The Most Consequential Speech Ever Given
By: George Noga – February 23, 2020
Yesterday was the the 288th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. Historians consider his speech to Congress on December 23, 1783, returning his commission, the most consequential ever delivered in civil society. The full text is reprinted below. Please go to our website: www.mllg.us to see our post dated 12/15/19 which provides historical context for the speech; following is an abridged version of the context.
Washington’s victory at Yorktown on October 19, 1781 ended the fighting, but the Treaty of Paris ending the war was not signed until September 3, 1783 and word of it reached Washington, encamped at Newburgh, New York, only on November 17, 1783. He had to keep his army of 7,000 intact for over two years because Britain still had armies in America and occupied large portions of it. Those two years were difficult for Washington as the troops were mutinous and even his officers revolted.
Following the treaty, Washington went to New York City to protect the British withdrawal and to say farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern. He then went to Philadelphia and Wilmington enroute to Annapolis, where Congress was sitting. Along his entire route citizens gathered to pay tribute; they all knew viscerally there never again would be such a moment or such a man. America never again will experience such an emotional outpouring for one man. He arrived in Annapolis, then the capital, for the special session of Congress on December 23, 1783 to honor him.
Undoubtedly, there have been more stirring, more patriotic and more poignant speeches in history – but never one as consequential. Never before had a figure, who led a long fight for his people’s freedom and independence, voluntarily relinquished power, appeared so above all human ambition and reverted simply to being a farmer. That prompted King George III to call Washington “the greatest man of his age“. Washington’s speech and his subsequent refusal to run for a third term as president shaped our republic in ways still being felt today. Following is his speech.
George Washington’s Speech Returning His Commission
“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, I resign with satisfaction the appointment I accepted with 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, 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 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 solemn act of my official life, by commending the interests of our dearest country to the patronage of Almighty God, and those who have superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.
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.” (Note: At this juncture, Washington withdrew from his coat pocket the parchment that was his appointment as Commander-in-Chief, given to him by Congress in 1775, and ceremoniously returned it.)