Bruce Kauffmann: George Washington gives up power

"I did not defeat King George III to become King George I." — George Washington

In 1781, at Yorktown, Va., Gen. George Washington and his ragtag Continental Army soundly defeated the greatest military juggernaut in the world, thereby procuring for America its independence. Washington was hailed as the savior of his country. He was offered every honor a man could want. Absolute power was his for the taking, including the power of a king.

Instead, last week (Dec. 23) in 1783, Washington did something rather unusual. He resigned his commission, declined the throne, said no thanks to public office and returned home to Mount Vernon to resume his life as a gentleman farmer. Not since Cincinnatus in Roman times had a victorious general willingly given up power to return to civilian life. It was an act that astounded his countrymen and the world. It was also the act of a man who fully understood what power was all about.

Granted, Washington actually preferred planting crops to politicking, but he also refused the offer of kingly powers because he knew that his countrymen, their gratitude for his service notwithstanding, had no wish to replace a British monarchy with an American version.

What's more, Washington understood the danger of giving complete power to one man. His years commanding the Continental Army had taught him the wisdom of empowering his military subordinates, especially his young aide, Alexander Hamilton, and while he ultimately reserved for himself all major decisions, his war counsels were freewheeling affairs in which all were encouraged to state their views. Washington had a talent for spotting, and encouraging, talent — from Hamilton to the young Frenchman, Lafayette, to the German drill instructor, Friedrich von Steuben, who finally instilled discipline into Washington's troops.

Also, it was Washington's understanding of power that, despite his deep misgivings, returned him to power as America's first president. Washington had supported replacing the weak Articles of Confederation, which had governed the country since the war, with a Constitution that created a strong national government.

Washington believed that only a central government with real powers, including a strong chief executive, could counterbalance and unite the 13 fractious states, but he also knew that this new national government filled his countrymen with misgivings. It was untested and possessed powers that acted independent of, and often competed with, their state and local governments. Washington was the only man they trusted to make this new thing work.

And why did they trust him? They knew he would wield power for the country's good, not his own. In that sense Washington's decision to resign his commission in 1783 was truly unique. He ensured his place in history by surrendering power, not seizing it.

Bruce Kauffmann's email address is bruce@historylessons.net.

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