During the first of two nights of Democratic debates this week, amid forward-looking policy proposals and, on occasion, an actual answer to a question, one response from former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) stood out. No, not his mid-answer shift from English to Spanish — already a viral meme — but his invocation of the distant past and a famous piece of American art.
When asked about the Mueller report and potential legal proceedings against the president, O’Rourke did not conjure an image of President Trump awaiting his fate on the floor of the House. Instead, he called to mind a different Congress from a different time. “One of the most powerful pieces of art in the United States Capitol,” O’Rourke said, “is the Trumbull painting of General George Washington resigning his commission to the Continental Congress.”
The nearly 200-year-old painting has far more relevance to the current moment than it might first appear. That’s because the painting’s “power” flows from Washington’s willingness to give up his own power. As O’Rourke put it, “At the height of his power, submitting to the rule of law and the will of the people. That has withstood the test of time for the last 243 years.” Although it technically happened 236 years ago, that makes it deeply relevant to our political moment. As some Americans fret over Trump’s potential threat to this principle of peacefully giving up power, we need to look to this greatest of acts by Washington to understand why those fears are misplaced.
During the 18th century, there was a persistent fear in British-American society of a standing army. British subjects, steeped in classical learning and still scarred from the aftermath of the mid-17th-century English Civil War, feared that a powerful commander could use the military as the foundation of a dictatorship. They had clear examples in Julius Caesar, Oliver Cromwell and later Napoleon Bonaparte. This fear spiked to a fever pitch during the military occupation of Boston in 1768, the establishment of martial law in 1774 and the shots fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775.
Given the fragility of the new American republic, it was natural that such fears would continue after independence was secured. But on Dec. 23, 1783, Washington averted any possibility of military dictatorship or a return to monarchy by surrendering his commission to Congress in Annapolis.
The momentousness of that decision was captured 41 years later in a painting by John Trumbull, a former Continental Army officer. In the center stands the victorious Washington, his arm outstretched, offering back to Congress the commission of commander in chief of the Continental Army that they had bestowed upon him in the spring of 1775. Washington willingly surrendered “the trust” Congress had given to him and returned power to civilian authority for the “interest of our dearest country.” In doing so, he placed the needs of the nation over personal advancement.
After a national tour, the painting was displayed in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in 1826, where it still resides today.
Since that decisive moment, fears of an American monarchy have all but dissipated. It’s only in recent years that this concern has been revived with any vigor, as worry about despotism has crept back in reaction to the presidency of the norm-busting Trump.
In fact, a number of administration opponents have openly worried about Trump’s supposed dictatorial ambitions. His embattled former lawyer, Michael Cohen, warned the House Oversight Committee in February that “there will never be a peaceful transition of power” if Trump loses the next election. More recently, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) repeated these sentiments about a Trump loss in 2020, advising Democrats, “We have to inoculate against that; we have to be prepared for that."
Less than a week ago, the president exacerbated such fears, after he posted a video on Twitter (a variant of an October 2018 one created by Time magazine, warning of a Trump dynasty) that suggested he would remain in office in 2024, 2028, 2032, 2036, 2040, 2044 and 2048, apparently becoming immortal to stay in the White House “4EVA.”
In this climate, O’Rourke wasn’t the only presidential contender thinking about the idea of prioritizing the national good over one’s self-interest: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) also referenced the American Revolution, reminding: “Our nation was founded on the principles of service above self, people who fled kings.”
Yet Americans have no need to worry, thanks to George Washington.
He embraced the control of civilian government over his martial authority. He remained steadfast to this principle, even suppressing a potential coup against Congress by his officers by invoking the words of the Declaration of Independence and appealing to their “own sacred honor.”
And in that packed Maryland State House, Washington set the crucial precedent that O’Rourke noted. That moment, preserved forever in the Trumbull depiction, allows Americans to view Trump’s post as what it is: a joke. And the sensationalized speculation associated with similar claims ought to be viewed the same.
America is in no danger of a true dictator or monarch or military strongman. Our sense of liberty and deference to civilian authority and laws have been so institutionalized in the American character that anyone who tried it would meet insurmountable resistance. Even the military, which the Founders once feared as a tool of dictatorship, takes an oath to uphold the Constitution, not a personal pledge to a president. In our system, it would be a bulwark against such a move.
Whether you love or hate Washington, whether you want to talk about him as a “Founding Father” or as a morally corrupt slaveholder, this pivotal moment preserved the ideals of the American Revolution, prevented a fall into dictatorship or monarchy, maintained civilian supremacy over the military and established the enduring American tradition of a peaceful transition of power.
It is a tradition that carried the day even as political parties emerged, and Federalist John Adams stepped aside for Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson in 1801 after a vicious and controversial election. It held, too, as the flames of Civil War threatened to engulf the nation in 1861, when Democrat James Buchanan gave way to Republican Abraham Lincoln (and his less than 40 percent of the popular vote). And it governed after the most disputed modern electoral outcome, when Democrat Bill Clinton handed power to Republican George W. Bush in 2001, after more than a month of legal battles had secured the presidency for Bush over Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore.
This premise is so central to the success of the American republic that Dec. 23, 1783, is a date in American history every bit as important as the Fourth of July.
O’Rourke’s nod to Washington was a very small moment during a lively debate, one that was probably unnoticed by most and quickly forgotten by pundits. But in referencing Washington’s resignation, O’Rourke illustrated that he understood its centrality to the ideals of American government and society. And the reference holds true whether you say it in English or Spanish.