Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Resignation: Committee for Procedures

By all standards, George Washington’s resignation as commander-in-chief was a dignified yet modest affair for Congress. All the same, a certain amount of ceremony for an event as momentous as the resignation was required. Delegates Thomas Jefferson, Elbridge Gerry, and James McHenry were selected by Congress on December 20, 1783 to form the Committee for Procedures for the event.[1]

James McHenry, by Charles Balthazar Julien Feveret de Saint-Mémin, 1803. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Their report was likely prepared during the weekend before the resignation. Apart from establishing the protocol of the actual ceremony, the committee’s responsibilities may have also included writing the President of Congress’ response to Washington’s resignation speech, though James McHenry admitted to not having been involved in this task. In December 1783, McHenry was love-sick over his fiance, Margaret Caldwell, and wrote to her, “I was to assist in writing our answer to General Washington’s resignation - but I am unfit for the purpose.”[2] 

Nevertheless, the weekend before the ceremony, Jefferson sent a note to Gerry and McHenry alongside his draft of the copy of Mifflin’s speech and added, “I send you the sketch, which I have been obliged to obliterate and blot after making what I intended for a fair copy...Perhaps this answer is too short; perhaps it is too warm. A want of time must apologize for the one, and an exalted esteem for the other faults. Be so good as to handle it roughly and freely and make it what it should be.”[3]

Thomas Jefferson, Pendleton's Lithography after a painting by Gilbert Stuart, c.1828. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Elbridge Gerry, by J. B. Longacre, 1847. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On December 22, 1783, the day before the resignation, they made their final report, which was approved by Congress. The arrival of General Washington was to be announced by the messenger to the secretary and he would then enter with his aides, who would stand by his side after he had taken his seat. The President of Congress, Thomas Mifflin, would say, “Sir, the United States in Congress assembled are prepared to receive your communications,” and Washington would make his address to Congress, which he would deliver standing. After Washington finished his speech, he would remain standing as the President delivered his response. Finally, “when the General rises to make his address, and also when he retires, he is to bow to Congress, which they are to return by uncovering without bowing.” The resignation ceremony required Congress to keep their hats on, only uncovering at the end in response to Washington’s bow.[4] Though short, the relative formality of the event tells modern historians that Congress understood the significance of the occasion. 

Aspects of the procedures determined by the committee deliver significant statements of the politics of the Confederation period. Congress was struggling to assert its power over the new country at the same time that Washington was being celebrated as a national hero. Washington’s bow to Congress symbolized the recognition of Congress as the governmental body. The significance of the action has been detailed in several pieces of scholarship, including former Governor Theodore R. McKeldin’s book appropriately titled, Washington Bowed.

This list of protocol created by the Committee for Procedures is one of the most valuable pieces of information we have in regard to the resignation ceremony. It has been used on multiple occasions as a source for reenactments and today it is a significant resource to help determine the arrangement of furniture in the Old Senate Chamber on December 23.

Click here to read the full report from the Committee for Procedures!

[1] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, ed. Worthington C. Ford et al. (Washington, D.C., 1904-37), vol.25, p.818.
[2] Smith, Paul H., ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 2000. James McHenry to Margaret Caldwell, 22 December 1783.
[3] Ibid. Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry and James McHenry, 21? December 1783.
[4] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, ed. Worthington C. Ford et al. (Washington, D.C., 1904-37), vol.25, p.819-820.

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