B. How Washington Became Great: His Excellency General Washington

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B. How Washington Became Great: His Excellency General Washington


(1) Taking Command

The First Continental Congress from The Life of George Washington

Washington Irving

Not only the military and presidential Father of His Country, George Washington was also present at its conception. As a delegate from Virginia, he attended the First Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia from September 5 to October 26, 1774 to consider a united colonial response to the Intolerable Acts, passed by the British Parliament to punish Boston for the Boston Tea Party. The Congress discussed options, asserted rights, considered grievances, and ended by agreeing to a peaceful boycott of British goods. They also drafted a petition to King George III for redress of grievances, calling for a second meeting the following year should their petition fail--as indeed it did.

The two Continental Congresses are the subject of the present reading and the next, taken from a five-volume biography of George Washington (published in 1855-59) by Washington Irving (1783-1859), American author, essayist, historian, and biographer, known especially for his stories of "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Irving, named for the great general whom he would later meet when he was seven years old, came to know and interview many figures of the Revolutionary era, and his biography is still regarded as a valuable source. After recounting what transpired at the First Continental Congress, Irving speaks here about Washington's role in the debates and his attitude toward the possibility of independence, relying largely on Washington's correspondence with Captain Robert McKenzie, an officer who had served under him during the French and Indian War and later served with the British troops stationed in Boston after the Boston Tea Party.

What, according to Irving, were Washington's sentiments at the time of the Congress? What was his position regarding the Boston uprisings--and why? What was his position, at this time, regarding independence of the colonies? Why were not Washington and his fellow delegates bent on revolution?

When the time approached for the meeting of the General Congress at Philadelphia, Washington was joined at Mount Vernon by Patrick Henry and Edmund Pendleton, and they performed the journey together on horseback. It was a noble companionship. Henry was then in the youthful vigor and elasticity of his bounding genius; ardent, acute, fanciful, eloquent. Pendleton, schooled in public life, a veteran in council, with native force of intellect, and habits of deep reflection. Washington, in the meridian of his days, mature in wisdom, comprehensive in mind, sagacious in foresight. Such were the apostles of liberty, repairing on their august pilgrimage to Philadelphia from all parts of the land, to lay the foundations of a mighty empire. Well may we say of that eventful period, "There were giants in those days."

Congress assembled on Monday, the 5th of September, in a large room in Carpenter's Hall. There were fifty-one delegates, representing all the colonies excepting Georgia.

The meeting has been described as "awfully solemn." The most eminent men of the various colonies, were now for the first time brought together; they were known to each other by fame, but were, personally, strangers. The object which had called them together, was of incalculable magnitude. The liberties of no less than three millions of people, with that of all their posterity, were staked on the wisdom and energy of their councils.

"It is such an assembly," writes John Adams, who was present, "as never before came together on a sudden, in any part of the world. Here are fortunes, abilities, learning, eloquence, acuteness, equal to any I ever met with in my life. Here is a diversity of religions, educations, manners, interests, such as it would seem impossible to unite in one plan of conduct...."

From the secrecy that enveloped its discussions, we are ignorant of the part taken by Washington in the debates; the similarity of the resolutions, however, in spirit and substance to those of the Fairfax County meeting, in which he presided, and the coincidence of the measures adopted with those therein recommended, show that he had a powerful agency in the whole proceedings of this eventful assembly. …

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