Dressed in defiance, Col. George Washington arrived at each session of the Second Continental Congress donning a new buff and blue uniform he helped design with fellow Virginian George Mason. Washington, a staunch but cautious Whig, fully embraced the American cause and, incredibly, his military exploits from the French and Indian War roughly two decades earlier thrust him to the crest of public affairs during the Coercive Acts Crisis. As the empire’s political turmoil escalated into a military crisis, six Virginia counties sought the colonel’s martial leadership in preparation for potential civil conflict. When John Adams endorsed Washington to lead the Continental forces on June 15, 1775, the Virginian exited the room to allow delegates political space to deliberate this touchy but necessary development. The following day, Washington accepted his unanimous nomination, metamorphizing from provincial colonel to commander-in-chief of the Continental army. He offered a carefully worded address to Congress, declaring “I do not think myself equal to the Command I am honored with.” To the fiddle-playing fire-breather Patrick Henry, Washington predicted his nomination marked “the ruin of my reputation.” The newly-minted general next lamented to his wife that, “far from seeking this appointment I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it.” Writing to his brother-in-law, he described his recent promotion as “an honor I by no means aspired to.” Historians have yet to adequately reconcile this discordant sequence of events. If Washington did not think himself qualified to lead an army and feared reputational ruin, why did he attend Congress immaculately clad in his war robes?
Some scholars simply write this affair off as disingenuous behavior on Washington’s part; others rationalize it as naked ambition followed by calculated damage control. But why have academics yet refused to take Washington at his word? In a broader sense, the British Empire was about to sink into civil war, naturally making this episode appear trivial by comparison. Yet Washington’s sartorial choices at Congress reveal a lost mental landscape that helped shape his character, inform his behavior, and instill in him a calculated (if cold) shrewdness. This landscape formed in the mortal uncertainty of eighteenth-century colonial Virginia and matured on that colony’s violent western frontier in the heat of imperial conflict during the 1750s. As a young militiaman, Washington came to view military attire as a signal of martial solidarity and military potency. Some twenty years later, this vision translated, however imperfectly, to America’s ideological frontier on the eve of the American Revolution. By the time the empire experienced its final convulsion, colonists had already incorporated clothing into their political lexicon. Revolutionary Americans’ wardrobes transmitted to observers certain personal details, such as political persuasion, social class and even occupation. Yet military attire alone communicated the aforementioned qualities as well as a preparedness for organized violence. At Congress, Washington revealed his politics, martial proficiency and soldier’s temper without having to utter a word; his uniform spoke for him.
George Washington’s pursuit of a soldier’s life resulted from familial misfortune as much as inspiration. When his father died in 1743, the boy lost access to the English education that helped refine and prepare his older half-brothers, Lawrence and Augustine, for Virginia’s deeply hierarchical society. In this environment, where settlers calculated virtually every distinction, this lost opportunity severely limited young George’s future career options. Thereafter, eldest sibling Lawrence became the most influential man in George’s life and likely roused in him a desire to embark on a military path. The former had served in Admiral Edward Vernon’s 1741 attack on Cartagena during the War of Jenkins’s Ear, miraculously surviving Britain’s devastating casualties. Lawrence returned home with the social currency of a veteran and, perhaps as a result, received from Lt. Gov. William Gooch a commission as major in the Old Dominion’s militia. In July 1743, Lawrence married into the powerful Fairfax family, firmly planting himself in the upper crust of Virginia’s aristocracy. He next stood for and won election to the House of Burgesses in 1744 from Fairfax County. Lawrence’s careful social maneuvering combined with his public service credentials advanced the Washingtons to the nexus of Virginia’s political and military elite. Eleven-year-old George no doubt absorbed and admired the martial substance and accompanying gravity of consequence, into which his brother and extended family ushered him. He also sought to emulate Lawrence’s career path so far as he could.
At fifteen, George hoped to follow in Lawrence’s footsteps by enlisting in the British navy. Yet the former’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, harbored grave misgivings about this potentiality. More than a little familiar with the staggering death toll suffered under Admiral Vernon, she asked her brother, Joseph Ball, about her son’s maritime fantasies. Ball responded in a way that would have caused any white Virginian to recoil in horror, warning that the British navy would corporeally disfigure her son and “use him like a Negro, or rather, like a dog.” One can only imagine Mary Washington configuring this bigoted, degrading and horrific conflation onto her first-born child. Needless to say, George’s naval career ended before it began. However, after Lawrence’s untimely death in 1752, the younger Washington found a home in the Virginia militia.
In February 1753, Washington accepted a commission from Lt. Gov. Robert Dinwiddie as major in the provincial militia. That October, Dinwiddie sent him into the contested western frontier on a sensitive mission to assess French military strength and warn out Louis XV’s soldiers from the region. The governor provided Washington a passport demanding all His Majesty’s subjects and allies assist the new major with his “Business of great Importance.” When the ambitious Virginian returned to Williamsburg (narrowly escaping death on at least two occasions), his adventurous account so thoroughly impressed Dinwiddie that the governor had it published and promoted the young major to lieutenant colonel of the new Virginia Regiment. The governor next sent Washington back into the interior to enhance his colony’s defense in the face of an encroaching French menace. Drawing out the very real possibility of violent resistance to this mission, Dinwiddie instructed Washington to “kill & destroy” any opposition. Within these dangerous frontier spaces, Washington began to appreciate the critical importance and visual power of costume during moments of profound crisis.
George Washington became aware of the etiquette of clothing at a young age. In his handwritten copy of Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, for example, he learned to keep his clothes “Brush’d” and “orderly with respect to times and places.” Mary Ball Washington’s own keen interest in fabrics and fashion also likely influenced her son; whether fox hunting, surveying his plantations on horseback, or dancing, he strategically selected his wardrobe for maximum effect. Washington’s adept use of clothes reveals his sensitivity for their social value and performative potential. And as he prepared to lead the Virginia Regiment into contested territory, his appreciation for both the practical and theatrical value of costume evolved further.
After confronting his recruits’ material paucity shortly before departing for the frontier, Washington began a frantic exchange with Governor Dinwiddie. Washington agonized over “the great necessity for Cloathing the men,” and apprised that few possessed a coat, others needed shoes, and others still wanted for stockings or a shirt. To his dismay, most were “as illy provided as can well be conceiv’d.” From a practical perspective, Washington reasoned his regiment’s impoverished condition rendered it incapable of military service. Unclothed men “must unavoidably be expos’d to inclement weather in their Marches” and risked encountering “every difficulty that’s incident to a Soldier’s life.” He feared that poorly equipped men subjected to harsh conditions in an unforgiving environment ran a higher risk of sickness, injury or death. And on the western edge of the British Empire, little relief or asylum awaited militiamen exposed to such dangers. After rationalizing the utilitarian benefits of military attire, Washington next offered Dinwiddie a perceptive analysis of its theatrical value.
From Lieutenant Colonel Washington’s perspective, uniforms provided soldiers an overlooked psychological advantage. He explained to Governor Dinwiddie that Native Americans judged men by appearance. “It is the Nature of Indians,” he lectured the governor, “to be struck with and taken by show.” To further bolster his position, Washington claimed Native warriors despised and ridiculed common French soldiers for their “shabby and ragged appearance.” In contrast, he reasoned a uniformed Virginia regiment would impress, intimidate and perhaps even shock into submission an otherwise aggressive Indian threat. Men outfitted in the cloaks of war, he theorized, presented “a much higher Conception of . . . Power and Greatness” to potential enemies. He assured Dinwiddie that he had drawn his conclusions about Native Americans from careful “Study of their Tempers,” which laid bare their “Customs and dispositions.” This potential theatrical edge, the lieutenant colonel assured the governor, would outweigh any hardships undertaken in procuring uniforms.
If Dinwiddie had any doubts left about the psychological advantages of military garb, Washington next offered some grizzled frontier wisdom: Uniforms gave men confidence and self-worth and demarcated soldiers from citizens. He desired for each man to wear a “Coat of the Coursest red,” since his subordinates likened red to blood and considered either form of that hue as “the distinguishing marks of Warriours and great Men.” Standardized costume, Washington argued, telegraphed unity of purpose and a proficiency in organized violence. Dinwiddie agreed, responding, “I have no Objection to the Soldiers being in an uniform Dress, on the Head you propose.” Uniforms, then, provided protection from the natural environment and suggested skill in coordinated brutality, a combination of the practical and theatrical.
Whether griping over a need for clothes, recording their relative availability or simply taking inventory, Washington’s mind remained firmly engrossed in the functional and psychological advantages of costume on the frontier: Soldiers were safer, more confident and appeared stronger when properly outfitted. Washington rarely lost sight of the value of clothes, though on one occasion he did lose clothes of value on the frontier. In May 1754, the frustrated lieutenant colonel recounted to Col. Joshua Fry a bungled moment of improvised frontier diplomacy. Washington explained that one of his Native rangers refused to continue a reconnaissance mission until the Virginia officer promised him a “shirt . . . and a watch-coat,” the latter referring to a military overcoat. An exasperated Washington agreed and begrudgingly withdrew the prized items from his personal wardrobe. He then urged Fry to invest in attractive “treaty goods” since Natives had “come to expect presents.” Indian friendship, assessed Washington, “is not so warm” and “must be bought.” He strongly advised Fry to keep on hand some disposable gifts or risk losing critical military attire. Shortly afterward, Washington ordered a replacement coat from England fashioned from “rich crimson” and fitted with gold buttons. This expensive purchase, he no doubt understood, projected his status and capabilities as both soldier and leader.
Washington resigned from the militia in 1758 and next joined Virginia’s House of Burgesses where he emerged as a sharp critic of Parliament’s taxation designs during the imperial crisis period. “Americans,” he thundered, “will never be tax’d without their own consent,” reasoning Parliament had “no more right to put their hands into my pocket, without my consent, than I have to put my hands in your’s, for money.” His military experience and Whig principles inspired constituents to include him in Virginia’s delegation to the “Grand Continental Congress” in 1774. When Washington arrived at Philadelphia for that assembly’s convening, his frontier experiences, far from being unknown or forgotten, became the talk of the town. Connecticut delegate Silas Deane, for example, associated Washington with saving the panicked remains of Gen. Edward Braddock’s “unfortunate army.” He also repeated a circulating tall tale that had Washington volunteering to raise and lead an army at his own expense to liberate the colonies from British oppression. Visiting medical student Solomon Drowne described Washington as “Virginia’s Hero” and recorded yet another yarn that claimed Washington “wished to God” the fate of American liberty could be decided by “a single combat between himself” and King George III. Despite his celebrity, delegates did not appoint Washington to any of Congress’s special committees and the record is silent on any intellectual contributions he may have offered. Chronically insecure over what he described as “a defective education,” he felt more comfortable listening to others’ thoughts than divulging his own. When Washington left Mount Vernon to attend the Second Continental Congress, however, he returned to Philadelphia educated in that assembly’s deliberative culture.
A large crowd gathered to fete Washington upon his arrival at Philadelphia and the Virginian looked every bit the part of veteran-protector. “Coll. Washington appears at Congress in his Uniform,” marveled John Adams, and “by his great Experience and Abilities in military Matters, is of much service to Us.” In recognition of both the rapidly deteriorating political circumstances and Washington’s obvious strengths, Congress appointed him to its premier military committees. Washington’s costume partially helped him circumvent his educational insecurities, as his attire expressed to delegates his willingness to secure American liberty by force if necessary. During every debate, meal and fraternal engagement, Washington said plenty without having to utter as much as a syllable. He did not need to wear his uniform to remind delegates of his military pedigree; clearly few had forgotten his frontier bravery. And he did not wear it to posture for position: His attire simply revealed his uncompromising politics and experience in the military arts. Combined, Washington’s costume communicated his readiness to resort to violence to achieve his political objectives.
Historian Peter Henriques correctly described Washington as “a master at lowering and then exceeding expectations.” When the Virginian accepted his nomination for commander-in-chief, he skillfully set the conditions for that appointment. He publicized his self-assessed shortcomings and expressed fear his reputation might suffer as a result of them. This new role required him to lead more men, defend more geography and consider more logistical and administrative demands than during his frontier years. And from the doorstep of the Pennsylvania State House, a complete and humiliating American military failure loomed as the most likely outcome of any potential civil conflict. In the face of such grim odds, Washington seized control of the narrative. In the unlikelihood of a hard-earned success, he could claim to have defied the odds. But even in the likelihood of failure, he could declare with verity to have resisted British oppression, in spite of the long odds, to the best of his abilities. And once Washington accepted command, he ordered a new uniform from a Philadelphia tailor to reinforce his image as both warrior and great man. He next sent out general orders outlining officers’ requisite attire to mark their “Badges of Distinction.”
Historians have long recognized the critical role costume and performative politics played in early American discourse. Going back to the Stamp Act Crisis, some American Whigs encouraged colonists to protest Parliament’s taxation attempts and project solidarity with other resistance actors by wearing homespun. When Boston radicals tossed 342 chests of the Royal East India Company’s tea into the sea, they obscured their faces and dressed in crudely fashioned Native attire. During the Coercive Acts Crisis, Whigs again resorted to material self-denial to express harmony with Boston. And at the Second Continental Congress, George Washington signaled his politics and capability for organized violence through his military garb. Drawing the practical and theatrical power of costume he learned on the western frontier into the Pennsylvania State House, he silently communicated all he had to say. Delegates determined the best man suited for war was the one man suitedfor war. Perhaps it is time scholars take Washington at his word.
For George Washington’s costume at the Second Continental Congress, see John Adams to Abigail Adams, May 29, 1775, in Lyman H. Butterfield, et al., eds., The Papers of John Adams: Family Correspondence, 15 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963-2022), 1:207-8; For the design of the uniform, see George Mason to George Washington, February 6, 1775, in W.W. Abbott and Dorothy Twohig, eds., The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series, 10 vols. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1983-95), 10:21.
Silas Deane to Mrs. Deane, September 9, 1774, in Edmund C. Burnett, et al., eds., Letters of the Members of the Continental Congress, 24 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institute of Washington, 1921-36), 1:28; Joseph Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 18-35; John Ferling, The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009), 98-99.
David Ammerman, In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974), 142-44; Lawrence Delbert Cress, Citizens in Arms: The Army and Militia in American Society to the War of 1812 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 49-50.
Address to the Continental Congress, June 16, 1775, in Philander D. Chase, ed., The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, 28 vols. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1985- ), 1:1-3.
For Patrick Henry’s affinity for playing the fiddle, see Thomas Jefferson to William Wirt, August 5, 1815, in J. Jefferson Looney, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series, 16 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004- ), 8:646; See also Richard R. Beeman, “The Democratic Faith of Patrick Henry,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 95, no. 3 (1987): 313; For Washington’s conversation with Patrick Henry, see George W. Corner, ed., The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1948), 113.
Ellis, His Excellency, 67-72; Ferling, Ascent of Washington, 85-89; For more nuanced coverage, see Peter Henriques, Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 39-43.
Some standard surveys of the American Revolution include Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967); Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution:Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1972); Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982); Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1991); T. H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford, 2004).
Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982); Peter Henriques, First and Always: A New Portrait of George Washington(Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020), 23.
Joseph Ball to Mary Ball Washington, May 19, 1747, in Donald Jackson, ed., The Diaries of George Washington, 6 vols. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1976-79), 1:1-5; Ferling, Ascent of Washington, 12.
For Washington’s appointment, see founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-01-02-0001-0001; for the socio-political context of this appointment, see Ferling, Ascent of Washington, 13.
Instructions from Robert Dinwiddie, October 30, 1753 in Abbott and Twohig, Papers of Washington: Colonial Series, 1:7, 60-61; See also George Washington, Diary, October 31, 1753, in Dorothy Twohig, ed., George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgement (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999), 17-18; For political context see Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (New York: Vintage, 2000), 43.
George Washington to David Humphreys, July 25, 1785, in W.W. Abbot, ed., The Papers of George Washington: Confederation Series, 6 vols. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1992-97), 3:148-51.
Worthington Chauncy Ford, et al, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 34 vols. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904-37), 2:52-53, 66-67. For example, Washington lists first for both the committee to defend New York and the Ways and Means Committee to supply the colonies with ammunition and military wares.
David Waldstreicher, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); Simon P. Newman, Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997).
Ammerman, In the Common Cause; Shawn David McGhee, “Suffering in the Common Cause: The Continental Association and the Political Transformation of American Subjects to Citizens during the Coercive Acts Crisis, 1774-1776,” PhD diss., (Temple University, 2022).