Sunday, August 22, 2010

Why Washington?

The Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775, and by June 3 there appears to have been some general agreement among the delegates that the Continental Congress would have to undertake the creation of a Continental Army. However, it's was not until June 14 that the Congress' plans became public [cf. Towards a Continental Army]. Why was Congress slow to act on so important a measure?

Delegate John Adams recalled, in his memoirs, that “Every post brought me letters from my friends, Dr. Winthrop, Dr. Cooper, General James Warren, and sometimes from General Ward and his aids, and General Heath and many others, urging in pathetic terms the impossibility of keeping their men together without the assistance of Congress.”

The chief difficulty, it seems, was on deciding who should lead this new army. The Congress was determined to act only when a unanimous decision had been reached, and on weighty issues this occurred only after a good deal of discussion had taken place. According to Delegate Silas Deane, “ motion or resolution can be started or proposed but what must be subject to much canvassing...”

Three of the leading contenders for the position were Artemas Ward, Charles Lee, and George Washington.

In brief, Artemas Ward had served in the Massachusetts militia during the French and Indian War and now commanded the New England troops around Boston.

Charles Lee had the most military experience of any of the contenders. A recent immigrant to Virginia, he was a former British officer who fought in the French and Indian War, and then travelled to Europe and participated in the Russo-Turkish War, and the Spanish-Portuguese War.

George Washington served with distinction during the French and Indian War and rose to command a brigade of Virginia troops before the war's end. He had led more troops than the other contenders and was an important figure in a politically important colony.

John Adams went on to relate that there “was among the delegates, a Southern party against a Northern, and a jealousy against a New England army under the command of a New England General. Whether this jealousy was sincere, or whether it was mere pride and a haughty ambition of furnishing a southern General to command the northern army, (I cannot say); but the intention was very visible to me that Colonel Washington was their object, and so many of our staunchest men were in the plan, that we could carry nothing without conceding to it.”

In other words, Adams believed that it was necessary to support Washington in order to achieve a consensus. Nevertheless, it still took some time for a consensus to emerge. According to Adams:

“...the Massachusetts and other New England delegates were divided. Mr. Hancock and Mr. [Thomas] Cushing hung back; Mr. [Robert Treat] Paine did not come forward, and even Mr. Samuel Adams was irresolute. Mr. [John] Hancock himself had an ambition to be appointed commander-in-chief... In canvassing this subject, out of doors, I found too that even among the delegates of Virginia there were difficulties... In several conversations, I found more than one very cool about the appointment of Washington, and particularly Mr. [Edmund] Pendleton was very clear and full against it.”

Adams then sought to bring the matter to a resolution.

“I walked with Mr. Samuel Adams in the State House yard, for a little exercise and fresh air, before the hour of Congress, and there represented to him the various dangers that surrounded us. He agreed to them all, but said, "What shall we do?" I answered him, that... I was determined to take a step which should compel them and all the other members of Congress to declare themselves for or against something. "I am determined this morning to make a direct motion that Congress should adopt the army before Boston, and appoint Colonel Washington commander of it." Mr. Adams seemed to think very seriously of it, but said nothing.”

Adams then spoke in Congress and motioned “...that Congress would adopt the army at Cambridge [headquarters of the American army outside Boston], and appoint a General; that though this was not the proper time to nominate a General, yet, as I had reason to believe this was a point of the greatest difficulty, 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... Mr. Washington, who happened to sit near the door, as soon as he heard me allude to him, from his usual modesty, darted into the library-room. Mr. Hancock, — who was our President, which gave me an opportunity to observe his countenance while I was speaking on the state of the Colonies, the army at Cambridge, and the enemy,—heard me with visible pleasure; but when I came to describe Washington for the commander, I never remarked a more sudden and striking change of countenance. Mortification and resentment were expressed as forcibly as his face could exhibit them. Mr. Samuel Adams seconded the motion, and that did not soften the President's physiognomy at all. The subject came under debate, and several gentlemen declared themselves against the appointment of Mr. Washington, not on account of any personal objection against him, but because the army were all from New England, had a General of their own, appeared to be satisfied with him, and had proved themselves able to imprison the British army in Boston, which was all they expected or desired at that time... Mr. Paine expressed a great opinion of General Ward and a strong friendship for him, having been his classmate at college, or at least his contemporary; but gave no opinion upon the question. The subject was postponed to a future day. In the mean time, pains were taken out of doors to obtain a unanimity, and the voices were generally so clearly in favor of Washington, that the dissentient members were persuaded to withdraw their opposition, and Mr. Washington was nominated, I believe by Mr. Thomas Johnson of Maryland, unanimously elected, and the army adopted.”

Scene from the HBO Miniseries John Adams: John Adams is introduced to George Washington. Adams first met Washington at the First Continental Congress (September, 1774).

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