George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Brigadier General John Thomas, 23 July 1775

To Brigadier General John Thomas

Cambridge July 23d 1775.


The Retirement of a general Officer, possessing the Confidence of his Country & the Army; at so critical a Period, appears to me to be big with fatal Consequences both to the Publick Cause, & his own Reputation. While it is unexecuted, I think it my Duty to make this last Effort to prevent it; & after suggesting those Reasons which occur to me against your Resignation, your own Virtue, & good Sense must decide upon it. In the usual Contests of Empire, & Ambition, the Conscience of a Soldier has so little Share, that he may very properly insist upon his Claims of Rank, & extend his Pretensions even to Punctilio: but in such a Cause as this, where the Object is neither Glory nor Extent of Territory, but a Defence of all that is dear & valuable in Life, surely every Post ought to be deem’d honourable in which a Man can serve his Country. What Matter of Triumph will it afford our Enemies, that in less than one Month, a Spirit of Discord should shew itself in the highest Ranks of the Army, not to be extinguished by any Thing less than a total Desertion of Duty? How little Reason shall we have to boast of American Union, & Patriotism if at such a Time, & in such a Cause, smaller & partial Considerations cannot give Way to the great & general Interest. These Remarks can only affect you as a Member of the great American Body; but as an Inhabitant of Massachusetts Bay, your own Province, & the other Colonies have a peculiar & unquestionable Claim to your Services ⟨a⟩nd in my Opinion you cannot refuse them, without relinquishing in some Degree, that Character for publick Virtue & Honour, which you have hitherto supported. If our Cause is just, it ought to be supported, but where shall it find Support, if Gentlemen of Merit & Experience unable to conquer the Prejudices of a Competition, withdraw themselves in an Hour of Danger: I admit, Sir, that your Claim & Services have not had due Respect—it is by no means a singular Case; worthy Men of all Nations & Countries have had Reason to make the same Complaint, but they did not for this abandon the publick Cause, they nobly stiffled the Dictates of Resentment, & made their Enemies ashamed of their Injustice. And can America shew no such Instances of Magnanimity? For the Sake of your bleeding Country, your devoted Province, your Charter Rights, & by the Memory of those brave Men who have already fell in this great Cause, I conjure you to banish from your Mind every Suggestion of Anger & Disappointment: your Country will do ample Justice to your Merits—they already do it, by the Sorrow & Regret expressed on the Occasion and the Sacrifice you are called to make, will in the Judgment of every good Man, & Lover of his Country, do you more real Honour than the most distinguished Victory.

You possess the Confidence & Affection of the Troops of this Province particularly; many of them are not capable of judging the Propriety & Reasons of your Conduct: should they esteem themselves authorized by your Example to leave the Service, the Consequences may be fatal & irretrievable—there is Reaso⟨n⟩ to fear it, from the personal Attachments of the Men to their Officers, & the Obligations that are supposed to arise from those Attachments. But, Sir, the other Colonies have also their Claims upon you, not only as a Native of America, but an Inhabitant of this Province. They have made common Cause with it, they have sacrificed their Trade, loaded themselves with Taxes & are ready to spill their Blood in Vindication of the Rights of Massachusetts Bay, while all the Security, & Profit of a Neutrality has been offered them: But no Arts or Temptations could seduce them from your Side, & leave you a Prey to a cruel & perfidious Ministry. Sure these Reflections must have some Weight, with a Mind as generous & considerate as yours.

How will you be able to answer it to your Country & your own Conscience, if the Step you are about to take should lead to a Division of the Army or the Loss & Ruin of America be ascribed to Measures which your Councils & Conduct could have prevented? Before it is too late I intreat Sir, you would weigh well the greatness of the Stake, & upon how much smaller Circumstances the Fate of Empires has depended. Of your own Honour & Reputation you are the best & only Judge, but allow me to say, that a People contending for Life & Liberty are seldom disposed to look with a favourable Eye upon either Men or Measures whose Passions, Interests or Consequences will clash with those inestimable Objects. As to myself Sir, be assured, that I shall with Pleasure do all in my Power to make your Situation both easy, & honourable, & that the Sentiments here expressed, flow from a clear Opinion that your Duty to your Country, your Posterity, & yourself most explicitly require your Continuance in the Service—The Order & Rank of the Commissions is under the Consideration of the Continental Congress, whose Determination will be received in a few Days.1 It may argue a Want of Respect to that August Body not to wait the Decision; But at all Events I shall flatter myself that these Reasons with others which your own good Judgment will suggest, will strengthen your Mind against those Impressions which are incident to Humanity & laudable to a certain Degree; and that the Result will be, your Resolution to assist your Country in this Day of Distress—That you may reap the full Reward of Honour, & publick Esteem which such a Conduct deserves is the sincere Wish of Sir, Your very Obed: & most Hbble Servt

Go: Washington

LS, in Joseph Reed’s writing, MHi: John Thomas Papers; Df, NHi: Joseph Reed Papers.

For the background to this letter, see James Warren and Joseph Hawley to GW, 4 July 1775, n.1. James Warren wrote to Thomas on 22 July urging him not to resign, as did Maj. Gen. Charles Lee on 23 July (Mass. Hist. Soc., Proceedings description begins Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Boston, 1859—. description ends , 2d ser., 18 [1903–4], 425–26).

1Thomas’s new commission as first brigadier general, which Congress approved on 19 July, arrived at Cambridge by 4 Aug. (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 , 2:191; Hancock to GW, 24 July 1775; GW to Hancock, 4–5 Aug. 1775, n.2).

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