On this day in 1783, George Washington resigned as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army following the American victory in the Revolution. Speaking to Congress, assembled at Annapolis, Washington said:
“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 any leave of all the employments of public life.”
This is quite possibly the most significant resignation in history.
This was a path so well-trodden in history as to almost be expected: Following a great national uprising, the people, whether in the form of assemblies or otherwise, prove unable to manage affairs of state, and a great man, often the leader of the rebellion, feels compelled to step in. The classic example for Washington and his peers, who were raised as Brits, would have been Cromwell’s dissolution of the chronically incompetent Long Parliament. But Washington also knew that the pious soldier had been corrupted, like so many before him, by the power he had seized.
The Confederation Congress did not improve after Washington’s resignation; in fact, an entirely new system was called for to replace it. But by refusing to do the short-term, expedient thing and take supreme power, Washington gave the fledgeling nation space to develop institutions that went beyond one man. It was perhaps the greatest Christmas gift this nation has ever received.