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This Day in History: Washington appointed Commander-in-Chief

On this day in 1775, George Washington was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. That army had been created only one day earlier.

Washington’s appointment came at the suggestion of John Adams, who spoke before Congress of a “Gentleman from Virginia who was among Us.” This man, Adams concluded, “would command the Approbation of all America, and unite the cordial Exertions of all the Colonies better than any other Person in the Union.”

He did not mention Washington by name, but everyone understood the reference.

Two people most definitely understood what Adams meant. John Hancock had a very negative reaction. He wanted the job for himself! “Mr. Hancock,” Adams wrote, “heard me [recommend the creation of an army] with visible pleasure, but when I came to describe Washington for the Commander, I never remarked a more sudden and sinking Change of Countenance. Mortification and resentment were expressed as forcibly as his Face could exhibit them.”

For his part, Washington responded differently. Adams related that 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.”

After Washington left, a debate ensued. Some were not thrilled about the appointment of a southern General. The “Army was all from New England,” wouldn’t a northern General be better? The subject was postponed, at least for a little bit. Undeterred, Adams went to work outside of the meeting, gathering support for Washington.

Obviously, he succeeded. Washington was appointed on the 15th and accepted that nomination on the 16th. Ever humble, he told the Congress: “Tho’ I am truly sensible of the high Honour done me, in this Appointment, yet I feel great distress, from a consciousness that my abilities and military experience may not be equal to the extensive and important Trust: However, as the Congress desire it, I will enter upon the momentous duty, and exert every power I possess in their service, and for support of the glorious cause.”

One of his few surviving letters to Martha Washington expresses similar sentiments. He wrote: “You may believe me my dear Patcy . . . I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid [the appointment], 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 that I should enjoy more real happiness and felicity in one month with you, at home . . . . ”

His words appear to have been genuine, at least if you believe a story told by Dr. Benjamin Rush. “I saw Patrick Henry at his lodgings,” Rush wrote, “who told me that General Washington had been with him, and informed him that he was unequal to the station in which his country had placed him, and then added with tears in his eyes, ‘Remember, Mr. Henry, what I now tell you: From the day I enter upon the command of the American armies, I date my fall, and the ruin of my reputation.’”

As a postscript, Hancock apparently never quite forgave Adams for nominating Washington. “[Mr. Hancock] never loved me so well after this Event as he had done before,” Adams wrote, “and he made me feel at times the Effects of his resentment and of his Jealousy in many Ways and at diverse times, as long as he lived . . . .”

Just imagine if John Hancock had been selected as Commander-in-Chief, instead of George Washington. What do you think our world would look like today?

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