Tag Archives: Second Continental Congress

A Review of “George Washington’s Westchester Gamble” by Richard Borkow

George Washington's Westchester GambleFrontCoverGeorge Washington was a gambling man.  Although the Father of Our Country once called gambling “the child of avarice, the brother of iniquity, and the father of mischief,” that did not stop him from testing the odds in all manner of pursuits such card playing and lotteries.  His willingness to take risks, however, did not end at the card table. As a general, Washington used feints, intelligence networks, and strategic deception whenever he could to eke out an advantage over his enemy the British, then the most potent military power in the world. Little wonder that one of the phrases he wrote to a disheartened fellow officer during the American Revolution was, “Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.” 

One of Washington’s greatest gambles resulted in ultimate victory over British forces — in fact, some historians suggest it was the most important decision he ever made as a military man. In 1781, General Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau led French troops that joined with the Continental Army during its summer encampment on the Hudson River near the town of Dobbs Ferry, New York.  The French believed the American army was running out of time as it lost men and the ability to remain adequately supplied in a war that could not continue much longer.  An attack on Manhattan and the British forces there was the more feasible and logical target for the combined armies. But, it was also where the British expected the blow to fall. A long-shot, but a long-shot worth taking, was the strategy of marching the combined armies out of New York and then head for Virginia where Washington and Rochambeau could trap General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. Washington’s joint armed forces would be supported by the French Navy under Admiral Francois de Grasse, whose armada would take possession of Chesapeake Bay and leave Cornwallis with no escape.  The result was “the world turned upside down” American victory familiar to any school kid who paid attention in his U.S. History class.  Cornwallis surrendered, the British were in shock, and George III’s government began negotiations that led to the end of the war and recognition of American independence.

Richard Borkow, a pediatrician who is also the village historian of Dobbs Ferry, in his book George Washington’s Westchester Gamble: The Encampment on the Hudson & the Trapping of Cornwallis (The History Press, 2011) admirably explains how Washington fooled the British with a campaign that defied long military odds yet won the American Revolution.  On the face of things, some would argue that the Battle of Yorktown is familiar territory well-examined by historians with little new to tell.  Borkow’s book, though, is written in an episodic fashion that explains the events that led to the “Westchester gamble” including decisions and actions from the very beginning of the armed conflict between American Patriots and the British army that had more far-reaching effects than the main players of the time realized.  The strength of Borkow’s examination is the way the author reminds us that Washington’s career as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army was fraught with disasters and near defeat.  Despite his unquestionable bravery and superb leadership, Washington faced mutinies, a Continental Congress that vacillated between praise of achievements and open discussion of replacing him with a better general, French allies who (rightly) saw that the American cause constantly teetered on the edge of annihilation, and even serious discussion whether the war should be about securing a United States comprised of only the New England and Middle Atlantic states, a plan that would abandon General Washington’s native Virginia and the rest of the South. No wonder Washington wrote after the war in 1783 of challenges he blandly called “distressing circumstances” that might make it hard to believe a rag-tag army of former colonials defeated a global superpower during eight years of terrible war.

Although Borkow’s book is brief and readable, it is an impressive work of depth and insight by a writer who is really an amateur historian. He clearly explains the importance of key events in the American Revolution that had direct bearing on Washington’s decision. The book is particularly strong in its description of the importance of the French alliance, why the French decided to back the Americans in the fight against the British, the military goals of French forces, and the constant stream of French reports on the outlook for American forces during the war. (The tone of those reports can be summed up in one word: grim.) One fascinating section of the book also relates how George Washington dealt with mutiny in the ranks of the New Jersey and Pennsylvania contingents of the Continental Army. Congress wanted to negotiate with the mutineers; Washington knew that mutiny would spread and destroy the American cause, so he had the offenders confronted and the unrepentant ringleaders executed. As Washington once wrote, “Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all.”

 Occasionally, the detailed background sections detract from the main story in the book but a thematic outline at the beginning will help the reader keep track of Borkow’s narrative.  On the whole, it is an excellent account of what was more than the march of American and French troops to Virginia for what we today might mistakenly think was inevitable victory, but was actually one of the greatest rolls of the dice in American military history.

UPDATE: In a video interview, Borkow discussed what could be the most the important decision George Washington ever made during the Revolutionary War with David Hackett Fischer, Earl Warren Professor of History at Brandeis University and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Washington’s Crossing. The video is here

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Happy Fourth of July

A portrayal of the Second Continental Congress and the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.

A portrayal of the Second Continental Congress and the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.

It is worth your time some time today between attending Fourth of July parades and the requisite grilling as part of a federal holiday barbecue to read Brian Vanyo’s essay “What Do We Celebrate on the Fourth of July?” Vanyo, an author and board member of the Constitution Leadership Initiative, points out that our national founding principles include strong leanings toward limited government power and a call to the people to resist encroachments on their rights by a swollen government. Mr. Vanyo and I sing from the same choir book, as my recent essay re-posted on RealClearHistory discusses how the current administration has twisted the classic meaning of equality in the Declaration.

Vanyo writes, “The domineering government we have today was never the design of our founders — in the words of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, ‘An elective despotism was not the government we fought for.’ But the government we have today needs not be the government we keep. By the principles of our founding, we have the power to change our government and secure our inalienable rights.” That’s an idea worth re-discovering today, an idea far more important to the Fourth of July than the condition of any burger fresh off the grill.

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Happy Birthday, United States Army

US ARMYOK, I realize that purists (as well as the U.S. Army) celebrate June 14 as the anniversary of the formation of the Continental Army  by the  Second Continental  Congress, a year prior to the Declaration of Independence as tensions between colonists and Great Britain began to increase in New England. Contrarian that  I am, I argue that today should be the anniversary because that is when George Washington was appointed Commander-in-Chief. The men who fight make an army — I in no way want to minimize that fact. But the Continental Army really takes shape under Washington, who repeatedly led his men without surrender against the British in the first successful anti-imperial revolution, organized the Army in ways that exist to this day, and served as the embodiment of the Army’s values of courage and selflessness despite the overwhelming odds faced by every U.S. soldier. Washington always respected the civilian command structure (he was subordinate to Congress) and his greatest moment as a soldier was when he voluntarily relinquished power, surrendering his sword, disbanding his army, and returning to civilian life with no expectation of political power as a reward for his service. The U.S. Army at its best still maintains those ideals and fights to defend the ideals of this nation. Besides, if we celebrate the Army’s birthday today the anniversary is not swallowed by another worthy patriotic celebration, Flag Day. But whatever the day, Happy Birthday to the nation’s oldest branch of service, the one that first fought so the ideals of the Declaration would become an independent reality called the United States of America.

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Congress Decides A Declaration of Independence Is Necessary

The Committee of Five

The Committee of Five

On June 11, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to appoint a committee that would draft a declaration of independence. Some historians have humorously referred to this group (called the Committee of Five) as “Jefferson and Co.” It is true that Thomas Jefferson was responsible for the first draft (called the “Rough Draught”) of the Declaration, written with the natural rights philosophy of John Locke, George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights (published June 12, 1776), his own drafts of the Preamble to the Virginia Constitution and the essay Summary View of the Rights of British Americans, as well as the need to defend the American cause firmly in mind. However, the other members of the committee – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman – offered invaluable contributions. Both Adams and Franklin revised the original draft, making specific recommendations regarding Jefferson’s wording and content.
Additionally, the entire Committee of Five read and revised this intermediate draft. On June 28, the draft then was submitted to Congress, which revised the text further, including the removal of Jefferson’s condemnation of the slave trade and the addition as a final paragraph of a resolution passed July 2 declaring independence, before approving the final version.

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A Congress of Reluctant Revolutionaries

A portrayal of the Second Continental Congress

A portrayal of the Second Continental Congress

Today marks the anniversary of the formation in 1775 of the Second Continental Congress, the body of delegates who met in Philadelphia during the American Revolutionary War.  The Second Congress was for all purposes a de facto national government of the United States once independence was declared. It is the “Congress of Independence” that drafted and approved the Declaration of Independence, but it also appointed George Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and signed treaties with the foreign powers that supported the revolution. Most notably, the Second Congress issued the Model Treaty with France, our staunchest foreign ally during the war.  The document became the guide for all subsequent commercial treaties.

In hindsight, one of the most striking qualities of the Second Congress is its reluctance toward revolution and independence. Most Americans – even many of the Founders who mobilized the Second Continental Congress  – continued to cling to the hope even after open warfare broke out that there could be some kind of reconciliation with Great Britain. Although the waffling colonists chafed considerably under the paternalism of the mother country and resented Parliament’s obstinate refusal to compromise, many still believed that British rule was preferable to the return of French power to North America. Americans might hate the fact that the Crown quartered troops in Boston homes, but they hated the threat of French soldiers taking their homes and their women even more. Despite the economic hardships levied on the colonies by the Intolerable Acts in the early 1770s and the shots fired at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Congress issued the Olive Branch Petition, which professed continued loyalty to the king and love for the mother country.

In the early months of 1776, the advantages of imperial protection still held enough sway that Thomas Paine dedicated a large portion of Common Sense (the pamphlet which widely popularized the idea of American independence for the first time) to fanning the flames of outrage against crown and Parliament. In fact, an entire section of the pamphlet is an elaborate, almost begging entreaty to American readers, asking them to accept the common sense of the matter at hand, namely the need to abandon king and country and listen as “the blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘TIS TIME TO PART.” Paine needed to apply all of his consummate skills as the most persuasive member of the Revolution’s “chattering class” to the task of convincing readers of the necessity of independence 10 months after the Americans had entered a bloody fight with the 18th century’s global superpower, the same power that many of them hoped would protect them from a traditional enemy.

However, by the beginning of 1776 events accelerated. Ordinary colonists as well as the small but active and vocal minority that advocated separation decided that they were fighting a war for independence.

Towns and legislatures in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Virginia began to debate the wisdom of independence, asking the people for their opinions on the subject and whether they would be willing to support such a radical move with their lives and fortune. Similar discussions soon followed in every colony. This was an unprecedented move in itself: even the history of English rights and liberties contained nothing like a poll for regime change mobilized from the ground up. However, it became obvious that there was significant support for an independence movement. Six months earlier the wide scope of a debate about independence would have been unlikely. Congress could at last be confident that they would not be ahead of the people when it came to a revolutionary war. The “reluctant revolutionaries” at last declared that they were Americans.

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