George Washington on Christmas Eve
In the WSJ, Thomas Fleming described an action, taken by George Washington after the Revolutionary War was won, that shook the courts of Europe, astonished George III and was perhaps "the most important moment in American history".
George Washington began life as a British subject, and his action might have been guided by a similar action performed 100 years earlier by British general George Monck. But it's equally possible that he was inspired by one of his favourite Classical heroes, Cato. He was a fan of Addison's play Cato, and had it performed at Valley Forge. Whatever his influences, Washington's action rose out of his character.
Chaos and despair
The American political scene described by Thomas Fleming in Washington’s Gift and in his book The Perils of Peace was appalling. The Revolutionary War had been won, but for eight long months Congress had refused to pay America’s soldiers. They had not received their back pay, or even any thanks from their country. There was no confidence in the new Congress, and sales in the American loan arranged in Amsterdam by John Adams were plummeting.
Washington was in agony because his soldiers had not been paid, and his country seemed to be self-destructing under the incompetent rule of Congress. Many people urged him to dismiss Congress and become King. The courts of Europe expected he would seize power.
How would he save his country?
In Fleming’s account -
At noon on Dec. 23, Washington and two aides walked from their hotel to the Annapolis State House, where Congress was sitting. Barely 20 delegates had bothered to show up.
There Washington faced Thomas Mifflin, President of the Congress, who had attacked him relentlessly during the war and who had been accused as quartermaster of stealing funds intended for Washington's hungry soldiers.
Addressing this scandal-tarred enemy, Washington drew a speech from his coat pocket and unfolded it with trembling hands. 'Mr. President,' he began in a low, strained voice. He expressed his gratitude to his countrymen and to his soldiers. “This reference to his soldiers ignited feelings so intense, he had to grip the speech with both hands to keep it steady.
Then he commended the interests 'of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God and those who have the superintendence of them [Congress] to his holy keeping'.
For a long moment, Washington could not say another word. Tears streamed down his cheeks. The 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 who had protected him and his country again and again during the war. Without this faith he might never have been able to endure the frustrations and rage he had experienced in the previous eight months.
Washington then drew from his coat a parchment copy of his appointment as commander in chief. '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, he handed the document to Mifflin.
This was – is – the most important moment in American history.
The man who could have dispersed this feckless Congress and obtained for himself and his soldiers rewards worthy of their courage was renouncing absolute power.
. . .In Europe, Washington’s resignation restored America’s battered prestige. It was reported with awe and amazement in newspapers from London to Vienna. . .
Washington shook hands with each member of Congress and not a few of the spectators. Meanwhile, his aides were bringing their horses and baggage wagons from their hotel. They had left orders for everything to be packed and ready for an immediate departure.
The next day, after an overnight stop at a tavern, they rode at a steady pace toward Mount Vernon. Finally, as twilight shrouded the winter sky, the house came into view beside the Potomac River. Past bare trees and wintry fields the three horsemen trotted toward the white-pillared porch and the green shuttered windows, aglow with candlelight. Waiting for them at the door was Martha Washington and two grandchildren. It was Christmas Eve.