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George Washington’s Resignation Day. A Great Day for Democracy

December 23, 2015

On this day in 1783, George Washington resigned his commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in the Old Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House.

When George III heard this was going to happen – he declared to the Anglo-American painter Benjamin West – “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

George III was not right about many things – but he was right about this.

Washington was not a military genius.  Nor was he a great orator.  Nor was he a great political theorist or constitutional innovator.  What he was – was a war hero who enjoyed the trust of the people – who served the constitution rather than abusing it.  By resigning military power, he became the greatest man in the world.  By serving just two terms as president and going into retirement – he reinforced that sense of trust.  When people talk of longevity in any office (elected or hereditary) as an “achievement” – I think of this day in 1783 – on which George Washington achieved more than all the self-serving chair moisteners in history.

In short, Washington is immortal because he refused to use revolutionary circumstances to become either Cromwell before him or Napoleon after him.

This is a great date in the history of republicanism and constitutionalism – a demonstration of the fact that longevity in office is no sort of achievement – but surrendering power to a representative body – empowering that representative body – and ensuring the longevity of a version of popular sovereignty – is the sort of thing that deserves to get you on currency.

Washington was a slave owner of course.  The Congress was a congress of propertied white males.  Native Americans were already being subject to accelerating ethnic cleansing.  Slavery looked like lasting forever.

But necessary interrogations of foundational mythologies should not provoke unhelpful cynicism about the genuinely inspirational moments in history.  Today is one of the most important anniversaries in American and perhaps human history.

Today, George Washington really was “on the money”.


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