Here’s what happened. The American Revolution to overthrow British rule was fought from 1775 to 1783 under the leadership of the Continental Congress. To lead the American army Congress named George Washington as Commander in Chief.
But eight years is a long time to fight and there was a severe price paid in death and destruction, as well as in borrowed money. Washington was a wealthy man and declined a salary but insisted to the Congress his troops be paid, for they needed to support their families.
Despite Washington’s pleas, Congress left the troops largely unpaid and it pushed those troops to the boiling point.
The Congress was comprised almost entirely of rich white men who with a successful revolution would replace the British as rulers and profit handsomely from what had been British lands, while avoiding British taxes. But to fight and die in a revolution to make rich men richer did not capture the public’s heart.
To convince Americans to fight, the revolution was sold as “freedom,” something that would not in fact be offered to women, slaves, Native Americans and only with great limitations to the mass of poor white men who fought the war. The rich would not surrender power, regardless of what The Declaration of Independence said.
The poor American soldiers froze in the ice and snow of winter and died of disease or from bullets and bayonets and were demoralized by battle fatigue and by long absences from their families.
They also saw the privileges the rich, including members of Congress, bestowed on themselves and their lack of personal sacrifice or risk. Meanwhile, the soldiers saw little if any pay and as a result, many quit Washington’s army and discouraged others from joining.
It was all Washington could do to not only fight the British, but to keep his army together and to stop them from forming militias and attacking the rich. He pleaded repeatedly with the Congress to pay his troops and properly outfit them yet his pleas fell on deaf ears.
But out of respect for Washington and with the hope they and their families would live better lives, most of the troops remained loyal and fought on. However, many Americans were disgusted with Congress and as the war ended, they called for Washington to overthrow Congress and rule the new nation.
It reached the point that on March 15, 1783 Washington had to gather his officers and convince them not to rebel against the authority of Congress nor put him in power. Washington would not consider becoming a dictator, despite the insistence of his soldiers as he had just overthrown the rule of King George and he believed in America’s future as a democracy.
Congress meanwhile fled in disgrace from its creditors, particularly the unpaid war veterans, and took flight from Philadelphia to Princeton, NJ to Annapolis, MD.
On November 2nd, 1783 with the war over, Washington expressed his heart felt appreciation in his farewell address to his officers. As he spoke tears trickled down his cheeks for he knew they had not been paid and he saw the anger and frustration in their eyes. Congress had not even offered the army a thank you for the extreme sacrifices they had made.
His work done, Washington addressed Congress on December 23rd, resigning his commission as Commander in Chief. It was a remarkable act. Here is why:
Instead of using the army to seize power, Washington surrendered it as he put the democracy of his nation ahead of his own interests and to help establish the republic we have today.
Rarely in world history has anyone done this, as the allure of power is almost always too great for those who supposedly came to defend, restore or establish a democracy. But Washington was a man of principle and of honor and surrendered his power for the greater public good.
That was not lost on the American public or on Congress and later Washington became the first President of the United States [1789 – 1797] and one of the most revered men in U.S. history.