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George Washington's Resignation

Grand Staircase

Washington Resigning His Commission, by Edwin White, 1858. MSA SC 1545-1112

At the end of the Revolutionary War, many people in America and Europe thought Washington would retain the reins of power to become the leader of the new nation, or even king. When told by the American artist Benjamin West that Washington was going to resign, King George III of England said "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."

However, Washington had an abiding faith in the young nation and a deep desire to return to his beloved Mt. Vernon and private life as a farmer. Congress had assembled in Annapolis in late November and awaited the general's arrival to resign his commission. He arrived on December 19 and immediately wrote to Congress to inquire as to how they actually wanted him to resign. A committee of Congress devised a ceremony that took place at noon on December 23. In the intervening days, Washington was feted with parties, balls and huzzas, including a gala ball on the night before the ceremony in the hall of the State House, where he danced with all the ladies.

On the day of the ceremony, Washington arrived at the State House where Congress was meeting in the Old Senate Chamber. When he entered the Chamber, the members remained seated, covered (with their hats on). In a short, emotional speech, Washington resigned his commission and then bowed to Congress. Only then did the members rise and remove their hats in a gesture of respect. As he left the Chamber to ride to Mt. Vernon in time to have his Christmas dinner at home, Washington handed his personal copy of his speech to a member of the committee. It is this copy that the state of Maryland has now acquired from a descendent of the member, in whose family it has remained since that day. The speech will be on display when the State House reopens in January 2009.