Historical Context

The surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in October of 1781 persuaded Great Britain’s Parliament to end the war in America. Remarkably, the diverse, ill-supplied, and at times undisciplined Continental Army outlasted Parliament’s resolve to spend money and men to put down the American rebellion.  However, before a treaty of peace could be finalized, two more dangerous years passed and George Washington had cause to worry. Even after America’s victory at Yorktown, the British still held Charleston, Savannah and New York City. Finally, the official end to the war came with the Treaty of Paris in September of 1783. The evacuation of British troops from America soon followed.

Washington knew his next move. He had been preparing it since he took command of the Continental Army and declined a salary. The victorious general, the most powerful man in America, planned to strengthen the United States system of government by the people. In the tradition of Cincinnatus, he planned to resign his commission and retire to his farm at Mount Vernon, reinforcing the role of Congress as the central power of the American republic.

Educated people in the eighteenth century knew the ancient story of the Roman hero Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. In the fifth century BC, the Roman Senate called on Cincinnatus to lead the army of the republic against foreign invaders and granted him dictatorial powers to deal with the crisis facing Rome. After leading the army to victory, Cincinnatus resigned his commission, returned power to the Senate, and retired to his farm, refusing rewards for serving the republic. For the classical world, Cincinnatus was the embodiment of civic virtue—characterized by a willingness to sacrifice private interest for the good of the public.

Two days before Christmas 1783, Washington arrived in Annapolis, Maryland for a special session of Congress. His horse was waiting at the door to carry him to Mount Vernon by Christmas Eve. He addressed those gathered:

“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 my leave of all the employments of public life.”

Washington’s willingness to resign his power for the good of the republic earned him the title of “American Cincinnatus.” The American painter Benjamin West liked to tell the story of his conversation with King George III during the war. Asked what General Washington would do if he prevailed, West said he thought he would return to his farm. “If he does that,” said the King, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Documents and Essential Questions

George Washington’s Resignation Speech, December 23, 1783

What are the “great events on which [Washington’s] resignation depended”?

Why can Washington “resign with satisfaction the appointment [he] accepted with dissidence”?

At the time of Washington’s resignation, Congress had yet to pay the officers and soldiers of the army. Why would Washington include a note in his speech that the army is “worthy of favorable notice & patronage of Congress”?

Why would Washington want to retire from “all the employments of public life”?