On December 23, 1783, General Washington, leader of the Continental army, gave up his military duty; thus, returning the power back to the people. We often think in today’s terms, hard to wear a hat from the 1790s. But consider, America wasn’t the superpower it is today. It had few true alliances and was just finding its sea legs. Still, King George III marveled that Washington gave up all that power. The king asked his American painter, Benjamin West, what Washington would do after winning independence. West replied, “They say he will return to his farm.” And the monarch replied, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” It is probably the most selfless act in history. And it proved, he was the right man, at the right time for the job. No, he didn’t write like Franklin or Hamilton, but he made up for it in action. After this speech, he did go on to become President for two terms, so he didn’t retire completely. Based on the convergence of events, this may be America’s greatest speech.
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 A diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task, which however was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our Cause, the support of the Supreme Power of the Union, and the patronage of Heaven.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.
While I repeat my obligations to the Army in general, I should do injustice to my own feelings not to acknowledge in this place the peculiar Services and distinguished merits of the Gentlemen who have been attached to my person during the War. It was impossible the choice of confidential Officers to compose my family should have been more fortunate. Permit me Sir, to recommend in particular those, who have continued in Service to the present moment, as worthy of the favorable notice and patronage of Congress.
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 theatre 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.
- Photo of Mount Vernon borrowed and on loan from the library of David Bradley. Posted with consent.