Saturday, February 16, 2013

Washington Resigns His Commission

George Washington (1732–1799)
& Thomas Mifflin (1744–1800)

From The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence

John Trumbull (1756–1843). “George Washington resigning his commission as Commander-in-Chief,” before the Continental Congress at the Maryland State House in Annapolis, December 23, 1783. (Commissioned in 1817, placed in the rotunda of the United States Capitol in 1824). Oil on canvas. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
In his recent, masterful biography of George Washington, Ron Chernow summarizes a well-known anecdote that the British court painter, Benjamin West, related to American artist Charles Willson Peale at the end of the Revolutionary War:
One day the king [George III] asked West whether Washington would be head of the army or head of state when the war ended. When West replied that Washington’s sole ambition was to return to his estate, the thunderstruck king declared, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Indeed, Washington was distressed by the thought that people believed he wanted to be king or dictator. In 1782, a year before the end of the war, an army colonel wrote to Washington in the belief that “strong arguments might be produced for admitting the title of king.” The commander replied angrily, “I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country.” (The colonel, Chernow notes, wrote three subsequent letters begging forgiveness.) At the end of 1783, Washington submitted his resignation to the President of the Continental Congress, Thomas Mifflin, and returned to Mount Vernon. Europeans were shocked; when the news reached London, the American painter John Trumbull exclaimed, “Tis a conduct so novel, so unconceivable to people, who, far from giving up powers they possess are willing to convulse the empire to acquire more.”

As early as 1779—well before the end of the war—Maryland poet Charles Henry Wharton published an epistle, in verse, addressed to Washington. He evoked Cincinnatus, the Roman emperor who in the fifth century BCE. twice resigned the dictatorship and returned to his farm. It was an analogy encouraged by Washington and reinforced by his own twin retirements: first as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and later after his eight years as President. The Cincinnatus legend persisted throughout the nineteenth century in poems, paintings, statues, and biographies. At the end of his “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte” (1814), Byron looked favorably to Washington’s example:
Where may the wearied eye repose
     When gazing on the Great;
Where neither guilty glory glows,
     Nor despicable state?
Yes—One—the first—the last—the best—
The Cincinnatus of the West,
     Whom Envy dared not hate,
Bequeathed the name of Washington,
To make man blush there was but one!
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