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General George Washington wept as he said farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York in December 1783. He wept even more profusely when he resigned his commission in Annapolis a few weeks later. Those tears were not merely sentimental. There was a lot of private anguish in them—anguish that had to do with Washington’s troubled relationship with his officers, their bitter quarrel with Congress, and the scarifying unpopularity that had engulfed the Continental Army in the months after they disbanded in July 1783.

On July 10, 1782, General Washington wrote a letter to one of his favorite aides, Lieutenant Colonel John Laurens, that summed up the hardest truth he had learned from seven exhausting years of war. Laurens was probably the most committed idealist in the American army. After Yorktown he had gone to South Carolina and tried to persuade his native state to approve a plan he had been championing since Valley Forge. He wanted the legislature to free three thousand black slaves and enlist them in the Continental Army. Not only would it help win the war, it would be a body blow to the institution of slavery. After some initial hesitation, Washington strongly supported the idea.

The South Carolina legislature buried Laurens’ proposal in an avalanche of nays. The dismayed young colonel reported the result to Washington, who replied: “The spirit of freedom, which at the commencement of this contest would have gladly sacrificed every thing to the attainment of its object, has long since subsided, and every selfish passion has taken its place. It is not the public, but the private interest, which influences the generality of mankind, nor can the Americans any longer boast an exception.”

This unblinking realism about human nature began to permeate Washington’s mind at Valley Forge. There he clashed with fellow patriots, especially those from New England, who had proclaimed at the start of the war that America’s public virtue would be the secret weapon that would win a swift victory over the corrupt, power-hungry British. When it did not work out that way and the Americans found themselves fighting what Washington called “a long and bloody war,” some of these public-virtue preachers started blaming other Americans. True patriotism, as they saw it, should not involve a smidgen of self-interest.

During the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge, when these people, led by Samuel Adams and Richard Henry Lee, were in control of Congress, they almost destroyed the American army. They insisted that Pennsylvania farmers should sell their produce and cattle at rock-bottom prices, ignoring the depreciation of the American dollar. Instead, the farmers hid their wheat and cattle until the half-starved army had to seize it at gunpoint.

As the dollar depreciated, officers began resigning by the dozen. More than three hundred went home from Valley Forge alone. Washington decided that the only way to keep good men in the army was to offer them half pay for life. The public-virtue preachers in Congress went berserk. It took weeks of wrangling to get them to agree to a compromise, half pay for seven years after the war.

By 1780, America’s economic situation had become truly desperate. Continental dollars were almost worthless. An ordinary horse sold for twenty thousand dollars. Officers earning $150 a month were actually receiving five or six real dollars. In the face of this out-of-control inflation, Washington went back to Congress and again insisted that the lawmakers vote the officers half pay for life. Although the politicians acquiesced, they almost immediately waffled on the promise. They asked the states to undertake the task—tantamount to sentencing it to oblivion. The officers, imbued with the idea that a gentleman’s word is his bond, insisted they still expected their half pay from Congress.

Meanwhile, Congress stopped printing money. The states were supposed to supply the army with meat, bread, and rum, which seldom arrived. Most of the time, the soldiers had to go on seizing food from recalcitrant farmers and paying for it in promissory notes, hardly the way to win civilian minds and hearts.

When a desperate Congress appointed financier Robert Morris as superintendent of finance in 1781, he announced he could not pay the army. Morris depended on his close friend, General Washington, to mollify the soldiers with a promise of eventual payment. The officers—and the enlisted men—had already gone without pay since 1780, resulting in severe hardships, particularly for men with wives and families. By 1783, Congress owed the soldiers tens of thousands of dollars in back pay. The cost of half pay for life was even more astronomical. Even if the promised pension was “commuted” to five years’ full pay, as several congressmen proposed, the cost would be close to $7 million.

This was the situation when Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay signed a provisional peace treaty in Paris on November 30, 1782. Rumors that Britain might sign such a treaty had reached America that fall. The news did not trigger any celebrations in New Windsor, on the Hudson River north of New York, where the Continental Army was camped. Instead, it aroused in the officer corps a surge of sullen fury.

That December the officers dispatched a three-man delegation to Congress led by Major General Alexander McDougall of New York to demand their back pay and a renewed pledge of half pay for life. Choosing McDougall as a spokesman was a statement in itself. In the early 1770s, the abrasive Scot had been a leader in staging riots and protests against the British. He had also been a member of the Continental Congress in 1781 and was known to many of the current members.

The McDougall delegation got nowhere. Congress appointed a “Grand Committee” of thirteen members to listen to their demands, but the politicians could not agree on how to raise the money, nor could they persuade a majority to approve paying the officers a cent on the promised half pay for life.

A disgusted McDougall listened to influential people in Philadelphia who were equally unhappy with the dithering Congress. The three leaders were Robert Morris, the superintendent of finance; his assistant, Gouverneur Morris (no relation); and Congressman Alexander Hamilton. They suggested the army might do more than complain; after all, they had guns in their hands. Why not threaten to use them?

They argued that everyone might end up happier if the states were frightened into giving Congress the power to levy federal taxes. All it could do at present was request the states to contribute money. For 1782 Congress had asked for $8 million. On April 1, when the first $2 million was due, Superintendent Morris had collected nothing. A week or so later, $5,572 trickled in from New Jersey—enough to keep the federal government running for a quarter of a day. The year ended with a $6 million shortfall. Only loans from France and Holland enabled Morris to dodge national bankruptcy. As for paying the army, it was beyond the realm of financial possibility.

Soon an anonymous broadside began circulating around the army’s New Windsor camp. It exhorted the officers to abandon “the milk-and-water style” of their petition to Congress. If the army did not act now, declared the inflammatory epistle, the officers were condemned to grow old “in poverty, wretchedness and contempt.” Peace would benefit everyone but them. It was time to confront the ingratitude of their fellow citizens, whom the army’s courage had made independent. There was only one option left: their swords.

Moreover, they should “suspect the man who would advise [them] to more moderation and longer forbearance.” Those last words were a not very subtle preemptive strike at General Washington.

Five days later, on March 15, 1783, Washington confronted several hundred officers in a public building in New Windsor known as The Temple. He made a passionate appeal to them to reject these calls for violence, but his words did not seem to have much impact. The men’s eyes remained cold and angry.

In desperation, Washington pulled out a letter from a Virginia delegate who claimed Congress was going to try to meet the officers’ demands. As the general started to read it, he blinked, rubbed his eyes wearily, and drew a pair of eyeglasses from his pocket. It was the first time anyone except a few aides had seen him wearing them. “Gentlemen,” he said. “You will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”

A rustle of unease, a murmur of emotion swept through the audience. A few of the officers wept. Others brushed away tears. Washington finished reading the letter and departed. Instantly, Major General Henry Knox, the popular commander of the artillery, was on his feet asking the men to reject the “infamous” anonymous address and affirm with a resolution the army’s unshaken attachment “to the rights and liberties of human nature.” Another resolution asked Washington to become their advocate with Congress.

The resolutions were approved unanimously. Only one man rose to object. Lean, acerbic Colonel Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts, the army’s quartermaster general, condemned the hypocrisy of heaping infamy on the anonymous publication. He noted that during the four preceding days, almost every officer in the army had read it “with rapture.”

Some people later said if one more speaker had followed Pickering with similar sentiments, the officers’ rage might have reignited—with General Washington as well as Congress a target. But no one said a word. The soldiers departed to their quarters, and the most perilous moment in the brief history of the United States of America ended peacefully.

However, the crisis was far from over. The officers were still angry men. General Washington had pledged his support to win the money they had been promised and deserved. He warned Congress that if it failed to compensate these men, “then shall I have learned what ingratitude is,” and the memory would “embitter every moment of my future life.” Those are extraordinary words. It is not hard to connect them to Washington’s tears.

Congress not only failed to compensate the officers, but it did so in an underhanded way. Instead of discharging them unpaid, which might have been construed as an act of courage or at least candor— by now the country was totally bankrupt—the politicians furloughed four-fifths of the army, the men who had enlisted for the duration of the war. If the British signed a definitive peace treaty, the furloughs would become permanent.

On July 5, 1783, a committee of officers told Washington they viewed the furloughs “with a mixture of astonishment and chagrin.” Four-fifths of the army was being disbanded without even one of their demands met. They were being sent home without the means to “support and comfort [their] families,” and liable to arrest for the debts they had contracted in the service.

Washington’s reply was labored, polite—and unsatisfactory. He said he was “only a servant of the public” and had no power to alter the furlough policy. There simply was no money to pay for keeping the army together. All he could offer the men were promissory notes, signed and backed by the personal credit of Superintendent of Finance Morris, for three months’ pay. Most officers decided to go home without waiting for these “Morris notes.” They would have to sell them to speculators at half or a third of their face value to get any cash.

The departing officers canceled a dinner at which they had planned to make General Washington their guest of honor. The decision, one officer wrote, had troubled “certain characters.” Along with General Knox and a few other officers who had helped to defuse the anonymous address, Washington was almost certainly among the troubled. In fact, he was deeply wounded by this unmistakable evidence that he had lost the admiration and affection of his officers.

This experience was the background for Washington’s heartbreaking “Farewell Orders Issued to the Armies of the United States,” which he wrote after the Continental Army furlough. His men had marched off without a victory parade or even a statement of gratitude from Congress. Some biographers have dismissed this message as a collection of platitudes. It is no such thing if read in context, with an awareness that it came from a man who was trying to fend off lifelong embitterment.

Washington told his men that their achievement against the most powerful nation on the globe was “little short of a standing Miracle.” Men from all parts of the continent had become “one patriotic band of Brothers”—another miracle. He professed one more time his “inviolable attachment & friendship.” He hoped their country would pay them what they deserved. No one else had secured by their courage and devotion such “innumerable blessings for others.”

At West Point, a group of unfurloughed officers decided to write Washington a response to his farewell statement. They appointed Quartermaster General Pickering to prepare a draft—again, not an accidental choice. To no one’s surprise, the New Englander’s praise of Washington was minimal. Pickering spent most of his time indicting Congress and the states for atrocious malfeasance. One historian has described the text as “a snarl of self pity and defiant outrage.” The officers did not bother to present this less than fulsome response to General Washington personally. They mailed it.

This is the seldom-told background leading up to Washington’s farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern, after the British army had finally evacuated New York on November 25, 1783. Only a handful of officers were present. The army had shrunk to eight hundred men. Alexander Hamilton did not attend. He was brooding over a stern letter that Washington had written to him after the crisis triggered by the anonymous address. The general had warned his former aide that the army was a dangerous instrument to play with.

On the tavern’s second floor, Washington picked at the food on the table, but he obviously had no interest in eating. He poured himself a glass of wine and raised it to his lips with a shaking hand. The officers passed decanters and quickly filled their glasses.

Washington gazed at the men, his lips trembling. He wanted— even needed—to break through the resentment he knew was infesting the hearts and minds of many. He wanted to speak to this small cluster of guarded faces—and reach the whole officers corps.

Slowly, Washington raised his glass and 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…have been glorious and honorable.”

“In almost breathless silence,” one officer recalled, they watched him drink. They raised their glasses in a mostly silent but equally emotional response. A few men mumbled phrases and broken sentences.

Tears began to stream down Washington’s cheeks. The officers’ anger at this man—if not at Congress—dissolved in the face of the general’s grief. They understood that parting was only one reason for his tears. A larger reason was regret that he had failed to get them the rewards they needed and deserved: not only the money that was owed to them, but the praise, the appreciation from a grateful country.

By this time, the officers had become the target of a furious smear campaign led by some politicians and many newspaper editors. The officers were portrayed as greedy would-be aristocrats who wanted to live off their pensions. The dimensions of this orgy of mudslinging are almost unbelievable. The neighbors of one Connecticut officer told him they hoped he would die so he could not collect his pension. They cheered when he got sick.

This low opinion of the officers soon engulfed the rest of the Continental Army. An official in Washington County, Virginia, reported, “Some how there is a general disgust taken place for what bears the name of a regular.” When General Washington proposed a postwar regular army of about three thousand men, Congress ignored him. Even a tiny regular army, many congressmen opined, would threaten America’s liberty.

Three weeks after leaving Fraunces Tavern, Washington arrived in Annapolis, where Congress was sitting. The national legislature was a pathetic group, barely twenty in number. They had been chased out of Philadelphia by rioting soldiers from the city’s five-hundred-man garrison, who demanded back pay not in promissory notes but in hard money. The politicians had wandered to Princeton and now to Annapolis, but remained the laughingstock of the country.

In full uniform, flanked by two aides, General Washington stood before this collection of political zeros, the men who had defrauded his officers. It is not hard to imagine what he must have felt when he looked at them. Did he owe them any respect? Had any of them earned it?

If anyone deserved respect, Washington did; he had saved Congress from its cowardice and ineptitude. If not for him, the politicians would have faced the wrong end of the army’s muskets. Independence, liberty, the pursuit of happiness might have vanished into the cauldron of a civil war.

Yet this supreme realist, who had no illusions about human nature, retained a vision of what the Continental Congress meant to the future United States of America. He had somehow kept inviolate his vision of why the American Revolution had been fought and won: to create a nation of free men and women. Instead of giving the congressman a tongue-lashing or a curt statement of why he was there and an abrupt goodbye, the general drew a speech from his coat pocket and unfolded it with hands that again trembled with emotion.

“Mr. President,” he began in a low, strained voice. “The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place; I have now the honor of offering my sincere Congratulations to Congress & of presenting myself before them to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me, and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the Service of my Country.”

This was the greatest moment in American history. Here was a man who could have become president general for life after dispersing the feckless Congress and obtaining for himself and his officers and men riches worthy of their courage. Instead, he resigned his commission, renouncing power to become a private citizen, at the mercy of these and other politicians over whom he had no control. This visible, incontrovertible act did more to affirm America’s faith in the government of the people than a thousand declarations by legislatures and treatises by philosophers.

Washington’s emotions grew so intense that he had to grip the pages of his speech with both hands to keep it steady. He continued, “I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life by commending the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God, and those Who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.”

Tears streamed down General Washington’s cheeks. These words reflected a vein of religious faith in his inmost soul, born of battlefield experiences in the French and Indian War that had convinced him of the existence of a caring God. This faith in a personal God blended with his faith in America’s future. Without both faiths, it is doubtful he could have dealt with the appalling disappointments he and his officers had suffered over the course of the previous eight months.

The deeply moved spectators “all wept,” James McHenry, a Maryland congressman, wrote his bride-to-be. “And there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears.” Some of them sensed and perhaps even understood the deeper meaning behind the general’s tears. McHenry was a former Washington aide. He knew how much the general cared about his army—and his country. He sensed the depth of his sadness and the anguish of his hope.

There is no better proof of Washington’s greatness, and of his vision and faith in what America could and would become, than the story behind his farewell tears. And there is no better time than the present to remember them.

Originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.