Washington's convictions were soon put to the test. On 16 December 1773, angry Bostonians led by Samuel Adams dumped 45 tons of tea into Boston Harbor, protesting Parliament's Tea Act. The "Boston Tea Party" was only the latest in a string of increasingly tense encounters between Bostonians and the British. Alarmed, and already disposed to be angry, the British Parliament passed a series of punitive measures—the so-called Intolerable or Coercive Acts—and sent a garrison of soldiers to shut down the port of Boston.7
For many colonists, military occupation was a step too far. Thomas Jefferson, at this point a young and little-known member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, introduced a resolution calling for Virginia to stand in solidarity with Boston. His proposal infuriated the royal governor, who promptly dissolved the Virginia legislature. The Virginia representatives, seeing in the governor's actions more proof of the Crown's corruption, reconvened at a tavern down the street and called for a continental congress to coordinate the colonies' response to Britain's aggression. Washington supported the resolution wholeheartedly and was chosen as a congressional delegate.
Whatever Washington saw at that congress must have convinced him that war was imminent. The First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia, in September 1774, and disbanded about a month later, having made plans for a Second Congress the following May. Before leaving town, Washington bought a new book on military strategy and a sash and epaulets. When he returned to Virginia, he immediately assumed command of a number of local militia companies and bought more military supplies. When he returned to Philadelphia for the Second Congress in May 1775, he packed his uniform and wore it to all of the Congress's meetings.
Washington had been right: by the time the Second Congress met, war was already a reality. British regulars and Massachusetts militia fought the first engagements of the Revolutionary War at Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775. After convening a few weeks later, on 10 May, Congress asked Washington to chair committees on military affairs and preparedness. When, in early June, British general Thomas Gage declared the colonies to be in a state of rebellion, Congress decided to raise an army, and Washington was the obvious choice to lead it.
Part of the reason was military: his service in the French and Indian War had made Washington the most famous fighting man in America, and one of the few colonists with military experience as an officer. But there were political reasons for his selection too. Washington was a figure everyone could rally around. Northern independence advocates could support Washington because of his radical stands against Britain in the Virginia House of Burgesses, and Southern gentlemen could back him as member of the Virginia gentry and a peer. Washington, unique among the Congressional delegates, had the potential to turn a regional conflict—a struggle between Massachusetts and Britain—into an all-colony affair. The fact that he already looked like a general in Congressional meetings, standing over six feet tall in full military dress, certainly helped. On 15 June, at the instigation of John Adams, Washington was named commander in chief of the forces of the United Colonies. Two weeks later, he was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working to turn the local militias into the Continental army.
The Revolutionary War was to be the defining experience in the evolution of Washington's personality. In his own day, it would make him an international celebrity and a man of world-historical importance. The war turned George Washington, a man of flesh and blood, into His Excellency, General Washington, the symbol of a new nation and its principles.
That transformation was explicit. Indeed, it might be better to say that the Revolutionary War forced Washington to turn himself into a symbol. To see just what that means, we need to remember the circumstances in which Washington assumed command of the Continental army. In 1775, when Washington became the public face of the colonies' army, there wasn't any such thing as an American nation. It just didn't exist. The Declaration of Independence had yet to be written, and the Continental Congress was still trying to figure out what authority it actually possessed. The only institution to really embody the possibility of a unified North America was the Continental army. The army, unlike the local militias, did not fight on behalf of one colony, but for all of them. It fought against Britain in the name of the people of North America. And, as the army drew recruits from all over the country, moving up and down the coast fighting the British, it gave that people a direct experience of trans-colonial unity they couldn't get anywhere else.
Washington was that army's only fixed point. From the moment Congress commissioned him general, he married his reputation to the Continental army's. He led its recruiting drives, planned its actions, and never left it—not in the heat of battle, nor in the painful winter encampments. His name became synonymous with the colonists' cause. Washington became the one-man embodiment of the army itself, and thus of the idea of an American nation.
There was, then, a symbolic dimension to Washington's role as commander in chief. As the only popular representation of the United Colonies, Washington understood himself to be an agent of the people. Like the Roman general Cincinnatus, called up from his farm to defend his country, Washington saw himself as a public servant, fighting for the preservation (or in this case, the creation) of a popular republic. Washington cultivated an image to suit these symbolic needs. He dug ditches alongside his troops to show them he considered himself no better than they were. He continually deflected praise from himself onto his officers and men to show how success rested on group action. And he ruthlessly quashed suggestions that he was interested in power, declaiming to all who would listen how happily he would surrender his commission if ever the public should ask it of him. Washington portrayed himself to the people as a republican military leader, as nothing more than an extension of the people's will. It was a role that, as a symbol, he needed to play.8
Of course, Washington wasn't just a symbol, he was also a general: he had a war to win. And although he was initially less adept at that role, he eventually learned to play it well.
Washington's first military priority was creating an efficient and well-trained army. This was even more difficult than it sounds. At the time, most colonial statesmen were in the grip of the "myth of the militia": a blind faith that untrained citizens organized into voluntary militias fighting to defend their own communities were more effective than a regular standing army. The myth of the militia was fed by an early victory against the British at the Battle of Bunker Hill and remained strong well through the end of the eighteenth century.
Still, Washington didn't buy it. The best success he'd achieved in his own career had been with his professionally staffed and trained Virginia Regiment, and he'd seen militias break and run under enemy fire too often to put much faith in them. If he was going to fight the professional British army, he wanted a professional army of his own.
But in order to get one, he had to convince the Congress and colonists to get over their militia fetish. He spent his first years as commander wooing doubtful recruits and lobbying to extend the duration of enlistments. He tried to standardize militia training and reassure locals that a standing army would not oppress them. Thanks to the large number of immigrants and marginal characters inhabiting America at the time, Washington was finally able to gather the manpower to staff his army. But that didn't mean it could fight. It took several years of drilling, organizing, and preparing before his army was very credible.
Once he had his army, Washington had to find a way to use it to win the war. His own preference was for a decisive confrontation—a big victory that would demoralize the British and assure American independence. Unfortunately, the British were much better at those kinds of direct, decisive fights than the colonists were. The British had naval support and well-trained veterans who could be counted on under fire. Washington tried a couple of direct confrontations at the beginning of the war, but only sheer luck saved his army from total annihilation. Eventually, he came to realize that, in the words of historian Joseph Ellis, "the way to win the war was not to lose it."9
Since the British would defeat the Continental army in a head-on fight, Washington needed to avoid a direct confrontation. Taking a page from the Roman general Fabius, he bided his time, marching his army up and down the eastern seaboard, fighting only small battles he knew he could win. Washington reasoned that, since the British army was far from home, it would have a hard time rebuilding as the war dragged on. If the Continental army could weaken the British a little every day, while growing more efficient and stronger itself, it would shift the balance of forces and might scrape out a victory in the end. Maybe, if the balance of forces shifted enough, they could even win a head-on fight.
Washington's strategy worked. In the fall of 1777, surprise victories by his northern army at Saratoga convinced the French to join the war on the colonists' side (although ironically, in those battles, it was the untrained colonial militia that probably made the difference in securing the British defeat). By the end of the decade, Washington's army was in top form, the British were becoming ragged, and Washington was ready to hazard a more decisive encounter. When, in the fall of 1781, he learned that General Cornwallis had encamped his British troops in Yorktown, Virginia, Washington saw his opportunity. With the help of the French fleet, Washington's Continental army trapped Cornwallis's army, bombarding them into submission. Their surrender on 19 October 1781 effectively marked the end of the war, although the formal peace treaty wouldn't be signed for another two years. When the Treaty of Paris was finally signed on 3 September 1783, it merely recognized what had long been clear to the soldiers on the ground: thanks to the single well-timed strike at Yorktown, Washington had won American independence.