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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

George Washington's Farewell to his Troops
by Chuck

February 22nd is the birthday of George Washington, the Father of our country. Father is an appropriate adjective to describe Washington because, not only was he a good father to his two step-children, but, like a good father, he led by example and many of the best traditions in our government were started by Washington. After serving two terms as President, he observed that eight years was long enough for one many to serve as president and elected to step down. This tradition of no more than two terms as president was respected by his successors and the voters for almost a century and a half until Franklin Roosevelt, using the excuse that continuity was needed to succeed in winning World War II, got himself elected to four terms of office (he died before completing his fourth term and it was his Vice President and successor, Harry Truman who presided over our victory in that war). Enough voters and members of Congress were sufficiently concerned by Roosevelt's action that, following the end of the war they amended the Constitution to limit all future presidents to no more than ten years in office (if the president leaves office with two years of less of his term remaining the Vice President can serve those years and then run for two more terms, but if there are more than two years left in the departing President's term, the Vice President can only serve out that term and run for only one more term).

One of the many great legacies Washington left us was the tradition of the military being subservient to the civilian arm of the government. This did not originate with Washington as the Continental Congress, in theory at least, had the power to appoint and fire military officers. But having authority and being able to use that authority are two different things. Successful and popular military commanders before and after George Washington, have routinely displaced their weak, and often incompetent, civilian bosses. In ancient Rome the Senate ruled supreme and military commanders, even if they were heros, were not allowed to enter the city of Rome with their army. But this did not stop Julius Caesar from crossing the Rubicon with his army and replacing Senate rule with his rule. Simon Bolivar, often called the George Washington of South America refused to bow to civilian authority and, after successfully freeing South American from Spanish rule proceeded to retain power as a dictator.

Washington was different. Like most successful people he was proud, ambitious and hard working. However, his pride was tempered with humility. This was not a self depreciating humility, but rather an acknowledgment that he was not a god but a human, created by God like other humans, with talents that he was expected to not only use but also be held accountable for how he used his talents. Acknowledging that he was human and had limitations, allowed Washington to keep things in perspective and not allow his power and success to go to his head. To use a term popular today, Washington was well grounded in that he knew what was important – his family, his farm, his faith, his reputation – and the rest was duty to be honorably discharged so that he could then return to his wife and his farm which were the things that were most important to him.

George Washington was a skilled military commander who had proved his worth in the French and Indian wars earlier in his life. When the Revolution came he actively lobbied for the job as commander in chief of the Continental forces. However, there were other men who were also qualified and who longed for the same position. Even after Washington was given the commission as commander of the Continental forces these men continued to lobby for the job, forcing Washington to fight a two front war – one by day against the British army in the field and one by night defending his actions and wooing Congressional support with letters. Washington truly believed that he was the best man for the job and worked hard to both get and retain the job as commander of the Continental Army.

Unlike many revolutionaries, Washington built, practically from nothing, a professional army that engaged the British army throughout the war. While gurella forces were involved in the war, Washington did not allow the the American cause to disintegrate into a prolonged guerilla action that took decades to wear the enemy down. When the war ended and the last British troops left New York City in the late fall of 1783, George Washington was the commander of the largest army in North America. He was not only the commander but the highly respected leader of his officers and men who, flush with the pride of victory over the most powerful nation in the world, were willing to follow him anywhere. He was also one of the very few men who was known throughout the thirteen colonies. At this time the thirteen colonies were simply a loose confederation of semi-soverign nations each preoccupied with its own affairs and local leaders. Most of our founding fathers were really local leaders and virtually unknown outside their respective states. Washington was a truly national leader who was both well known and well loved and respected by all. Finally, the country was drifting. Inflation was rampant. Congress was weak and its members preoccupied with local special interests. The soldiers and officers were upset by not having been paid and longing to get back to their families and farms.

George Washington was at a crossroads. He could march his army to Annapolis, Maryland where the Continental Congress was currently meeting, take control of the country and straighten out the apparent mess. Or, he could stick by his principles and his vision of a nation of free people caring for themselves, and leave the army to return to his wife and farm. He choose to surrender his command and go home. Angry over lack of promised pay and feeling that Congress did not appriciate their sacrifices, the army was ready to follow Washington if he chose to overthrow the weak civilian regime and replace it with a military dictatorship with him at the head.

Instead, Washington sent out an order for his senior officers to meet with him at the Long Room of Fraunces Tavern at noon on December 4th so that he could bid them farewell. In notes made by some of those in attendance following the meeting report that it was an emotional farewell in which Washington urged them to instruct the junior officers and enlisted men to behave honorably, disband and go home to be leaders in their communities. He had the senior officers agree to join him in working to see that the men received all of the back pay that they deserved. He then bid them farewell and left for Annapolis where he personally presented his resignation to the Congress. Thus, Washington, by his example, established the principle that the military takes orders from and is accountable to the elected civilian rulers.

Below is Washington's resignation address given to Congress on December 23, 1783:

[To the Continental Congress]

[Annapolis, Md. 23 December 1783]

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 & 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 oppertunity 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 more sanguine expectations-and my gratitude for the interposition of Providence, and the assistance I have received from my Countrymen encreases 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 & patronage of Congress.

I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life, by commanding 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.


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