A modest, dignified hero

Much has been made of President Washington's refusal to serve more than two terms, setting a vital democratic precedent that no successor dared break until 1940. But equally important was General Washington's willingness to step down as military commander in 1783 when his popularity made it likely he could have seized power and cut short the fledgling democracy.

After overseeing the retaking of New York City from the evacuating British, Washington spent the end of 1783 trekking home to Virginia by coach and horseback, stopping at Annapolis, Md., where Congress was meeting, to resign his commission. (He would arrive promptly on Christmas Eve to greet Martha and his grandchildren.) But his "long farewell" trip was meant to do more than merely get him home, says Stanley Weintraub in "General Washington's Christmas Farewell."

"Recognizing that national unity was in danger of eroding as wartime national purpose diminished, Washington, always emphasizing the positive, was making his journey home for Christmas a campaign for cohesiveness as a nation," he writes. "Like a practiced actor making his final exit, he wanted to achieve a dramatic public gesture confirming that a workable society that did not depend upon generals existed in America."

As riders announced his arrival in each city or town, the grateful but weary procession became a series of parties, dinners, balls, fireworks, and proclamations. What emerges in this highly readable account is the zeitgeist of the embryonic nation, as patriots, loyalists, and the politically indifferent join to praise a modest, dignified hero.

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