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A COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF’S RESIGNATION

 

Before George Washington, the first U.S. President under the Constitution of 1787, and before Samuel Huntington the first U.S. President under the Constitution of 1777, Henry Laurens served as the second President of the Continental Congress of the United States of America.  A major test of his leadership erupted just nine days into his Presidency. It was a well planned scheme calling for the dislodgment of George Washington for General Horatio Gates as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army of the United States of America. 

 

This plot stemmed from the Adams-Lees Faction, the "liberals", who wanted to keep all executive business in the hands of Congress through committees and boards.  Samuel Adams, John Adams, Arthur and Henry Lee strove for a strict system of control over the Commander-in-Chief.  The other faction’s leaders, that is best described as the "constructive party,” were led by George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Robert Morris and Robert Livingston. The Adams-Lee Faction was comprised of men who were the "Zealots" of revolution and forced altercation with Great Britain.  It was the constructive faction who transformed the spasmodic rebellion into an organized and successful revolution while formulating the Articles of Association and Confederation. The new President, Henry Laurens of South Carolina, was an enigma and thought by each camp to be partial to their respective faction.

 

The Adams-Lee Faction steadily worked, after General Gates' Victory at Saratoga, to bring Congress to the opinion that the safety of the country demanded Horatio should replace George as Commander-in-Chief.  Chief supporters of the Gates scheme included some impressive patriots James Lovell, Benjamin Rush, General Thomas Mifflin and of course the leader General Thomas Conway, a French officer of Irish lineage. 

 

The Continental Congress, in an effort to elevate Gates and his supporters after Saratoga, bestowed a series of appointments and promotions.  Generals Gates and Mifflin were placed upon the Board of War and Conway was elected against Washington's protest as Inspector General of the Army.  In these influential positions the scheme to replace Washington was quietly pressed forward by a series of "interferences, shackles, vexations and slights to resign his command.”  Their pre-occupation to replace Washington led to an incompetence of managing the Board of War, Commissary and Quartermaster departments that left wagon loads of clothing and provisions standing in the woods much to the chagrin of President Henry Laurens.  The sufferings of Washington and his troops at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-78 were due to these men's incompetence and not to the poverty of the country.

 

Irrefutable proof of a conspiracy against George Washington finally came to light with General Stirling sending the Commander-in-Chief a quote from Thomas Conway's letter to Horatio Gates, "Heaven has been determined to save your country, or a weak general and bad counselors would have ruined it."   It was Alexander Hamilton who later brought the "Conway Cabal" against General Washington into the open in November 1777 by apprising Washington of the full contents of the letter from General Thomas Conway to "The Victor of Saratoga" that disparaged the Commander-in-Chief.

 

The Board of War Scheme to replace George Washington with Horatio Gates fell apart in early 1778 as the plan was made public.  One after another the delegates and generals hasten to disclaim any connection to the Conway Cabal.”  The reaction of the public left George Washington more strongly entrenched in the minds and hearts of the common man.  The public's affection towards Washington did not "endanger our libertieis" as Adams predicted but rather gave the people new heart as they rallied around the Commander-in Chief in these dark days of the Revolutionary War.  Washington went on as Commander-in-Chief to effectively win the Revolutionary War with the defeat of Lord Cornwallis in 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia. 

 

The closing act of the Revolutionary War did not occur, however, until 1783.  On September 24, 1783 The United States in Congress Assembled, seeking to disband an unpaid Army, adopted a secret order authorizing Commander-in-Chief George Washington to discharge Continental troops.  The resolution read:

 

"That the Commander in Chief be authorized to discharge such parts of the Federal Army now in Service as Secret he shall deem proper and expedient. And that he direct Secret that necessary Clothing be immediately provided for those that may be longer retained in Service." 

 

George Washington, with all expediency, accepted this last mission and agreed to address the Army asking for their peaceful disbandment. With a great strain on the federal government's treasury a virtually bankrupted Congress managed four months wages towards, on average, for four years of back pay due the army. The example of George Washington accepting no payment for his 8 years of service and this payment, though a trifling 10% of the monies due, enabled these brave to peacefully disburse into all 13 states. 

 

Meanwhile the Confederation Government was desperately trying fulfill the Treaty of Paris terms that required U.S. ratification under a six month time constraint set forth in the agreement with England. In early November, the new President of the United States in Congress Assembled scheduled and rescheduled a ratifying nine State quorum at the Maryland State House in Annapolis but many of the delegates failed to arrive even by early December.   By mid-December the President’s attempt to assemble a ratifying quorum became desperate.  On December 15th Congress failed to even achieve the smaller seven state quorum necessary to read foreign dispatches. Once again, on December 17th Congress failed to convene quorum but this did not deter George Washington from performing his last duty as Commander-in-Chief that required his presence in Annapolis. According to Ramsay, an 18th Century historian:

 

In every town and village, through which the General passed, he was met by public and private demonstrations of gratitude and joy. When he arrived at Annapolis, he informed Congress of his intention to ask leave to resign the commission he had the honor to hold in their service, and desired to know their pleasure in what manner it would be most proper to be done. They resolved that it should be in a public audience.

 

This last act set the stage for one of the most remarkable events of United States history as George Washington was formally received by none other then U.S. President Thomas Mifflin. George Washington, at his pinnacle of power and popularity, surrendered the all powerful commission to President Thomas Mifflin, who had conspired to replace him as Commander-in-Chief with Horatio Gates in 1777.  What made this action especially memorable is the Journal of United States in Congress Assembled recorded the account of the December 23, 1783 resignation:

 

“According to order, his Excellency the Commander in Chief was admitted to a public audience, and being seated, and silence ordered, the President, after a pause, informed him, that the United States in Congress assembled, were prepared to receive his communications; Whereupon, Washington arose and addressed Congress as follows:

         

'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 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 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 the 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 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' “

 

George Washington then advanced and delivered to President Mifflin his commission, with a copy of his address, and resumed his place, whereupon President Thomas Mifflin returned him the following answer:

         

“Sir,   The United States in Congress assembled receive with emotions, too affecting for utterance, the solemn deposit resignation of the authorities under which you have led their troops with safety and triumph success through a long a perilous and a doubtful war. When called upon by your country to defend its invaded rights, you accepted the sacred charge, before they it had formed alliances, and whilst they were it was without funds or a government to support you. You have conducted the great military contest with wisdom and fortitude, through invariably regarding the fights of the civil government power through all disasters and changes. You have, by the love and confidence of your fellow-citizens, enabled them to display their martial genius, and transmit their fame to posterity. You have persevered, till these United States, aided by a magnanimous king and nation, have been enabled, under a just Providence, to close the war in freedom, safety and independence; on which happy event we sincerely join you in congratulations.

 

Having planted defended the standard of liberty in this new world: having taught an useful lesson a lesson useful to those who inflict and to those who feel  oppression, you retire from the great theatre of action, loaded with the blessings of your fellow-citizens, but your fame the glory of your virtues will not terminate with your official life the glory of your many virtues will military command, it will continue to animate remotest posterity ages and this last act will not be among the least conspicuous

 

We feel with you our obligations to the army in general; and will particularly charge ourselves with the interests of those confidential officers, who have attended your person to this interesting affecting moment.

 

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. And for you we address to him our earnest prayers, that a life so beloved may be  fostered with all his care; that your days may be happy, as they have been illustrious; and that he will finally give you that reward which this world cannot give.”

 

George Washington would be called on again by his nation to preside over the 2nd Constitutional Convention that was assembled in Philadelphia in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation.  Through Washington’s leadership the Articles of Confederation were discarded and a new constitution was formulated that still governs the United States 216 years later. It was through this constitution’s ratification that a mechanism was provided to elect George Washington and 52 successors President and Commander-in-Chief of the United States America.   In those first eight years of the new presidency, time after time, George Washington’s leadership and example truly earned him the title “Father of Our Country.”  Unfortunately this well deserved mantra has been poorly lit due to the amalgamation of Washington’s Birthday into a President’s Day shared with 52 other men.

 

Years ago I requested from Congress that they reinstitute February 22nd as a national holiday dedicated only to President Washington.  I proposed to leave that "floating" Monday as a reflective day for all the other Presidents, including those who served before George Washington (see uspresidency.com). 

 

I also proposed that the White House go a step further by conducting a national contest for all motivated High School Juniors to research and produce a paper on an assigned aspect of the life of George Washington.  The paper topic would be announced on February 22nd and would be due to the students' history teachers on or before April 30th.  Each teacher would select their best paper and sent it on to a school wide committee.  The school committee would then select one paper to send to the County Government.  Each County would select one outstanding paper and submit it to the State. The State would select their best paper and submit it for consideration by the White House, U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate and the Supreme Court. Each Branch would be required to select a 1st place paper and the triumphant students would be awarded a full scholarship to the educational institution of their choice. The three winners, along with all the County and State gold medalists would be announced on the new national holiday, February 22nd, of their senior year.  The process would then be repeated for a new class of juniors each year focusing on a different aspect of Washington's life. 

 

If you think the process is too convoluted, just visit the website of the James Monroe Foundation, http://www.JamesMonroe.org for a working example of this proposal. Last year many us were honored to attend the Foundation's ceremonies at the Virginia State Capital where Jackie Bello, a high school senior from Alexandria, Virginia, read a most magnificent account of  "The Presidential Election of 1820: Era of Good Feeling".  Wouldn't it be appropriate to tune-in to a nationally televised program of four exceptional young minds on February 22nd accepting their awards and presenting papers on the life of George Washington?   Who knows, maybe one future February 22nd Washington Day celebration will result in our most reflective students having a better Nielsen Share than the Oscars. 

 

I am your most humble and obedient servant,

 

Stanley L. Klos


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