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Editor’s Note: The quote from Donald Trump in the beginning of this article was clearly intended as a joke. The author knows this and does not press the issue.
“I want to be a dictator for one day,” proudly declared former President Donald Trump to the New York Young Republican Club on December 9, 2023. Two hundred and forty years earlier on December 23, 1783, General George Washington humbly informed Congress that he did not want to be a dictator – not even for one moment. That day is when the victorious commander-in-chief willingly gave up power at the end of the American Revolution.
Washington returning his military commission to Congress is probably the most important event in American history. It upheld the Revolution’s promise to establish free government by the consent of the governed and ensured the survival of the United States as we know it.
History is filled with tales of conquering generals turned dictators like Julius Caesar, Oliver Cromwell, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Washington was unique. Unfortunately, unlike July 4, 1776, the date December 23, 1783 isn’t ingrained in the minds of many Americans. Yet, especially given recent talk of an American Caesar (whether Red or Blue), it should be. Washington made dictatorship un-American.
It didn’t have to go this way. Two years after the 1781 victory at Yorktown, things were falling apart. A weak and dysfunctional Congress was broke. The undersupplied Continental Army hadn’t been paid in years. As a result, a rumored officers’ coup potentially threatened the nation with a military dictatorship, or at least the destruction of civil-military relations. By June 1783, resentful soldiers encircled Independence Hall (the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence) with bayonets drawn. The mutiny drove Congress from the capital of Philadelphia.
Across the Atlantic, King George III wondered if Washington would assume power. British Commander-in-Chief General Guy Carleton was convinced that in America “a Monarchy must of necessity take place.” Closer to home, Continental Army officer Lewis Nicola had even previously written to Washington about “the title of king.”
Given the context, Washington’s actions were even more profound. As he headed to Annapolis, Maryland, where the Congress had fled after the Philadelphia mutiny, Washington was not crossing the Rubicon. The only thing on the general’s mind was his “intention of asking leave to resign [to Congress] the Commission I have the honor of holding in their Service.” Since June 19, 1775, when he was first commissioned by Congress as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, the Virginian had affirmed the supremacy of civilian government. Whether he was fighting campaigns, facing cabals to remove him, pulling his officers back from launching a conspiracy, or suppressing a mutiny, he never forgot that he served Congress and the people.
At noon on December 23, Washington entered the packed Old Senate Chamber in the Maryland State House for his “solemn resignation.” Onlookers jostled for position on the floor, as the upstairs gallery overflowed with the city’s most prominent ladies. With his head uncovered, Washington bowed before Congress – who were all seated with their hats still on – in a display of civilian supremacy.
Overcome with emotion, Washington’s “voice faltered and sunk” as he thanked Congress for the “trust committed to” him and spoke of his love for “the Interests of our dearest Country.” Before concluding, he needed to pause and collect himself, “I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.” The room burst into tears.
Washington’s surrender was so rare it stunned the world and helped label the U.S. as “a respectable Nation.” Giving up power was “so new in the present times, or rather unknown,” gushed Polish poet Julian Niemcewicz. You had to go back to Roman General Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus surrendering his sword in 458 BC to find a comparable example. And even then Cincinnatus was a dictator – even if it was just for 16 days – before he gave up power and returned to his plow.
Perhaps the most fitting testimony came from a recent enemy, George III who simply called Washington “the greatest man in the world” for his resignation.
The world indeed watched with awe. But Washington’s act became even more venerated as others could not follow his example. The South American “Liberator” Simón Bolívar overthrew Spanish rule but assumed dictatorial powers in Peru and Venezuela. Haitian revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines freed his island before being made emperor by his generals. Napoleon Bonaparte effectively destroyed the ideals of the French Revolution when he crowned himself emperor. In exile, a bitter and defeated Napoleon muttered, “They wanted me to be another Washington.” But it’s not easy being another Washington. His legacy isn’t based on accumulating power – it’s about giving it up for the good of the nation.
Accepting Washington’s commission in Annapolis, Congressional President Thomas Mifflin hoped this example would “continue to animate remotest ages.” It did. General Washington set a precedent for the peaceful transition of power that was expanded and reaffirmed when the unanimously elected President Washington left office after only two terms – when he could have retained the office for life.
Today you can visit a painting of Washington’s resignation by Revolutionary War veteran John Trumbull in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. It stands as a symbol that in America, dictatorship (for any length of time, whether one day or “4Eva”) has been utterly rejected for 240 years and counting.
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So in the hustle and bustle of this most wonderful time of the year, take a moment to remember the greatest moment in American history, “the greatest man” George Washington and his greatest gift – the gift that keeps on giving.
Craig Bruce Smith is a member of the Jack Miller Center’s teaching network and the author of “American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals During the Revolutionary Era.” Follow him on social media at @craigbrucesmith. For more, visit www.craigbrucesmith.com. All views are the author’s.