By Ken Zurski
In December of 1783, General George Washington said goodbye to the men he commanded and retired to private life at his home in in Mount Vernon. Being in a tavern in New York, Washington had raised a glass. “I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.” He wept as he said these words: “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you.”
Washington’s outwardly show of emotion was not due to affection or remorse; it was regret. The Continental Army, the men who fought to free new America from British rule, felt disrespected by a Congress that refused back pay requests and in some cases promised pensions. Greed was the reason, lawmakers told them. Instead of fighting for love of God and country, they explained, many wanted to profit off it.
But while freedom was an attribute worth fighting for, the men had families and mouths to feed as well. They demanded compensation for their efforts. When Congress shut them out, the officers went to their general for help. But Washington had no power or influence over Congress. “I’m only a servant of the people,” he told them.
In return, the officers chided Washington and other generals by cancelling a dinner in their honor. Even King George II ridiculed America’s predicament and Washington’s lack of individual powers in a democratic society. “If he does that,” King George sarcastically remarked, referring to the compensation,” he will be the greatest man in the world.”
But Washington was right. He had only a voice in the matter, not a vote. So saying farewell to military life and his loyal men, the General’s tears were commendable.
In his mind, he had failed them.