General Washington's resignation as commander-in-chief at the end of the Revolutionary War earned him the title of American Cincinnatus.
Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Like their English counterparts, Americans in the 18th century viewed standing armies with fear and suspicion. Professional armies were a necessary evil in wartime and formed an implicit danger to the civilian government that had called them into being. Every student of ancient and modern history knew what could happen if an army formed in wartime refused to disband peaceably. Julius Caesar had taken his army across the Rubicon, spelling the doom of the Roman Republic. Since, according to the best political science of the day, "similar causes must ever produce similar effects," observers reasoned the same thing could happen in America. Americans could also point to more recent English history. Parliament had formed the New Model Army in 1645 to resist and then depose King Charles I during the English Civil War. The army's leader, Oliver Cromwell, subsequently used the New Model Army to create the Protectorate, a regime abandoned with as much relief after his death as it had been celebrated when it was initially formed.(1) It was not surprising that colonists reacted with fear and outrage when British troops established a garrison in Boston on the eve of the Revolution.
Fifteen years later, as the end of that war approached, observers at home and abroad watched the Continental Army, and its Commander in Chief George Washington, in particular. Would this standing army, led by the most powerful man in the United States, disband, or would it become a tool of ambitious men?
There already were disturbing developments in the Continental Army encamped at New Windsor, New York, in the winter of 1782-83. Their pay in arrears, out of patience, and losing whatever confidence they had originally possessed in the weak, virtually bankrupt national government, a delegation of officers presented Congress in December, 1782, with a petition declaring that, "We have born all that men can bear—our property is expended—our private resources are at an end…" The petition warned that "any further experiments on their patience may have fatal effects."(2) An anonymous letter circulated in March 1783 urged fellow officers to hold Congress accountable for the promises it had made or to beware the consequences:
that the wound often irritated, and never healed, may at length become incurable; and that the slightest mark of indignity from Congress now, must operate like the grave, and part you for ever; that in any political event, the army has its alternative.(3)
As for the enlisted men, false rumors heralding the arrival of longed-for back pay and discharges raised and dashed hopes with depressing regularity. Thomas Foster of the Seventh Massachusetts Regiment concluded gloomily in February 1783 that, "We still remain moneyless and so are like to I believe."(4)
Much depended on the loyalty, leadership and example of the Commander in Chief, General Washington. Washington did not disappoint. In a moving address, he single-handedly defused the so-called Newburgh Conspiracy by reminding the assembled officers of his own struggles and sacrifices, and making appeals to their honor.(5)
Washington worked as hard to disband the army peacefully as he had struggled to keep it intact against all odds during the darkest days of the war. Special badges and distinctions for years of service encouraged esprit de corps among the enlisted men. His farewell address to the army urged patience and forbearance, while reminding them of their claims to the highest standards of sacrifice and patriotism. He convinced Congress to allow the soldiers to retain their muskets and equipment as a token of confidence and thanks for their service.(6)
General Washington's greatest contribution, however, would be his resignation. An American-born portrait painter working in London told the king that he believed Washington would "return to his farm" after the war. An incredulous George III responded, "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."(7) On December 23, 1783, at Annapolis, Maryland, George Washington resigned his commission to Congress:
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 and 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… Having now finished the work assigned to 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.(8)
With these words, George Washington became the living embodiment of the ancient Roman citizen Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who had voluntarily surrendered the powers of a dictator bestowed upon him to protect Rome when it was threatened with invasion. Washington's determination to retire to civilian life instantly transformed him into the quintessential patriot—the American Cincinnatus. His actions and example validated the authority of a civilian Congress and helped to secure the American Revolution.(9)