Fortunately for America, George Washington didn’t want to become a king. He wanted to go home.
It is an unfortunate reality that most violent revolutions end in tyranny, leading to even more violence.
Fortunately for America, George Washington did not want to become a king. He wanted to go home.
The danger to American democracy was greatest in 1783. The peace treaty had been negotiated with the British. The fighting was over. Now the Army was free to demand its back pay from Congress.
Why go home? Why not march on Congress? Why not demand “justice” at the point of a bayonet?
Only the wisdom and virtue of one person—George Washington—stopped the Army from snuffing out America’s fragile democracy.
At a mass meeting with his officers on March 15, 1783, Washington desperately tried to convince the Army to support the Congress rather than to undermine the Congress.
George Washington did not want to become a king. He did not manipulate the Army’s anger in order to increase his personal power.
Instead, George Washington urged patience.
“[D]espite the slowness inherent in deliberative bodies,” Washington expressed his faith that Congress would act justly in the end. He warned the officers not to “open the floodgates of civil discord, and deluge our rising empire with blood.”
Instead, Washington urged them to act honorably, setting a glorious example so that all Humanity would see America produce “the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.”
George Washington ended his prepared remarks. He failed. So much for the Army attaining “the last stage of perfection.”
The Army did not agree with an appeal to respect Congress, even though it was made by George Washington himself! The officers remained disgruntled.
Democracy trembled in the balance. Was the pen—and the Congress—truly mightier than the sword?
George Washington hoped that a reassuring letter from a congressman would convince the Army to wait longer for its back pay.
Washington pulled the letter from his pocket. Then he became confused.
The officers became afraid. They revered George Washington, the General who had led them to victory against the mightiest empire in the world. Was he ill?
They needn’t have worried. He wasn’t ill. He was just looking for his glasses!
George Washington’s eyesight had become so bad that he couldn’t read without glasses. He hated to acknowledge this sign of old age.
But at last, there was no hiding the truth. Washington sheepishly extracted his glasses from his pocket. With some embarrassment, he said, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”
This simple, sincere statement by Washington touched their hearts. They remembered how much they loved him. They remembered the immense sacrifices they and their fallen comrades had all endured in the cause of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
The Army would not throw away all their sacrifices now by acting dishonorably—by threatening Congress with their bayonets.
The crisis was over.
Washington stayed with the Army until the British left New York City in late November 1783. He said goodbye to his officers at Fraunces Tavern.
Overcome with emotion at this parting from his comrades, Washington was unable to eat. His hand shook and his lip trembled. Tears streamed down the faces of his officers as Washington embraced each man separately.
Tears also flowed when Washington went to Congress to retire from military life. He didn’t want to become a king. He wanted to go home.
On Christmas Eve 1783, George Washington arrived home at his beloved Mount Vernon. As candles flickered in every window, his wife Martha greeted him at the door.
And so, as Thomas Jefferson later paid tribute: “The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”
To understand the difference between a good Patriot and a bad Nationalist, please read my blog “Nationalism is Patriotism Gone Astray”.
To learn how Abraham Lincoln unified Americans, please read my blog “Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—Unifying Americans”.
This blog is drawn from the section “Washington Sends the Army Home, at pages 39-41 of my book Visions of America (published with my book Visions of the Church). Please see the endnotes to that section of my book for citations to the sources for my account.