It is probably the most important date in United States history, but to most people Dec. 23 signifies only that there are two shopping days left until Christmas.
On that date in 1783, however, a remarkable event occurred.
After victoriously leading an army for more than eight years against the mightiest military force on the planet, Gen. George Washington walked before the Continental Congress and announced, “Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theater of action …”
He had commanded an army clothed in rags, its soldiers so hungry they ate tree bark to fill their stomachs. They died from dysentery and starvation.
Here’s how author Ron Chernow describes it in his biography of the general: “There was scarcely a time during the war when Washington didn’t grapple with a crisis that threatened to disband the army and abort the Revolution. The extraordinary, wearisome, nerve-racking frustration he put up with for nearly nine years is hard to express. He repeatedly had to exhort Congress and the 13 states to remedy desperate shortages of men, shoes, shirts, blankets and gunpowder.”
Each year his army would simply disappear as their enlistments expired meaning Washington had to start training them from scratch.
After the fighting had ended and before the peace was signed, King George III of England asked an acquaintance whether Washington would remain in charge of the army or become the new nation’s monarch. When told Washington’s aim was to simply give up his power and return to his farm, the king replied, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
He resigned in Annapolis, Maryland, and immediately set out for home. For the first time in eight years Washington returned to Mount Vernon for Christmas. It would be six years before he was elected the nation’s first president and once again called away from home.
In the history of the world there are a multitude of heroic military leaders who have led successful revolts against oppressors only to seize power themselves, becoming dictators and despots.
Put simply, this government of the people and by the people exists only because George Washington voluntarily gave up his power, first as the military leader and later as its chief of state.
Yet, there is no national holiday marking the occasion. No fireworks light the skies. The calendar does not even designate Dec. 23 as a day to fly the flag.
Chernow, who also wrote the biography of Alexander Hamilton that inspired the popular musical, penned a terrific biography of Washington that reminded me once again why he was so unique.
No, he was not perfect. He was a slave owner, and while some make excuses for his behavior, the fact is that a man who was willing to risk everything for freedom was unwilling to share it with others.
From my observations, I have found that people who arduously defend freedom of religion and speech for themselves, who have enjoyed the bounty of its fruit, are quick to deny it to others they deem less worthy.
Americans have a tendency to celebrate both power and its abuse.
That’s why I believe Dec. 23 needs to be recognized, remembered and cherished as the day a man walked away from absolute power.
On his last day in uniform, Washington did not proclaim himself the greatest military commander in history or trumpet his victories. Instead, he recalled how inadequate he felt when he was named to lead the troops.
He tied this prize in a red, white and blue ribbon and presented it as a Christmas gift to all who would live in this nation for centuries to come. And then he mounted his horse and rode home.
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