By John F. Di Leo -
On December 23, 1783, the Continental Congress met in their temporary home – that’s all they had, temporary home after temporary home, since the United States had no permanent capital city, let alone capitol building – to listen to a history-making speech. General George Washington had arrived at Annapolis to resign his commission.
The Continental Congress represented an odd cross between a country and an organization. The United States, under the Articles of Confederation, was more like today’s European Union than the America of today. There was no direct election of the delegates to the Continental Congress; they were selected by their respective state legislatures. They had no real taxing power – they just asked the states to contribute, and the states either didn’t at all or didn’t much.
They had no capital city; they moved around from Philadelphia to Baltimore to York to Lancaster… eight cities, in fact, served as the mobile capital city between the first Continental Congress in 1774 and the formation of a new government under the Constitution in 1789. At the time of General Washington’s resignation, Congress had been meeting in the Maryland State House, in Annapolis, MD, when the Maryland legislature could spare the room.
Taking Limited Government to its Ultimate Conclusion
The Founding Fathers had an absolute belief in the doctrine of limited governance. Having studied the writings of Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke and Montesquieu, the Founding Fathers and their nation were limited in three ways. The electorate, and the Founders themselves, having endured the tyranny of George III in the 1760s and 1770s, believed in small government with all their hearts. The former colonies, now states, still thought of themselves, culturally, as different countries, which further limited central government’s ability to gain support for growth, even if it had wanted to. And finally, the Articles of Confederation allowed the central government virtually no funds to spend, nor effective means to collect any. This government was as small as it could be, and likely to remain so.
Such a government therefore could hardly afford a standing army, even if had wanted one. Throughout the War of Independence, it had been assumed that the army would disband if victory was achieved. So, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris at the Hotel d’York, in September of 1783 (just shy of two years after Yorktown), the time had come to declare peacetime for the nascent nation. The army would go home; the officers would go home, and even the victorious commanding general would retire to his farm.
Looking back with the advantage of hindsight, we may be tempted to remark that this was an example of naiveté on a grand scale. Did they believe that the threat of Indians to the west of the Alleghenies would diminish, that Spain, Holland, and the many other world powers with interests in the Western Hemisphere would lose interest in this weak new land that showed so much promise?
Well, not entirely; the states retained their militias, and hoped that would be sufficient. They just feared a huge national standing army in peacetime, for its cost, its potential for tyranny at home, and of course its potential for mischief abroad; our Founders believed that governments that have armies will find a way to put them to use.
So it was that the young government looked forward to the dissolution of its war footing, and welcomed the announcement of the retirement of our modern Cincinnatus.
The Greatest Man in the World
It is said that, when George III learned that General Washington planned to return to farming rather than take a crown, as any European general would presumably do, the defeated king said “If he does that, then he will be the greatest man in the world.”
The king was right, to the extent that it did tell us something powerful about General Washington. The gentleman from Mount Vernon was indeed an amazing man, a great leader and a dedicated devotee of libertarian republican principles. He had prosecuted a war against tyranny; there was no way in Heaven or on earth that he would have considered seizing power and taking a crown. Any European general throughout history, going back all the way to ancient Rome and before, would have assumed the mantle of the dictator at the end of his triumph (well, except for Cincinnatus, role model of the American officer).
But George III’s famous line, probably the most famous one we remember him uttering, actually tells us more about him, and about Europe, than it does about Washington and the Americans. The rejection of power was so shocking to the Hanoverian king because he had never understood the American people. He had never respected the American love of self-sufficiency.
Historians have always wondered – along with the Rockingham faction in Parliament at the time! – why George III insisted on acting like a dictator to the Americans. Why did he insist on treating Americans as little more than serfs? Why did he deny them even the show of the protections that five hundred years of Parliamentary work had won the citizens of the British Empire? Why did George III go out of his way to violate the spirit and law of the Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, and every political victory since?
It was all because he did not understand the American people. Our forefathers came here to escape religious persecution, to escape governmental constraints on their business, their writing, their speech. Our forefathers came to these shores to be as far from feudal economics as possible. They wanted to be able to farm or ranch, to smelt or write, to print or cook or build or paint. They wanted to be able to choose their careers and prosper as freemen. What little they needed from government, they could get from a legislature they themselves had chosen. And so every one of our colonies had a busy and functioning legislature, and had for a century or more in fact, before our War of Independence began.
George III believed in the divine right of the king to rule, and he chafed at the limits on his rule at home, having to defer to Parliament in so many ways. But he thought of the American colonies as the place where he could be himself, where he could rule by fiat. And so he did, in the 1760s… and thereby, unnecessarily but undeniably, pushed America into rebellion.
It could therefore be said that George’s line about Washington wasn’t just about Washington at all, but about all Americans. Just as the Hanoverian king, a limited monarch at home who fancied himself an unlimited emperor abroad, had no conception of the mind of a George Washington, so too he had no conception of the minds of the American people.
Having never been to Philadelphia or New York or Boston, he had no understanding of how highly we had developed in less than one and a half centuries. How could these uncouth ruffians not desire and respect the guiding hand of a noble king? Easy. They weren’t ruffians at all.
It wasn’t just that George Washington was the greatest man in the world – though at his time, he certainly was. It was that the American people were the greatest people in the world – ready for independence, willing to risk their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, to win the right to self-sufficiency. The American people cherished their economic, political, and religious freedom. They lived for it. Many died for it. All Americans believed in it.
So to us, George Washington’s resignation at the end of his long leadership was not a moment of shock, but a moment of fulfillment. It was the day that crystallized in the American mind the very purpose of all the Founding Fathers: the American people would do what it takes to win our freedom, from serving in government to serving in war, and then return to the farm, the shop, the foundry, ready to enjoy that hard-won freedom along with their friends and neighbors, until the day might come when it was threatened again.
What Produced Such Leaders?
This is the greatest question we have today: how might we again produce people of the caliber of our Founding Fathers?
There are demographic hints – these were mostly men, of British heritage and wealthy background. But such a generalization might be misleading. Many of our greatest were of Dutch or French heritage, some came from poverty; one of the most brightly shining stars of the age, Alexander Hamilton, was born and raised an impoverished French-Scotsman in faraway St. Croix.
The three themes that explain the production of the greatest generation are these:
Religion: The Founding Fathers were, for the most part, devout Judeo-Christians, of a wide variety of denominations. From Anglicans to Congregationalists, from Baptists to Quakers, the Founders were almost uniformly solid Protestants, many of them evangelical, devoted to their own denominations, but respectful of others in the Judeo-Christian family of religions. They raised their children to go to church on Sunday, and practice what they preached during the week. And because the nation wasn’t uniformly Catholic or Anglican or Lutheran, but rather a broad mix, people learned to be tolerant, in a way that was hard to find back in Europe.
Education: The Founding Fathers were well-educated, though usually with far fewer years of study than we have today. In the Founding era, most people were done with school by their mid or late teens. There were three ways to get an education, in an era before huge monopolies of a government school district and a Catholic diocesan school arena.
Our first three presidents were each an example of one of these methods. John Adams was raised in the local one-room schoolhouse of a parson or parson’s son in a small town. Thomas Jefferson was raised in the rural method of a network of tutors. And George Washington was raised with neither, so he educated himself. All three methods produced similar outcomes, since the right blend of classical history, philosophy, language, and business skills was shared among them all. Our Founding Fathers all knew the value of studying history, of understanding the basic sciences, of mastering the art of communication. Without a taxpayer-funded behemoth to twist education to the service of a leviathan state, education was then a true means toward raising good citizens.
Self-Governance: The third aspect of 18th century life that I believe important is the respect for local republican government. Elections were a part of your life, growing up, as the town meeting and the public debate were the key news of the day. In an era before organized sports, before entertainment publications, before a 24-hour news cycle that focused more on the care and feeding of celebrities than on hard news, politics was what people talked about. With German-speaking kings ruling in England, the American colonists of the early and mid 18th century were proud of their town councils and colonial legislatures.
From the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg to the Old State House in Providence, each colony took pride in its own mini-Parliament, more honest than the Parliament far across the Pond, more representative than the rotten boroughs in the old country. The Founders were lawyers, merchants, farmers, preachers, cobblers, hunters, printers… they represented every career and every corner of the country. They had been raised to be zealously proud of their representative republics, which worked daily to protect the liberty of their citizenries.
We ask ourselves - Where do we stand today? Why don’t we seem to produce people like Gouverneur Morris, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, in this day and age? Perhaps the answer is that we do, but not in such numbers, and even when we do, they are not elected to public office… or if elected, they are outnumbered by lesser men.
There are still churches and synagogues in America where the denomination preaches church doctrine, and the liberation theology and relativism of the 20th century have not yet invaded. There are still homes in America where homeschooling trumps the government propaganda factories and gangland recruitment centers. There are still neighborhoods where your local representative is devoted to the freedom philosophy, and children are raised in an environment where liberty is respected and preached.
But these are the arenas of our culture under assault today. Rather than prospering and spreading as they should, they are under an all-out assault by the modern American Left, taking a beating from the pop culture of one coast and the bureaucratic strangulation of the other coast. The citizens of today have a duty to the citizens of tomorrow, and to fulfill that duty, we must turn to the examples of the citizens of the past… to the Founding Fathers of this great nation, and first and foremost, to the greatest example, George Washington, universally admired as the greatest leader of his time, who won a war and went home to his farm, looking forward to being “just another average American citizen again” – in the days when being “just another average American citizen” was the greatest thing to be in all the world.
Copyright 2013 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance trainer. He learned his history and political science as a student at Northwestern University, but is proud to have learned his true appreciation for the Founders as they did, through experiencing the modern leviathan state at the workplace, and studying the Founding Era in the histories and biographies produced by giants like Brookhiser, Ellis, Johnson, and Randall. There is no more worthy era to study; pick up anything by Richard Brookhiser, and work your way through the era from there. From your first page of “Alexander Hamilton, American,” you’ll be hooked on the greatest generations of all time.
Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included. Follow John F. Di Leo on LinkedIn or Facebook, or on Twitter at @johnfdileo.
Thank you for reading, Gentle Reader! Merry Christmas!