The story of his triumphal trip home, itself an act of nation-building, is well-told by historian Stanley Weintraub in his new book ``General Washington's Christmas Farewell: A Mount Vernon Homecoming, 1783.'' It evokes the frail seedling from which the mighty American nation grew. In a seven-year (1775-81) war in which fewer than 4,500 American soldiers died in combat, Washington lost more battles than he won. But he won the battle that mattered most -- the last one -- and adulation unlike any ever bestowed on an American.
His homeward journey paused at Harlem, a Manhattan village nine miles north of New York City, a community of 21,000 on the island's southern tip that Washington had never captured. As Washington's party entered the city, Loyalist emigrants were being ferried to departing British ships in the harbor. A British officer marveled:
``Here, in this city, we have had an army for more than seven years, and yet could not keep the peace of it. Scarcely a day or night passed without tumults. Now we are gone, everything is in quietness and safety. These Americans are a curious, original people; they know how to govern themselves, but nobody else can govern them.''
Then it was four days to Philadelphia, passing along what is now U.S. Route 1 through difficult New Jersey. In 1776 Washington had urged Jerseymen in the village of Newark to join his cause. Thirty did -- but 300 joined the British. In Annapolis he surrendered his commission after a ball at which, Weintraub reports, fashionable ladies wore their hair in the Dress a l'Independence -- 13 curls at the neck.
Washington's journey to Mount Vernon, which he reached after dark, December 24, was a moveable feast of florid rhetoric and baked oysters. It also was a foretaste of what was to be, for more than a century, his central place in America's civic liturgy. Abraham Lincoln wore a ring containing a sliver from the casket Washington was buried in until his body was moved to its current tomb in 1831. At his Inauguration in 1897 William McKinley wore a ring containing strands of Washington's hair.
Presidents no longer inspire such reverence, perhaps because America is different, perhaps because presidents are.