George Washington - Ada Russell


Burke said that he did not choose to break the American spirit because it was the spirit that had made England. A love of freedom was the predominating feature of the colonists, and they would resist every effort to take from them the only advantage they thought worth living for. They were the descendants of Englishmen, and England was a nation that adored her freedom. At the time of the emigrations to New England in the seventeenth century this characteristic was most prominent, and the colonists, he told Parliament, "took this bias and direction the moment they parted from your hands." They were therefore not only devoted to liberty, "but to liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles." They nearly all studied law, and "they augur misgovernment at a distance, and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze." "The temper and character which prevail in our colonies are," he said, "I am afraid, unalterable by any human art. We cannot, I fear, falsify the pedigree of this fierce people, and persuade them that they are not sprung from a nation in whose veins the blood of freedom circulates. The language in which they would hear you tell them this tale would detect the imposition; your speech would betray you. An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery."

So the curtain was drawn up on the struggle, a struggle more for dignity's sake than for any solid gain anticipated by Great Britain, and in March, 1770, the first blow was struck, on the occasion of the famous "Boston Massacre," a great name for a small though significant incident, four civilians being killed, and several wounded, by the military.

The town of Boston had been for two years in military occupation, and although the Opposition secured a repeat of the Revenue Act as a whole, the tax on tea was retained, not for revenue but for the principle of the thing, as an assertion of the right of Great Britain to place taxes. The colonists refused to touch the tea, although the price had been artfully arranged to tempt them, and in vain tea-laden ships were sent to cruise in the harbours of a tea-loving people. Some of them were not even allowed to discharge, and at Boston the ships would have sailed away again with their goods, as they did from the other ports, but this the Governor would not permit. A party of Bostonians, therefore, in 1773, disguised as Red Indians, went aboard a vessel and discharged the cargo into the sea. This was the famous "Boston Tea Party," and the biggest storm there ever was in a tea-cup. Washington called the taxed tea "gunpowder tea," as it caused explosions all over America.. As a punishment for this outrageous deed "Boston Port Bill" closed that harbour and put a full-stop to its trade. This was looked upon by the colonists as a final piece of "tyranny" on the part of Great Britain.

The House of Burgesses of Virginia had not been slow in denouncing the new trend of British policy. Patrick Henry, one of the heroes of the Revolution, presented in 1765 inflammatory resolutions to the House, and after some modifications they were adopted, whereupon the assembly was immediately dissolved by the Governor. In the course of the debate Henry made a speech which put him at the head of American orators, and when all were hanging on the words that dropped from his lips, the young man said menacingly:

"Caesar had his Brutus, Charles I his Cromwell, and George III—"

"Treason, treason!" interrupted the speaker.

"And George III may profit by their example," concluded Patrick Henry in loud and ringing tones. "If this be treason, make the most of it."

Washington voted for the resolutions of Patrick Henry and expressed his indignation with the Governor for dissolving the Assembly. Lord Fairfax, on the other hand, strongly on the side of the "Tories," as the loyalists were later to be called, condemned severely any criticism of the Home Government, and warned Washington against the "wrath of the British lion." He thought Boston justified in refusing to use taxed goods, but her further action he qualified as "insurrection." Washington disapproved of some actions of the Bostonians, such as ill treatment of the stamp distributors, but he declared his full sympathy with the people, who had been driven to such steps by "acts of usurpation and tyranny," and he, with most other people, mourned and fasted.

A new Governor again dissolved the Assembly, and the burgesses took to meeting at the Raleigh Tavern at Williamsburg, where Washington brought forward articles of Association, on the New England pattern, pledging those who signed not to use articles taxed by the mother country in order to raise a revenue in America.

Washington Delaware


From this time on, the Virginian Assembly was constantly prorogued and the burgesses became more and more irritated. On 1st March, 1773, therefore, they appointed a committee of eleven to collect acts and resolutions of the British Parliament which affected the British colonies, and to get into touch with the sister colonies. This initial step of "our noble patriotic sister colony of Virginia" was followed immediately by most of the sister colonies, and the plan of a General Congress was approved, to be held on 5th September at Philadelphia to deliberate on the united interests of the colonies. The Massachusetts Assembly took a "Solemn League and Covenant"—and those who knew their English history grew frightened when they heard again the ring of those words—to break off all intercourse with Great Britain from 1st August.

Thomas Jefferson, another Virginian who was to be President of the United States one day, was elected delegate for his county to the General Congress at Philadelphia, and also requested to draft the instructions of Virginia to its delegates. He took, he tells us, the ground "that the relation between Great Britain and its colonies was the same as that of England and Scotland after the accession of James and until the union, and the same as her present relations with Hanover, having the same executive chief but no other necessary political connection; and that our emigration from England to this country gave her no more rights over us than the emigrations of the Danes and Saxons gave to the present authorities of the mother country over England."

Thus the first fateful General Congress began to loom on the American horizon, as ten years later the States-General was to dawn on the horizon of France, and the separation from Great Britain was approaching ever more rapidly and steadily. Washington, in a strain of eloquence unusual with him, urged constancy and abstinence from all but the bare necessities of life, and declared that he was himself ready to raise 1,000 men, maintain them at his own expense, and march at their head to the relief of Boston.

It is astounding that Great Britain should have taken no adequate steps to put matters right, for she neither granted the colonists' demands nor sent out sufficient force to quell them. Indeed, General Gage, recently appointed to military command in Massachusetts, said to the King on leaving Britain:

"The Americans will only be lions so long as the English are lambs."

Washington declared that his conduct after his arrival was more becoming a Turkish bashaw than an English Governor,' and that his declaration that it was treasonable to associate in any way that could affect the commerce of Great Britain was "an unexampled testimony of the most despotic system of tyranny that ever was practised in a free Government." He pinned his faith, however, chiefly to refusing English importations, at the same time insisting that remittances due to Great Britain should be paid. "While we are accusing others of injustice," he said, "we should be just ourselves."

The fellow delegates of Washington from Virginia counted among them famous names—Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Harris;—and Gage, already startled by the "Solemn League and Covenant" of Massachusetts, began to form some idea of the proportions of the coming revolt of the colonies when he heard of the calling of this General Congress.

Soon Washington, in company with two colleagues, was riding away from Mount Vernon for Philadelphia where that Congress was to be held, and its first session opened in Carpenters' Hall on 5th September, 1774. John Adams, who had been helping to direct the Bostonians in their resistance to the military grip that was on them, declared that, "It is such an assembly as never before came together on a sudden in any part of the world. Here are fortunes, abilities, learning, eloquence, acuteness, equal to any I ever met with in my life. Here is a diversity of religion, education, manners, interests such as it would seem impossible to unite in one plan of conduct." Patrick Henry said: "All America is thrown into one mass. Where are your landmarks, your boundaries of colonies? They are all thrown down! The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers and New Englanders, are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American."

When a rumour arrived of a cannonade of Boston by the British, whose ships filled the harbour, fiery indignation filled every heart. Congress assembled the next morning and at the usual daily divine service the 35th Psalm happening to be the psalm for the day, it was thought that this was by Providential ruling. At its close the specially appointed chaplain to Congress burst out into an extempore prayer for America, for the Congress, for the province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially for the town of Boston.

Patrick Henry's eloquent appeals to his countrymen on this occasion to oppose Great Britain to the end were never forgotten. But on the whole the proceedings of Congress, always "awfully solemn," were models of business method and legal dryness. The "Petition of Right" and the "Bill of Right" of Stuart times in Great Britain were remembered by men who had received from their grandfathers and great-grandfathers accounts of those great struggles for popular freedom, and now a "Declaration of Colonial Rights" was drawn up. This document claimed for the descendants of Englishmen the right to legislate, and rejected all imperial taxation that was imposed solely for the raising of a revenue in America; it asserted the right to trial by jury, won so long ago as Magna Charta, to public meeting, and to petition the King; it pronounced against the maintenance of a standing army in any colony in time of peace without the consent of the legislature of the colony; and all the Acts which had lately been "unlawfully" passed by the British Parliament were condemned. The subtlety with which the colonial mind at this Congress dealt with nice points of law and could put Great Britain in the wrong, and the general old-fashioned Whig calmness displayed, amazed many of themselves, and made John Adams, deeply read in political history, think of the Privy Councils of Queen Elizabeth; and in the whole Congress the man of most unquestioned weight was Washington. Chatham said, appearing, unconquerable old man, in the House of Lords from his sick-bed in order to support the memorial sent by Congress to Parliament, and with all the old fire in eyes and voice:

"The Acts must be repealed; they will  be repealed. You cannot enforce them. But bare repeal will not satisfy this enlightened and spirited people. . . . You must declare you have no right to tax them  . . . I have crawled to this House, my lords, to give you my best advice, which is to beseech His Majesty that orders may instantly be despatched to General Gage to remove the troops from Boston. Their presence is a source of perpetual irritation and suspicion to those people. How can they trust you with the bayonet at their breast? They have all the reason in the world to believe that you mean their death or slavery. . . . My lords, if the ministers thus persevere in misadvising the King he will be undone. He may, indeed, still wear his crown, but, the American jewel out of it, it will not be worth the wearing."

His words fell on deaf ears now, and it was ordered that 7,000 more soldiers should be sent to Boston without delay. These troops, however, found when they got to Boston that instead of controlling America they were practically a small and isolated garrison in a beleaguered town, in the midst of a hostile population. Gage, in view of the situation, had all the munitions he could lay hands on collected and brought into the city, and fortified "Boston Neck." Then he waited for an opportunity to get out, and he had to wait.

In March, 1776, a Virginian Convention met at Richmond, and here first it was realised how the new political ideas had been germinating and growing in men's minds. Patrick Henry declared with all his fervour and enthusiasm:

"We must fight, I repeat it, Sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us." Washington offered to accept the command of a Company which his brother John Augustine was training for the purpose of the Revolution, and already spoke of devoting his life and fortune to "the Cause."

The first shot was fired in 1775. Gage had planned a surprise attack on Concord arsenal for the night of April 18th, but the colonial "Committee of Safety" was fully aware of all his preparations, and when Major Pitcairn arrived at Lexington near Concord he found a few score countrymen on the Green, armed after the colonial fashion. Ile bade them depart and on their refusal fired on them and killed or put them to flight, then went on to Concord, only to discover that a large part of the munitions had been removed. Finding the look of the country ugly enough he retreated in all haste to Boston. "If the retreat had not been so precipitate," wrote Washington, "and God knows it could not well have been more so—the ministerial troops must have surrendered or been totally cut off." Washington Irving describes the "troops which in the morning had marched through Roxbury to the tune of Yankee Doodle" returning at sunset "hounded along the old Cambridge Road to Charlestown Neck by mere armed yeomanry." Old Israel Putnam, working in his fields; left the plough in the furrow, sent his son home to inform the household of his movements, and set out for Boston. Washington too was swept away by the great wave of indignation. When he heard of Lexington he wrote to Fairfax, then in England:

"Unhappy it is to reflect that a brother's sword has been sheathed in a brother's breast, and that the once happy and peaceful plains of America are to be either drenched with blood or inhabited by slaves." The first gun was fired at Lexington, and, said John Adams, it was heard all round the world. This episode was the real beginning of the War of Independence. The various States at once began to raise armies, and Washington at the second General Congress at Philadelphia declared again that there was but one course for Americans: "The army of Great Britain," he said, "has deliberately attacked us. The work of this Congress should be to create an army and provide for defence. . . . Our appeals have been spurned; our entreaties have been interpreted as the pleas of cowardice; our patience has been regarded as pusillanimity. Because British oppression has been met by respectful remonstrance instead of indignant denunciation, it has appealed to arms; and that appeal must be promptly met by war-like preparations and the challenge to battle."

It was unanimously decided that of the Continental army in process of formation Washington should be Commander-in-Chief, and he accepted the dangerous honour of being chief rebel without hesitation—only refusing payment for anything but expenses, of which he kept a strict account. Everyone at the time—and even more at the time, so gloomy in prospects, than later—thought that it was a great sacrifice for a man like Washington to give up all the comforts of middle-age for no hope of private ambition and assume the leadership of a cause that seemed desperate; for what were the colonists in wealth or training that they should presume to draw the sword against the mother country—at the height of her prestige, at the close of a great war in which she had defeated the most famous armies of Europe? He wrote to his brother John Augustine:

"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 harbour 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 honour 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."

On 20th June, 1775, he received his commission from Congress, and it was said that he appeared in every respect an ideal commander, and that the air rang with acclamations when he first took his place at the head of his troops—a splendid manly figure such as an officers' corps rarely saw, and a man who in every way could command the obedience of his fellow colonists.

It was a long time before he could coordinate their efforts, and before he took up the reins of command their independent exertions had won some brilliant successes, which had, however, no permanent fruit. For instance, the forts of Ticonderoga and Crown Point, which from their situation commanded the main route to Canada, were seized by surprise from the negligent British.

Boston, however, had been and remained the centre of interest and Washington bent his course straight for the American camp outside that city, without even taking the time to go home to say farewell to his household or arrange his affairs, though, as we have seen, he realised that he might never see Mount Vernon again. "Duty," he said, as did Nelson later, "is the watchword now!" To his wife he wrote:

"It was utterly out of my power to refuse this appointment without exposing my character to such censures as would have reflected dishonour upon myself and given pain to my friends. This, I am sure, could not and ought not to be pleasant to you, and must have lessened me considerably in my own esteem."

As he approached New York on his way to the Boston camp, he was met by a courier with the news of the first pitched battle of the war—the Battle of Bunker's Hill, and after listening with rapt attention to the account of the extraordinary valour of the colonials, he saw in the engagement, as everyone else saw, that the colonists had won a moral victory, and he exclaimed:

"The liberties of our country are saved!"

Let us now see the great things that had been happening at Boston before Washington's arrival.