Monday, December 23, 2013

The Resignation: Washington Resigns His Commission Before Congress

Two-hundred and thirty years ago today, at noon on Tuesday, December 23, 1783, Congress assembled in the Old Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House. The roll that day recorded only seven states in attendance, “namely: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, and most of these only by two delegates.”[1] While this was not enough to pass legislation, Congress determined unanimously three days before that it would be enough to receive the resignation of the commander-in-chief.[2]

Despite the generally poor attendance of delegates, the room was crowded with citizens. Ladies filed into the gallery and men on the floor. David Howell of Rhode Island wrote, “The State House was crowded with people of the first fashion who all partook in the occasion. And many testified their affectionate attachment to our illustrious Hero & their gratitude for his Services to his Country by a most copious shedding of tears.”[3] On this day, the Old Senate Chamber had reached such a capacity that some people were asked to leave! Even so, the crowd was still overwhelming, as James Tilton, a delegate from Delaware, recorded: “At twelve o’clock the General was introduced by the Secretary, and seated opposite to the president, until the throng, that filled all the avenues, were so disposed of as to behold the solemnity. The ladies occupid the gallery, as full as it would hold, the Gentn. crouded below stairs.”[4]

George Washington Surrendering His Commission by Francis Blackwell Mayer, 1883. Image courtesy of the Mint Museum, 1971.14.

Washington, along with two of his aides-de-camp, entered the State House while his servant or slave waited outside. They were ushered into the Senate Committee Room until Congress was ready to receive them. Finally, Washington entered the Old Senate Chamber where Thomas Mifflin, the rest of Congress, and citizens of Annapolis waited. 

The Committee for Procedures had already determined the protocol for the resignation, which we can assume was followed. James Tilton thoroughly described the events, “Silence ordered, by the Secretary, the Genl rose & bowed to congress, who uncovered but did not bow. He then delivered his speech, and at the close of it, drew his commission from his bosom & handed it to the president. The president replied in a set speech, the General bowed again to Congress, they uncovered & the General retired. After a little pause, the company withdrew, Congress adjourned. The General then steped into the room again, bid every member farewell and rode off...”[5]

Immediately after the resignation, Washington left, at last, for Mt. Vernon, “intent upon eating his christmas dinner at home.”[6] It was the first time Washington would be home since the beginning of the Revolutionary War, more than eight years prior.

The emotion felt by the audience and Congress was perhaps the best-remembered and recorded aspect of the ceremony. James McHenry, in a letter to his fiance, was particularly struck by it: 
“It was a solemn and affecting spectacle; such an one as history does not present. The spectators all wept, and there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears. The General’s hand which held the address shook as he read it. When he spoke of the officers who had composed his family, and recommended those who had contined in it to the present moment to the favorable notice of Congress he was obliged to support the paper with both hands. But when he commended the interests of his dearest country to almighty God, and those who had the superintendence of them to his holy keeping, his voice faultered and sunk, and the whole house felt his agitations.”[7] 
The Maryland Gazette added, “Few tragedies ever drew more tears from so many beautiful eyes, as were affected by the moving manner in which his Excellency took his final leave of Congress.”[8]

George Washington's personal copy of his resignation speech, acquired by the Maryland State Archives in January 2007. To learn more about the speech, go here. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 5664.

In January 2007, the Maryland State Archives acquired Washington’s hand-written draft of the resignation, which he composed at Mann’s Tavern. The most significant detail in this copy is in the last paragraph. Washington crossed out the words “final” and “ultimate,” to read: “bidding an affectionate, final farewell to this August body...I here today deliver my Commission, and take my ultimate leave of all the employments of public life," foreshadowing his future presidency.

Washington’s resignation was of great significance to the post-revolutionary United States. Not only did he set the precedent that the President is the Commander-in-Chief, but by giving up his position as commander-in-chief, he placed his power and his status as a national hero in the hands of Congress. It was this empowerment of Congress that helped to ensure no one body held too much influence, and became a great action in the movement towards a balanced democracy that we enjoy today.

[1] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, ed. Worthington C. Ford et al. (Washington, D.C., 1904-37), vol.25, p.818.
[2] Ibid, p.836.
[3] Smith, Paul H., ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 2000. David Howell to William Greene, 24 December 1783, page 225.
[4] Letter from James Tilton to Gunning Bedford Jr., 25 December 1783. Bryn Mawr College Library, Seymour Adelman Letters and Document Collection, Box 24.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Smith, Paul H., ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 2000. James McHenry to Margaret Caldwell, 23 December 1783, page 222.
[8] Maryland Gazette, MSA SC 2731, 25 December 1783.


  1. I have enjoyed your blog items over the past few months. The resignation has intrigued me for several years and I was motivated to started doing a tour around the State House and into the State House regarding this event starting in 2007. You have verified my information consistently but my only concern is whether or not there is really evidence that the Dinner on the 22nd was in fact is the state house. I have reviewed the book by Baker from the late 19th century but found nothing that would give me confidence that that the State House was the site for the dinner.
    D.L. Smith,, 410-271-0184, Annapolis, MD.

    1. Thank you for your comment!

      Great catch! You are right in thinking that the dinner on the 22nd was not in the State House, where the ball occurred later that night. Rather, evidence points toward the ball room. The December 24, 1783 edition of the Maryland Gazette confirmed, "On Monday Congress gave his Excellency a public dinner at the Ball-room...At night the Stadt-house was beautifully illuminated, where a ball was given by the general assembly..."

      Some of the confusion about where the dinner was held stems from the fact that there were actually two ball rooms in eighteenth-century Annapolis! The City of Annapolis' Assembly Rooms on Duke of Gloucester Street is most well-known, but there was also a building known as the Conference Chamber located on the grounds of the State House. The latter building was built in the 1720s, and served as the home of the Maryland upper house (which became the Maryland Senate in 1776) and the Governor and Council until they moved into the current State House in 1779. Given the number of attendees at the dinner (James Tilton wrote in his letter to Gunning Bedford Jr., that there were between 200-300 gentlemen in the ball-room), it seems most likely that the dinner on the 22nd took place in the Assembly Room ball room, but it could, perhaps, have taken place in the smaller building adjacent to the State House.