Being a lover of the American Revolutionary period in history and currently in college for a Bachelor’s in History with a minor in Political Science, I love the political history and moments of the period that forged this great nation.
Throughout our Republic’s history, many moments have been considered the greatest by historians. One valid choice was the signing of the Declaration of the Independence in July of 1776 by the 2nd Continental Congress, that officially communicated to the British that the colonies wanted independence. The words were “United States”was derived from the Declaration of Independence. It was a “Declaration of the thirteen united States of America”. We were not truly the United States until after the Civil War. Before the Civil War, people referred to the country as “United States ARE a nation”, but the Civil War made it, “IS.” The Founders feared a centralized government like monarchy to rule over the states. They feared standing armies because standing armies can be instruments in creating a tyrannical government. Their fear of standing armies, they obtained with their experience as colonial subjects prior to the Revolution; where the British government quartered troops in the colonies and in people’s homes, to remind them of their place in the Empire. The Civil War, in my opinion, ended the Constitutional Republic that the Founders forged in May of 1787. States have always had their own identity, over the course of colonial history, attempts for a more centralized government or a united front against enemies with the ideas proposed in Benjamin Franklin’s Plan of Albany in 1754 that ended in failure. This event showed that America in whole was not ready to be united under any government, whether it came from London or from Philadelphia. A united front by the colonies happened years leading up to Lexington and Concord in 1775. Eventually, a united effort happened after those two skirmishes in Massachusetts. This was a time before people referred to themselves as Americans. Washington and Jefferson were more likely to call themselves Virginians than Americans. A trend that would last through to the Civil War.
The greatest moment in history, in my opinion, was not the official independence of our young Republic – even though the states already drew up a constitution that removed any sense of the British system and created their own system of government – but the moment is up there. For me the greatest point was after the Revolutionary War, at a public dinner in Annapolis, Maryland on December 22nd, 1783. There was a meeting of Congress on the 23rd, it was a few months after the news of the Treaty of Paris was signed and it will not be until January of the next year, when it reached the nation from Europe. The meeting was about George Washington resigning from his commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. This moment in history shows an event that could of gone a different direction. So many times during the early years of the Republic that America could of been a monarchy. Washington was the most popular man in the new Republic, he could of easily took the nation over with the military during the Revolution. This event is one that is underrated and students need to research this important event more, not leave for obscurity.
Thomas Fleming, who is a distinguished historian on the subject of the American Revolution, wrote an article titled simply, “The Greatest Moment in American History“. The idea for this article originated from reading Fleming’s article for the Journal of the American Revolution. Fleming brought out the key element of what made Washington the American Cincinnatus.
He argues that Washington resigning his commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army was the greatest moment in American history. I have to agree. One long excerpt from Fleming’s article shows Washington’s character on full display and shows a scene that would fill any American’s heart with sincerity:
At noon on the following day, Washington walked to the state house, where Congress was meeting. He took a designated seat in the assembly chamber, and his two aides sat down beside him. The three soldiers wore their blue and buff Continental Army uniforms. The doors of the assembly room were opened and Maryland’s governor and the members of the state’s legislature crowded into the room, along with, in the words of one eyewitness, “the principal ladies and gentlemen of the city”.
President Mifflin began the proceedings: “Sir, the United States in Congress assembled are prepared to receive your communications.”
Washington stood up and bowed. The members of Congress briefly took off their hats in response to the general’s bow. The rulers of the United States numbered only twenty delegates from nine states. For the preceding weeks, so few delegates showed up, they had lacked a quorum. For a while, they had not even been able to ratify the definitive treaty of peace, ending the War for Independence.
Nevertheless, Washington understood the significance of what he was doing. He was testifying to the vital importance of a federal government for the fragile American union.
The general drew his speech out of his coat pocket and unfolded it with hands that trembled with emotion. “Mr. President,” he began in a low strained voice. “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.”
A former aide, Dr. James McHenry, was sitting as a delegate from Maryland. McHenry recalled that at this point, Washington’s voice “faultered and sunk…[and] the whole house felt his agitation.” But he recovered his composure and “proceeded…in the most penetrating manner.”
“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.” The general went on to express his gratitude for the support of “my countrymen” and the “army in general.”
Next Washington hoped Congress would do something special to acknowledge the “distinguished merits” of “the gentlemen who have been attached to my person during the war” — in particular the two young men who sat beside him.
This reference to his officers ignited feelings so intense, he had to grip the speech with both hands to keep it steady. He continued: “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.”
Tears streamed down Washington’s cheeks. These 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. They also ignited the feelings of regret and frustration he had experienced in trying to persuade his opinionated countrymen to give Congress the power it needed to create a meaningful union.
The deeply moved spectators “all wept,” Congressman McHenry recalled. “And there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears.”
General Washington drew from his coat a parchment copy of his appointment as commander in chief, dated June 15, 1775 — eight and one half years ago. “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, Washington handed the document to President Mifflin.”
Washington held the fate of a nation in his hands for seven years. He later served as the President of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He served as this nation’s first President, he didn’t want to do these things. He did them reluctantly. All he wanted to do was return home and farm.
Washington could have been a Caesar, or later on a Napoleon, overthrowing Congress and creating a monarchy with him at the helm. Washington did what Napoleon and Caesar didn’t, he simply walked away from power. Washington’s character of refusing power when he was at his apex makes him a very rare individual in history. Look at most every politician these days, you won’t find many of them voluntarily walking away after serving for two to six years in Congress and letting a newer, possibly brighter person take the reins of power and go home to be a lawyer or a doctor; or in Rand Paul’s case a eye surgeon.
Politicians can learn a lot from Washington, a man that was devout in his faith in God and time after time refused to be a king. He sought the quiet, quaint lifestyle of being a farmer on his plantation rather than a corrupt, egotistical lifestyle of a politician in the government.
If we wish to go back to what our Founders believed on government, we must understand the men who sacrificed everything to create this unique and exceptional idea called America.