America: The Last Best Hope

Posted: Jul 24, 2006 12:00 AM

 Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Bill Bennett’s latest book, America: The Last Best Hope, released last month. The book can be purchased here.

When word came of the final ratification of the Treaty of Paris, a treaty in which American independence was fully recognized, the British agreed to evacuate New York and Charleston. In November 1783, the redcoats boarded their ships and sailed away from Manhattan. Washington invited his officers to dine with him at Fraunces Tavern, near Wall Street, in what is now the city’s financial district. There, on 4 December 1783, another emotional scene occurred. Washington was no marble man, as his grim visage on the dollar bill would suggest. At the conclusion of the evening, when he invited his officers to come and take him by the hand, all of those present, including Washington, dissolved in tears. “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you,” he told the assembled officers. “I most devoutly wish that your latter days will be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”

It remained for Washington to return to Congress—the source of all his authority—to close out his service in the war. Meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, Congress was eager to welcome him back. At noon, on 23 December 1783, Washington appeared in the Senate Chamber of the Old Maryland State House. The chamber was packed with members, visiting dignitaries, and ladies. Washington rose to congratulate Congress on the successful achievement of independence and peace. When he came to that part of his text that contained a tribute to his fellow officers, his hands shook, and he struggled to maintain his composure. Then he closed with these words: “And of presenting myself before them [Congress] to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the service of my country.”

King George III had said if Washington voluntarily gave up power, then he truly would be the greatest man on earth. Cromwell hadn’t done it. Napoleon would not do it. But Washington did it.

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