TOPICS: Editors in the Field, Editor’s Perspective, George Washington, Movies, Television & Entertainment, Revolutionary War
by Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
January 19, 2018
On December 4, 1783, an emotional George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental army, stood before his officers in the Long Room of Fraunces Tavern in New York. The Revolutionary War had ended three months earlier, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, and the United States was an independent nation. On November 25, the remaining British troops had evacuated the last occupied city—New York. At the tavern, fighting back emotions, Washington broke the heavy silence with the raise of his wine glass. “With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you,” Washington toasted, as his eyes scanned the room. “I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable. I cannot come to each of you but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.”1 And with that, the General stepped back and waited for his men to approach him.
This scene was recreated at Fraunces Tavern on December 3, 2017—but with a few notable differences. Instead of officers, an eager crowd of all ages listened intently and posed questions after the re-enactments of the famous toast. With the benefit of many years of hindsight, these audience members, unlike the officers, knew that the American Revolution successfully led to a strong independent republic. And with this modern scene came a contemporary General Washington in the form of Ian Kahn, who played Washington on the television series Turn: Washington’s Spies. Kahn and Daniel Shippey, Washington scholar and Kahn’s historical adviser, took turns giving the toast as Washington throughout the day.2
According to Jessica Phillips, executive director of Fraunces Tavern Museum, the museum presented the re-enactment of Washington’s Farewell Toast in an effort to make both the General and the building famous for his visit more accessible to the public. The performances caused some audience members to dig a little deeper. “Many people asked me why the re-enactors shortened the farewell or whether that was the complete version,” said Phillips. “Dan and Ian did the entirety of the farewell. It was wonderful to have so many people learn the brevity of this speech. It gives more access to Washington as a politician and military leader.” The event also challenged a common American myth—that the battle of Yorktown officially ended the Revolutionary War.3
Meeting the General and experiencing his delivery of the toast was undoubtedly the most thrilling moment of the event. Ian Kahn and Daniel Shippey confidently stepped into and filled Washington’s boots. Kahn, who portrayed General Washington on Turn from 2014 to 2017, reprised his role as the commander in chief of the Continental army for the event. The television show’s four-season run ended with the Americans’ victory at Yorktown in 1781, more than two years before the farewell. “Having not had the chance to do this moment on Turn, it was a combination of the actor and the character coming together,” Kahn explained. Kahn acknowledged that some of his supporters had traveled hours from across the country to meet him, adding, “To be able to express my own personal gratitude for the journey [of playing Washington on Turn], while not nearly as heroic or important as what General Washington did … was life changing—to have the opportunity to express gratitude to the fans who were packed into the Long Room. They were looking so happily and expectantly toward General Washington in this moment; it was an opportunity to say thank you and shake each of their hands. It was a very special and unique experience that I’m glad I got to do.”
According to Kahn, one of his favorite moments at the event involved Dean Malissa, Mount Vernon’s official George Washington historical interpreter. “I am a huge fan of his, both personally and professionally,” said Kahn. “To see him in the room [during the toast] was in some ways the biggest thrill of the day for me. I really felt it was like General Washington was between the two of us, and I was expressing my gratitude to General Washington as well because it was my farewell to the General as much as anything else.”
The event was so popular that it sold out quickly, compelling Kahn to offer a special performance at the end of the day, just for his friends and family, including his wife, mother, and children. “Turning around and seeing my two sons in the audience was one of the most overwhelming feelings of my entire life,” said Kahn.
The most important moment for Kahn occurred while he greeted each and every member of that special audience as Washington. As he shook hands with his historical adviser Daniel Shippey, who stood in as one of the officers to whom Washington was toasting, Kahn “realized in that moment that this is just about thanking Dan….He is the officer and has been at my side through this whole thing [portraying Washington on Turn], and I can never thank him enough. And that is one of the great memories of my life.”
Daniel Shippey, who also portrayed George Washington that day at Fraunces Tavern, has spent much of the last decade studying and portraying Washington for The Breed’s Hill Institute. Located in Orange, Ca., The Breed’s Hill Institute is an organization of historical interpreters and living historians who offer a wide variety of educational programs. “I cannot put [the General’s uniform] on without feeling the weight of responsibility to do the man justice,” said Shippey. “The man was human and flawed, but he was also a great man. People have expectations when they encounter him, and it’s always my hope to exceed those expectations and help them see him as human while also allowing them to see what made him great.” A young boy confirmed that Shippey’s portrayal was right on target at the meet-and-greet session. Shippey recalled of the autistic child, “As he approached, I believe it was his mother who said that I (General Washington) was his favorite person. I told him it was a great honor to meet him. As we stood for a picture, he took hold of my hand awkwardly, informally, and wonderfully, without any ego or self-consciousness, and gripped it so throughout the picture….I was never more proud to be the General.”
The opportunity to portray George Washington at the location of the original event was “a deeply humbling experience,” said Shippey. He conjured up the emotional weight of the event by recalling what the General and his officers had experienced throughout the war. “I think Washington believed that he was seeing many if not most of these men for the last time,” explained Shippey. “After eight years of constant war, these were the ones who stayed, the ones who endured and survived. He had come to love these men that were his military family, and now that was ending. I think Washington saw the faces around him clearly with great thankfulness, but he also saw the faces of those that were missing with a great sense of loss. The things these men had witnessed together were beyond words, and they all knew it.”
The modern-day audience felt this profound depth behind the words of the farewell toast. Shawna Abston, attendee and Washington enthusiast, revealed that for her, the toast was “full of unspoken but palpable emotion that made it easy to sympathize with how the officers felt while their beloved General was bidding goodbye to his military family.” Col. Benjamin Tallmadge described the original toast in similar terms: “Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I had never before witnessed and fondly hope I may never be called to witness again.” He continued, “the time of separation had come, and waiving his hand to his grieving children around him, he [General Washington] left the room.”4
At the conclusion of the day’s performances, Kahn invited his family and friends to retreat to the tavern’s dining room and loosely recreate Washington’s farewell dinner. There, he offered his own moving toast, thanking each individual for support and assistance during his tenure as General Washington on Turn. Kahn’s gratitude was returned with equal levels of appreciation from his team of “officers.” Once again, the scene echoed that of 1783, when the original George Washington had also recognized that it was time to retire from his position. As one contemporary newspaper reported, “His Excellency General Washington…set out on his return towards his own estate in Virginia, where, if the prayers of a grateful people are granted, he will long enjoy the blessings of peace, which they, thro’ his means have obtained.”5 Little did the future President Washington—or anyone else—anticipate how short-lived his retirement would be.
Ian Kahn and Daniel Shippey would like to thank the staff of Fraunces Tavern for their support and efforts, especially Executive Director Jessica Phillips, Marketing Coordinator Amy Kennard, and the Generals’ assistants for the day, Events Coordinator Mary Tsaltas, and Museum Services and Events Associate Megan Anderson. They would also like to thank the Sons of the American RevolutionSM in the State of New York, Inc.
The author would like to thank Fraunces Tavern Museum for providing the Washington Papers with planning assistance and event access, particularly Marketing Coordinator Amy Kennard, Executive Director Jessica Phillips, and the museum’s knowledgeable and kind staff and volunteers. For more information on Fraunces Tavern Museum, visit their website. Many thanks to Ian Kahn, General Washington on AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies, and Daniel Shippey, CEO and founder of The Breed’s Hill Institute for the generous contributions of their time and knowledge for interviews and photographs. Thank you, Ian, for the invitation to the event and dinner. Finally, a special thanks is owed to Kelly Lucas Shippey for her assistance and support.
- The best-known account of the event can be found in the Memoirs of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, p.63-64. The original manuscript resides in the collection of Fraunces Tavern Museum.
- Fraunces Tavern Museum has offered the Farewell Toast re-enactment in previous years using a different actor.
- For more information on the events between the battle of Yorktown and the signing of the Treaty of Paris, click here. The full story of events can be found in William M. Fowler Jr.’s American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783.
- Memoirs of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, p. 64.
- The Independent New-York Gazette, Dec. 6, 1783.