Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

The personal revolution of George Washington

July 29, 2011 by Jane Hampton Cook


Editor's Note: Jane Hampton Cook will deliver two gallery talks at the National Constitution Center on Saturday in the Discover the Real George Washington exhibition. This essay appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

When John Adams left Philadelphia after the first Continental Congress in 1774, he didn't expect to return.

Gilbert Stuart (1755 - 1828), American Oil on canvas, ca. 1798 Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, Gift of Caroline H. Richardson, 1904

"Took our departure . . . from the happy, peaceful, elegant, hospitable, and polite city of Philadelphia. It is not very likely that I shall ever see this part of the world again, but I shall ever retain a most grateful, pleasing sense of the many civilities I have received in it."

He did return, living loudly for the cause of liberty and helping start a nation here. So it is fitting today that Philadelphia is the home of the National Constitution Center, where visitors ask probing questions about the nation's founding, such as the one Adams considered 40 years after first departing Philadelphia:

"What do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war?"

As an eyewitness, he knew the answer. The American Revolution began long before the first musket flared.

"The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations."

The American Revolution was a transformation of their hearts, souls, and minds. For a few, that change was instant. For most the conversion came after a long wrestling over allegiances and beliefs about government.

As I wrote Stories of Faith and Courage From the Revolutionary War, I wondered: When did this change begin in George Washington?

The seeds of change

The seed may have been planted when he was 22. A colonel in a Virginia regiment, he fought with regular British redcoats against the French and Indians in July 1755. The battle went terribly wrong, leading Washington to step in for his dying general. By the time he arrived at Maryland's Fort Cumberland, most of his surviving comrades were shocked to see him. They thought he was dead. He quickly corrected the record and wrote his mother:

"I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me, and yet escaped unhurt."

Though struggling with survivor's guilt, Washington was also hot. They hadn't just been defeated but were "scandalously beaten."

"We were attacked by a party of French and Indians, whose number, I am persuaded, did not exceed 300 men; while ours consisted of about 1,300 well-armed troops, chiefly regular soldiers, who were struck with such a panic that they behaved with more cowardice than it is possible to conceive."

The redcoats abandoned the Virginia regiment.

"In short, the dastardly behavior of those they call regulars exposed all others. . . . They ran, as sheep pursued by dogs, and it was impossible to rally them."

Weren't the American colonists and their British counterparts equal subjects? Didn't they serve the same king? Something was amiss, and the disparity and disloyalty pierced his heart. Washington was not ready to rebel, but the seed grew over the years as the king took away the colonial charters, the rights to assemble and receive jury trials, and much more.

By 1774, Washington was ready. Martha Washington perhaps best described her husband's commitment on the morning he left for Philadelphia's first Continental Congress. To a colonel accompanying him, she said, "I hope you will stand firm - I know George will."

Nearly 20 years after witnessing the redcoats' abandonment, Washington was ready to evict the British army once and for all, and he finally did so in 1781 at Yorktown. The war was won, but not yet the revolution.

That came in 1787, when Washington returned to Philadelphia to preside over the Constitutional Convention. Today, the Constitution is the most tangible proof that the American Revolution was not merely a war but a change in the minds of the people. Gone was "Long live the king," replaced by "We the people of the United States." America traded royalty for representation. Patriots shed blood for the rights given them by their creator. Union, not a single monarch, now governed the people's will.

As John Adams concluded: "This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution."

Jane Hampton Cook is author of six books, including Stories of Faith and Courage From the Revolutionary War and her recent children's book, What Does the President Look Like?

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