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George Washington and the birth of civil society

Washington’s resignation as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army was a starting point for our then-nascent nation.

John Trumbull’s famous painting is illuminated showing General George Washington resigning his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, Friday, March 13, 2020.
J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

February marks the celebration of the presidency of the United States, an office made unique by its first occupant, George Washington, a full six years before he was elected to that post. For a state house in Annapolis, colonial leaders of Maryland chose an intimate hill with a slight incline — situated today not too from where tourists down Mason’s lobster rolls and homemade ice cream — where General Washington accomplished something remarkable, even in the eyes of the king of England, on Dec. 23, 1783.

I learned of this singular event as a son and tourist. Twenty-one years ago, my father met me in Washington, D.C., at the end of a trip to finish my graduate research at the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Even as I completed an advanced degree in history, my father remained a dedicated teacher of our nation’s history.

That Saturday in March of 2000, we drove along leafy, sun-dappled state roads to Annapolis, Maryland, where my interests lay in the seafood platter my father promised as a reward for my dedicated research. After lunch, we turned off Main Street, with its T-shirt shops and noisy restaurants, parking on Circle Street, which encompasses the state house.

Ascending the hill at the rear of the capital, we entered the building near the Old Senate Chamber, where, two days before Christmas in 1783, Gen. George Washington relinquished his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.

My father solemnly recounted the event and then we stood in silence, in the absence of tourists or contemporary legislators — a shared moment that still resonates as a precedent in modern history that rendered our nation one led by civilians rather than generals.

In 1817, 34 years after Washington resigned his post, Congress commissioned artist John Trumbull to capture that historic event, now a mural-like scene that graces the U.S. Capitol’s Rotunda.

Reflecting upon Washington’s triumph, Trumbull later recalled: “The Caesars, the Cromwells, the Napoleons, yielded to the charm of earthly ambition, and betrayed their country; but Washington aspired to loftier, imperishable glory — to that glory which virtue along can give, and which no power, no effort, no time, can ever take away or diminish.”

Events surrounding Washington’s finest moment only enhance the future president’s courageous act.

Washington arrived in Annapolis without fanfare on Friday, Dec. 18, 1783, fully intending to return home for Christmas dinner with his family at Mount Vernon. The first order of business involved the logistics for such a momentous transition: Should Washington relinquish power by letter or in person? By Saturday, the order of events was set. A banquet would be held on Monday, Dec. 21, with the public renunciation of power to follow on Tuesday.

On Monday evening, two or three hundred leading figures, headlined by representatives of the Second Continental Congress, convened to celebrate the next day’s anticipated announcement. A dance followed at the state house, the obliging general accepting all who asked him to dance.

The next day, crowds thronged the streets around the State House as Washington arrived for an event stage-managed by Thomas Jefferson, Elbridge Gerry and James McHenry. Washington would stand at the appointed moment, flanked by his aids, and deliver what all now expected.

In his address to the Congress, which conveyed more emotion than Trumbull’s painting may now convey, Washington stood erect, “to surrender into (the Congress’) hands,” a commission entrusted eight years before, when, in the “diffidence of (his) abilities” he took upon himself the challenge of contesting power with the world’s greatest empire.

Hopeful that such a course of action would contribute to the young country “becoming a respectable nation,” he invoked the “patronage of Heaven” for deliverance already granted as well as for challenges yet unseen. Bowing in a gesture of symbolic humility, Washington then turned to leave the state house, intent on Christmas dinner with his own family.

That Saturday afternoon with a setting sun in Annapolis accomplished more for my teaching of the American Revolution as a world history teacher than any other experience. The civil fabric of American society had its birthplace on that grassy knoll years before the presidency was even an office.

Evan Ward is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University. His views are his own.