Arundel History

December 18, 2005

1783: Washington's work is done

It's one of the most famous and oft-told tales in Annapolis history: 222 years ago, on Dec. 23, 1783, Gen. George Washington resigned his military commission before the U.S. Congress at the State House. Annapolis was then the capital of the young republic. There were not many dry eyes in the State House when Washington appeared before Congress and a hushed group that included fellow Virginians and future presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe.

A man of few words, Washington arose and delivered an address to the assembly. He said in part: "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 leave of all the employments of public life."

One reason Washington's dignified farewell to Congress is remembered is because it was revolutionary in itself for a general to lay down his commission without trying to seize power in government based on military success. The action established a precedent for a peaceful transition of power in a democracy.

Washington was in a hurry to get home for Christmas to Mount Vernon, his estate overlooking the Potomac River at least 60 miles away due west. According to all accounts, the former general arrived there on horseback to celebrate with his wife, Martha, on Christmas Eve.

[Sources: Historian Elihu S. Riley, Jean Packard, Sun library research]

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