CONSTITUTION CORNER - Article 54
WASHINGTON – THE 18TH CENTURY CINCINNATUS
By Judy Leithe
The Revolutionary War was over. General Washington’s Continental Army and his French allies had defeated the British Army at Yorktown in 1781, causing the British General Cornwallis to surrender. However, administrative duties kept Washington in New York City for two more years. It was now early December, 1783 and, as the Peace Treaty between the United States and Britain was being signed in Paris, Washington was saying goodbye to his associates in Manhattan and thanking his officer corps with an emotional farewell.
Washington’s mental image of spending the Holiday Season with Martha at Mt. Vernon would soon become a reality. Their devotion to one another sustained them through many challenges, including the war and later, two terms as President and First Lady. Martha Dandridge Custis had four children before the death of her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. Three children died at young ages and, after her marriage to Washington, the fourth son, “Jacky” Custis, died from an illness.
During the war, Martha made numerous trips to be with her husband at his various military encampments, providing receptions for officers and even helping the women at camp knit socks for the soldiers. After being away for almost a decade, Washington told his wife that he would be home to pour the wine for this Christmas Eve dinner. However, before returning home, he had to attend to the formalities of resigning his military commission.
Upon leaving New York, Washington and his entourage travelled by horseback on the four-day journey to Philadelphia. Along the way, they passed by the scene where seven years earlier, Washington and his half-frozen army crossed the Delaware and defeated the Hessian Army in Trenton, New Jersey. As they neared the town of Trenton, as well as other towns on their journey, grateful people would ride out to greet their conquering hero. Being pressed for time, Washington, a self-contained and modest man, knew he must acknowledge the people he fought so valiantly to protect.
His first stop was Philadelphia, where the Supreme Executive Council was busily preparing parades, parties and assemblages to honor Washington before he pressed on to the Nation’s temporary capitol, Annapolis, Maryland, to surrender his Command of the Continental Army to the Congress.
Five days later, Washington left Philadelphia in the midst of a gathering snowstorm. During an overnight stay in Baltimore, the emotionally drained and tired General sent a letter ahead to Thomas Mifflin, President of the Congress, requesting permission to relinquish his command to a small committee of Congress, instead of having to endure another grand reception. Upon his arrival in Annapolis, he learned that Congress had declined his request.
Not only would there be great celebrations surrounding his arrival, but many people still expressed their desire to have him crowned King of the United States which, of course, would have been antithetical to everything he fought against. Washington believed it was an honor to serve his country as a self-supporting gentleman, so at great cost to himself he submitted a request for reimbursement only for personal expenses incurred during war-time. Having taken care of all of the details and responsibilities relating to his military service, General George Washington voluntarily surrendered his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army to the Congress of the United States on December 23, 1783. In a dignified but humble fashion, Washington concluded his remarks to Congress by saying: "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 any leave of all the employments of public life."
After meeting with Congress, Washington moved hastily to the banks of the Potomac and was ferried across the river, after which rode his horse through the familiar landscapes of his much-loved Virginia. As earlier promised to his wife, Martha, he arrived at Mr. Vernon in time for Christmas Eve.
When word reached England’s King George III of Washington’s plan to surrender his command and return to civilian life as a farmer, he said, "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."
The scene of pomp and ceremony in Annapolis served to enhance Washington’s reputation even further, causing comparisons to the historic Roman General Cincinnatus. Appointed dictator of Rome in 458 B.C. to rescue the city from attack, Cincinnatus left his plow in the field and succeeded in defeating the enemy in a single day. Grateful Romans wanted Cincinnatus to be their ruler, an offer he declined and then simply returned to his family and farm.
If Cincinnatus’ one-day feat to free a city made him known by Colonial scholars 21 centuries after his death, it makes it especially gratifying to reflect on the character and valor of George Washington who, after six years of warfare, brought freedom to an entire nation.