Perspectives: The President’s Column
An Example Worth Emulating
by W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.
On December 23, 1783, in a dramatic public ceremony at the State House in Annapolis, Maryland, General George Washington resigned his commission as commander of the victorious American army. In returning the commission given to him eight years earlier by the Continental Congress, he did something extraordinary and up to that point rarely seen in history—he voluntarily gave up power.
Washington modeled his actions on those of the Roman general Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, who returned the dictatorial powers temporarily given him by the Roman senate. At the very moment when Washington could have seized power, with a loyal and battle-hardened army at his command, he refused to grab the scepter and place the crown upon his head. When King George III heard of Washington’s decision, he supposedly remarked, “If Washington does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
It was inconceivable to the British monarch that anyone could resist the temptation to install themselves as king. Indeed, surrendering power was not typical behavior. History was replete with examples of generals who, having won a revolution, refused to step aside, and relinquish power to civilian authority, setting themselves up as absolute rulers. Washington’s return of his commission was an extraordinary act of self-control, self-denial, and statesmanship that had not been seen since the Roman Republic.
Fourteen years later, after serving two terms as President of the United Sates, Washington once again demonstrated his commitment to the rule of law and constitutional government when he self-imposed a two-term limit and returned power to the people who elected him.
This year marks the 290th anniversary of the birth of George Washington. In his own time, he was seen as “the indispensable man,” and most historians have continued to view him as such.
Over the past few years, our first president’s legacy has come under fire, especially his ownership of slaves. And yet, we cannot forget that in surrendering power peacefully he set the standard of conduct for every American leader that would follow, ensuring the survival of the republic to this day.
As a general rule, our political leaders have emulated Washington. They have accepted the verdict at the polls, respecting both the democratic process and the sovereignty of the American people, even when the results seemed questionable. They have set aside their wounded feelings and their disappointment so that government of, by, and for the People, as Lincoln famously put it, would not perish from the earth. In doing so, they have demonstrated to the world that a self-governing republic can work.
Since its founding, the American republic has survived many challenges of our own creation. We have endured elections so close they had to be decided by the House of Representatives; backroom intrigue and deal swapping; a secession movement and civil war; flawed and misguided leaders; and repeated pressure from homegrown anti-democratic forces. So far, we have proven that Benjamin Franklin needlessly worried whether Americans could keep their republic.
And we will keep it so long as our leaders continue to follow the example set by Washington. Even after the passage of two and a half centuries, he is still worthy of emulation.
W. Todd Groce, Ph.D., is President and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society.
What Makes History “Patriotic”? – Volume 16, Number 1
The Making of a Georgia Trustee – Volume 15, Numbers 1 + 2
Celebrating a Total Transformation – Georgia History Today Special Issue: GHS Research Center
Healing Through History – Volume 14, Number 2
Finding Our Best in the Worst of Times – Volume 14, Number 1
Building for the Future – Volume 13, Number 2
Can Art be History? – Volume 13, Number 1
Who Do We Think We Are? – Volume 12, Number 2
A Duty to the Past, a commitment to the Future – Volume 12, Number 1
When History and Memory Collide – Volume 11, Number 2
A Date worth Remembering – Volume 11, Number 1
Maintaining a State of Innovation – Volume 10, Numbers 3 & 4
Strength for the Ages – Volume 10, Numbers 1&2
Heeding the Lessons of the Past – Volume 9, Numbers 3 & 4
We Have Nothing to Fear From the Past – Volume 9, Numbers 1 & 2
The Right Leaders for the Job – Volume 8, Numbers 3 & 4
The World of 1839 and 2014 – Volume 8, Numbers 1 & 2
Saving the Stories of the Past – Volume 7, Numbers 3 & 4
A New Chapter for the Georgia Archives – Volume 6, Numbers 3 & 4
Home Improvements – Volume 6, Numbers 1 & 2
Teaching History Every Day to Everyone – Volume 5, Number 3 & 4
Keeping It Real – Volume 5, Number 1 & 2
A Belated Tale of Unsung Valor – Volume 4, Number 3
Georgia Kicks Off the Civil War 150 – Volume 4, Number 2
We Owe It to You – Volume 4, Number 1
Focusing on What’s Important – Volume 3, Number 2 & 3
If Not Us, Then Who? – Volume 3, Number 1
To Understand Caesar, Not to Praise Him – Volume 2, Number 3 & 4
A Priceless Partnership – Volume 2, Number 2
A Tribute to a Man and His Vision – Volume 2, Number 1
How Firm a Foundation – Volume 1, Number 3
The Irrelevance of Location – Volume 1, Number 2
We’re Making History – Volume 1, Number 1