As America celebrates President’s Day today, many have some understanding but few truly grasp the full historical significance of the moment hosted by the city of Annapolis in shaping the role of our nation’s highest office. Mere steps from Maryland’s current Senate and House Chambers sits the room where then General George Washington would shape the American political structure and the role of the American President forever.
Having lead colonial forces to the surrender of the mighty British Empire at Yorktown in 1781, General George Washington was clearly the most respected leader in the new America and was widely revered as almost divine in the young nation. Two short years later in Annapolis, a December 23, 1783 meeting of the Continental Congress saw what many consider as the single greatest moment in the formation of the early governmental principles of the United States.
While many expected that Washington would seek an authoritarian role in the developing nation, on that late-December day, Washington addressed his fellow national leaders resigning his commission as head of the Continental Army thus enshrining the principle of civilian rule of the military that would become a fundamental principle of American democracy.
To the crowd including some 200 leaders and three other future American Presidents (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe) Washington stated the following:
“Mr. President: The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place; I have now the honor of offering my sincere Congratulations to Congress and of presenting myself before them to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me, and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the Service of my Country. Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, and pleased with the oppertunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable Nation, I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence. A diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task, which however was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our Cause, the support of the Supreme Power of the Union, and the patronage of Heaven. The Successful termination of the War has verified the most sanguine expectations, and my gratitude for the interposition of Providence, and the assistance I have received from my Countrymen, encreases with every review of the momentous Contest. While I repeat my obligations to the Army in general, I should do injustice to my own feelings not to acknowledge in this place the peculiar Services and distinguished merits of the Gentlemen who have been attached to my person during the War. It was impossible the choice of confidential Officers to compose my family should have been more fortunate. Permit me Sir, to recommend in particular those, who have continued in Service to the present moment, as worthy of the favorable notice and patronage of Congress. I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life, by commending the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping. Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”
While Annapolis only served as the temporary capital for the United States from November 1783 to August 1784, it was fortunate enough to witness these monumental words from Washington and to serve as the backdrop for one of the most important moments in American history. A moment that would later be documented in the renowned John Trumbull painting General George Washington Resigning His Commission which now hangs in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol Building.
Thanks to recent restoration efforts, Maryland’s Old Senate Chamber is again open to the public to enjoy. On this President’s Day, or any other day, visitors can view the very room where Washington resigned and the role of the presidency was defined. Tours can be scheduled through the Maryland Department of Legislative Services by calling (410) 946-5400.