Annapolis, Maryland

You can walk right up and look in through a side door. Doesn’t matter if you’re dressed casually or not. Doesn’t matter if you have decided to stop in at the last minute. Doesn’t matter if you haven’t paid for a ticket or arranged a tour with a guide.

No guide, no ticket, no tour. No matter.

You’ll want to see this place. It’s an old room in an old building. Right there, almost close enough to touch, American and world history was made.


In one of my favorite towns, Annapolis, Maryland, inside the nation’s oldest state capitol building, there is this room.

Two hundred thirty-two years ago, George Washington stood there and announced his retirement from the American military. He resigned as commander of the American army. He returned his formal commission to the Congress.

It was December 23, 1783, a Tuesday. Washington’s resignation was a voluntary surrender of power, the power Congress had first given him in 1775 and which he now handed back to them. He gave up the power he’d used for the eight years of the War of the American Revolution.

This was an astounding decision. The American public revered him. The American government respected him. The soldiers and sailors who comprised the military would have followed him anywhere. He could have used his power any way he wished, for good or ill, and none would have dared oppose him. And yet, Washington was done, ready to leave, back to his home and private life. He wanted to be home with his wife for Christmas.

How many times had it happened before that a significant leader of a popular movement had given up authority? None. Washington was the first. It was one of the most compelling and significant features of the American Revolution.

Had you and I been there in this room on that fateful Tuesday we would have heard Washington verge on crying. His voice cracked in delivering his brief resignation speech. He was overcome with emotion, his hands trembling, his breathing labored.

The members of Congress and guests who filled the room were equally emotional. Everyone knew that history had reached a critical juncture, that this would always be remembered as long as the United States was worth remembering.

The people there attended to the details. Washington bowed to those members of Congress present for the event. They did not bow in return, showing that they held owned the authority first given and now retrieved from Washington. Washington’s speech was short with no words on broader topics. He handed the presiding officer a sheet of paper; written on it was a declaration of his official position. The presiding officer of Congress—Thomas Mifflin—wrote and delivered a speech that signified the acceptance of Washington’s resignation and the piece of paper. These details weren’t trivial. They were links in a symbolic chain and the chain was the moment.

The place enhances the story. Simply designed and plainly furnished, the room’s modesty and intimacy stands in contrast against the enormity of what Washington did—and didn’t do—there. Strange to say but I’ve often found in much of American history that big events often occur in small places. You visit this room and your first and most lasting thought is: “it’s so much smaller than I expected….”

The physical space defined by the walls and floor stays the same. Within the space, though, great changes have erupted. Both the meaning of Washington’s actions and the passage of time since he did them have grown over the years. But as I think about it, this will only be true so long as what happened in this place is understood and embraced. When people have forgotten or decided that it isn’t important then this place will revert to what it is, another room.

Like Washington, you have power. Perhaps not written down, not clothed in a uniform, you still have power over a number of people. Your surrender of power may be retirement or resignation. It may be your removal or dismissal. It may even be the moment of death; that’s when you finally release the power that you possess.

At what place will your moment of surrender occur?