Address to the Continental Congress
[Philadelphia, 16 June 1775]
The President1 informed Colo. Washington that the Congress had yesterday, Unanimously made choice of him to be General & Commander in Chief of the American Forces, and requested he would accept of that Appointment;2 whereupon Colo. Washington, standing in his place, Spake as follows.
“Mr President, Tho’ I am truly sensible of the high Honour done me in this Appointment, yet I feel great distress, from a consciousness3 that my abilities & Military experience may not be equal to the extensive & important Trust: However, as the Congress desire i⟨t⟩ I will enter upon the momentous duty, & exert every power I Possess In their service & for the Support of the glorious Cause: I beg they will accept my most cordial thanks for this distinguished testimony of their Approbation.
“But lest some unlucky event should happen unfavourable to my reputation, I beg it may be rememberd by every Gentn in the room, that I this day declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think my self equal to the Command I ⟨am⟩ honoured with.4
“As to pay, Sir, I beg leave to Assure the Congress that as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to have accepted this Arduous emploiment at the expence of my domestk ease & happi⟨ness⟩5 I do not wish to make any proffit from it: I will keep an exact Account of my expences; those I doubt not they will discharge & that is all I desire.”6
D, in Edmund Pendleton’s writing, DNA:PCC, item 152; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169. The presence of the introductory paragraph indicates that GW did not deliver his address from the Pendleton document. However, the insertion of a phrase in GW’s writing (see note 5 below) suggests that he subsequently reviewed the document and corrected it to read as he thought it should.
1. John Hancock (1737–1793) of Massachusetts was elected president of the Second Continental Congress on 24 May 1775 in place of Peyton Randolph, who, as speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses, felt obligated to return to Virginia to attend the June session of the Burgesses. Hancock served as president of Congress until 29 Oct. 1777.
2. The only known account of Congress’s debate on GW’s appointment as commander in chief is given by John Adams in his autobiography. Speaking to the committee of the whole sometime before 15 June, Adams moved that Congress adopt the army outside Boston and appoint a general to command it. He then added “that though this was not the proper time to nominate a General, yet as I had reason to believe this was a point of the greatest difficulty, I had no hesitation to declare that I had but one Gentleman in my Mind for that important command, and that was a Gentleman from Virginia who was among Us and very well known to all of Us, a Gentleman whose Skill and Experience as an Officer, whose independent fortune, great Talents and excellent universal Character, would command the Approbation of all America, and unite the cordial Exertions of all the Colonies better than any other Person in the Union. Mr. 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. . . . The Subject came under debate and several Gentlemen declared themselves against the Appointment of Mr. Washington, not on Account of any personal Objection against him: but because the Army was all from New England, had a General of their own [Artemas Ward], appeared to be satisfied with him and had proved themselves able to imprison the British Army in Boston, which was all they expected or desired at that time. Mr. [Edmund] Pendleton of Virginia [and] Mr. [Roger] Sherman of Connecticutt were very explicit in declaring this Opinion, Mr. [Thomas] Cushing and several others more faintly expressed their Opposition and their fears of discontent in the Army and in New England. Mr. [Robert Treat] Paine expressed a great Opinion of General Ward and a strong friendship for him, having been his Classmate at [Harvard] Colledge, or at least his contemporary: but gave no Opinion upon the question. The Subject was postponed to a future day. In the mean time, pains were taken out of doors to obtain a Unanimity, and the Voices were generally so clearly in favour of Washington that the dissentient Members were persuaded to withdraw their Opposition, and Mr. Washington was nominated, I believe by Mr. Thomas Johnson of Maryland, unanimously elected, and the Army adopted” (L. H. Butterfield et al., eds., Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, 4 vols. [Cambridge, Mass., 1961], 3:322–23 description begins L. H. Butterfield, ed. Diary and Autobiography of John Adams. 4 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1961. description ends GW was unanimously chosen general by ballot on 15 June (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 2:91).
3. The word “doubt” is struck from the main line, and the word “consciousness” is inserted above it in Pendleton’s writing.
4. Many years later Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia wrote that shortly after GW was appointed commander in chief of the Continental forces, “I saw Patrick Henry at his lodgings, 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’” (George W. Corner, ed., The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush [Princeton, 1948], 113).
5. The phrase “at the expence of my domestk ease & happi⟨ness⟩” appears above the line in GW’s writing.
6. Immediately before selecting GW as commander in chief on 15 June, Congress resolved that the general who commanded the Continental forces have “five hundred dollars, per month, . . . for his pay and expences” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 2:91). GW’s refusal of any salary generally pleased the delegates. “There is Something charming to me, in the Conduct of Washington,” John Adams wrote to Elbridge Gerry on 18 June. “A Gentleman, of one of the first Fortunes, upon the Continent, leaving his delicious Retirement, his Family and Friends, Sacrificing his Ease, and hazarding all in the Cause of his Country. His Views are noble and disinterested. He declared when he accepted the mighty Trust, that he would lay before Us, an exact account of his Expences, and not accept a shilling for Pay” (MoSW). Eliphalet Dyer of Connecticut was equally impressed with GW’s character, but he expressed some concern about the cost of the general’s anticipated expenses. “He is Clever, & if any thing too modest,” Dyer observed in a letter of 17 June to Joseph Trumbull. “He seems discret & Virtuous, no harum Starum ranting Swearing fellow but Sober, steady, & Calm. His modesty will Induce him I dare say to take & order every step with the best advice possible to be obtained in the Army. His allowance for Wages [for his staff] expences & every thing is we think very high, not less than £ 150 lawll per month, but it was urged that the largeness of his family, Aide Camps, Secretary Servts &c, beside a Constant table for more or less of his officers, daily expresses, dispatches &c Must be very expensive” (Smith, Letters of Delegates description begins Paul H. Smith et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C., 1976–2000. description ends , 1:499–500). GW’s expense account for the war, covering the period June 1775 to 1 July 1783, is in DNA: RG 56, General Records—Treasury Department; a duplicate original is in DLC:GW.