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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Saturday, October 27, 2012

John Adams’s Memory of Appointing Gen. Washington

After his Presidency and again about twenty years later, John Adams wrote out his memories of how the Second Continental Congress chose George Washington to lead its army on 15 June 1775. Because these recollections came from such an important member of the Congress, and because they were published early, they’re the basis of most dramatic descriptions of that event.

Adams is our source for the statement that he first put forward Washington’s name, that chairman John Hancock showed “Mortification and resentment” at not being named himself, and that Washington “from his Usual Modesty darted into the Library Room.” Adams described long arguments in the Congress, with both New Englanders and Virginians opposing Washington.

Because the Congress refrained from keeping records on such a sensitive topic as forming an army to oppose the king’s governors and troops, it’s impossible to show that events happened differently. But the record that exists makes Adams’s account less likely.

Many of John Adams’s Revolutionary recollections put him at the center of the action, bravely standing up to unreasonable opposition. That’s how he liked to see himself. And sometimes contemporaneous evidence indicates that opposition wasn’t quite so numerous or loud as Adams described.

Adams remembered certain members of the Congress as being opposed to Washington, such as Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Edmund Pendleton of Virginia. Yet there’s no evidence for their opposition or disappointment at how things turned out. In fact, that same week Pendleton was helping Washington to draft a will and wrote most of the new commander’s acceptance speech.

Among Washington biographers, Douglas Southall Freeman suggested that Washington asked as a friend Pendleton to play devil’s advocate against his appointment. John Ferling theorized he invited Pendleton to draft the speech in order to co-opt a former opponent. I think the simplest explanation is that Adams’s memory was mistaken, and Pendleton supported Washington’s appointment like almost everyone else at the Congress, particularly the Virginians.

In writing my report on Washington in Cambridge, I was convinced by Paul K. Longmore’s hypothesis in The Invention of George Washington that the long arguments Adams remembered actually occurred in the following couple of days, and the biggest sticking-point was whether to hire Charles Lee as a subordinate general. On 18 June 1775 Adams told Elbridge Gerry:
I have never, in all my lifetime, suffered more anxiety than in the conduct of this business. The choice of officers, and their pay, have given me great distress. Lee and [Horatio] Gates are officers of such great experience and confessed abilities, that I thought their advice, in a council of officers, might be of great advantage to us; but the natural prejudices, and virtuous attachment of our countrymen to their own officers, made me apprehensive of difficulties. But considering the earnest desire of General Washington to have the assistance of these 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 them both, I could not withhold my vote from either.
The official vote on Washington’s appointment was unanimous. The vote to hire Lee at a rank below Artemas Ward’s and the vote to make Gates a general were not. But Washington’s “earnest desire” for those veterans’ aid carried the day.

TOMORROW: Washington’s journey to his Cambridge headquarters.


andrew olson said...

I am often convinced that hancock thought this would be a massachusetts afair and was the next option after warren died, the selection of washing probably surprised him but i believe he thought washington was a great man. John hancocks son was named george washington hancock and the myth of bitterness was created by adams self agrandizing account.

J. L. Bell said...

Hancock did have military ambitions and loved being the colonel (really captain) of the Company of Cadets. According to his widow, he wanted to stand with the militiamen on Lexington common in April 1775. But of course he never joined the Continental Army, and the only evidence he ever wished to command it seems to be this anecdote from John Adams.

In the spring of 1775 the New England delegates to the Congress seem to have decided that making George Washington commander of the Continental Army was a fair price to pay for the support of all the colonies at the Congress. Putting him in charge of the New England troops ensured the region wasn't out on its own. Did Samuel Adams and his allies leave Hancock out of that strategizing? I have a hard time believing that. (I can believe that Hancock didn't fully commit to the strategy because he avoided political commitments as long as possible.)

It's impossible to say how high Dr. Joseph Warren would have risen in the Continental Army if he'd survived the Battle of Bunker Hill. But as a major general in the Massachusetts forces he was still subordinate to Artemas Ward and to senior major generals John Thomas and William Heath. Of course, none of that factored into the Congress's decision because on 15 June 1775 those men didn't have the news about Warren's appointment or the battle.

Pacificus said...

This comment doesn't have much to do with Washington as general per se, but more to do with his presidency. Having emphasized in Japanese history in my undergrad, I always thought it would be interesting to write a comparative history of Emperor Meiji's imperial travels through out his empire to Pres. Washington's travels through New England on his presidential tour there, as they to be quite similar in purpose and in experiences, negative experiences to be exact. According to Flexner in "The Indispensable man," Washington complained of many things, such as the rough and crooked roads, his accommodations in housing, etc. Emperor Meiji also complained of negative experiences on his tour of Japan, such as the roads, or lack thereof, mosquitos, unsuitable accommodations in housing, etc. Both individuals were brand new leaders of new countries, per se (even though Japan was an old nation, under Meiji it began a completely new set up in government and cultural attitude), both seen as deity by their people, both emerging from recent revolutions that set up new, modern governments based on constitutions, etc, although their establishments happened at different points in time. I think it would be interesting to compare the two leaders. I can't remember off the top of my head the sources I have for Emperor Meiji, but I can look through my books and post them later.

J. L. Bell said...

I think a closer antecedent for Washington’s journeys as President might be the “progresses” that British monarchs made around their kingdoms. But I’m not sure whether that tradition had survived into the eighteenth century. In either case, there does seem to be something monarchical about the venture.