OTD in History… June 15, 1775, the Continental Congress votes George Washington Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in the American Revolution
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in History June 15, 1775, the Second Continental Congress unanimously votes George Washington Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in the American Revolution. The Congress chose Virginia delegate Washington because in 1754 he served as “Colonel of the Virginia Regiment and Commander in Chief of all forces now raised in the defense of His Majesty’s Colony” for the British army during the French and Indian War. Washington would accept this central post in America’s fight for independence from Great Britain. Thirteen years later in 1789, again the country would unanimously vote Washington the first President of the United States.
Washington served in the first Continental Congress in the fall of 1774, and in March 1775, was again chosen by Virginia as one of their delegates. This time the colonies were inching closer to war. As Virginia delegate, Patrick Henry declared, “We must fight! Give me liberty or give me death!” War and eventually independence would be on the Second Continental Congress’ agenda when they reconvened on May 10, 1775.
At this point, only militia forces were fighting the British, but they needed a leader after victories against the British with the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts on April 19. Besides a leader, the militias were lacking “guns, ammunition, and training.” On June 14, the Continental Congress formed the Continental Army, and Samuel and John Adams nominated Washington as commander. New England’s delegates wanted a leader from their area, while others thought having a commander from the South would make the army a “Continental” one representative of the all 13 of the American colonies.
With Washington from Virginia, he became the consensus candidate. The army needed rich and populous Virginia’s involvement. Washington had the military experience, and at 43-years-old was young enough for the rigors of the war, and he was dedicated to the colonies’ patriotic cause. One New England delegate observed, “He seems discrete and virtuous, no harum-scarum, ranting swearing fellow, but sober, steady, and calm.” After his nomination, Washington recused himself from the voting and the Congress unanimously chose him.
On June 16, Washington delivered an acceptance speech, telling the Congress, “I am truly sensible of the high Honor done me in this Appointment… lest some unlucky event should happen unfavourable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered by every Gentleman in the room, that I this day declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the Command I am honoured with.” Unlike the soldiers, Washington refused to take a salary; instead, he asked to be for having his expenses paid at the war’s end.
John Adams wrote his wife Abigail about the Congress choosing Washington on June 17, saying, “I can now inform you that the Congress have made Choice of the modest and virtuous, the amiable, generous and brave George Washington Esqr., to be the General of the American Army and that he is to repair as soon as possible to the Camp before Boston.”
The next day, Washington wrote a letter to his wife Martha informing her of his new post. Washington expressed, “It has been determined in Congress, that the whole army raised for the defense of the American Cause shall be put under my care, and that it is necessary for me to proceed immediately to Boston to take upon me the Command of it. You may believe me my dear Patsy, when I assure you in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it.” Washington admitted, he had no choice to accept the command, writing, “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.”
The Congress drafted Washington’s commission on June 17; they officially commissioned Washington as commander on June 19, and he assumed command on June 3, two weeks after the army floundered at the Battle of Bunker Hill outside of Boston, Massachusetts on June 17. Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms also on July 3, explaining the reasons behind the colonies military actions and Revolutionary War against Britain.
As historian James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn in their biography, George Washington noted, “From now on, he promised, he would devote himself solely to ‘American Union and Patriotism.’ All smaller and partial considerations would ‘give way to the great and general Interest.’” Washington would serve as the commander leading the newly formed United States to independence and victory against the British, resigning on December 23, 1783. Five years later in 1789, Washington would lead the new nation again, when he was elected the first President of the United States. His two-term presidency would be the model followed throughout American history.
Burns, James M. G, and Susan Dunn. George Washington. New York: Times Books, 2004.
Findling, John E, and Frank W. Thackeray. Events That Changed America in the Eighteenth Century. Westport, Conn Greenwood Press Birmingham, AL, USA EBSCO Industries, Inc., 1998.
Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2010.
Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency George Washington. New York: Knopf, 2004.
Lengel, Edward G. General George Washington: A Military Life. New York: Random House, 2005.