George Washington bids farewell to his troops
How Saying “Goodbye” Opened New Opportunities
The following article is an excerpt from “How Leaders Decide: A Timeless Guide to Making Tough Choices,” which debuted as the #1 new historical reference book on Amazon.
Saying goodbye can be difficult.
For those who have not yet achieved their dream, a belief that the best is yet to come emboldens many to stay too long. For those at the top of their game, departing can seem premature.
George Washington said goodbye as commander-in-chief, as president of the Constitutional Convention, and as president of the United States. Acutely aware his every move, word, and decision would be judged by posterity, Washington set masterful examples for today’s leaders for stepping aside.
George Washington was a born leader. His bravery, strength, stamina, and above-average height (6ʹ 2″, 1.88 m) marked him as a battlefield commander.
Arriving at the second Continental Congress in full military uniform, Washington showed he was prepared for war. Upon his unanimous election as the budding nation’s commander-in-chief, Washington’s brief acceptance speech was remarkable for its humility (“I do not think myself equal to the Command I am honored with”) and willing self-sacrifice (advising Congress he would serve without pay).
While not a shrewd strategist, Washington’s leadership was unequaled, and his wartime leadership foreshadowed his approach to leading in peacetime. He was a keen judge of talent, recruiting capable officers and then trusting those under his immediate command to do their jobs. He was practical, harboring no illusions about the ragtag army he commanded and understanding America’s best hope for winning the war was outlasting the British. And he always acted on principle, dismantling internal uprisings by appealing to a higher purpose and executing British spies and American deserters with equal dispatch.
With the war successfully concluded, word of the treaty ratified in Paris reached the colonies in early November 1783. Washington was eager to resign his commission and return home.
On November 2 near Princeton, New Jersey, Washington bid farewell to soldiers of the Continental army, addressing them as “one patriotic band of brothers.”
His most emotional farewell occurred on December 4 at Fraunces Tavern in New York. Washington arrived for the noon luncheon in his best blue and buff uniform and found the tavern packed with his officers. At Washington’s signal, the men began eating. Washington’s heart swelled as the last glass of brandywine was poured. He swallowed hard and offered this toast: “With a heart filled with 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.” The men raised their glasses and “tears…filled every eye.”
“With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you.”
— GEORGE WASHINGTON
Washington resigned his commission to Congress nineteen days later. King George III called Washington “the greatest character of the age” because of his voluntary resignation of power.
How will you know when it’s time to go?
Washington was exhausted by the war and longed to live out his days at Mount Vernon.
His respite was short-lived.
Virginia’s governor invited Washington to lead the delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in May 1787. Washington was loathe to accept the invitation, noting he had taken “leave of all the employments of public life.” Washington also had given his word. What’s more, Washington knew the Constitution required more than revising—it required overhauling. Consensus appeared elusive. Acutely aware of his legacy, and characterizing the current government “like a house on fire,” Washington wanted nothing to do with failure.
On the other hand, presiding over a favorable outcome would secure his place in history.
Once James Madison convinced Washington that the majority of the delegates favored the constitutional transformation, Washington agreed to participate.
Arriving in Philadelphia, Washington was elected unanimously to preside over the Constitutional Convention. Though he spoke little during the proceedings, Washington’s influence was profound.
You’ve achieved every major goal you sought to accomplish. You’re ready to go. How will you respond if you’re asked to stay?
With the Constitution ratified, Washington again sought retirement. Instead, all sixty-nine electors voted for Washington to become the nation’s first president. It was his third unanimous election to lead.
Walking “on untrodden ground,” Washington once again proved himself an able leader, defining the role of the presidency and creating the government. He established a presidential cabinet; appointed the entire Supreme Court; satisfied all debts; created a national bank; implemented an effective tax system; and took personal control over the ten-square-mile federal district, including the President’s mansion and the Capitol on the banks of the Potomac.
As the presidential election of 1792 approached, Washington planned yet again to retire rather than seek a second term. By this time, Jefferson and Hamilton were in such open disagreement, “the only issue on which Jefferson and Hamilton could apparently agree is Washington’s indispensability.” Every option, every move was calculated.
On February 13, 1793, the electoral college unanimously elected Washington to another four-year term that Washington described to Jefferson as “the extreme wretchedness of his existence.”
What did you give to your career beyond your time? What did you receive in return? What will be your legacy?
On September 19, 1796, Washington’s farewell address was printed in newspapers, notifying the nation he declined to be “considered among the number of those out of whom a choice is to be made” for the next president. His last day in office was March 4, 1797, voluntarily resigning as the young nation’s first president.
George Washington died December 14, 1799, at age sixty seven, after catching a cold while riding around Mount Vernon on horseback in freezing rain, snow, and hail. His retirement had lasted less than two years. On his deathbed, in a voice barely audible to those gathered around him, Washington said, “Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go.”
A grieving nation bid a final farewell to George Washington on December 26, 1799, remembering this great soldier and statesman as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”