On June 26, 1775, George Washington met with leaders from the New York Provincial Congress while passing through New York City en route to Boston to take command of the Continental Army. The group gathered to celebrate Washington's naming as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army just eleven days earlier. Peter Van Brugh Livingston, president of the New York Congress, delivered a congratulatory address on behalf of the legislature. Livingston celebrated Washington as "a Gentlemen from whose Abilities and Virtue we are taught to expect both Security and Peace."1
Livingston's speech, however, also expressed fears regarding the potential tyranny of a standing army. He explained that while "We have the most flattering Hopes of Success in the glorious Struggle for American Liberty," the legislature also hoped for the "fullest Assurances that whenever this important Contest shall be decided. . .You will cheerfully resign the important Deposit committed unto Your Hands, and reassume the Character of our worthiest Citizen."2
Washington understood the need to allay anxieties to both politicians and the public, who feared that the military would not transfer power into civilian hands at the end of the war. In addition, the years leading to the revolution were suffused in protestations against the visibility of British troops, including the quartering of soldiers. In his response, Washington had to strike a balance between authority and an understanding of the issue’s importance.
Washington replied directly to Livingston, explaining that "When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen and we shall most sincerely rejoice with you in that happy hour when the establishment of American liberty, on the most firm and solid foundations, shall enable us to return to our private stations in the bosom of a free, peaceful, and happy country."3
With these words, Washington seemingly calmed fears within the New York Provincial Congress regarding military despotism. The body ordered the two addresses printed and published, and newspapers throughout the east coast printed the exchange. Washington also established a recurring theme for his career in charge of the Continental Army, emphasizing the need to defer to civilian authority.
Adam D. Shprintzen, Ph.D.
1. "New York Provincial Congress to George Washington, 26 June 1775," George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4. General Correspondence.
2. "George Washington to New Yew York Provincial Congress, 26 June 1775," The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office).