–by Mimi Liebman, USCHS Intern

There are many paintings in the United States Capitol, but there is one that particularly grabs my attention. The painting is of George Washington resigning his commission as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and it is displayed in the Capitol Rotunda.

On December 23, 1783, Washington announced, “Having now finished the work assigned to me…I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.” George Washington recognized that his time in power was over and he did not try to hold onto it. This is different from Napoleon and Oliver Cromwell, who are two military leaders who then established dictatorships in France and England, respectively. After his resignation, George Washington went into retirement; however, it did not last long as he was called to serve as the president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Furthermore, once the Constitution was written, he was unanimously elected the first president of the United States. George Washington’s awareness of when he would no longer be an effective leader is seen twice- in this painting and when he chose not to run for a third term of office, as there was not yet a constitutional amendment in regard to this.

“General George Washington Resigning His Commission,” John Trumbull, 1824, Capitol Rotunda (Architect of the Capitol)

Something particularly interesting about the painting is that behind George Washington is an empty chair with a robe on it. According to the Architect of the Capitol’s website, it symbolizes Washington giving up his enormous amount of power. Washington voluntarily gave up his position and left the “throne” behind him. Washington understood the foundation that the United States was built upon, including the tyrannical behavior of the British monarchy that the new United States of America did not want to follow. He showed this when he chose to resign not once, but twice.

John Trumbull is the artist who created this painting. Besides this painting, three others in the Capitol Rotunda are painted by him. Trumbull served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Furthermore, he studied painting in London and Paris. When he came back to the United States he was appointed the President of the American Academy of Fine Arts. In this painting, he shows the character of George Washington and emphasizes the symbolism of George Washington resigning.

Sources consulted:

Maryland State Archives
Architect of the Capitol website
National Gallery of Art collection