Adams on Washington: “Charming” and “Noble”
by Lauren, Publicity Assistant
John Ferling is Professor of History Emeritus at the University of West Georgia and a leading authority on American Revolutionary history. His book, John Adams: A Life, offers a compelling portrait of a reluctant revolutionary, a leader who was deeply troubled by the warfare that he helped to make, and a fiercely independent statesman. In honor of Presidents’ Day, we present the following excerpt, in which Ferling details John Adams’ first impressions of George Washington, and what ultimately led to Washington’s nomination for Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. Read other posts by Ferling here.
Adams met Washington for the first time during the sessions of the First Congress. He found him handsome, elegant, graceful, noble, and selfless, and he was moved by the Virginian’s willingness to risk his great fortune in the rebellion. Washington, he also discovered, was cordial, but there was a grave, cold formality to him. He was, said one observer, “repulsively cold.” He distanced himself from others, as if he was wary lest they discover some flaw in his makeup. In the real sense of the word, Washington was friendless. He saw other men as either loyal followers or his foes, never as intimates in whom he could confided. Only with women, who of course would not have benne seen as competitors, could he relax and joke and appear to be fully human.
Adams was also impressed by Washington’s singular leadership abilities. By study and observation, and by the hard experience of having had power—real life-and-death responsibilities—thrust upon him when he was still an young man in his early twenties, Washington had learned the secrets of inducing others to follow his lead. Washington probably knew more about leadership before he celebrated his twenty-fifth birthday than John Adams discovered in his lifetime. Washington said his success sprang from his example of courage under fire, combined with an “easy, polite” manner of a “commanding countenance” and the maintenance of “a demeanor at all times composed and dignified.” He was formal, and that formality kept others at a distance; but when blended with his other attributes it led most observers to describe him as “stately,” a man who inspired their “love and reverence.” Adams, too, found “something charming…in the conduct of Washington.” Over the years he devoted considerable attention to the matter and frequently discovered qualities in Washington that he had not noticed previously.
But all the virtues exhibited by Washington, those impressing Adams most were his “noble and disinterested” tendencies. Adams was convinced that Washington understood fully the potential for harm that he would hold in his hands as a commander of the American army. After speaking with Washington and after quizzing his fellow Virginians about his mettle, Adams and others had reached the conclusion that Washington could be trusted with the command of the army, an awesome power to entrust to any mortal.
There were additional reasons for Adams’s support of Washington. A non-New Englander, his appointment would broaden support for the war, pulling the Chesapeake provinces and perhaps the more southerly ones into the fray. In addition, some colonies feared New England, a populous—indeed, overpopulated—region with a long military tradition; according to Eliphalet Dyer, a Connecticut congressman, the worst nightmare of some middle and southern provinces was that a victorious New England army, commanded by “an Enterprising eastern New England Genll,” might humble the redcoats, then sweep across America and claim the continent for itself. The appointment of a non-new Englander would allay that concern. Adams, therefore, knew that there would be little opposition to Washington, but he also knew there was certain to be some opposition to demoting General [Artemas] Ward. For this reason it was imperative that a New Englander introduce the motion nominating Washington. He and Samuel Adams discussed their strategy, then decided that John should take the lead.
On June 14 , the morning air heavy and sticky as a southerly breeze blew in a tropical front from the Chesapeake, Adams was the first congressman on his feet. He made his motion, lauding Washington’s “Skill and Experience as an Officer,” as well as his “excellent universal Character.” Samuel Adams seconded the motion. Washington fled the room as the debate began, but he question was never really in doubt, and on the following afternoon Adams’s motion was accepted. Adams could not have been ore delighted. This was proof that the “whole continent” was “bestirring itself.”