Editor’s Note: Americans have only relatively recently begun to refer to the third Monday in February as “Presidents’ Day”, including us. It turns out that the holiday has always been and is still officially designated Washington’s Birthday. Click HERE to read more on the subject.
George Washington was actually born on February 22, 1732. While facts reported by Linda support the argument that he wasn’t technically America’s first president, Washington’s courage, principles, dignity, and comportment reveal a “noble character for after ages to admire,” an example that is sadly lacking in modern America. Upon Washington’s death, “Light Horse” Harry Lee encapsulated the nation’s admiration of him, in the following manner in a eulogy:
“To the memory of the Man, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his fellow-citizens.”
Many scholars of American history are urged to read George Washington’s Farewell Address to the nation, a speech he gave at the conclusion of his eight years as President just prior to his departure from the Capitol to return to Mount Vernon. It is a speech worthy of its fame.
However, Washington gave an earlier speech — a more abbreviated “farewell” address — upon resignation of his commission as Commander and Chief of the Continental Army at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. In many ways, it was a speech that defined, in the eyes of the world, Washington the man more than any other public remarks he made during his career. It is the source of the maxim that Washington was, indeed, a man that could have become king but refused that office.
In 1936, a British monarch abdicated his throne, as popularized by the press, for the love of a woman. How much nobler to refuse to assume the royal mantle for the sake of honor and freedom, as Washington did! Yet, we hear and learn little about how Washington formally resigned his commission as Commander in Chief and quietly returned to private life.
Below is an excerpt from a biography of Washington that was written by Henry Cabot Lodge and published in 1917 which describes Washington’s resignation and relates what he said and did on that occasion. We offer it for your consideration on this, the 280th anniversary of the day of his birth.
“From Philadelphia he proceeded to Annapolis, greeted with addresses and hailed with shouts at every town and village on his route, and having reached his destination, he addressed a letter to Congress on December 20th, asking when it would be agreeable to them to receive him. The 23rd was appointed, and on that day, at noon, he appeared before Congress.
The following year a French orator and ‘maitre avocat,’ in an oration delivered at Toulouse upon the American Revolution, described this scene in these words: ‘On the day when Washington resigned his commission in the hall of Congress, a crown decked with jewels was placed upon the Book of the Constitutions. Suddenly, Washington seizes it, breaks it, and flings the pieces to the assembled people. How small ambitious Caesar seems beside the hero of America.’ It is worthwhile to recall this contemporary French description, because its theatrical and dramatic untruth gives such point by contrast to the plain and dignified reality. The scene was the hall of Congress. The members representing the sovereign power were seated and covered, while all the space about was filled by the governor and state officers of Maryland, by military officers, and by the ladies and gentlemen of the neighborhood, who stood in respectful silence with uncovered heads. Washington was introduced by the Secretary of Congress, and took a chair which had been assigned to him. There was a brief pause, and then the president said that ‘the United States in Congress assembled were prepared to receive his communication.’ Washington rose, and replied as follows:
‘Mr. President: 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; a diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task, which, however, was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our cause, the support of the supreme power of the Union, and the patronage of Heaven. The successful termination of the war has verified the most sanguine expectations; and my gratitude for the interposition of Providence, and the assistance I have received from my countrymen, increases with every review of the momentous contest.” Then, after a word of gratitude to the army and to his staff, he concluded as follows: “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.
‘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 here offer my commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”
In singularly graceful and eloquent words his old opponent, Thomas Mifflin, the president, replied, the simple ceremony ended, and Washington left the room a private citizen.
The great master of English fiction, touching this scene with skillful hand, has said: ‘Which was the most splendid spectacle ever witnessed, the opening feast of Prince George in London, or the resignation of Washington? Which is the noble character for after ages to admire, — yon fribble dancing in lace and spangles, or yonder hero who sheathes his sword after a life of spotless honor, a purity unreproached, a courage indomitable, and a consummate victory?’
There is no need to say more. Comment or criticism on such a farewell, from such a man, at the close of a long civil war, would be not only superfluous but impertinent. The contemporary newspaper, in its meager account, said that the occasion was deeply solemn and affecting, and that many persons shed tears. Well indeed might those then present have been thus affected, for they had witnessed a scene memorable forever in the annals of all that is best and noblest in human nature. They had listened to a speech which was not equaled in meaning and spirit in American history until, eighty years later, Abraham Lincoln stood upon the slopes of Gettysburg and uttered his immortal words upon those who died that the country might live.”
We offer the tribute of Hail Columbia (President’s March), composed for George Washington’s first inauguration and considered one of the “unofficial” national anthems of the United States until the official designation of the Star Spangled Banner.
A more recent composition with many pictures of George Washington. It’s from a video game (Civilization IV), but please don’t let that dissuade you; it’s delightful.