J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Gen. Washington Arrives at Last

In chapter three of my study for the National Park Service, Gen. George Washington’s Headquarters and Home—Cambridge, Massachusetts, the title character finally comes on the scene.

This character is Washington at age forty-three—about my age when I started the work, and two decades away from the revered elder statesman on our dollar bills. (One decade away from the Houdon bust shown here.) He had commanded the Virginia troops during the French and Indian War. He was a major planter in northern Virginia, thanks to his wife’s inheritances. He had been a usually quiet stalwart in the Virginia House of Burgesses. And he was tall.

My analysis of the general’s early career owes a lot of Paul K. Longmore’s The Invention of George Washington and John Ferling’s The Ascent of George Washington. As a young man he had a galloping ambition which often got him into trouble, but he usually had the energy and luck to get out. (For example.)

As a young Virginia officer, Washington did many things he disliked seeing in the Continental Army officer corps during 1775-76: complaining about rank, going over his superiors’ heads, threatening to resign, actually resigning, looking after his own interests while on duty. What calmed him down? It looks to me like his marriage to Martha Custis at the start of 1759 reassured him that he had arrived in the top ranks of Virginia society, that he didn’t have to keep pushing so hard.

This chapter takes issue with a couple of myths about how Washington became the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. First is the question of whether he wanted the job. Following eighteenth-century genteel standards, Washington didn’t overtly campaign to be made generalissimo—but there was no doubt that he was ready to accept the post. He never suggested another candidate. As Peter Henriques wrote in Realistic Visionary:
When you are over six feet tall, of imposing martial bearing and wearing a brand-new uniform, and you know there is virtual unanimity among the delegates that an army is to be formed, it can’t come as a total shock to discover that you are being seriously considered for a leadership position.
Furthermore, Washington did more than dress the part. He prepared for it. He spent the winter of 1774-75 organizing an independent militia company in his county and accepted the command of similar units elsewhere in Virginia. He bought military books and supplies. He met with both Col. Charles Lee and Maj. Horatio Gates, retired British army officers with more professional military experience than any other Whigs in America. Leaving for Philadelphia on 4 May, he let Martha know he wasn’t sure when he’d be home.

At the First Continental Congress in autumn 1774, Washington had served on no committees and apparently made no speeches. At the Second Continental Congress, he chaired four committees on military preparation, one after the other. On 15 June 1775, the Congress unanimously voted to accept Washington’s unspoken offer to lead their army.

TOMORROW: John Adams’s account of how Washington was chosen—can we believe it?

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