December is a month that embodies much of the agony and the ecstasy in the life of George Washington. On Christmas night 1776, Washington crossed the Delaware in a bold offensive designed to give new life to the colonial cause. Almost a year later on Dec. 18, Washington and his 11,000 troops encamped at Valley Forge for a winter of discontent. On Dec. 23, 1783, Washington resigned his commission to Congress and returned to Mount Vernon on Christmas eve. Finally, on Dec. 14, 1799, Washington would die.
For many Americans until the mid- 20th century, December had a special meaning that also involved George Washington. It represented in Christmas the only other legal holiday, in addition to Washington's birthday, that all states in the union celebrated.
From these perspectives and from this capital city, December is an appropriate time to reflect on George Washington's life. We can note, for example, that in the nearly 200 years since his death, Americans have drawn upon the reservoir of his virtues to sustain their nationalism. To be sure, sometimes the fervor to seize upon Washington led to hyperbole and mythologizing. And some might suggest that it led to a debasing of a name that merits special attention: nearly two-thirds of the states, these observers point out, have a Washington county.
In the Washington lore, the great man stands tall, honest, courageous, wise, humble and stern. Almost no attention is given to Washington and his emotions. Yet Washington was often visibly nervous when he spoke in public, he vented his anger on occasion, and he could shed tears.
Early December 1783 provided the most tearful experience in the life of Washington. The scene was New York City, where the last of the British troops were leaving for home according to the terms of the peace treaty. The governor of New York had given a public dinner, as well as a display of fireworks, for Washington and his principal officers. And Washington had made the decision before departing for Annapolis where Congress was meeting to assemble his officers together for a final meeting. They met in a tavern in lower Manhattan. Washington arrived last. He filled his glass with wine and "in almost breathless silence" turned to his officers. "With a heart full of love and gratitude," he toasted, "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. I cannot come to each of you, but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand."
An eyewitness to the event described the subsequent events: "General Knox, being nearest to him, turned to the Commander-in-Chief, who, suffused in tears, was incapable of utterance, but grasped his hand, when they embraced each other in silence. In the same affectionate manner, every officer in the room marched up to, kissed, and parted with his General-in-Chief. Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I had never before witnessed. . . . Not a word was uttered to break the solemn silence . . . or to interrupt the tenderness of the . . . scene."
The officers accompanied Washington "in mournful silence" to the wharf where his barge would depart. Although the crowd of people was "prodigious," the emotion of the moment was too great for Washington. He could not speak. He offered a silent farewell by waving his hat as the barge moved from the dock.
Indeed, the tender scene of Washington's farewell indicated that he was more than a monument. He was a man who loved and shed tears--traits we would all do well to ponder during this anniversary month of Washington's successes, defeats and death.