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With trembling hands

This is one of my favorite true stories, about an American who was British by descent, and, until the American Revolution, British by law.

The American political scene described by Thomas Fleming in “Washington’s Gift” (WSJ, 24 Dec 2007) was appalling. The Revolutionary War had been won, but for eight long months Congress had refused to pay America’s soldiers. They had not received their back pay, or even any thanks from their country. There was no confidence in the new Congress, and sales in the American loan arranged in Amsterdam by John Adams were plummeting.

George Washington was in agony because his soldiers had not been paid, and his country seemed to be self-destructing under the incompetent rule of Congress. Many people urged him to dismiss Congress, become King and straighten things out.

Addison's play Cato, which Washington knew by heart and which he had had performed at Valley Forge for his soldiers, may have been on his mind. In the life of Cato and in the play the struggle between liberty and tyranny is etched in knife-sharp detail. Washington may also have recalled General Monck's example a hundred years earlier in Britain.

In Fleming’s account -

At noon on Dec. 23, Washington and two aides walked from their hotel to the Annapolis State House, where Congress was sitting. Barely 20 delegates had bothered to show up.”

There Washington faced Thomas Mifflin who had tried to force him to resign during the war and had slandered him. Mifflin had deprived Washington and his soldiers of desperately needed food, clothing, and arms. Mifflin had quit the army when he was accused of stealing millions as quartermaster.

“Addressing this scandal-tarred enemy, Washington drew a speech from his coat pocket and unfolded it with trembling hands. 'Mr. President,' he began in a low, strained voice. He expressed his gratitude to his countrymen and to his soldiers. “This reference to his soldiers ignited feelings so intense, he had to grip the speech with both hands to keep it steady.”

Then he commended the interests “of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God and those who have the superintendence of them [Congress] to his holy keeping."

"For a long moment, Washington could not say another word. Tears streamed down his cheeks. The words touched a vein of religious faith in his inmost soul, born of battlefield experiences that had convinced him of the existence of a caring God who had protected him and his country again and again during the war. Without this faith he might never have been able to endure the frustrations he had experienced in the previous eight months.

Washington then drew from his coat a parchment copy of his appointment as commander in chief.

'Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theater of action and bidding farewell to this august body under whom I have long acted, I here offer my commission and take leave of all the employments of public life.' Stepping forward, he handed the document to Mifflin.

This was – is – the most important moment in American history.??The man who could have dispersed this feckless Congress and obtained for himself and his soldiers rewards worthy of their courage was renouncing absolute power.

. . .In Europe, Washington’s resignation restored America’s battered prestige. It was reported with awe and amazement in newspapers from London to Vienna. . .

Washington shook hands with each member of Congress and not a few of the spectators. Meanwhile, his aides were bringing their horses and baggage wagons from their hotel. They had left orders for everything to be packed and ready for an immediate departure.

The next day, after an overnight stop at a tavern, they rode at a steady pace toward Mount Vernon. Finally, as twilight shrouded the winter sky, the house came into view beside the Potomac River. Past bare trees and wintry fields the three horsemen trotted toward the white-pillared porch and the green shuttered windows, aglow with candlelight. Waiting for them at the door was Martha Washington and two grandchildren. It was Christmas eve.

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