge. He showed his respect for constitutional principles when he freely surrendered his commission to those from whose hands he had received it. King George III, once his bitter foe, said if he does that then he truly will be “the greatest man in the world.” And historian Joseph Ellis calls it “the greatest exit in American history.”