George Washington’s resignation of his military commission following the end of the American Revolution was a pivotal act without which the nation’s constitutional framework might never have been possible. His resignation provided among the most decisive examples of Washington’s greatness. In today’s political environment, which is characterized by an almost tribal struggle for power, Washington’s foreclosing the opportunity for absolute power would seem almost inconceivable.
Washington demonstrated that greatness is not measured by how much power one accumulates. Rather, greatness is found in one’s exercising moderation or restraint as a matter of choice when one possesses practically unlimited power. Following his army’s victory over the British in the American Revolution, Washington possessed the standing to bend the nation to his personal ambition. Then, there was no person or institution that could have withstood such a gambit. Had Washington desired it, the newly-independent nation would have had a king or emperor as its first head of state. Washington took a different course.
Those who led, inspired, or experienced the American Revolution understood the enormity of Washington’s choice. Following Washington’s passing in 1799, Thomas Paine’s eulogy captured that moment as one that defined Washington’s character (R.T. Paine, Eulogy on George Washington, Geneva, NY: I. Merrell, printer, 1841). Paine recalled of that extraordinary event in 1783:
The time had now arrived, which was to apply the touchstone to his integrity, which was to assay the affinity of his principles to the standard of immutable right. Enjoying the unbounded confidence of an emancipated people, whose filial reverence had associated in his character, a greatness, unexampled by patriotism, with a purity, unsunned by suspicion, and commanding the implicit affections of an army of veterans, whose unliquidated demands, on the justice of an impoverished public, might have rendered them zealous instruments of ambition, the deliverer of his country was now the arbiter of its fate. It was now the flood tide of his glory, on which he had only to embark, and the current would have wafted him to his haven. That decisive moment in the existence of nations and men, on which the destinies of both are suspended, was not flitting on the dials point of the crisis. On the one hand, a realm, to which he was endeared by his services, almost invited him to empire; on the other, the liberty, to whose protection his life had been devoted, was the ornament and boon of human nature…
To the illustrious founder of our republic was it reserved, to exhibit the example of a magnanimity, that commanded victory; of a moderation, that retired from triumph…
The glorious work completed, so was his ambition. The reward of his labors was the enjoyment of that liberty he had protected from violation…
Some six months in advance of the resignation of his commission, Washington made his intentions known in a circular to the nation’s Governors. That letter (founders.archives.gov), dated June 8, 1783, explained his reasoning and set forth principles Washington believed should guide the young nation. Washington wrote:
The great object, for which I had the honor to hold an Appointment in the service of my Country being accomplished, I am now preparing to resign it into the hands of Congress, and to return to that domestic retirement; which it is well known I left with the greatest reluctance, a retirement for which I have never ceased to sigh through a long and painful absence, and in which (remote from the noise and trouble of the World) I meditate to pass the remainder of life, in a state of undisturbed repose…
The Citizens of America, placed in the most enviable condition, as the sole Lords and Proprietors of a vast tract of Continent, comprehending all the various Soils and Climates of the World and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniences of life, are now, by the late satisfactory pacification, acknowledged to be possessed of absolute freedom and Independancy…
There are four things, which I humbly conceive are essential to the well being, I may even venture to say to the existence, of the United States as an independent Power.
1st An indissoluble Union of the States under one federal Head.
2ndly A sacred regard to public Justice.
3dly The adoption of a proper Peace Establishment—and
4thly The prevalence of that pacific and friendly disposition among the people of the United States, which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and, in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the community.
These are the pillars on which the glorious fabric of our Independancy and National Character must be supported —Liberty is the basis—and whoever would dare to sap the foundation or overturn the Structure under whatever specious pretexts he may attempt it, will merit the bitterest execration and the severest punishments which can be inflicted by his injured Country.
On December 23, 1783, Washington followed through with his promise and resigned his commission. At Annapolis, Washington explained (msa.maryland.gov):
The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place; I have now 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…
Having now finished the work assigned to me, I retire from the great theater 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.
George Washington’s “leave of all the employments of public life” proved temporary. On April 30, 1789, Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States at New York City’s Federal Hall. 44 Presidents and 229 years later, the American Republic still endures.