American Portraits

Establishing a Government of Laws, Not Men: George Washington’s Retirement and Responsibility

In this lesson, students will review George Washington’s actions in completing his service as Commander-in-Chief following the Revolutionary War, including his return of his military commission to the president of Congress.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Representative / Republican Government image

Representative / Republican Government

Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.


The Americans won the Revolutionary War in October 1781, with the victory at the Battle of Yorktown.

In November 1782, peace commissioners Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay negotiated a preliminary peace treaty with the British in Paris. In September 1783, the commissioners signed the final treaty, and the British Army in America evacuated when word arrived in November. America was now an independent country, but the Founders needed to establish what principles the country would be built upon….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

Why is it important for you to act responsibly as a United States citizen?

Virtue Defined

Responsibility is accountability to myself and others.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will review George Washington’s actions in completing his service as Commander-in-Chief following the Revolutionary War, including his return of his military commission to the president of Congress.


  • Students will analyze George Washington’s character as a leader and his actions of voluntarily surrendering power despite having the opportunity to hold onto it indefinitely.
  • Students will examine Washington’s understanding of responsibility as an American citizen.
  • Students will understand why acting responsibly affects the future of the United States.
  • Students will act responsibly in their own lives to protect freedom.


The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote, “It is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens: upon the same principle, if it is advantageous to place the supreme power in some particular persons, they should be appointed to be only guardians, and the servants of the laws.” He explained that rule by absolute power is unnatural and harmful as those who hold such power are likely to abuse it by depriving others of their rights. “Passion influences those who are in power…Law is reason without desire,” Aristotle explained. America’s Founders understood that this principle, known as the rule of law, was essential in a republic. When describing his objective in crafting the Massachusetts Constitution, John Adams stated that he hoped that the new government would “be a government of laws and not of men.”

George Washington possessed enormous power and popularity as the head of the American army during the Revolutionary War. However, he understood that the rule of law needed to be respected and demonstrated immense responsibility while holding his post.


  • Conspiracy
  • Indissoluble
  • Attributed
  • Military commission
  • Diffidence
  • Superseded
  • August
  • Precedent

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • In what ways did George Washington exercise responsibility to enhance life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for himself and others? What other virtues did Washington demonstrate?
  • What was George Washington’s identity during this time? How do you know that Washington understood the significance of his personal involvement in the establishment of the early republic?
  • George Washington was pleased when contemporaries compared him to Cincinnatus, a Roman farmer who was granted dictatorial powers to defeat invaders before retiring back to his home. In what ways did Washington’s story parallel that of Cincinnatus?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society and George Washington?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost him?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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