Webisode 1. Segment 6
"The Greatest Men Upon This Continent"
On August 23, 1775, King George III proclaimed that "a general rebellion existed in the American colonies" and that "utmost endeavors" should be made to "suppress it and bring traitors to justice . "There was now a death penalty put on many colonists' heads. Suddenly the colonists, who often didn't seem to have much in common, found they were all being threatened. It made them band together as they had never done before. Patrick Henry exclaimed, "The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American." Sam Adams's Committees of Correspondence, made up of leaders from all of the colonies, became a congress in 1774: It was the First Continental Congress . It was followed by a Second Continental Congress in 1775 . Looking around him at the delegates gathered in Philadelphia, John Adams wrote, "There is in the Congress a collection of the greatest men upon this continent ."
From Massachusetts came Sam Adams and his cousin John , who, some said, had more learning than anyone in the colonies. John was married to an extraordinary woman named Abigail Adams, who wrote him many letters. She said in one of them, "In the new code of laws which ... it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the Ladies... Do not put unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could."
From Pennsylvania came a political leader and a world renowned scientist. It was the man who wrote that mocking poem about EnglandBenjamin Franklin. From Rhode Island came Stephen Hopkins , who didn't let his palsy stop him. New York sent wealthy Philip Livingston. North Carolina's Joseph Hewes was against separation from Great Britain. He would be convinced that the fight for freedom was worthwhile. But all eyes were on the Virginia delegation when Colonel George Washington arrived. "For my part, I shall not undertake to say where the line between Great Britain and the colonies should be drawn," Washington had said, "but I am clearly of the opinion that one ought to be drawn. The crisis is arrived when we must assert our rights."
Also from Virginia was the dashing, aristocratic Richard Henry Lee , who had lost some fingers in a hunting accident and kept a silk handkerchief wrapped around that hand and pointed with it when he spoke. At six feet four inches, Virginia's Benjamin Harrison was the tallest at the convention. Another large Virginian, Peyton Randolph , left when called to the Virginia legislature. That body still seemed more important to many Virginians than any group effort. Randolph's young cousin, Thomas Jefferson , took his place.
As the delegates at the Second Continental Congress began discussion in May 1795, a messenger on horseback brought a letter from Boston. The patriots were pleading for Congress to take over their forces. The minutemen who fought at Lexington and Concord were gathered near Boston. Others had come from the countryside with rifles and muskets. If someone didn't take charge of the army they would all go home.
John Hancock from Massachusetts believed he was the man for the job. He had done a bit of soldiering, and it was his money that was paying some of the Congress's bills. So when John Adams stood up to nominate a general, almost everyoneespecially John Hancockthought it would be Hancock. But John Adams knew that the delegates were suspicious of the Massachusetts people. And he always did what he thought was best for the nationnot what would make him popular at home. He said, "There is but one man in my mind for this important command. The gentleman I have in mind is from Virginia." When Adams said that, John Hancock's face fell, and Washington, who realized he was the man from Virginia, rushed from the room. Adams continued: "His skill as an officer, his great talents and universal character would command the respect of America and unite the Colonies better than any other person alive ."
George Washington was unanimously elected commander-in-chief of the new Continental army. He accepted , on one condition: He would take no salary. And that was part of Washington's greatness. He was willing to serve without pay for a cause he thought noble. But he also knew he had an almost impossible job. Before he left for Boston to take up his command, he spoke to Patrick Henry. "Remember, Mr. Henry, what I now tell you: From the day I enter upon the command of the American armies, I date ... the ruin of my reputation."
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