Called to Duty
Washington spent his years as a planter trying to gain economic independence from the London merchants who bought his crops. Like many colonists, he grew frustrated at what he and many other colonists saw as unfair laws. In the 1760s, the colonists repeatedly clashed with the British Parliament over questions of taxation and trade. The British government had racked up a massive debt during the French and Indian War. Since American colonists had benefited from the British victory in this war, Parliament believed it only fair that Americans help pay for the effort. But Americans have never liked paying taxes and have never shied from using the language of rights to justify not paying. Parliament, for its part, never took American grievances very seriously. In the space of one decade, the 1760s, these grievances grew from grumbles about taxes to a strong desire for independence.
A series of Parliamentary laws goaded the colonists to increasing levels of anger: the 1765 Stamp Act led to boycotts and protests; the Townshend Acts of 1767 resulted in a movement to stop importing British goods. Washington was a leader in this movement. In retaliation, British troops occupied Boston. An unfortunate skirmish between colonists and British troops, portrayed by Samuel Adams and other rebels as the Boston Massacre, brought further opposition to heavy-handed British policies. Continuing disobedience in Boston led Parliament to pass the Coercive Acts, which completely closed Boston harbor in an attempt to cut off the Boston rebels from the rest of the colonies. On April 19, 1775, the Battles of Lexington and Concord broke out when British troops tried to seize a rebel stockpile of weapons. This began the Revolutionary War.
Washington watched these developments with fear. He would lose a lot if a rebellion took place. In 1758 the idea of rebelling against Britain was unthinkable to him, as it was to most colonists. Yet he was also angry at Britain for having been denied a commission in the British Army and humiliated by the army's lack of respect for the Virginia militia. Like many colonists, he was hurt financially by the effects of the Stamp Act and Townshend Acts. He believed, like many of his contemporaries, that he and his fellow Americans were being taxed without representation.
Washington vigorously joined the non-importation movement and presided over a meeting in 1774 at the Fairfax County Court House. The delegates affirmed Americans' right to govern themselves and threatened to rebel if Britain would not respect this right. Later that year Washington attended the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where representatives of the different colonies tried to agree on a common response to Britain. Washington impressed his fellow delegates; his fame as a military leader had spread beyond the borders of Virginia. By the time the Second Continental Congress was held in 1775, Parliament had declared Massachusetts to officially be in revolt. War seemed certain. Washington, who had attended the meeting in his militia uniform, was elected supreme commander of the Continental Army–this was to be the American army. Though convinced that the colonies were justified in rebelling, Washington doubted his own ability to lead, but despite his fears he accepted the job.
The Revolutionary War is now so far in the past that it is difficult for us to imagine what was at stake for the people who fought it. The colonists saw themselves as British. Even the fierce rebels like Samuel Adams believed they were standing up for the rights traditionally belonging to British subjects. They wanted a different economic relationship with Britain–they didn't necessarily want independence.
George Washington didn't want independence either, at least not at first. He was connected to British merchants by trade. He was connected to the British Army by loyalty. Yet he saw himself as American, and became convinced that the British did not respect Americans. He saw evidence for this in the way Parliament taxed Americans without any regard for how it would hurt their livelihoods. He also saw it in the way he and other members of his social group were treated by the British. He never forgave the British Army for denying him a commission simply because he came from a colony. Washington was officially a British subject but was treated like a second-class citizen in his own land by people who commanded him from across an ocean. This hurt his pride. For Washington, the struggle against Britain was not simply a dispute over taxes; it was a struggle for an American identity. While men like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams saw the rebellion in political terms, Washington saw it in largely personal terms. Later, as president, he would see leadership in the same way.
Declaring independence was a radical and dangerous step for the colonies. They risked invasion from Britain, whose overwhelming military power they could not resist. It was an even more dangerous step for Washington. He was elected supreme commander of an army that did not exist: it was simply a collection of unruly militiamen. It was likely to fall apart at any minute for lack of supplies and manpower. This would have left Washington a general without an army, and the most conspicuous traitor in all of the colonies.
Given this danger, Washington was reluctant to take command. Certainly he wanted glory, and certainly he believed in his cause. But though Washington clearly sought command of the army, he took it knowing that he may not have been up to the job. There was simply no one else around who was more qualified, and Washington knew it. He believed it was his duty to lead, that not leading would amount to abandoning his fellow Americans. He was ambitious, but ambitious in service of a cause in which he deeply believed. As he put it to himself, "Can a virtuous man hesitate in his choice?"
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