George Washington: Leadership Legacy

Cheryl Marling, June 10, 2021

Imagine the hush that fell over the room when, on December 23rd, General George Washington strode into an Annapolis, Maryland, chamber filled with Continental Congress delegates to resign his military commission as Commander in Chief. This public address not only signaled the end of his military service, a position he had held since 1775, but announced his desire to return as a private citizen to his home at Mount Vernon.

It is my belief that at this moment, George Washington revealed the essence of his unparalleled legacy of leadership.

When he arrived in Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress (May 9, 1775), his reputation from service in the French and Indian War landed him on several committees to determine the Colonies’ military preparedness. Early on, he designed a buff-and-blue uniform, which he wore throughout his time in Philadelphia. A curious act, which undoubtedly spoke volumes, as he stood at 6’3” tall, head and shoulders above the average man in the room. Visually, who better to unify the disparate Colonies to a common cause of independence?

While we don’t know whether Washington actively sought the post of leading the Continental Army through this crisis, I would suggest that effective leaders recognize duty and destiny.

We are privy to his thoughts toward his appointment in a letter written to his wife, Martha:

“It has been determined in Congress that the whole Army raised for the defence [sic] of the American Cause shall be put under my care, and that it is necessary for me to proceed immediately to Boston to take upon me the command of it. You may believe me my dear Patcy, when I assure you, in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the Family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my Capacity…But, as it has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this Service, I shall hope that my undertaking of it, is designed to answer some good purpose…”[1]

Eight long years of battle saw Washington suffer defeats; risk dangerous campaigns; tirelessly advocate for necessary funding; and even after the British surrender at Yorktown, quell a revolt by soldiers in Newburgh. It is no wonder, then, that he emotionally delivered his address, ending with “Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of action, and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body, under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”[2]Making his bows and farewells, he rode home to Mount Vernon for Christmas.

Since that moment, this action has resonated with Americans as a testament to Washington’s republican ideals, willingly surrendering his military power back to the civilian government that appointed him. Not only Americans, but authorities around the world would marvel at this act. King George III reportedly claimed, “If [Washington] does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”[3] It is understandable, then, that Washington was viewed by his contemporaries as the American Cincinnatus, likened to the Roman hero who, after fighting for his countrymen, returned to his farm. Therefore, I would also suggest, effective leaders do not obstinately cling to power.

It is with great irony that in resigning his commission in 1783, he gained immense respect from the American people. So much so, that it led him to come out of retirement and back onto the public stage of service, presiding over the Constitutional Convention in 1787. As we know, following ratification of the Constitution, George Washington was unanimously elected first President of the United States. After fulfilling his duty and destiny a second time by serving two presidential terms, it is unsurprising that he did not obstinately cling to governmental power, but for generations to come, set an indelible example of what it means to be an effective leader.

Cheryl Marling has worked at George Washington’s Mount Vernon since 2009. Views expressed here belong to the author and not Mount Vernon. More information on George and Martha Washington is available at

Cheryl Marling

(Posted with permission by Gadsden1)


[1] George Washington to Martha Washington, June 18, 1775. This is one of two letters tucked away in a desk drawer and escaped destruction when Martha Washington burned her personal correspondence with the General following his death.

[2] “Address to Congress on Resigning his Commission,” The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 27, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1931-44), 284-285.

[3] Benjamin West quoted in Garry Willis, Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment (New York: Doubleday & Company, INC., 1984), 13.

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