Washington Resigning His Commission

Introduction

George Washington's letter to Congress announced his arrival in Annapolis and asked "in what manner it will be most proper to offer my resignation." Congress immediately resolved that "his Excellency the Commander in Chief be admitted to a Public Audience, on Tuesday next [December 23] at twelve o'clock," and referred his letter to a committee chaired by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson and fellow committee members Elbridge Gerry and James McHenry devised a ceremony and composed a response that President Thomas Mifflin would deliver on behalf of Congress.

After resigning his commission as commander-in-chief, George Washington probably gave his draft of his remarks to the committee on which James McHenry served. McHenry kept it among his papers. Another copy, in the hand of Washington's secretary David Humphreys, is in the Library of Congress.

In March 1784, Charles Willson Peale wrote the President of Congress, Thomas Mifflin, that he had intended to come to Annpolis to make "a capital historical picture [of] ... Gen. Washington taking leave of Congress ... but alas my finances at present will not permit of such an undertaking." Perhaps Peale hoped for a commission from Congress, but none ever came, and he abandoned his project altogether. The first artist to attempt to reconstruct the scene was Robert Edge Pine not long after the event. Unfortunately Pine's large canvas was destroyed in a fire in 1803 and there is no surviving record of its appearance. John Trumbull completed the earliest extant painting of the ceremony in 1824, after taking considerable pains to determine the principal people in attendance, and to secure the likenesses. For some unknown reason, Trumbull chose to reverse the room, both in his preliminary sketches and in the final painting. Trumbull also included a number of people who were not there, such as Martha Washington and James Madison.

Edwin White's painting depicts even fewer people in attendance at the ceremony than Trumbull's, although he does show the room correctly. Neither painting includes the two Congressmen, James McHenry and James Tilton, who provided the most detailed comtemporary accounts of the event. From McHenry and Tilton it is known that the room was packed with Congressmen, members of the Maryland Legislature, the Governor's Council, city officials, Washington's aides, and guests, including the former Proprietor of Maryland, Henry Harford, and his brother-in-law, former governor Sir Robert Eden. The room was so crowded that Washington withdrew to the Committee Room while the "company" left. After a few minutes, when the Chamber was at last clear except for Congressmen (twenty-one or twenty-two) and clerks, "the General then stepped into the room again, bid every member [of Congress] farewell and rode off from the door [of the State House], intent upon eating his christmas dinner at home."

Following a carefully devised protocol worked out by Thomas Jefferson and his Committee, the ceremony of Washington's resignation as commander-in-chief began at twelve noon on December 23, 1783. James Tilton, member of Congress from Delaware, described the scene:

Tuesday morning, Congress met and took their seats in order, all covered. 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 occupied the gallery as full as it would hold, the Gentlemen crowded below stairs. Silence ordered, by the Secretary, the General rose and 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 bosem and handed it to the president. The president replied in a set speech. The General bowed again to Congress. They uncovered and the General retired. After a little pause until the company withdrew, Congress adjourned. The General then stepped into the room again, bid every member farewell and rode off from the door, intent upon eating his christmas dinner at home. Many of the spectators particularly the fair ones, shed tears on this solemn and affecting occasion.

SOURCE: Abstracted from The Maryland State House, Annapolis: A Guide to the Permanent Exhibits.

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 3: Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)

STANDARD 1: The causes of the American Revolution, the ideas and interests involved in forging the revolutionary movement, and the reasons for the American victory. 

Standard 1C: The student understands the factors affecting the course of the war and contributing to the American victory.

5-12: Appraise George Washington's military and political leadership in conducting the Revolutionary War. [Assess the importance of the individual] 

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: Washington, Lafayette and Tilghman at Yorktown
    ARTIST: Charles Willson Peale
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1784
    NOTES: Painted for the Maryland State House and first hung by the artist in the fall of 1784 in the old House of Delegates Chamber, this portrait now hangs above the fireplace in the adjoining old Senate Chamber.
    SOURCE: Maryland Commission on Artistic Property Collection, MSA SC 1545-1-1120
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  2. DESCRIPTION: Continental Congress to George Washington, Commission as Commander in Chief
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: June 19, 1775
    NOTES: The Commission was signed by John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress
    SOURCE: George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 8b. Honorary Degrees, Memberships, and Certificates of Appreciation, 1775-1798
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress

  3. DESCRIPTION: George Washington to Continental Congress, December 20, 1783
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: 
    NOTES: 
    SOURCE: The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor.
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress, American Memory Project. The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799

  4. DESCRIPTION: George Washington, Resignation Address
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 23, 1783
    SOURCE: George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 3a Varick Transcripts
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress, American Memory Project. The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799

  5. DESCRIPTION: Answer to George Washington's Resignation Address
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 23, 1783
    NOTES: 
    SOURCE: George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 3a Varick Transcripts
    Continental Congress to George Washington
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress, American Memory Project. The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799

  6. DESCRIPTION: General George Washington Resigning His Commission
    ARTIST: John Trumbull
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: Commissioned 1817; purchased 1824
    NOTES: Located in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Another image of this painting is available from the American Memory Project.
    REPOSITORY: U.S. Capitol, Washington, DC

  7. DESCRIPTION: Washington Resigning His Commission
    ARTIST: Edwin White (1817-1877)
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1859
    NOTES: Painting on display in the Maryland State House, Annapolis
    SOURCE: Maryland Commission on Artistic Property Collection, MSA SC 1545-1112
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  8. DESCRIPTION: Letter, James McHenry to Margaret Caldwell
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: [December 23, 1783]
    NOTES: McHenry carefully composed his account of Washington's resignation to his future wife. In an effort to polish his prose, he omitted some details from the copy he sent to Margaret Caldwell, including the observation that "the doors of Congress were thrown open at twelve o'clock when the governor and his council [arrived]." Otherwise McHenry made little substantial change to what remains as the most dramatic account of the resignation ceremony. Ironically, neither of the great historical paintings of the event include McHenry or Governor Paca's council.
    SOURCE: Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 21 October 1, 1783 - October 31, 1784
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress, American Memory Project. A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875

  9. DESCRIPTION: James McHenry
    ARTIST: DeNyse Turner
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1975
    SOURCE: Maryland Commission on Artistic Property Collection, MSA SC 1545-1029
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  10. DESCRIPTION: Charles Thompson to George Washington
    CREATED/PUBLISHED: December 23, 1783
    NOTES: Written in reference the Washington's resignation earlier in the day.
    SOURCE: George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4. General Correspondence. 1697-1799
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress, American Memory Project. The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799

Additional Media Resources

Documents from the Continental Congress and the Continental Congress 1774-1789. From the American Memory Project

Secondary Resources

McKeldin, Theodore.  Washington Bowed Baltimore, Maryland: Maryland Historical Society, 1957

Papenfuse, Edward C. "George Washington, Lobbyist Extraordinaire," Baltimore Sun, February 25, 1989

Associated Heritage and Preservation Organizations

Maryland State House
State Circle
Annapolis, MD 21401

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Credits

Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Nancy Bramucci.

 

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