THE struggle of the English-American colonies for political independence ended in victory for the patriots. That independence was finally assured when, on the 5th of December, 1783, the king of England said in a speech from the throne: "I have sacrificed every consideration of my own to the wishes and opinions of my people. I make it my humble and earnest prayer to Almighty God that Great Britain may not feel the evils which might result from so great a dismemberment of the empire, and that America may be free from those calamities which have formerly proved, in the mother country, how essential monarchy is to the enjoyment of constitutional liberty. Religion, language, interests, affections may, and I hope will, yet prove a bond of permanent union between the two countries; to this end neither attention or disposition shall be wanting on my part."
With that speech the king closed, in Great Britain, the impressive drama which opened at Lexington in 1775, and exhibited its most glorious act in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. With another act, dissimilar but quite as interesting, it had closed in America the day before. The Continental Army had been disbanded and every hostile British soldier had left our shores, when Washington, on the 4th of December (1783), called around him his officers who were near and bade them farewell. That event occurred in the great public-room of the tavern of Samuel Fraunce, at the corner of Broadway and pearl streets, in the city of New York. The scene is described as one of great tenderness. The officers were assembled in the room, when Washington entered and taking a glass of wine in his hand said: "With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable." Having tasted the wine, he continued: "I cannot come to each of you to take my leave, but shall be obliged to you if each will come and take me by the hand." General Knox, who stood nearest to the commander-in-chief, turned and grasped his hand, and, while the tears flowed down the cheeks of each, Washington kissed his beloved companion in arms on the forehead. This he did to each of his officers. With these parting tokens of affection Washington left the room, and passing through a corps of light infantry, he walked to White Hall (now the Staten Island Ferry) followed by a vast procession, and at two o'clock in the afternoon entered a barge to be conveyed to Paulus's Hook, now Jersey City, on his departure for Annapolis, where the Continental Congress was then in session. The last survivor of the participants in that parting scene was Major Robert Burnet of Orange County, New York, who lived until 1854. From his lips I received the account. It was an old story related long before by the historian, but it seemed fresh as it came from the lips of an eye-witness.
Washington proceeded to Philadelphia, where he delivered his public accounts into the hands of the proper officer, and with his wife rode to Annapolis, the capital of Maryland. The Continental Congress was then in session in the State-House there. At noon on the 23d of December, the patriot entered the Senate Chamber (the hall in which the Congress sat) according to previous arrangement, and was led to a chair by Charles Thompson, the Secretary. The President of Congress, General Mifflin, then rose and informed the General that "The United States, in Congress assembled, were prepared to receive his communications." Washington arose, and, with great dignity and much feeling, delivered a brief speech, and then handed to Mifflin the commission which he had received from that body in June, 1775. Mifflin received it, and made an eloquent reply. He closed by saying: "We join you in commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, beseeching him to dispose the hearts and minds of its citizens to improve the opportunity afforded them of becoming a happy and respectable nation. And for you, we address to Him our earnest prayers that a life so beloved may be fostered with all His care; that your days may be as happy as they have been illustrious; and that He will finally give you that reward which this world cannot give."
Washington and his wife set out from Annapolis for Mount Vernon, on the day before Christmas, and arrived home that evening, where they were greeted with great joy by the family and flocks of colored servants. They were accompanied a short distance by the governor of Maryland and his suite, on horseback. All the way from New York to Annapolis and thence to Mount Vernon, Washington's journey was a triumphal march. He was escorted from place to place by cavalcades of citizens and volunteer military corps, and was everywhere greeted with the most emphatic demonstrations of love and respect. For more than eight years he had served his country faithfully and efficiently. Now that its independence was secured, he crowned the glory of his patriotic devotion by resigning into the hands of his country's representatives the instrument of his power; and as a plain, untitled citizen, he sat down in peace in the midst of his family, on the banks of the Potomac.
A few months before the disbanding of the army a tie of friendship had been formed among the officers, at the suggestion of General Knox, by the organization at the cantonment of the troops, near Newburgh, New York, of an association known as The Society of the Cincinnati. Its chief objects were to promote a cordial friendship and indissoluble union among themselves, and to extend benevolent aid to such of its members as might need assistance. Washington was made its President-General, and remained so until his death. General Knox was its Secretary-General. To perpetuate the association, it was provided in the constitution of the society, that the eldest masculine descendant of an original member should be entitled to wear the Order and enjoy the privileges of the society. That society is yet in existence. The Order or badge consists of a gold eagle, suspended upon a ribbon, on the breast of which is a medallion with a device, representing Cincinnatus receiving the Roman Senator.
Return to Our Country, Vol II