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Chapter XVI Washington’s Farewell to the Army
 America was free. It had won its freedom by an heroic struggle. And now came the task of making a wise use of this freedom. One who had contemplated the character of the American people, as it had revealed itself during the preliminaries to the war and during its progress, must have said to himself: “A circumspect and therefore secure procedure in the affairs of the new government is to be expected from a people of such character!” And yet, immediately after the conclusion of peace, the republic was in great danger. The nucleus of the army consisted of men who for years had been weaned from the occupations of peace. Congress had granted them a bonus of several years’ pay, but after that the prospect remained of their being obliged to return to their former occupations. This did not suit them. They had had an opportunity of comparing their position with that of the French soldiers with whom they had fought side by side. In the French army the officers were in great part young nobles, to whom the profession of arms was a sort of charitable institution and haven of refuge. What a contrast between these gold-embroidered marquises, counts, and cadets and the plainly dressed officers of the American army. In their outward appearance the American officers could not even compare with the common French soldiery, the spruce musketeers and grenadiers of the French line. Thus the American soldiers, thinking more of their own advantage and position than of the general good, considering that the soldier would be better off if the country were ruled by a king, conceived the wish that the free form of government which had arisen during the war should be set aside and a monarchical form substituted for it. If this had been the general demand of the country, there would have been nothing to be said against it. The discussion as to whether the republican or monarchic form of government is the better is an idle one. Nations have lived happily under one as well as the other. The happiness of a people does not depend on a particular form of government so much as on the respect for law and on the self-sacrificing devotion of individuals to the welfare of the State. The wish for a monarchy proceeded only from the selfish desires of one class. Of course if they wished to carry out their plan, it was necessary to fix upon some prominent man, and who else should this be but Washington? A reputable officer, Colonel Lewis Nicola, was appointed to notify the commander-in-chief of the wishes of the army. He did this very tactfully in a letter. A constitution with a king at the head, he said, was the best form of government for America. Washington was requested to work toward this end, taking at first a more modest title and later calling himself king.
For many a man in the General’s position this would have been a temptation impossible to resist. With a consenting nod, the army would have proclaimed the commander-in-chief king. If the army had made him king, to be sure, he would then have been obliged to come to their terms. There is no doubt that had Washington obeyed that voice his fame would have been sullied for all time. The majority would have been coerced for the sole purpose of ministering to the selfishness of the minority. Foundation principles expressing the will of the majority had already been formulated during the terrible struggle and were sealed with the heart’s blood of the nation, and in this constitution a crown had no place. Frankly considered, what was now proposed to Washington was that he should make himself guilty of treason to the people. The most zealous fighter against the destruction of constitutional government was expected to commit this detestable crime.
As the witches had shown Macbeth a golden circlet, so now Washington was tempted with a sparkling crown. Ah! but he was not a Macbeth. Ambitious greed held no place in his great and pure soul. “This will I give you, if you will sin; the greatness of your fortunes shall be worthy of the greatness of the crime!” Thus, though disguised in innocent form, read the words of the venomous old serpent of ambition, the liar, the destroyer of human happiness. Not for a moment did Washington allow himself to become entangled in the web of temptation. He immediately sent the following answer to the colonel: “With a mixture of great surprise and astonishment, I have read with attention the sentiments you have submitted to my perusal. Be assured, sir, no occurrence in the course of this war has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the army as you have expressed, and which I must view with abhorrence and reprehend with severity. For the present the communication of them will rest in my own bosom, unless some further agitation of the matter shall make a disclosure necessary. I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my country. If I am not deceived in the knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable. At the same time, in justice to my own feelings, I must add that no man possesses a more serious wish to see ample justice done to the army than I do; and as far as my power and influence, in a constitutional way, extend, they shall be employed to the utmost of my abilities to effect it, should there be any occasion. Let me conjure you, then, if you have any regard for your country, concern for yourself or posterity, or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your mind and never communicate, as from yourself or any one else, a sentiment of the like nature.”
In the same spirit he took his farewell of the army in announcing the declaration of peace. After he had recalled the heroic deeds which they had done on the battlefield, he paid his tribute to them for the manner in which they had discarded all narrow provincial prejudices, made up, as they were, of the greatest variety of elements, and had become a harmonious body, a patriotic brotherhood. He urged them to maintain in times of peace the reputation which they had won; that his friends should not forget that thrift, wisdom, and industry, the virtues of the citizen in private life, were not less valuable than the brilliant qualities of courage, endurance, and initiative in war; that officers and men should live amicably with the other citizens and strive with all their might to preserve and strengthen the government of the United States. If this should not be done, the honor and dignity of the nation would be lost forever.
He took particular leave of his officers at a banquet. Taking his glass of wine in his hand he said: “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you, most devoutly wishing that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.” After lifting the wine to his lips and drinking a farewell benediction, he added, while his voice trembled with emotion: “I cannot come to each of you to take my leave, but shall be obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.” With deep emotion General Knox, who stood nearest to the General, went to him and held out his trembling hand. Overcome by his feelings, Washington could not speak a word and could only embrace the General affectionately. The other officers followed and not an eye remained dry.
There had been some men in Congress who, considering the ominous examples in history, had not been free of anxiety lest Washington might not easily relinquish his powerful position after peace had been won. They were now reassured. At a solemn session of Congress he laid down his office. In the address which he gave on this occasion he said, among other things: “Happy in the confirmation of our independence and sovereignty and pleased with the opportunity 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, increases with every view of the momentous contest.” In closing he said: “I consider it as an indispensable duty to close this last 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.”
Washington then handed his marshal’s staff to the president. The president replied to the address, and said, among other things: “Having defended the standard of liberty in this new world; having taught a lesson useful to those who inflict and to those who feel oppression, you retire from the great theatre of action with the blessings of your fellow citizens. But the glory of your virtues will not terminate with your military command. It will continue to animate remotest ages. We join you in commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, beseeching Him to dispose the hearts and minds of its citizens to improve the opportunity afforded them of becoming a happy and respectable nation!”
Before his departure Washington sent a letter to General Steuben, in which he cordially acknowledged the debt which America owed to him and his German countrymen for the effective assistance rendered in the work of freeing the colonies, and he added that Steuben might consider him a true friend and be assured that if there should be any opportunity of giving practical proof of this friendship, he should not fail to do so.
Washington refused any remuneration and accepted only compensation for the expenses and outlay which he had incurred, presenting an account which contained the smallest details of his expenses.
Then this great, wise, and good man returned to his country seat at Mount Vernon to pass the rest of his life in quiet retirement. His manner of life there is best shown by a letter which he wrote to Lafayette: “At length I am become a private citizen, free from the bustle of a camp and the busy scenes of public life. I am solacing myself with those tranquil enjoyments of which the soldier, who is ever in pursuit of fame, the statesman, whose watchful days and sleepless nights are spent in devising schemes to promote the welfare of his own, perhaps the ruin of other countries, as if this globe was insufficient for us all, and the courtier, who is always watching the countenance of his prince, in hopes of catching a gracious smile, can have very little conception. Envious of none, I am determined to be pleased with all; and this, my dear friend, being the order of my march, I will move gently down the stream of life, until I sleep with my fathers.”
Hospitality was one of the principal virtues practised at Mount Vernon. “A glass of wine and a piece of mutton are always to be had,” wrote Washington to Lafayette. “Whoever is satisfied with these will always be welcome; if he expects more he will be disappointed.”
Private persons as well as the government had vainly tried to induce Washington to accept a reward for his services. A stock company which had been formed, on Washington’s advice, to make two rivers navigable, received the approval of Congress for its work. The opportunity was seized as a new means of rewarding him, for he was responsible for the drawing up of the well-considered plan. The board of directors determined to turn over to him 150 shares at 100 pounds sterling each. The presentation was made in such a way that Washington feared that a refusal to accept might be construed as a lack of respect. Therefore he accepted the shares, adding, however, that he intended to use them for the public welfare. And in his will we read that he set aside that sum for the building of a university in the central part of the United States.


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