Two Hundred Forty years ago, Christmas Eve, was a desperate time for America. General Washington had lost the Battle of New York, and had been chased, humiliatingly, all the way across New Jersey, and into Pennsylvania.
Those were, as Thomas Paine‘s first “American Crisis” essay, dated December 23, 1776, declared “the times that try men’s souls”:
The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
The contrast with another Christmas Eve, seven years later, could hardly be greater. General Washington, now the Commander-in-Chief of the victorious Continental Army, was in Annapolis, Maryland, where he surrendered his commission to the Continental Congress. It is worthy of reflection.
Consider the situation in December, 1776. The Army had failed to hold the center of the Union. The British set up a series of forts across New Jersey to hold the turf for themselves, securing a line from New York City to the vicinity of Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress met. Moreover, the Union army was close to dissolving. Soldiers had signed up only for short terms, and many soldiers were looking forward to the end of their terms, some in late December, 1776, and most of the rest on the first of January, 1777. According to Joseph Ellis, “more New York and New Jersey colonists were now signing up with the British than the American Army.”
The British felt no sense of urgency. By spring, the demoralized and disappearing Union army would be a rump, incapable of holding any ground.
Washington described the situation to his cousin, Lund Washington on December 17th:
We have prevented them from crossing; but how long we shall be able to do it God only knows, as they are still hovering about the river. And if every thing else fails, will wait till the 1st of January, when there will be no other men to oppose them but militia.
Washington’s soul passed the trial. He rallied his men. On the 23rd, Benjamin Rush had been visiting General Washington, he noted the following:
While I was talking to him, I observed him to play with his pen and ink upon several small pieces of paper. One of them by accident fell upon the floor near my feet. I was struck with the inscription upon it. It was ‘Victory or Death.’”
“Victory or Death” was the code word for the battle. But it also described the situation. Failure meant, quite probably, the failure of the revolution. On Christmas Day, the troops crossed over the Delaware. That was only a start. General Washington convinced his troops to stay on or it might all be for naught.
As General Cornwallis moved in from Princeton, hoping to trap the Continental Army, General Washington moved his troops out, under cover, and took Princeton. However small the battle was compared to the great battles of the age, it was not a minor victory. Having lost Trenton and Princeton, the British bugged out of New Jersey, restoring the valuable ground between New York and Philadelphia to the Union. The Union would survive the winter.
Fast forward seven years. The war has been won. The peace treaty has been signed. What will General Washington do now? The Union was in his debt. Washington was the most popular and trusted man in America, and probably the most famous man in the world. Washington repaid the trust that had been put in him. He resigned his commission.
On December 23rd, 1783, General Washington turned in his sword to the Continental Congress:
Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable nation, I resign with satisfaction the appointment I accepted with diffidence; a diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task, which, however, was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our cause, the support of the supreme Power of the Union, and the patronage of Heaven.
The successful termination of the war has verified the most sanguine expectations; and my gratitude for the interposition of Providence, and the assistance I have received from my Countrymen, increases with every review of the momentous contest.
Washington was ambitious, and he craved glory, but it was glory of a higher sort. He wished to be remembered not merely as powerful, but also as a servant of a cause greater than himself.
Upon hearing that General Washington would resigned his commission, George III said “if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” General Washington’s Christmas gift to the American republic.
- Joseph Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (New York: Knopf, 2004), p. 96.