Julius Caesar, Henry V, Oliver Cromwell: each of them used their military success, and the military forces with which they brought their victories, to attain supreme political power. Once their military victories were achieved they donned the mantle of dictator. Such was the way things were done for most of history, and would be done again after the event depicted here (Napoleon most famously only a few decades later).
But George Washington broke that mould. After fighting off the British to establish, for the first time in history, a nation of free people, Washington tendered his resignation to the Congress – surrendering whatever ambitions to absolute power a lesser man might have harboured and, like Cincinnatus of legend, returned once more to the plough.
Painter John Trumbull, who worked as Washington’s aide-de-camp during the War, considered this resignation “one of the highest moral lessons ever given to the World.” Years later he painted the scene in tribute.
The Seattle Art Museum has an interactive website bizzo giving a whole lot more information on the historical content of this piece. [Hat tip Scott Powell of Powell History]