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DANIEL VAUGHAN: America’s first Christmas gift
The year was 1783, and the Revolutionary War between the then-American colonies and their mother country of England was coming to an end.
George Washington’s triumph over the British military — astonishing to consider even now, given the odds — gave new life to a fledgling republic. On Sept. 3, 1783, his new nation signed the Treaty of Paris, in which the British acknowledged the sovereignty of their former colonies and formally ended the war.
But the nation soon faced problems. Firstly, its system of government, set up by the now-defunct Articles of Confederation, provided the Confederation Congress no means of taxing the states, and in turn, no means of paying soldiers’ salaries nor making other payments needed to sustain the military.
For those who fought in the eight-year-long war, the prospect of receiving payment for their services seemed bleak at best.
This unrest among military men soon gave way to newer, bigger problems. In March of 1783, while negotiations with the British were still ongoing, George Washington and his Congress faced rumors of a conspiracy among its military’s highest ranking officers; some historians have even argued that Washington’s closest officers were planning an all-out coup d’état.
Other historians have argued that the plan — dubbed the “Newburgh Conspiracy” — was merely to dissolve the military unless they got paid.
In either event, it was apparent as the war and subsequent negotiations were wrapping up that dissension from within the fledgling country threatened to destroy everything the Revolutionary War had created. If the Newburgh Conspiracy came to fruition, it would mark yet another point in history wherein a republic was destroyed by a rogue military.
But the American Founders were well aware of the realities of a military dictatorship. They were all classically educated men, well-versed in the history of the Roman Republic in particular.
The fall of Rome was one of the great touchstones for all political thinkers and philosophers at the time. And while the exact cause of the overall fall of Rome was debated, the clear turning point in the collapse of the Roman Republic — wherein the Senate had ultimate power — was well-known: Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon.
Caesar was originally a governor north of the Italian border, in what we’d consider to be western Europe. After the general earned a series of military victories, the Roman Senate ordered Caesar to return the Rome and disband his army, and he was told not to cross the Rubicon with his men.
But Caesar understood that if he returned, the Senate would punish him for unsanctioned wars. That’s when he (allegedly) uttered his famous line: “Alea iacta est” — “the die is cast.”
Caesar marched his legion across the Rubicon and into Rome, marking the beginning of the Roman Civil War, which Caesar won, ending the Roman Republic as we know it and beginning the Roman Empire.
The American Founders knew this story well and feared for the same results in America, a place far less established than Rome; if the military refused to consent to the rule of Congress, they imperiled the entire country’s future.
George Washington moved immediately to quell the Newburgh Conspiracy. That March, the then-general gave the Newburgh Address, an impassioned nine-page speech. In it, Washington reminded his men that he understood their plight, especially because Washington himself had endured and fought through all of the battles with them. Then, according to the website for Washington’s Mount Vernon museum:
Washington asked the assembled group if they were actually willing to leave their wives, their children, and their property unprotected and defenseless in the face of the British army. Even more terribly, could they “sully the glory” they had won on the battlefield by marching on Congress as a mob to demand their back pay and pensions?
Washington’s speech brought the men to tears. They believed him because he had struggled with them the entire way, and his integrity and character gave weight to his words. In one afternoon, his men went from being conspiracy-minded to writing a unanimous resolution commending Washington for serving with them and understanding their plight.
The conspiracy was foiled, the new nation saved, and civil discord avoided.
This brings us to the first Christmas gift America received: on Dec. 23, 1783, George Washingon rose to give another emotional speech, this time before members of Congress in an event honoring him and his work as a general. Washington made great pains to emphasize that when he rose as a general before his speech and sat back down as a civilian afterward, he bowed to Congress to acknowledge their ultimate power in the new republic.
He ended his speech by saying: “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 resigned his commission, giving the power of the military back to Congress, back to the republic, and back to the people. He turned down ultimate power in a way Caeser refused.
And it’s important to note: at the time of the American Founding, Caesars and kings were the norms; Washington was the exception. That’s why King Henry III said Washington’s resignation “placed him in a light the most distinguished of any man living, and that he thought him the greatest character of the age.”
And so Washington gave America an early Christmas present: he peacefully relinquished his military commission, bowing before Congress in the process.
Washington’s humility helped firmly establish the new American Republic. He served us, and in turn, we adore him in ways that would make Caesar jealous.
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