On this day in 1783, General George Washington resigns his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the American army.
Okay. So we’ve all heard this story about Washington before. We’ve heard it so often, perhaps it is easy to gloss over the astonishing nature of Washington’s action.
Let me emphasize: What Washington did on this day 235 years ago is almost unheard of. Other military leaders have seized power and refused to let it go. But Washington would not be one of these men. When he could have been a King, he decided that he did not want the position. He wanted to go home to Mount Vernon. He wanted to resume his life with Martha. His decision was not a foregone conclusion—and it was astounding! It enabled our republic to get off the ground.
Many at the time compared Washington to a great Roman figure, Cincinnatus. Cincinnatus, too, was compelled into public service; he was plowing a field and literally left the plow standing in the field to join the Roman army when it needed him. Having led the Romans to victory, he then returned home and resumed his life as a farmer without trying to obtain more power.
Our ancestors would have known this story. Thus, when Washington was compared to Cincinnatus, they knew exactly what it meant.
“You have often heard him compared to Cincinnatus,” a French traveler wrote in 1788. “The comparison is doubtless just. The celebrated General is nothing more at present than a good farmer, constantly occupied in the care of his farm and the improvement of cultivation.”
Yes, Washington was the “American Cincinnatus.” Don’t you wish that our schools would emphasize this aspect of his service?
Cincinnatus (Mount Vernon website)
Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: Victory with the Help of France (1948) (Vol. 5)
Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (2010)