An Example Worth Emulating

by W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.

On December 23, 1783, in a dramatic public ceremony at the State House in Annapolis, Maryland, General George Washington resigned his commission as commander of the victorious American army. In returning the commission given to him eight years earlier by the Continental Congress, he did something extraordinary and up to that point rarely seen in history—he voluntarily gave up power.

Washington modeled his actions on those of the Roman general Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, who returned the dictatorial powers temporarily given him by the Roman senate. At the very moment when Washington could have seized power, with a loyal and battle-hardened army at his command, he refused to grab the scepter and place the crown upon his head. When King George III heard of Washington’s decision, he supposedly remarked, “If Washington does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

It was inconceivable to the British monarch that anyone could resist the temptation to install themselves as king. Indeed, surrendering power was not typical behavior. History was replete with examples of generals who, having won a revolution, refused to step aside, and relinquish power to civilian authority, setting themselves up as absolute rulers. Washington’s return of his commission was an extraordinary act of self-control, self-denial, and statesmanship that had not been seen since the Roman Republic.

Fourteen years later, after serving two terms as President of the United Sates, Washington once again demonstrated his commitment to the rule of law and constitutional government when he self-imposed a two-term limit and returned power to the people who elected him.

This year marks the 290th anniversary of the birth of George Washington. In his own time, he was seen as “the indispensable man,” and most historians have continued to view him as such.

Over the past few years, our first president’s legacy has come under fire, especially his ownership of slaves. And yet, we cannot forget that in surrendering power peacefully he set the standard of conduct for every American leader that would follow, ensuring the survival of the republic to this day.

As a general rule, our political leaders have emulated Washington. They have accepted the verdict at the polls, respecting both the democratic process and the sovereignty of the American people, even when the results seemed questionable. They have set aside their wounded feelings and their disappointment so that government of, by, and for the People, as Lincoln famously put it, would not perish from the earth. In doing so, they have demonstrated to the world that a self-governing republic can work.

Since its founding, the American republic has survived many challenges of our own creation. We have endured elections so close they had to be decided by the House of Representatives; backroom intrigue and deal swapping; a secession movement and civil war; flawed and misguided leaders; and repeated pressure from homegrown anti-democratic forces. So far, we have proven that Benjamin Franklin needlessly worried whether Americans could keep their republic.

And we will keep it so long as our leaders continue to follow the example set by Washington. Even after the passage of two and a half centuries, he is still worthy of emulation.

W. Todd Groce, Ph.D., is President and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society.

Originally published in Georgia History Today, Volume 16, Number 2.