Monday, February 19, 2007

A fitting way to celebrate Presidents' Day

Maryland is unveiling today the original draft of George Washington's resignation letter to the Continental Congress at the end of the Revolutionary War. It has been held in private hands all these years, but the state of Maryland recently acquired it.
The speech, scholars say, was a turning point in U.S. history. As the Revolutionary War was winding down, some wanted to make Washington king. Some whispered conspiracy, trying to seduce him with the trappings of power. But Washington renounced them all.

By resigning his commission as commander in chief to the Continental Congress -- then housed at the Annapolis capitol -- Washington laid the cornerstone for an American principle that persists today: Civilians, not generals, are ultimately in charge of military power.
George III, upon hearing that Washington was voluntarily laying down the reins of power is purported to have exclaimed, "If he indeed does that, he will be the greatest man in the world." (If you're interested in learning more about Washington's first farewell to power, read Stanley Weintraub's George Washington's Christmas Farewell.)

The draft letter that Maryland is unveiling today reveals the subtle changes that Washington made in the document to take exactly the proper tone for a general displaying his commitment to civilian control of the military. This was a deference that he continually displayed during the War and it is mostly to him that we owe our traditions of a military that serves the government instead of the opposite path to power that has destroyed so many other revolutions.
Washington had carefully prepared his speech that day, according to the revisions in the newly acquired manuscript. It appears that he wanted to stress the importance of Congress and his subservience to it. He crossed out, for example, the word "deliver" and said instead, "I here offer my commission," leaving his resignation up to the will of Congress.

When he read it aloud, "the spectators all wept, and there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears," McHenry writes in his account. "His voice faultered and sunk, and the whole house felt his agitations."

Washington paused to recover from the emotion.

From there, the draft originally ended: "bidding an affectionate, a final farewell to this August body . . . I here today deliver my Commission, and take my ultimate leave of all the employments of public life."

What is notable in the manuscript, however, is that Washington crossed out the words "final" and "ultimate," as though saying to Congress after years of wearying war and service he would be willing to serve again, if needed.
Thankfully, he was ready to serve again four years later at the Constitutional Convention and then as our first president. I often ask my students to picture some other man, whether a different founding father or a different figure from American history as our first president and to ponder what different precedents would have been established if that person had been instead of Washington our first president. Just a few silent moments of reflection is enough to knock it home how fortunate indeed we were that George Washington was there to take the job.

Happy Presidents' Day!