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TWENTY-THREE YEARS LATER …
May 10, 1775
Philadelphia feels alive.
For the past few days, the most prominent leaders in the colonies have been arriving in the city. Coaches and carriages are pulling in, almost by the hour, often met by cheering crowds and marching bands. Onlookers fill the streets and watch from porches and windows. The inns are full to capacity; the taverns are bustling.
The mood is mostly festive. But the air is also charged with something else: that unique mix of anticipation and fear that comes with the feeling that the world is about to change, though no one knows quite how.
The occasion is momentous: a meeting of the Second Continental Congress. Delegates chosen from every colony are meeting here for one purpose—to debate the possibility of war with England.
Just a year earlier such a notion was unthinkable except to the most radical. But in recent months, longstanding disputes have grown and multiplied between the Crown and its colonial subjects across the ocean. Arguments over trade, taxes, and tariffs have turned into deep, irreconcilable grievances. On the colonists’ side, rallies and protests against the Crown’s repressive policies have grown louder, larger, and angrier. England has responded by sending soldiers to clamp down on protests and reassert the mother country’s absolute power. In the New England colonies, local rebel militias have been preparing to stand up to the royal authorities. Earlier in the year, King George III declared the colony of Massachusetts to be in a state of “rebellion” against England.
And recently, outside Boston, blood has been spilled.
On the evening of April 18, a regiment of British soldiers stationed in the city marched overnight toward the neighboring towns of Lexington and Concord, to arrest two rebel leaders and seize a cache of munitions that the colonial militias were stockpiling. The colonists learned of the plan in advance, and when the British arrived in Lexington a band of armed locals was there to meet them. In the melee that followed, the British forces killed eight townspeople and lost only a horse. When the British troops advanced toward Concord, however, they encountered a much larger colonial militia. No one knows which side began shooting first, but whoever pulled the first trigger fired the “shot heard ’round the world.” Both the British and the colonists suffered heavy casualties in sustained fighting.
Within forty-eight hours, the British soldiers were driven back into Boston and royal authorities put the city under lockdown. An uneasy truce was reached, but tensions in the city were now at an all-time high.
The bloodshed sent shockwaves throughout the colonies, especially in New England. Dr. Matthew Thornton, the president of the New Hampshire Provincial Congress, captured the prevailing mood in a public address:
Painful beyond expression have been those scenes of blood and devastation which the barbarous cruelty of British troops have placed before our eyes. Duty to God, to ourselves, to posterity, enforced by the cries of slaughtered innocents, have urged us to take up arms in our defense. Such a day as this was never before known, either to us or to our fathers.
The future is uncertain. Was this violence a local Boston skirmish or the start of a larger war? Is peaceful reconciliation still possible—or is it time for the colonies to mobilize and raise arms?
These are the urgent questions the Second Continental Congress is now convened to face.
But from England’s perspective, the very meeting of this so-called Congress is itself an act of rebellion. England doesn’t recognize the Congress as legitimate. England never authorized any such gathering of delegates from around the colonies, and in fact forbade it. From the point of view of the British Parliament and the Crown, this Congress has no authority, wields no power, and represents nothing.
And yet, here they are.
They have come from Rhode Island, New Jersey, Connecticut, and the far-off northern lands of New Hampshire. They’ve come from Delaware, Maryland, even from the southern swamps of South Carolina. There are sixty-five delegates in all, representing twelve of the thirteen colonies. Only one colony, Georgia, has declined to participate; though soon, it too will send a representative.
Just the logistical effort of organizing all these delegates to meet at one time and place is a major accomplishment. With the transportation technology of the day—namely, horses—the trip for some delegates from their home cities may take as long as two weeks, not including delays for weather or getting lost. This means eight hours of travel per day, on coach seats or saddles over bumpy roads, with bathroom breaks often taking place in the swamps or brush by the side of the road.
The invitations themselves were all handwritten letters, also delivered on horseback with long delays. The delegates had to commit to leaving behind businesses, families, and local affairs for what they knew might be a period of many months.
Adding high drama to the proceedings, two of the delegates from Massachusetts—Samuel Adams and John Hancock—had to hide out in fields and farmhouses during the first part of their journey, for fear of British soldiers who had been sent to detain them for their roles in organizing the Boston revolt. They secretly met up en route with the other Massachusetts delegates—including Samuel Adams’s cousin John Adams—then escaped across the colony line to merge with the Connecticut delegation for the trip to Pennsylvania. Word quickly spread of this dramatic journey, and by the time the group arrived in Philadelphia, they were greeted as heroes—escorted by a band of militiamen and cheered on by crowds as they pass.
“All ranks and degrees of men are in Arms,” observes Joseph Hewes, the delegate from North Carolina, upon arriving in the city. Even here in normally peace-loving Philadelphia, known for its university and its large population of Quakers, the drums of war are beating.
Yet some of the delegates sense a consequence even larger than the immediate fate of the colonies. A new idea has slowly been forming, borrowed from philosophers in Europe and filtered through the specific experience of the American colonists. At the heart of it lies a fundamental question: Is it natural and just for people to be ruled by the absolute power of a monarch who claims divine authority? Or, in fact, do people have a right—an inherent right—to choose their own government and therefore rule themselves?
Such a simple idea today. But back then, this was a radical concept—and a dangerous one. In pamphlets, a new word is being thrown around—“liberty”—and this word represents an incredible threat. It’s not just a challenge to the powerful royal family in England; it’s a challenge to centuries of vested power and authority everywhere, a threat to royal families all over Europe and indeed the world.
As Thomas Paine will soon write: “We have it in our power to begin the World over again.”
It’s an exhilarating time, but also terrifying—because in order to exercise that power, the fragile colonies must raise arms against one of the greatest military powers that history has ever known.
The air is alive in Philadelphia, and the world is about to change.
They call it the Pennsylvania State House—the designated meeting place for the Continental Congress. It’s on Chestnut Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets in Philadelphia, five or so blocks west of the Delaware River. The State House sits at one end of a broad grassy common that has recently become a regular gathering place for rallies and speeches. The structure, a grand redbrick Georgian with a handsome white steeple and bell tower, is an appropriately august setting for what’s about to happen. The official meeting room, known as the Main Assembly Hall, is just past the foyer through the large white front doors; it’s a two-story space, modest but functional, and just big enough for the assembled delegates.
This is the room.
This is where, in daily meetings in the coming weeks and months, the future of America will be decided. As in most meeting rooms of the era, there are a few spittoons placed around the room for those who chew tobacco or pinch a bit of snuff.
The delegates convened here are, as a group, some of the most educated and respected men in the colonies. Most of them wear the standard breeches, frocks, and waistcoats fashionable at the time, typical for their positions as lawyers, businessmen, or politicians in their home colonies.
Yet one man stands out from the rest.
He arrives wearing a full military officer’s uniform, with a long blue coat and brass buttons. At a time when the average height is five feet seven, his over-six-foot stature and perfect posture towers over the group. He has impeccable manners and a quiet but commanding presence.
This is Col. George Washington, delegate from Virginia. At forty-three years old, he’s a veteran of the French and Indian War two decades earlier, and the former leader of the Virginia militia. Now he’s a wealthy landowner and planter. He hasn’t served the military in almost fifteen years, but for this extraordinary occasion, he wears his uniform as a former officer.
Clearly, this man means business.
The other delegates take notice. “[Colonel] Washington appears at Congress in his uniform and, by his great experience and abilities in military matters, is of much service to us,” John Adams writes. “He has so much martial dignity in his deportment that you would distinguish him to be a general and a soldier from among ten thousand people,” the Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Rush gushes in a letter to a friend.
It’s not just Washington’s appearance that makes him stand out, though. The Congress is full of highly educated talkers who use ornate, flowery language. Washington never went to college. He speaks simply or, more often, he listens. As the other delegates compete to talk as much as possible, Washington exerts a gravity and power by withholding opinions. He has, as John Adams later puts it, the “gift of silence.” But when he does speak, the words have conviction.
That Washington would make such a strong impression is in some ways a surprise, given that he is not really a new face to the other delegates, or at least he shouldn’t be. He also attended the First Continental Congress, held in the same city less than a year earlier and composed of many of the same delegates. At that earlier session, however, Washington was barely noticed—he wore civilian clothes, didn’t give a single speech, and generally made little impression.
But so much has changed in a year. Last time, the idea of independence from England had been just that—a vague notion. It was abstract, an article of political theory to debate in coffeehouses and taverns.
This time, the stakes are higher. Lives have been lost. Now all the fancy oratory in the world means less than the real-world experience of someone who understands the actuality of war. Washington is selected to be on multiple committees at the Congress related to military affairs, and the other delegates soon consider his opinion vital to every decision.
Simply put, people want someone who knows how to fight.
Still, the Congress’s position on war is complicated. On the one hand, most delegates agree that they need to pursue some sort of peaceful solution before plunging headlong into an armed conflict against England’s massively superior armed forces. Maybe they can negotiate more favorable policies and more autonomy without resorting to bloodshed—or, for starters, at least persuade England to recognize the authority of their Congress. Maybe then a compromise can be reached. Either way, these debates will take time, and any potential negotiation with the British Parliament could take months if not years to resolve.
But in the meantime, there’s the situation in Boston. Every day the delegates receive new reports: British troops have occupied the major forts in the city, imposing strict martial law. They’ve confiscated some two thousand firearms from the citizens, who now live in fear if they haven’t already fled. Trade has mostly ceased, cutting off the food supply. Any day now, the British soldiers could march to surrounding towns.
In response, loose-knit rebel militias have gathered outside Boston, having marched there from all over Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. These militiamen are ready to raise arms against British soldiers if necessary and, if nothing else, prevent their movement to other cities.
So even as the delegates in Philadelphia begin to debate the larger political questions, they still need an immediate plan to coordinate the scattered militias on the ground in New England into a coherent fighting force, in the event they need to confront the British troops. In other words, the colonies need to form a national army, a Continental army.
These realizations come swiftly in the first few weeks of the Congress, and sorting through the details of how to create such an army quickly becomes the first critical task.
Once you have an army, you need someone to lead it. Choosing who among them should command this new army will be the next critical task.
There are several candidates. But one clearly stands out: How about the guy from Virginia who showed up in the uniform? On June 14, 1775, John Adams calls a session to formalize the creation of a Continental army, and to debate which of the candidates should lead it. On the first point everyone agrees: A national army will be created. On the second, Adams reads several names aloud as contenders. Naturally, Washington is one of them.
There’s only one problem: George Washington has disappeared.
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