An American Christmas

There are many stories to be told about the American Revolution. One that ought to be better known at this time of year is the story of George Washington’s return to Mount Vernon for Christmas at the conclusion of the war.

Since June 1775, when he left the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia to become commander-in-chief of an incipient Continental Army in Boston, General Washington had been to his plantation at Mount Vernon only once (9—12 September 1781, to plan the Yorktown campaign with the French). Of course there had been Christmas’s past — like his 1776 crossing of the Delaware River and victory at the Battle of Trenton the next morning — and Christmas’s yet to come. But this was the Christmas, where, incomprehensibly victorious against the British after eight-and-a-half years — 101 months — he arrived home to retire from the great theatre of action.

Washington’s Grand Entry into New York

This particular story starts on the day that the last of the British occupying force sailed from New York harbor on 25 November 1783. Evacuation Day.

Until well after the Civil War, Evacuation Day was still celebrated in New York with boys competing to tear down the British Union Jack atop a greased pole. This was also the day that Washington began to unravel his military/executive powers and became, as King George III admitted, the greatest man in the world.

Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan

Having stood up to his officers at Newburgh in New York, when they had threatened Congress that the army would not disband until they were paid, he now arranged to say goodbye to them at Fraunces Tavern in lower Manhattan on 4 December. Washington’s emotions were patrician, very cool. He never allowed any of his officers or friends to act familiar with him. (At the later Constitutional Convention, there’s a popular story, that while not true, continues to be retold because it suggests so much. Gouverneur Morris took up a bet from Hamilton to greet Washington with a friendly slap on the shoulder — for which he received a silent, frosty stare.) Yet at the farewell toast he gave to those who had stood with him, fought for him, lost most battles and won some, he choked up. He could not hold back his tears and had no words as he embraced General Knox — and then each of the others as they stood in line to say their goodbyes. He walked down the stairs from the private dining room on the second floor without looking back and, accompanied by his officers and New Yorkers who had gathered at the wharf nearby, he boarded a barge to cross the Hudson River to New Jersey.

Washington slowly made his way to Annapolis, where the itinerant Confederation Congress was waiting for him. Riding through towns and villages — in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland — he was fêted and frequently stopped for banquets and balls in his honor. In Philadelphia a great wooden arch with the image of Cincinnatus, who as general had saved ancient Rome and then retired to his farm, greeted Washington and his entourage. Charles Willson Peale painted him.

Washington Resigning His Commission by John Trumbull

Washington arrived in Annapolis on 19 December and attended his last farewell celebration on the 22nd, a banquet that included thirteen toasts and cannon fire, followed by dancing, where, one imagines, each lady tried to take a turn with the General.

The next day was theater. In a highly scripted ceremony at the Maryland State House, Washington and Congress played out a scene to demonstrate the subordinance of the military to civil authority. Washington resigned his commission and returned to Congress the original parchment of 19 June 1775 that had appointed him commander-in-chief of the army. In his resignation speech he congratulated Congress and presented himself before them, to surrender into their hands the trust committed and he spoke of the supreme Power of the Union.

Washington’s Commission from Congress, 1775

The next morning, 24 December, he rode the final leg of his journey home with two of his aides, David Humphreys and Benjamin Walker; Will Lee, his trusted equestrian companion and slave-valet; and other slave-servants. It was twilight to night-time as they approached Mount Vernon. Its green-shuttered windows were aglow with candlelight. It was Christmas Eve. His wife was expecting him.

On Christmas Day there was a storm with heavy snow and ice, making travel impossible. Though Washington had never joined a church, he frequently attended services in churches of any denomination. He believed that Providence had helped him win the war with Britain. Now at Mount Vernon, having made it home ahead of the weather and with the birth of a country behind, there with Martha and family and friends, a Yule log burning, and Christmas pie — did this too seem providential?

JDN | 8-Dec-2013

As in the case of his career as commander-in-chief, Washington’s most important act as president was his giving up the office. The significance of his retirement from the presidency is easily overlooked today, but his contemporaries knew what it meant. Most people assumed that Washington might be president as long as he lived, that he would be a kind of elected monarch like the king of Poland. Hence his retirement from the presidency enhanced his moral authority and set a precedent for future presidents.

Gordon S. Wood
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009)