Life of George Washington

He had not sailed far when he met Ethan Allen and the bateaux. Salutes were
exchanged; cannon on one side, musketry on the other. Allen boarded the
sloop; learnt from Arnold the particulars of his success, and determined to
push on, take possession of St. John’s, and garrison it with one hundred of
his Green Mountain Boys. He was foiled in the attempt by the superior force
which had arrived; so he returned to his station at Ticonderoga.

Thus a partisan band, unpractised in the art of war, had, by a series of
daring exploits, and almost without the loss of a man, won for the patriots
the command of Lakes George and Champlain, and thrown open the great
highway to Canada.



The second General Congress assembled at Philadelphia on the 10th of May.
Peyton Randolph was again elected as president; but being obliged to
return, and occupy his place as speaker of the Virginia Assembly, John
Hancock, of Massachusetts, was elevated to the chair.

A lingering feeling of attachment to the mother country, struggling with
the growing spirit of self-government, was manifested in the proceedings of
this remarkable body. Many of those most active in vindicating colonial
rights, and Washington among the number, still indulged the hope of an
eventual reconciliation, while few entertained, or, at least, avowed the
idea of complete independence.

A second “humble and dutiful” petition to the king was moved, but met with
strong opposition. John Adams condemned it as an imbecile measure,
calculated to embarrass the proceedings of Congress. He was for prompt and
vigorous action. Other members concurred with him. Indeed, the measure
itself seemed but a mere form, intended to reconcile the half-scrupulous;
for subsequently, when it was carried, Congress, in face of it, went on to
assume and exercise the powers of a sovereign authority. A federal union
was formed, leaving to each colony the right of regulating its internal
affairs according to its own individual constitution, but vesting in
Congress the power of making peace or war; of entering into treaties and
alliances; of regulating general commerce; in a word, of legislating on all
such matters as regarded the security and welfare of the whole community.

The executive power was to be vested in a council of twelve, chosen by
Congress from among its own members, and to hold office for a limited time.
Such colonies as had not sent delegates to Congress, might yet become
members of the confederacy by agreeing to its conditions. Georgia, which
had hitherto hesitated, soon joined the league, which thus extended from
Nova Scotia to Florida.

Congress lost no time in exercising their federated powers. In virtue of
them, they ordered the enlistment of troops, the construction of forts in
various parts of the colonies, the provision of arms, ammunition, and
military stores; while to defray the expense of these, and other measures,
avowedly of self-defence, they authorized the emission of notes to the
amount of three millions of dollars, bearing the inscription of “The United
Colonies;” the faith of the confederacy being pledged for their redemption.

A retaliating decree was passed, prohibiting all supplies of provisions to
the British fisheries; and another, declaring the province of Massachusetts
Bay absolved from its compact with the crown, by the violation of its
charter; and recommending it to form an internal government for itself.

The public sense of Washington’s military talents and experience, was
evinced in his being chairman of all the committees appointed for military
affairs. Most of the rules and regulations for the army, and the measures
for defence, were devised by him.

The situation of the New England army, actually besieging Boston, became an
early and absorbing consideration. It was without munitions of war, without
arms, clothing, or pay; in fact, without legislative countenance or
encouragement. Unless sanctioned and assisted by Congress, there was danger
of its dissolution. If dissolved, how could another be collected? If
dissolved, what would there be to prevent the British from sallying out of
Boston, and spreading desolation throughout the country?

All this was the subject of much discussion out of doors. The disposition
to uphold the army was general; but the difficult question was, who should
be commander-in-chief? Adams, in his diary, gives us glimpses of the
conflict of opinions and interests within doors. There was a southern
party, he said, which could not brook the idea of a New England army,
commanded by a New England general. “Whether this jealousy was sincere,”
writes he, “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 stanchest men were in the plan, that we could
carry nothing without conceding to it. There was another embarrassment,
which was never publicly known, and which was carefully concealed by those
who knew it: the Massachusetts and other New England delegates were
divided. Mr. Hancock and Mr. Cushing hung back; Mr. Paine did not come
forward, and even Mr. Samuel Adams was irresolute. Mr. Hancock himself had
an ambition to be appointed commander-in-chief. Whether he thought an
election a compliment due to him, and intended to have the honor of
declining it, or whether he would have accepted it, I know not. To the
compliment, he had some pretensions; for, at that time, his exertions,
sacrifices, and general merits in the cause of his country, had been
incomparably greater than those of Colonel Washington. But the delicacy of
his health, and his entire want of experience in actual service, though an
excellent militia officer, were decisive objections to him in my mind.”

General Charles Lee was at that time in Philadelphia. His former visit had
made him well acquainted with the leading members of Congress. The active
interest he had manifested in the cause was well known, and the public had
an almost extravagant idea of his military qualifications. He was of
foreign birth, however, and it was deemed improper to confide the supreme
command to any but a native-born American. In fact, if he was sincere in
what we have quoted from his letter to Burke, he did not aspire to such a
signal mark of confidence.

The opinion evidently inclined in favor of Washington; yet it was promoted
by no clique of partisans or admirers. More than one of the Virginia
delegates, says Adams, were cool on the subject of this appointment; and
particularly Mr. Pendleton, was clear and full against it. It is scarcely
necessary to add, that Washington in this, as in every other situation in
life, made no step in advance to clutch the impending honor.

Adams, in his diary, claims the credit of bringing the members of Congress
to a decision. Rising in his place, one day, and stating briefly, but
earnestly, the exigencies of the case, he moved that Congress should adopt
the army at Cambridge, and appoint a general. Though this was not the time
to nominate the person, “yet,” adds he, “as I had reason to believe this
was a point of some 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;
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. 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.”

“When the subject came under debate, several delegates opposed the
appointment of Washington; not from personal objections, but because the
army were all from New England, and had a general of their own, General
Artemas Ward, with whom they appeared well satisfied; and under whose
command they had proved themselves able to imprison the British army in
Boston; which was all that was to be expected or desired.”

The subject was postponed to a future day. In the interim, pains were taken
out of doors to obtain a unanimity, and the voices were in general so
clearly in favor of Washington, that the dissentient members were persuaded
to withdraw their opposition.

On the 15th of June, the army was regularly adopted by Congress, and the
pay of the Commander-in-chief fixed at five hundred dollars a month. Many
still clung to the idea, that in all these proceedings they were merely
opposing the measures of the ministry, and not the authority of the crown,
and thus the army before Boston was designated as the Continental Army, in
contradistinction to that under General Gage, which was called the
Ministerial Army.

In this stage of the business Mr. Johnson, of Maryland, rose, and nominated
Washington for the station of commander-in-chief. The election was by
ballot, and was unanimous. It was formally announced to him by the
president, on the following day, when he had taken his seat in Congress.
Rising in his place, he briefly expressed his high and grateful sense of
the honor conferred on him, and his sincere devotion to the cause. “But,”
added he, “lest some unlucky event should happen unfavorable to my
reputation, I beg it may be remembered by every gentleman in the room, that
I this day declare, with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal
to the command I am honored with. As to pay, I beg leave to assure the
Congress that, as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to
accept this arduous employment, at the expense of my domestic ease and
happiness, I do not wish to make any profit of it. I will keep an exact
account of my expenses. Those, I doubt not, they will discharge, and that
is all I desire.”

“There is something charming to me in the conduct of Washington,” writes
Adams to a friend; “a gentleman of one of the first fortunes upon the
continent, leaving his delicious retirement, his family and friends,
sacrificing his ease, and hazarding all, in the cause of his country. His
views are noble and disinterested. He declared, when he accepted the mighty
trust, that he would lay before us an exact account of his expenses, and
not accept a shilling of pay.”

Four major-generals were to be appointed. Among those specified were
General Charles Lee and General Ward. Mr. Mifflin, of Philadelphia, who was
Lee’s especial friend and admirer, urged that he should be second in
command. “General Lee,” said he, “would serve cheerfully under Washington;
but considering his rank, character, and experience, could not be expected
to serve under any other. He must be _aut secundus, aut nullus_.”

Adams, on the other hand, as strenuously objected that it would be a great
deal to expect that General Ward, who was actually in command of the army
in Boston, should serve under any man; but under a stranger he ought not to
serve. General Ward, accordingly, was elected the second in command, and
Lee the third. The other two major-generals were, Philip Schuyler, of New
York, and Israel Putnam, of Connecticut. Eight brigadier-generals were
likewise appointed; Seth Pomeroy, Richard Montgomery, David Wooster,
William Heath, Joseph Spencer, John Thomas, John Sullivan, and Nathaniel

Notwithstanding Mr. Mifflin’s objection to having Lee ranked under Ward, as
being beneath his dignity and merits, he himself made no scruple to
acquiesce; though, judging from his supercilious character, and from
circumstances in his subsequent conduct, he no doubt considered himself
vastly superior to the provincial officers placed over him.

At Washington’s express request, his old friend, Major Horatio Gates, then
absent at his estate in Virginia, was appointed adjutant-general, with the
rank of brigadier.

Adams, according to his own account, was extremely loth to admit either Lee
or Gates into the American service, although he considered them officers of
great experience and confessed abilities. He apprehended difficulties, he
said, from the “natural prejudices and virtuous attachment of our
countrymen to their own officers.” “But,” adds he, “considering the earnest
desire of General Washington to have the assistance of those officers, the
extreme attachment of many of our best friends in the southern colonies to
them, the reputation they would give to our arms in Europe, and especially
with the ministerial generals and army in Boston, as well as the real
American merit of both, I could not withhold my vote from either.”

The reader will possibly call these circumstances to mind when, on a future
page, he finds how Lee and Grates requited the friendship to which chiefly
they owed their appointments.

In this momentous change in his condition, which suddenly altered all his
course of life, and called him immediately to the camp, Washington’s
thoughts recurred to Mount Vernon, and its rural delights, so dear to his
heart, whence he was to be again exiled. His chief concern, however, was on
account of the distress it might cause to his wife. His letter to her on
the subject is written in a tone of manly tenderness. “You may believe me,”
writes he, “when I assure you, in the most solemn manner, that, so far from
seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid
it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the family, but
from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my capacity; and I
should enjoy more real happiness in one month with you at home than I have
the most distant prospect of finding abroad, if my stay were to be seven
times seven years. But as it has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me
upon this service, I shall hope that my undertaking it is designed to
answer some good purpose. …

“I shall rely confidently on that Providence which has heretofore
preserved, and been bountiful to me, not doubting but that I shall return
safe to you in the Fall. I shall feel no pain from the toil or danger of
the campaign; my unhappiness will flow from the uneasiness I know you will
feel from being left alone. I therefore beg that you will summon your whole
fortitude, and pass your time as agreeably as possible. Nothing will give
me so much sincere satisfaction as to hear this, and to hear it from your
own pen.”

And to his favorite brother, John Augustine, he writes: “I am now to bid
adieu to you, and to every kind of domestic ease, for a while. I am
embarked on a wide ocean, boundless in its prospect, and in which, perhaps,
no safe harbor is to be found. I have been called upon by the unanimous
voice of the colonies to take the command of the continental army; an honor
I neither sought after, nor desired, as I am thoroughly convinced that it
requires great abilities, and much more experience, than I am master of.”
And subsequently, referring to his wife: “I shall hope that my friends will
visit, and endeavor to keep up the spirits of my wife as much as they can,
for my departure will, I know, be a cutting stroke upon her; and on this
account alone I have many disagreeable sensations.”

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