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He Ensured There Would Be No King Washington

When the British surrendered at Yorktown, the American Revolution was over the battle for a new form of government had only just begun. The first issue to be faced by General Washington was a matter of pay for the Continental Army. When some veterans threatened to take the matter in their own hands, it was Washington who intervened and promised a better way.

Washington is that a principle maintained by the United States military to the present day – namely that the military would remain ever the servant of the people and of its big government, and never suppressor. But there is still the issue of unifying the new nation.

One of Washington’s officers proposed a solution. In May of 1782, he wrote General Washington suggesting that the Army march on Congress and install the General is the new king of America. Washington was shocked. He wrote back that he viewed the idea “with abhorrence,” and ordered the officer to “banish these thoughts from your mind.”

About a week after the last British soldiers left New York City, Washington said goodbye to his officers started the journey home to Mount Vernon. He was now fifty-one years old. It first entered military service thirty years earlier. Since then, he lived most of his life in the public eye.

On the way home from New York, Washington stopped at Annapolis, where the Congress was then meeting, on December 23, 1783. The group had been frightened out of Philadelphia by soldiers threatening to take action on the back pay due them. Washington’s resignation as commander-in-chief of the army was delivered in the old Annapolis Statehouse.

Watching the road ahead to Congress, telling them of his plans to resign and asking them “whether it be in writing, or at an audience.” Following the instructions Congress returned to him, he presented himself at noon before the elegant brick statehouse which overlooked the harbor. He took his seat before the eighteen Congressmen. By arrangement, they did not stand when he entered, nor did they even remove their hats. Washington was to bow to them upon entering and leaving. It was all to demonstrate the supremacy of elected officials – Congress – over the military authority – Washington.

The whispers of the spectators were hushed by the Secretary’s command, “Silence!” One of Washington’s former aides, James McHenry, described how the group was transfixed by Washington’s parting words:

“The past, the present, the manner, the occasion, all conspired to render it a spectacle inexpressibly solemn and affecting.”

The President of the Congress gave Washington the arranged cue, “Sir, the United States in Congress assembled are prepared to receive your communications.” Washington rose and bowed respectfully. His remarks only required three minutes:

“I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life by commending the interest of our dearest country to Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them to His holy blessing. Having now finished the work assigned 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 hereby offer my commission and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”

Washington bowed to the members. The legislators remain seated, but they all tip their hats as he walked out of the chamber, down the hall, and out on the pillared porch for Francis Street where his horse was waiting. Washington wanted depart immediately in order to make it home to Mount Vernon by the next day, which was Christmas Eve. Benjamin West, an American artist, told of a conversation he had with King George III. The king asked him what George Washington would do when America won the war. West said he supposed Washington would return to his farm. “If he does that,” the King remarked, “he’ll be the greatest man in the world.”

Washington’s act was very important in American history. It laid the foundation for civilian rule – that is, the rule of elected officials. There would be no military ruler King. Washington had rejected many offers to become the new king of America. Now, all he wanted to do was go into retirement and live a quiet life at home. He arrived in time to spend Christmas with his family.

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