Today in history: December 4, 1783

George Washington met with his officers in Fraunces Tavern here in New York City to resign his commission as Commander in Chief. It was an emotional moment. The war had been long. What would happen now? Fraunces Tavern was downtown (still is – amazing, right?) and Washington met with his officers and then walked outside to the nearby waterfront, and got on a barge that took him across the Hudson River, back to civilian life.

So let’s back into this.

On November 2, 1783, Washington made a farewell address to the armies of the United States. Washington, a very formal patrician man, had deep wells of emotion in him (that much of his meticulous manners had been devised to hide): titanic rage, deep feeling, and while often in his correspondence he comes across as robotic, and so formal that it’s hard to figure out what the damn dude is even SAYING – when the emotion gets too strong for him to hide (and it is usually rage that is the emotion), it sparks off the page at you. You can almost hear his living voice. His years-long haranguing of Congress and how badly they were managing the war is so frustrating to read now. You can feel his helplessness as he looks around at his nearly-naked starving troops, and you realize that Washington was not a man to be trifled with. You know, basically that he was 6 foot 8, weighs a fucking ton… And when he filled up with emotion it is so startling, the contrast with his regular formality. Someone like John Adams was a big ball of emotion at all times (for good or ill), and so his correspondence reads very differently than Washington’s. Adams is funny, sensitive, cranky, touchy, observant – they feel like letters you could receive today. But Washington’s are from another era entirely. It is hard to get a sense of the man, at times. In order to get a sense of him, you have to look at his actions – because the written word was not his forte. His Farewell Address, worked over and edited, is beautifully done, high-flung, inspirational. One can only imagine the response of the army who had stuck with him through years of war. Some excerpts from that address:

It is universally acknowledged, that the enlarged prospects of happiness, opened by the confirmation of our independence and sovereignty, almost exceeds the power of description. And shall not the brave men, who have contributed so essentially to these inestimable acquisitions, retiring victorious from the field of War to the field of agriculture, participate in all the blessings which have been obtained; in such a republic, who will exclude them from the rights of Citizens and the fruits of their labour. In such a Country, so happily circumstanced, the pursuits of Commerce and the cultivation of the soil will unfold to industry, the certain road to competence. To those hardy Soldiers, who are actuated by the spirit of Adventure the Fisheries will afford ample and profitable employment, and the extensive and fertile regions of the West will yield a most happy asylum to those, who, fond of domestic enjoyments are seeking for personal independence. Nor is it possible to conceive, that any one of the U States will prefer a national bankruptcy and a dissolution of the union, to a compliance with the requisitions of Congress and the payment of its just debts; so that the Officers and Soldiers may expect considerable assistance in recommencing their civil occupations from the sums due to them from the public, which must and will most inevitably be paid.

Ha. Shades of his anger at Congress there. You WILL pay the debt, Congress, you WILL. I DECLARE IT.

But here, in the closing of his Farewell Address, he takes it upon himself, as a father would almost, to coach the soldiers in how to re-enter normal civilian life. He is basically saying, “you can do this. You must do this.” He knows it will not be easy. He himself would find it a struggle, although he loved domestic life, and it was a great sacrifice to him to be away from home for years. Here he says:

The Commander in chief conceives little is now wanting to enable the Soldiers to change the military character into that of the Citizen, but that steady and decent tenor of behaviour which has generally distinguished, not only the Army under his immediate command, but the different detachments and separate Armies through the course of the war. From their good sense and prudence he anticipates the happiest consequences; and while he congratulates them on the glorious occasion, which renders their services in the field no longer necessary, he wishes to express the strong obligation he feels himself under for the assistance he has received from every Class, and in every instance. He presents his thanks in the most serious and affectionate manner to the General Officers, as well for their counsel on many interesting occasions, as for their Order in promoting the success of the plans he had adopted. To the Commandments of Regiments and Corps, and to the other Officers for their great zeal and attention, in carrying his orders promptly into execution. To the Staff, for their alacrity and exactness in performing the Duties of their several Departments. And to the Non Commissioned Officers and private Soldiers, for their extraordinary patience in suffering, as well as their invincible fortitude in Action. To the various branches of the Army the General takes this last and solemn opportunity of professing his inviolable attachment and friendship. He wishes more than bare professions were in his power, that he were really able to be useful to them all in future life. He flatters himself however, they will do him the justice to believe, that whatever could with propriety be attempted by him has been done, and being now to conclude these his last public Orders, to take his ultimate leave in a short time of the military character, and to bid a final adieu to the Armies he has so long had the honor to Command, he can only again offer in their behalf his recommendations to their grateful country, and his prayers to the God of Armies. May ample justice be done them here, and may the choicest of heaven’s favours, both here and hereafter, attend those who, under the devine auspices, have secured innumerable blessings for others; with these wishes, and this benediction, the Commander in Chief is about to retire from Service. The Curtain of separation will soon be drawn, and the military scene to him will be closed for ever.

Not a dry eye in the house.

On November 25, 1783, George Washington and his troops “took back” New York City in an emotional parade. New York had been under British control for the entirety of the war. A couple of weeks, later, on this day in history, Washington stepped down.

The more formal resignation would come on December 23, 1783, with a big speech he made to Congress in Annapolis – but first, he gathered with almost 50 officers at Fraunces Tavern for a good-bye. It was written up in the paper:

Last Thursday noon, the principal Officers of the army in town, assembled at Fraunces Tavern, to take a final leave of their illustrious, gracious, and much loved Commander, General Washington. The passions of human nature were never more tenderly agitated, than in this interesting and distressful scene…[His] words produced extreme sensibility on both sides… — Rivington’s New-York Gazette, and Universal Advertiser, December 6, 1783.

“interesting and distressful scene”. I can only imagine.

On December 4, 1783, he gathered at Fraunces Tavern with his officers and they caroused, and made toasts, and it sounds from all the accounts like it was almost an encounter-group session a la the 1970s. Grown men blubbering into their handkerchiefs, embracing one another, expressing lifelong friendship – and basically living in that intense state where everything being felt is beyond words.

Washington raised a glass and said to the men (texts of all of his speeches gotten from George Washington : Writings (Library of America):

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…I…shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.

General Henry Knox was standing right next to Washington, and upon those words, the two men turned to one another. What do you say?? Colonel Benjamin Talmadge wrote in his memoir that the two men were “suffused in tears” and “embraced each other in silence.” Washington then moved on to the next officer, and the next – repeating this emotional goodbye with each one. Everyone’s hearts must have been exploding. Nobody spoke. Washington’s brief words at the beginning were the only words spoken. When he had embraced the last officer, he left the Tavern, with the entire group following him in silence. He passed through the corps of light infantry and made his way to the Whitehall Ferry Landing where a barge was waiting. He got on, with the crowd gathered on the landing, and as the boat sailed away, he waved.

A couple of weeks later, there was a formal dinner and dance in Annapolis, where Washington formally handed back his commission as Commander in Chief (it had been granted in 1775). He made yet another emotional speech, and then walked out. His horse was waiting by the door.

The famous story goes that King George in England, humiliated and baffled by this strange turn of events, asked Benjamin West (an American painter, living in England) what Washington would do now that it all was over. West said, “They say he will go back to live on his farm.” King George thought about this, and replied, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Joseph Ellis, touching on this important point, writes in his book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation:

…it is crucial to recognize that Washington’s extraordinary reputation rested less on his prudent exercise of power than on his dramatic flair at surrendering it. He was, in fact, a veritable virtuoso of exits. Almost everyone regarded his retirement of 1796 as a repeat performance of his resignation as commander of the Continental Army in 1783. Back then, faced with a restive and unpaid remnant of the victorious army quartered in Newburgh, New York, he had suddenly appeared at a meeting of officers who were contemplating insurrection; the murky plot involved marching on the Congress and then seizing a tract of land for themselves in the West, all presumably with Washington as their leader. He summarily rejected their offer to become the American Caesar and denounced the entire scheme as treason to the cause for which they had fought. Then, in a melodramatic gesture that immediately became famous, he pulled a pair of glasses out of his pocket: “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles,” he declared rhetorically, “for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in service to my country.”… On December 22, 1783, Washington surrendered his commission to the Congress, then meeting in Annapolis: “Having now finished the work assigned me,” he announced, “I now retire from the great theater of action.” In so doing, he became the supreme example of the leader who could be trusted with power because he was so ready to give it up.

Extraordinary. So rare as to be almost unheard of.

Jefferson, who was in Annapolis, with Congress, stage-managed the entire dinner/dance/speech. (What a shock. He of the “who me? I just want to hang out on my farm and watch my flowers grow, I’m no politician” was, in fact, the most wily politician of them all!) The relationship between Washington and Congress was not friendly, to say the least, and Jefferson, with his inimitable sense of “the moment”, the zeitgeist, and what was NEEDED (he really has no equal in this, whatever his other faults may be), knew that this thing required planning, exquisite and detailed management, so that it could come off as it needed to come off. Washington had requested Jefferson to do this for him. As Joseph Ellis commented, Washington was a “virtuoso of exits”.

Willard Sterne Randall writes in George Washington: A Life:

At Annapolis, Jefferson, the most distinguished member of Congress was working secretly behind the scenes, stage-managing the important final tribute Washington was about to pay to a civilian government and, equally important, seeing to it that Congress responded with suitable dignity. Whether Congress won back any of the respect it had squandered during the Revolution depended on the perception, both in American and Europe, of Washington’s grand public gesture of transforming his real power into the symbolism neceessary for a democratic government.

These men knew the eyes of the world were watching. These men knew that while there were a couple of nations out there who wanted this experiment to succeed, there were many more who hoped for failure. Symbolism, gesture, ritual, theatrics – all of this played a crucial part in the Revolution from start to finish. Awareness of posterity. Awareness of finding the RIGHT gesture. The RIGHT words. (Benjamin Franklin’s precise editing of Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence is one of the greatest examples of that. Jefferson’s draft was spectacular as it was, but Franklin’s suggestions made it infinitely more powerful and universal. A gesture not just for their time and their circumstance, but one that could serve future generations in similar situations.)

Washington, after leaving New York on December 4, headed to Annapolis in a caravan with escorts. With each town he passed through, crowds of people gathered to greet him, cheer him, throw flowers at him. Martha was accompanying him. Leading citizens of the various towns, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, gave him dinners and parties to celebrate him. To add to the impending drama, Congress was, as of yet, unaware that he was coming to resign his commission. They knew he approached, but that bit of information had been kept secret (although many suspected). Again, Washington (and his advisers) had a fine-tuned sense of the MOMENT. Jefferson met the Washingtons on the outskirts of town. The people of Annapolis had arranged a 13-gun salute in his honor, there were parties and celebrations, and in the midst of all of this, Jefferson and Washington were strategizing, meeting, huddling up. They had many worries about the ineptitude of the Continental Congress. Let’s not forget that early in 1783, Congress had been forced to evacuate Philadelphia when threatened by troops who had marched on them demanding their pay. Congress was on the run, forced to take temporary seats in various cities, Princeton, etc. You know, this shite looks BAD. Washington’s officers were enraged at the situation and had pressed Washington to seize power, become a dictator, essentially. Something needed to be done. Part of Washington’s essential messages of farewell to his troops and the officers was about resisting the urge to KEEP power. Yes, there is chaos in any democracy, yes, it is a chaotic time, but retreat to your domestic life, and let it go. Let it go. He certainly wasn’t about to “let go” the fact that Congress owed him money, but the alternative for him WASN’T storming Annapolis, with his army in tow, taking power by force. Nope. Not his thing. That is why King George felt that if Washington really meant what he said that he would be the greatest man who had ever lived.

Jefferson had arranged for Washington to head to the State House and hand in his resignation personally to the president of Congress. Interestingly enough, the President of Congress was Thomas Mifflin – who had fought beside Washington in the Bunker Hill days, and was now kind of in the enemy camp. Washington found this very disorienting. He had been in charge of Mifflin, once upon a time, and now Mifflin was President of the very body he held in such suspicion. He did not trust Mifflin, and certainly did not like being put in the position of having to ask Mifflin for instructions on what he should do next. Go to Congress personally? Write a letter to them? What?

His letter to Thomas Mifflin reads:

I take the earliest opportunity to inform Congress of my arrival in this city with the intention of asking leave to resign the commission I have the honor of holding in their service. It is essential for me to know their pleasure, and in what manner it will be most proper to offer my resignation, whether in writing or at an audience; I shall therefore request to be honored with the necessary information, that being apprized of the sentiments of Congress I may regulate my Conduct accordingly. I have the honor etc.

A real example of how everyone was just making this thing up as they went along. Also a real example of Washington’s desire to have correct Conduct, which went back to his earliest days as a young boy, when he would copy out rules from various etiquette books into his diary.

Thomas Mifflin took the letter, read it out in Congress (without Washington present) and then, naturally, committees were formed to figure out the protocol. How does one resign the commission? What is appropriate? As always, these men knew that their choices would be watched by future generations (not to mention their present-day allies and enemies), and perhaps copied and imitated. The pressure!

Mifflin hosted a private dinner for Washington that week. Then came Congress’ turn to pay homage. A delegate from Delaware, James Tilton, left his memories of that night.

Between the two and three hundred gentlemen dined together in the ballroom. The number of cheerful voices with the clangor of knives and forks made a din of a very extraordinary nature and most delightful influence. Every man seemed to be in heaven or so absorbed in the pleasures of imagination as to neglect the more sordid appetites, for not a soul got drunk.

On December 22, there was a ball at the State House.

Willard Sterne Randall describes the evening:

With Martha on his arm, Washington crossed the marble-floored portico, quickly bisecting the cheering citizenry, taking refuge in a wide arcaded hallway and seeing the shimmering Corinthian columns supporting the high central dome for the first time. The entire vaulted chamber was packed tonight with a jostling of invited guests. While Jefferson was too ill to be there, the fete was a tribute to his genius for behind-the-scenes organization, and Washington made the most of it. Tilton reported to Bedford, “To light the rooms every window was illuminated.” The number of guests swelled to nearly six hundred, a “brilliant” assemblage, he added. George Washington, a famous dancer, astonished French officers with his skill and grace at the minute. “The General danced every set,” Tilton recounted, “that all the ladies might have the pleasure of dancing with him or, as it has since been handsomely expressed, get a touch of him.”

Ha! Celebrity culture lives in all eras.

December 23rd, the next day, was the big day, where Washington would appear before Congress and give a finely-crafted speech, the work of jefferson and Washington together. Nothing would be left to chance. Again, Martha accompanied her husband.

Willard Sterne Randall again:

On Tuesday, December 23, at the prescribed noon hour, Washington’s carriage rolled up the long hill above Annapolis Harbor and swung around to the portico of the State House amid the roar of a throng of well-wishers. With Martha at his side and two aides close behind, he stepped up to the heavy doors and halted. At a tap from an aide, the doors to the bright green Senate Chamber swung open. Charles Thomas, secretary of every Continental Congress since the first, led Washington and his aides to the front of the chamber past the twenty congressmen, all sitting with their tricornered hats on. Washington, his own hat in hand, sat down facing up to the speaker’s platform where President Mifflin stood to welcome him. At a nod from Mifflin, the chamber’s doors opened again and a surge of two hundred women spectators, led by Martha Washington, climbed the narrow stairs and found seats in the balustraded visitors’ gallery. On the main floor, behind a low screen and on every window seat two hundred men who had fought under Washington and a few who had fought against him jostled for a place. Mifflin pounded his gavel for quiet. There was a moment when the only sound in the crowded room was the crackling of logs burning in the ornately fluted fireplace.

The hushed assemblage included Maryland’s four signers of the Declaration of Independent, two future presidents, four Revolutionary generals, and several future cabinet members. Then President Mifflin gave the nod for Washington to speak. He rose and faced Congress, remaining in front of his assigned chair: he made no move toward the podium. Following Jefferson’s lead, the delegates raised their hats, then lowered them, keeping them on. His hand visibly trembling, Washington drew a paper from his breast pocket and began to speak with great emotion.

Washington’s address to Congress as that day is as follows:

Mr. President: The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place; 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.

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. 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.

The Successful termination of the War has verified the most sanguine expectations, and my gratitude for the interposition of Providence, and the assistance I have received from my Countrymen, encreases with every review of the momentous Contest.

While I repeat my obligations to the Army in general, I should do injustice to my own feelings not to acknowledge in this place the peculiar Services and distinguished merits of the Gentlemen who have been attached to my person during the War. It was impossible the choice of confidential Officers to compose my family should have been more fortunate. Permit me Sir, to recommend in particular those, who have continued in Service to the present moment, as worthy of the favorable notice and patronage of Congress.

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.

Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.

Knowing what was in store for him, the words “That’s what YOU think, George!” come to mind. You THINK you’re going to retire from public life, but just you wait!

But we cannot know the future. This was a very very important exit. It had to be done. Not just for his own happiness (he missed his farm), but for the good of the brand new nation. War was over. Time to figure out how to get along in peace.

He got roped back in to public life (you know, with that minor event called “Becoming the First President of the United States”), but his genius was in relinquishing power at the exact moment when it seemed only natural that he should KEEP the power.

To quote Dad, “We were very very lucky.”

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1 Response to Today in history: December 4, 1783

  1. DBW says:

    I never tire of reading about these giants. And I just burst with pride that I have even the smallest connection to such people solely by the event of my birth. We all need to make the effort to teach and educate our younger citizens so that they can learn to love these men as much as I do. It would benefit all of us.

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