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George Washington

George Washington

George Washington: Retirement to Mount Vernon

The victory made Washington a hero; what he did next made him practically a God. By the war's end, many in the Continental army were skeptical of the Congress's ability to govern. Their pay was months in arrears, and no one seemed organized enough to be able to do anything about it. Some soldiers started suggesting that Washington, rather than leave things to an incompetent Congress, should march that well-trained army of his over to Annapolis (the temporary capital) and set himself up as King. Indeed, this is just what most international observers expected Washington to do: historically, popular military leaders had tended not to surrender their power. But Washington stunned the world. Not only did he quiet any talk of seizing power, but on 23 December, after an emotional farewell to his troops, he returned his commission to Congress, then went home to farm.

With the surrender of his generalship, Washington completed his transformation from man to symbol. By peacefully surrendering power, he had turned himself into a historical archetype. He was playing the role of the republican general. Just like the famed Roman hero Cincinnatus, after whom he had modeled his own career, Washington relinquished power when his job was done. To his peers, the classical reference was unmistakable, and it only magnified his glory. By playing a myth, he became a legend. He was George Washington, leader of the Continental army, whose commitment to American ideals was so firm and unshakeable that he would risk his life and forsake personal gain in their service. His virtue, from that day forward, was completely beyond reproach.

Of course, the man of flesh and blood had his own, more prosaic reasons for forsaking power. By the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington was 51 years old. He had already outlived all his male relatives, and he didn't expect to live much longer. Even if he had wanted power, he didn't think he'd get the chance to exercise it. And with no direct heirs—an early exposure to smallpox had rendered him sterile—he was never tempted by the idea of founding a kingly line. Washington wanted glory, to be sure, but in winning the war and surrendering his commission, he had assured himself of that. He had midwifed a new country. He was now a character of world-historical significance. All that remained for him to do was put his affairs in order and wait for death.

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