Historical Heroes: George Washington – Commander-in-Chief

George Washington is known for his military achievements but he served longer as a politician.
Home » Articles » Historical article » Historical Heroes: George Washington – Commander-in-Chief

George Washington – Commander-in-Chief

As he entered Philadelphia on May 9, 1775, to attend the American colonies’ Second Continental Congress, Washington brought his Virginia militia uniform and six copies of the British Army’s standard drill manual to help him train raw troops. Washington knew he would soon command Virginia’s military, and perhaps more. He was the only delegate with significant fighting experience and the leading soldier from the largest colony.

Washington later said he had felt the ‘utmost diffidence’ about commanding American forces, because ‘the situation required greater abilities and more experience than I possessed to conduct a great military machine.’ He knew that machine would be ‘little more than a mere chaos’ confronting Britain’s huge resources:

[H]er fleets covered the ocean, and . . . her troops had harvested laurels in every quarter of the globe . . . We had no preparation. Money, the nerve of war, was wanting. The sword of war was to be forged on the anvil of necessity. 

To prevail, Washington wrote, Americans would rely on ‘the unconquerable resolution of our citizens, the conscious rectitude of our cause, and a confident trust that we should not be forsaken by heaven.’ Soldiers, he well knew, generally preferred more tangible advantages. On May 10, anxious delegates convened in the Pennsylvania State House. The fighting at Lexington and Concord shadowed their sessions with a dark foreboding and welded them together. The bloodshed in Massachusetts, Richard Henry Lee wrote, ‘excited such universal resentment against this savage ministry and their detestable agents,’ that ‘[t]here never appeared more perfect unanimity among any set of men.’ Events loomed so large, a Connecticut delegate confided to his wife, ‘[that] I tremble when I think of their vast importance.’

As Congress turned to business, Washington spent evenings and early mornings chairing four different committees on military matters, always wearing his militia uniform. Even prickly John Adams found that ‘by his great experience and ability in military matters [Washington] is of much service to us.’

Washington as a young man.

The image of Washington in full uniform, striding the streets and attending congressional sessions, carries the strong whiff of a man intent on high command. Possibly he wore the uniform to show his commitment to the cause, although the image calls to mind the guest who arrives with a guitar slung over one shoulder, hoping that someone will ask for a song. Yet no delegate seems to have found the uniformed Washington ridiculous. Despite statements about how unworthy he felt for command, he pursued command avidly.

Washington’s first committee responsibilities ranged from which parts of New York should be fortified to the essential matter of securing adequate gunpowder supplies to fight the British. The congressional debates might have alarmed an aspiring commander.

A legislative body with sixty-five members and little military experience was a poor place to resolve tactical decisions, but there was little alternative. No other continent-wide authority existed in America. The delegates’ micromanagement was the beginning of their education on how to oversee a war. Most of them had experience reviewing budgets and revenues, enacting laws, and drafting addresses to the king or Parliament. They were adept at arguing over tone, commas, and clauses. Now their duties were far more grave, carrying immediate life-and-death consequences for their neighbours. Congress drafted ‘an humble and dutiful petition’ to George III, almost out of habit, but war was the reality. A resolution in late May acknowledged that hostilities had begun and directed that ‘these colonies be immediately put into a state of defence.’ Congress was, as a Pennsylvanian said, ‘preparing for the worst that can happen, viz., a civil war.’

The session unfolded like a Shakespeare history play, with messengers dashing in with news of offstage conflicts that required immediate attention. One day they learned that patriots had seized Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York; on another day, that a British agent was arrested in Philadelphia harbour.

Washington expected war. Thousands of armed Americans formed an impromptu army that ringed Boston, trapping General Thomas Gage’s troops there. Washington called it ‘unhappy’ that the ‘plains of America are either to be drenched with blood, or Inhabited by slaves.’ But regret would not stay his hand. ‘[C]an a virtuous Man,’ he asked, ‘hesitate in his choice?’

By mid-June, the Massachusetts convention asked Congress to assume control of the armed men ringing Boston. Many feared invasion from Canada. Delegates authorised companies of riflemen from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia to reinforce the Boston siege. Someone had to lead this force, defending nearly 2,000 miles of coastline against the world’s dominant sea power and opposing the army that recently vanquished the French around the globe. The rebellion’s fate rested upon who Congress chose.

Writing thirty years later, John Adams took credit for Washington’s appointment as commander in chief. Adams moved that Congress adopt the army in Massachusetts and appoint a general. ‘I had no hesitation,’ he recalled, ‘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.’ At that point, according to Adams, Washington ‘from his usual modesty darted into the library room.’ The Virginian had no wish to be present during a discussion of his merits and demerits. Some worried that a New England army might resent a leader from the South, and praised General Ward. Others thought only a Southern general could unify all thirteen colonies against the British. The vote was postponed for a day.

Although some harboured doubts about Washington, each of the leading alternatives had disqualifying characteristics. Ward was a local judge and political figure, but his military experience consisted of garrison duty. He had never witnessed a battle, much less fought in one.

Charles Lee, a former British officer who hovered around Congress while drilling local volunteers, had seen broad action during the French and Indian War. Usually quarrelsome, he then served with the Portuguese and Polish armies before returning to America. Lee was a gifted pamphleteer and a sharp critic of George III and his ministers, but also was endlessly peculiar: painfully thin, slovenly, and described by one biographer as having ‘a nose so startling and so impressive that it won for him . . . the sobriquet “Naso.”’  His dogs, a pack, followed him everywhere. Even John Adams, who liked Lee, could only shrug at his eccentricities: ‘[Y]ou must love his dogs if you love him, and forgive a thousand whims.’ Lee, neither born nor raised in America, seemed an unsteady character.

With Washington, steadiness was a hallmark. ‘He seems discreet and virtuous,’ a Connecticut delegate wrote, ‘no harum scarum ranting swearing fellow but sober, steady, and calm.’ A Massachusetts man summed Washington up as ‘a complete gentleman. He is sensible, amiable, virtuous, modest, and brave.’

It was not really a contest. The delegates knew Washington. They had served in this Congress and the one before, and had seen his committees wrestle with intractable problems. They knew his dignity and self-possession. He spoke no more than necessary. He did not dazzle, but he won trust. Moreover, Washington had a military reputation, even if a mixed one. Lee looked odd and talked too much, and he had those dogs.

Finally, the politics were right. New England was already at war, invaded by foreign troops; if Virginia supported New England, other colonies would, too. Giving command to a Virginian recognised that colony’s importance. The man in their chamber wearing a militia uniform would be their commander. Like the best-planned battles, this one was over before it began. Only Washington would do. Washington stayed away from Congress on June 15, unwilling to be present for his selection.  By making his selection unanimous, the delegates showed their unity.

Knowing that his words would be remembered, Washington asked a leading Virginia lawyer to help draft remarks for the next day. In a few words, Washington acknowledged the high honour given him, adding that ‘my abilities and military experience may not be equal to the extensive and important trust.’ He pledged to ‘exert every power I possess . . . for support of the glorious cause.’ Should his reputation be damaged by ‘some unlucky event,’ he asked that the delegates remember that ‘I do not think myself equal to the command.’ Congress had approved pay of $500, but Washington declined it. He asked only to be reimbursed for his expenses.

Washington’s declaration of his inadequacy might seem insincere. If he so doubted himself, why did he so unmistakably seek command, wearing that militia uniform day after day? Yet Washington’s message was well-matched to his audience. In an age of vainglory, of kings and emperors, he was modest. Americans who resented overbearing British aristocrats would find no arrogance in Washington’s statements. He spoke as an honest man would speak to friends, confessing his fears and hopes. And then, in stark contrast to the corruption and self-dealing of the British imperial system, he refused to be paid.

As to the sincerity of Washington’s self-doubts, Washington understood the difficulty of the job he was accepting. Failure, as Washington wrote after the war, would ‘have consigned the neck of the American general . . . to the block.’  Moreover, Washington had only once commanded more than a few hundred soldiers. The patriot effort involved immense supply and recruitment problems and was an organisational shambles. The challenges would have sobered anyone.

Three days after accepting the generalship, Washington wrote that he had ‘embarked on a tempestuous ocean from whence perhaps no friendly harbor is to be found.’ Claiming he had hoped to avoid the position, which was not true, he pledged to bring three qualities to his duties: ‘a firm belief of the justice of our Cause–close attention in the prosecution of it–and the strictest Integrity.’

The day before, Washington had sent news of his appointment to his wife, Martha, with his ‘inexpressible concern’ that it would make her unhappy.  Describing his appointment as ‘a kind of destiny,’ he protested that he could not refuse it without ‘reflect[ing] dishonor upon myself,’ which ‘could not . . . be pleasing to you, and must have lessened me considerably in my own esteem.’  He included a tender passage:

I should enjoy more real happiness and felicity in one month with you, at home, than I have the most distant prospect of reaping abroad, if my stay was to be seven times seven years.

Powerful forces within Washington made him a near-perfect figure to carry America’s cause forward.  His boyhood dreams of military glory were now essential to America’s future, which would be won by fighting, not debating. His hard-learned political skills would serve as the nation’s essential balance wheel for the next two decades. Most important, those skills were yoked to his fundamental decency and high moral purpose of securing liberty.

To steer this audacious American movement past the dangers of mob rule at one extreme and strongman rule at the other would require astonishing luck, unrivalled fortitude and vision, and unusual political acumen that produced steady, measured judgments. Washington’s public career would become an excruciating balancing act, translating the passion and idealism of rebellion into a military victory and then into a working government that still respected the revolution’s ideals. Revolutions are combustible things; they rarely lead to the destination proclaimed at their outset.  Few people in human history had, or ever would have, the opportunity Washington held in his hands. Fewer still could take advantage of that opportunity with such mastery.

David O. Stewart is a writer and historian and author of George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father which is out in paperback now. You can hear the Editor’s chat with David about George Washington on the Aspects of History podcast.

George Washington – Commander-in-Chief

George Washington – Commander-in-Chief George Washington – Commander-in-Chief George Washington – Commander-in-Chief George Washington – Commander-in-Chief