December 23, 1783. American General George Washington resigns his military commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.
It’s just after sunset on December 29th, 1753.
21-year-old Major George Washington stands on a raft in the middle of the Allegheny River in what is now western Pennsylvania. His legs wobble as he struggles to find his balance. And for a brief moment, he thinks he’s about to topple into the icy water. Washington steadies himself on the setting pole he’s using to push the raft across the river. Washington glances behind and flashes a reassuring smile at Christopher Gist, his guide on this special mission into the American wilderness.
Two months ago, Washington’s military career began when he joined the Virginia Militia and swore an oath to serve the British crown. He was then dispatched from Virginia to deliver a message to French colonists, demanding that they withdraw from the Ohio River Valley—land the British considered theirs. But when he arrived, Washington discovered the French had already constructed a fort and showed no intention of leaving. So now, he is rushing back home to report his findings.
But it’s getting dark, and Washington wants to reach the safety of the far bank before night falls. So he places the setting pole onto the riverbed and pushes again, causing the raft to move forward a few inches. Then he lifts the pole and places it against an icy rock protruding from the water and pushes again.
But the rock moves.
Washington wobbles, struggling to keep his feet, and then does he realize it isn’t a rock at all, but a chunk of dirty ice floating on the surface of the river.
Unable to keep his balance, Washington topples forward and falls headfirst into the water.
His heavy clothes pull him under the surface. He flails and kicks about in desperation. He feels himself blacking out. But then… a hand reaches from above and grabs his coat. Washington feels himself pulled upwards… until his body breaks the surface. He kicks his legs, scrabbling back onto the raft.
And there, he lies on his back, gasping for air. Then he glances up to see his guide Christopher, whose hand is still holding his coat. As he recovers his breath, Washington can only give a weak wave of thanks to his companion who just saved his life.
George Washington only narrowly survived his first assignment in uniform. But rather than suffering a painful death by drowning in a freezing river, he continues to serve in the military, on and off, for another three decades. He goes on to earn acclaim for leading the Continental Army to victory over Great Britain: the country he served when he tumbled into the icy waters of the Allegheny River. Washington’s leadership on the battlefield during the Revolutionary War won America her independence and set the table for Washington to be a popular and influential figurehead of the new nation.
But of all his achievements, perhaps Washington’s most important action will come at the end of his military career. Almost 30 years to the day after his near-death experience on the Allegheny River, Washington will selflessly resign his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and make clear his intention to retire from public service on December 23rd, 1783.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is December 23rd, 1783: George Washington Resigns.
It’s noon on March 15th, 1783, nine months before George Washington resigns his commission.
In the Temple of Virtue, a large hall at the New Windsor Cantonment near Newburgh, New York, a group of high-ranking American officers are gathered. One of them, a handsome, middle-aged man, takes his seat and glances to the front of the hall where General Horatio Gates addresses the room.
As Gates talks, he gets redder and redder in the face. The handsome officer understands why Gates is upset. Most of the men in this room are angry at the way they’ve been treated by the government they fought so hard to establish.
The War of American Independence effectively came to an end 18 months ago, when British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered after the siege of Yorktown. But while peace negotiations are still ongoing and British troops remain in New York, the American Continental Army must monitor their enemy from a safe distance and stay ready. But many of these officers are frustrated because they’re owed money. They want long overdue back-pay - for them and their men - plus money for the Army’s pension fund.
And today in the hall, a fierce debate is underway. The issue on the table is a petition threatening mutiny. If Congress refuses to pay what it owes, the petition calls for the Continental Army to march into unsettled territory and leave the American people to fend for themselves.
As Gates rails against Congress saying the army should send them an ultimatum: pay up or suffer the consequences, the handsome officer joins the room in a chorus of cheers.
But just then, the doors to the meeting room swing open and the room goes quiet. The handsome officer turns and gasps when he sees George Washington enter the room. Nobody expected the commander-in-chief to be here today. And the handsome officer can tell from General Gates’s pale face that he is as shocked as everybody else.
Washington is a giant of a man, standing six feet tall, and weighing well above two hundred pounds. As Washington walks slowly to the front of the room, no one says a word.
Washington asks General Gates if he may address the room. And Gates nods and moves to the side, although Gates doesn’t address Washington with the usual courtesy or call him “sir.” Still, Washington doesn’t stoop to Gates’ level. And instead, he remains calm as his piercing gaze sweeps over the faces of the military men in the hall.
Then Washington produces a stack of papers from his coat pocket and begins a prepared speech. Washington says that he has heard the talk going around the Newburgh camp, and knows the officers and their men are upset. And he understands why. But then addresses the talk of mutiny head-on.
Without naming anyone directly, Washington makes clear he knows that General Gates is leading the plot. He locks eyes with Gates and wonders out loud, “Can he be a friend to the army? Can he be a friend to this country? Rather is he not an insidious foe?” Gates shrinks back, embarrassed.
Then, Washington finishes his speech - all nine pages of it. He implores the officers to hold the line, to trust in Congress, to give their country more time. He swears he will do everything in his power to encourage the government to do the right thing and give these men the money they’ve rightfully earned. Then Washington insists he personally has trust in Congress. He even has a letter from one of the congressmen promising the soldiers that Congress will find the money.
Washington pulls the letter from his pocket and prepares to read it to them. He clears his throat and looks at the paper. Then Washington pauses. He squints, the words too small for him to make out. So he reaches in his coat pocket again and produces a pair of spectacles. Then, he remarks, "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for, I have grown not only gray but almost blind in the service of my country."
When Washington finishes reading the Congressman's letter, the officers hold a vote. But not on the mutiny petition. Instead - roused by Washington's words - the officers vote unanimously to stand with Congress, the government, and the American people.
Washington’s mediation puts an end to any threat that the Continental Army might mutiny. His intervention makes clear to his officers that he is not just a skilled general—he is a true leader who holds the well-being of the new nation as his guiding principle. And a few months later, Washington will be able to demonstrate his leadership skills on a very public stage, when the British Army finally leaves American shores for the final time.
It’s just before noon on November 25th, 1783, one month before George Washington resigns his commission.
John van Arsdale, a veteran of the Continental Army, stands near the flagpole at Fort George, on the southern tip of Manhattan. John is waiting for a parade to arrive so that a time-honored military tradition can begin.
Nearly three months ago, American and British representatives signed the Treaty of Paris, officially ending the War of American Independence. With the conflict now over, British general Sir Guy Carleton received orders that it was time for him to leave New York. Carleton planned to set sail today at noon.
To commemorate this occasion, General George Washington will soon lead a procession of soldiers and civilians through the streets of New York here to the flagpole, where John is patiently waiting. Once they arrive, the ceremonial raising of the American flag will begin.
As John waits for the parade to arrive and the ceremony to start, he notices something strange: a handful of American soldiers arguing by the flagpole. John pulls one of the soldiers aside and asks him what the problem is. The young soldier points to the top of the pole where the British standard still flies. The young soldier says they’re having trouble getting the flag down.
Concerned, John walks back over to the pole to see if he can help solve the problem. He watches as an athletic soldier jumps up and clutches onto the pole, wrapping his legs around it. Then the soldier tries to climb upward, but the pole is slick, and he slides down and ends up with his backside on the ground.
John wonders out loud why they don’t just haul the flag down with the halyard rope. But the young soldier explains that the halyard is missing. The British nailed the flag to the top, removing the ropes, and greased the pole to stop the Americans from taking it down.
Hearing this, John curses the British under his breath. He has no love for his former enemies—he was their prisoner for nine and a half months after being captured in a battle in 1777.
So John tries to come up with a solution to the problem. But as he thinks, he hears cannon shot in the distance, a signal for the Continental Army to begin their triumphal procession through the streets of New York.
John knows that General Washington and the procession will be here any minute. So with time running out, John gets an idea. He decides to climb the pole himself.
He tells some soldiers to run to a nearby hardware store and buy wood and nails. Then he strips off his coat. One soldier says they should get a saw and cut the flagpole down. But John says that will never work. Cutting through the thick wood will take too long. The only solution is for John to scale the pole.
When the soldiers return with the supplies from the hardware store, John grabs a block of wood and nails it into the slippery pole. He lifts one foot and sets it down on the block, testing whether it will hold his weight. When it does, John heaves himself up and hammers another block onto the pole a little higher. Then he repeats the process, hammering in new footholds, and occasionally climbing back down to pick up more nails and wood.
When he is high enough, John looks over the fort walls. He can see the American parade getting closer. Looking in the other direction, he sees the British ships slowly moving out of New York Harbor. He presumes the British soldiers on board are having a good chuckle at their practical joke. But John is determined to have the last laugh.
Eventually, John reaches the top of the flagpole. He grabs the fabric of the British flag and gives it a yank. The cloth tears and the flag comes free. And as John drops it, he hears a deafening cheer from below. Confused, John looks down to see a massive crowd of people gathered beneath him.
While he was concentrating on making his way to the top of the pole, the procession arrived at Fort George. And among the people looking up at John atop the flagpole is General George Washington himself.
Next, John climbs down and fetches a new flag—the stars and stripes, the standard used by the Continental Army during the war. John scurries back up the flagpole and nails it in place to the sound of more cheers. Thirteen cannons blast in celebration. And with his impromptu flag-raising done, John descends to solid ground. Soldiers and civilians alike clap him on the shoulder. One thrusts an upturned hat into his hands. It's stuffed with money, collected by onlookers who are grateful for his efforts. Then the person who hands John the hat leans in close and tells him that even General Washington contributed.
The festivities continue for the rest of the day and throughout the night, and everywhere John goes, he is treated like a hero for his role in the symbolic transfer of power. But John insists that the real hero is the man who led the fight to free the colonies from the British: General Washington.
The British evacuation of New York is the last act of the War of American Independence. More than seven years after they captured the city from the Americans, the British Army left New York without a fight.
And with the conflict officially over, General George Washington begins to look to his future. Many expect him to make a bid for power, and possibly position himself as the leader of this new nation. But Washington will stun his countrymen by voluntarily giving up his military commission and handing his power back to the representatives of the people.
It’s midday on December 23rd, 1783 in Annapolis, Maryland.
Congressional Secretary Charles Thomson stands outside the chamber of the Maryland State House. When a clerk gives him a signal, Charles strides into the room. Following behind him is General George Washington and two of his aides. They’re all here for a seismic event. Washington is about to resign.
Many loyalists to the British crown warned that the revolutionaries would end up swapping a British king for an American dictator, and Washington was the man they expected to become the new autocrat. But today, Charles is here to watch Washington prove the loyalist doubters wrong.
Charles takes a seat and listens as Washington delivers his pre-prepared words. It’s a short speech, but Washington’s voice still falters and cracks with emotion. Charles himself is moved and feels a tear roll down one cheek as Washington concludes: “Having now finished the work assigned to me, I retire from the great theater 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.”
Washington regains his composure as he folds the paper containing his speech. Then he pulls another paper from his pocket. It’s the commission that made him commander-in-chief eight years before, in 1775. He hands both papers to the president of the Congress.
Washington then bows to the men seated before him. It takes Charles all his willpower not to stand and return the bow. But he has been briefed in advance to stay seated, a symbolic gesture that Washington is acknowledging the authority of Congress.
After he straightens, Washington turns and walks out of the Senate chamber. Charles knows he has just witnessed the end of a historic chapter in Washington’s illustrious career.
But the general's life of service is not over yet. Washington hopes to fade from public life, but in the years to come, as the young country struggles to find its footing, Washington will answer the call of duty again, this time as America’s first president.
The unanimously elected Washington is so popular, powerful, and respected, he likely could remain president for life. But after serving only two terms, Washington again steps aside and retires.
Washington’s career was marked by the distinguished service he gave his country: in the French and Indian Wars, the War of Independence, and finally, as president. But perhaps the single greatest act of Washington’s career came when he gave up power and resigned as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army on December 23rd, 1783.
Next on History Daily. December 26th, 1919. Baseball’s slugger, Babe Ruth, the so-called Sultan of Swat, is sold to the world-famous New York Yankees.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.