George Washington: Commander-in-Chief

The decision to select George Washington as commander of the Continental Army would be one of momentous consequence, not only for the future of the American struggle for independence, but for the very future of America as a unified nation. Washington, forty-three years old at the time and a colonel in the Fairfax County, Virginia militia, was the only man in America who could claim to have a military reputation that went beyond not merely the borders of a single colony, but, indeed, all the way across the Atlantic. During the French and Indian War, first as a lieutenant colonel and then a commander of the Virginia militia, he had proved himself a leader of uncommon bravery and coolness under fire. Although the battles in which he was engaged just as often ended in defeat as in victory, Washington always managed to come away from them with his reputation enhanced. In one of those engagements, a battle with the French near Fort Duquesne in the Ohio Country in 1754, he recorded his impression: “I heard Bullets whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound.” That observation, which circulated widely both in America and abroad, caused even King George II to take notice of the brave and self-confident American.
When on May 4, 1775 Washington set out for Philadelphia in his impressive chariot, guided by a coachman and a postilion (and accompanied once again by his servant Billy Lee), he had already heard news of the Battles of Lexington and Concord—he knew that America—or at least Massachusetts—was now at war. Washington had packed the blue and buff uniform of the Fairfax County, Virginia militia in his luggage, and beginning sometime in late May he began to wear the uniform to sessions of the Congress. Truly, had any other delegate to the Congress—a civilian body—turned up in full dress military uniform, his fellow delegates would have regarded it as not a merely inappropriate, but a pathetic attempt to electioneer among the delegates for the appointment of commander of a continental army that had not even yet been created. But Washington? He no doubt appeared to the delegates as entirely in character—possessing what Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush described as “so much martial dignity in his deportment that you would distinguish him to be a general and a soldier from among ten thousand people.”

During the month between its opening session on May 10 and June 15, as the Congress transformed itself from a debating society concerned primarily with defining the limits of British power to a wartime legislature, Washington began to play a much more active role in the Congress’s business. Though he continued to remain relatively silent as a speaker in the Congress, his military experience made him an invaluable member of a large number of committees charged with the task of mobilizing American defenses.

Much has been written about the behind-the-scenes politicking that led up to the decision to select Washington as commander of the army. That there is still a perception—or misperception—that Washington faced significant competition for the post of commander of the Continental Army can be credited (or blamed) on the always voluble John Adams, who went to great lengths in his own recollections to put himself at the center of the decision-making process. If we are to believe Adams, the selection of Washington was not only not inevitable, but unlikely, and indeed, that the ultimate outcome of the decision to select Washington owed largely to Adams’s efforts.

As John Adams recollected the events of the days leading up to Washington’s selection, the effort to have Washington appointed to the post began a few days before June 15 while he and his cousin Sam were walking in the State House Yard. As they walked John unloaded all of his worries about the dire state of affairs upon his cousin, and then informed him that he intended that day to stand up in the Congress and propose the creation of a continental army with Colonel Washington in command. But, Adams further recalled, there was considerable sentiment in the Congress for appointing someone from New England to the post, for, after all, that region was bearing the brunt of the fighting. Adams also claimed that there were many delegates, both from Virginia and elsewhere, who opposed Washington’s appointment on other grounds.

The most likely candidate from New England was Artemus Ward, who had been serving admirably as commander in chief of the Massachusetts militiamen currently fighting the British in Boston. Another candidate was a Virginian, the forty-four-year-old Charles Lee. Born in England, he had spent nearly his entire adult life as a professional soldier, or, more accurately, as a soldier of fortune. He had fought for the British army in the French and Indian War in America and had a brief stint in Portugal, but he had also fought for both the Polish and Russian armies in such faraway places as Poland and Turkey. He returned to the American colonies in 1773 and in early 1775 settled in Berkeley County, in the northwestern portion of Virginia, in what is today West Virginia. Upon hearing of the conflict at Lexington and Concord, Lee rushed to the Bay Colony to offer his services, immediately demonstrating his abilities as a brave and experienced officer.

Although Horatio Gates’ military career was perhaps not as colorful as that of Charles Lee, in other respects their lives went down similar paths. Gates had also lived most of his life in England and like Lee, had fought valiantly in the French and Indian War wearing the British uniform. In the early 1770s, realizing that his upward advancement in the British army was being thwarted by his lack of sufficiently prestigious connections, he moved to America, and, like Lee, settled in Berkeley County. In the aftermath of Lexington and Concord, he too volunteered his services to the American cause, and, owing in part to a warm recommendation from George Washington, who had come to know him during the French and Indian War, established himself as an invaluable officer in the military conflict that was escalating in Massachusetts.

Finally, there was the president of the Congress, John Hancock, who, though his actual military experience was nonexistent, fancied himself a natural leader more than capable of carrying out the tasks of commander in chief. In his autobiography, John Adams expressed some doubt as to whether Hancock would actually have accepted the appointment had he been offered it, but he left no doubt that Hancock wished to be offered the appointment, if only “to have the honor of declining it.”

Adams was convinced that it was his championing of Washington, overcoming the objections of the New Englanders and even those of a few of Washington’s fellow Virginians, that swung the balance toward Washington. In his account:

“I rose in my place and in as short a Speech as the Subject would admit, represented the State of the Colonies, the Uncertainty in the Minds of the People, their great Expectations and Anxiety, the distresses of the Army, the danger of its dissolution, the difficulty of collecting another, and the probability that the British Army would take Advantage of our delays, march our of Boston, and spread desolation as far as they could go. I concluded with a Motion<el>that Congress would Adopt the Army at Cambridge and appoint a General [and] that though this was not the proper time to nominate a General, yet I had reason to believe this was a point of the greatest difficulty, [and] I had no hesitation to declare that I had but one Gentleman in my Mind for that important command, and that was a Gentleman from Virginia who was among Us, and very well known to all of Us, a Gentleman whose Skill and Experience as an Officer , whose independent fortune, great Talents, and excellent universal Character would command the Approbation of All America and unite the cordial Exertions of all the Colonies better than any other person in the Union.”

Adams went on to recollect that at that point, Washington, hearing his name mentioned, discreetly slipped out of his seat in the Virginia delegation and “darted into the Library Room” in order to allow the debate to proceed freely without his presence. John Hancock’s reaction, according to Adams, was quite different: “Mortification and resentment were expressed as forcibly as his Face could exhibit them.” Adams then reported that an extensive, even acrimonious debate followed. It was only after extensive consultations “out of doors,” that those dissenting from Washington’s appointment withdrew their opposition. At that point, Thomas Johnson of Maryland formally nominated Washington, after which the Virginian was unanimously elected. The only portion of Adams’s recollection substantiated by other accounts is the last: Thomas Johnson did indeed nominate Washington, and the Virginia colonel was indeed then unanimously elected.

If one pieces together the other accounts of the maneuverings behind Washington’s appointment, the picture that emerges is of a decision that was less acrimonious than the one described by John Adams and certainly less dependent on Adams’s politicking. While it is true that some of the New Englanders favored the appointment of Artemus Ward, they were also aware that Ward’s health was in a very precarious state. They were certainly open to other candidates, though they may have continued to prefer an individual from their own region. Other New Englanders, however, realized that the appointment of someone from outside their region would help counter the still-prevalent feeling that the actions of Massachusetts alone had gotten the American colonies into the fix they were in in the first place. And though there was support in some quarters for the appointment of Charles Lee, the fact that Lee had not been born in America and seemed willing to fight for anyone who would pay him appeared to some a disadvantage.

Whatever maneuvering there may have actually been surrounding Washington’s appointment, the delegates’ reaction to the Congress’s decision was uniformly positive. Silas Deane, writing to his wife on the day of Washington’s appointment, was unrestrained in his praise of the new commander: “Our youth look up to THIS Man as a pattern to form themselves by, who Unites the bravery of the Soldier, with the most consummate Modesty & Virtue.” Connecticut’s Eliphalet Dyer, who was one of those who not only wished to slow the progress toward independence but also would have preferred “one of our own” (which is to say a northerner) as commanding general, nevertheless acknowledged that Washington was “discreet & Virtuous” and “Sober, steady, and Calm.” And Robert Treat Paine, writing to break the news to Artemus Ward, whom he had favored for the post, assured Ward that Washington was “heroic &amiable,” and, as a bit of consolation, notified Ward that he had been appointed second in command.

This sense of Washington as a man who somehow stood—literally and symbolically— above all the rest, had begun to take shape among the delegates from nearly the first day they encountered him during the First Continental Congress. The delegates immediately began to repeat the story—possibly apocryphal—that Washington had, in the weeks following passage of the Coercive Acts, volunteered to raise and support an army of 10,000 men at his own expense and march them to Boston for the defense of the people there. And although there is no record of his ever having given a significant speech in either the First or Second Continental Congresses, he had earned a reputation as a man whose actions spoke louder than words; he had supported all of the boldest recommendations in the two congresses and his influence on other delegates out of doors—in the informal meetings of delegates in the taverns and private homes of Philadelphia—was almost certainly profound.
Washington never revealed whether he wanted the job. There were certainly reasons why he wouldn’t have, among them his pride of ownership of his highly successful plantation of over 8,000 acres looking majestically over the Potomac River. Although he had more than 100 slaves helping him with the cultivation of wheat and tobacco, the raising of livestock and running a small fishing enterprise, the task of keeping all of the many parts of his self-contained empire at his beloved Mount Vernon was time-consuming, and, according to Washington, immensely satisfying. Indeed, one of the most striking characteristics of nearly all of the Washington’s letters back home during the many years when he found himself away from Mount Vernon is the extent to which they focus on every detail of the operations of his plantation, from the amount of manure to be used in fertilizing his crops to the precise placement of fences on the property.

John Adams’s recollection that Washington immediately absented himself from the Assembly Room of the Pennsylvania State House when the delegates began to discuss the matter of the commander of the army is probably accurate, for Washington, in one of his very few comments at the time of his appointment, made it clear that he had never desired the position nor made any effort in his behalf to obtain it. In letters both to his wife, Martha, and to his Virginia neighbor Burwell Bassett, he insisted that the appointment was “an honour I by no means aspired to.” Indeed, he claimed it was “an honour I wished to avoid,” both because of his “unwillingness to quit the peaceful enjoyment of my Family [and] from a through conviction of my own Incapacity & want of Experience in the conduct of so momentous a concern.” He went even further in a comment he apparently made to Patrick Henry, in which he asked his fellow Virginia delegate to “Remember what I now tell you: from the day I enter upon the command of the American armies, I date my fall and the ruin of my reputation.”

Washington persisted in these expressions of humility in his acceptance speech to the Congress, a speech in which at the same time he expressed his gratitude at the “high honour” accorded him, he confessed his “great distress, from a consciousness that my abilities and military experience may not be equal to the extensive and important Trust.” Washington would repeat a version of this self-deprecation in virtually every important address he would give from that time forward—in countless speeches to gatherings of his officers over the course of the war, in his speech accepting the post of President of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and in both his First and Second Presidential Inaugural Addresses. At some point in his career, Washington’s consistent displays of humility assumed a ritualistic quality, an expected part of the behavior of a man whose reputation for selfless virtue and unquestioned integrity was known by all. But on this occasion, Washington’s first decisive moment on the continental stage, it was probably all the more heartfelt, and, therefore, all the more impressive to those who heard him speak.

The Main Players

The Turning Point

The British Respond and
Benjamin Franklin Pays the Price

George Washington: Commander-in-Chief

America’s Declaration of Independence
Goes Public

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