One of the things that becoming an “experienced” human grants you is the ability to look at things you thought you understood and make corrections.I’m forever astonished when I study something I thought I understood and discover something I’d completely failed to see the significance of.I’ve always been fascinated by the “founding fathers”. Washington has long been a person who I’ve never fully understood despite reading at least 3 biographies about the man.Maybe it’s just the sheer number of astonishing facts about him that obscures his level of greatness, you just come to expect amazing things out of him.One can pick from any number of events that would have resulted in failure for a lesser man, and it’s long been obvious to me that world is a much better place because of him.The famous painting by John Trumbull at the top of this page probably is familiar to most of us: it finds it’s way into every book that even casually mentions Washington and a google search places it in the top row.It depicts Washington resigning his commission as commander-in-chief on December 23, 1783.
This was something the rest of the world was astonished by. And yet, it never struck me how revolutionary this was.
Nearly all Europeans had simply assumed that being the conquering General, Washington would just assume leadership, citing examples from Julius Caesar to Oliver Cromwell, of the fledgling nation. They all assumed that the “revolution” would, in fact, turn into a military coup.
After eight and a half years without pay or leave and defeating the world’s most powerful nation against seemingly impossible odds, he has the conviction to surrender all of that to return to his plantation in Virginia. Wow.
He understood that for our nation to live up to the ideals of it’s revolution, power would have to come from the people rather than from the end of a gun. The fact that he did not become president until nearly 6 years later is a testimony to how dearly he held the notion of civilian governance.
Last night, (the 217th anniversary, to the day, of Washington’s Passing on Dec 14th, 1799) I was reading a passage in Edward Larson’s book on “The Return of George Washington 1783-1789” when the full impact of that act struck me.Washington handed us a precious gift at that point. I’d just never fully appreciated it.