July 3, 1775, Washington’s Sword

General Washington rode out in front of the troops gathered at Cambridge Common on July 3, 1775.  Washington drew his sword under the branches of an ancient elm, by that act formally taking command of the Continental Army.

The American Revolution began with the battles of Lexington and Concord on the 19th of April, 1775. Thousands of armed colonial militia followed the British columns as they withdrew, and there they remained, hemming the British occupiers up in the city of Boston.

Within days, more than 20,000 armed men from all over New England had gathered from Cambridge to Roxbury. Tories’ vacant homes, empty Churches, even the brick buildings of Harvard College served as barracks, officers’ quarters, and hospitals. Soldiers camped in tents and other makeshift shelters, while Harvard canceled classes on May 1. Classes would not resume at the Cambridge campus until June of the following year.

The Continental Congress created the Army on June 14, 1775, appointing George Washington to lead it. General Washington rode out in front of the troops gathered at Cambridge Common on July 3, 1775.  Washington drew his sword under the branches of an ancient elm, by that act formally taking command of the Continental Army.

Washington Elm marker

Interestingly, 150 years of de facto independence from Great Britain seems to have suited the American colonist.  If inheritance records are any indication, the average American enjoyed a better standard of living, than the average Brit.  Average heights of the time bear that out.

The average American colonist had a full three inches on his British counterpart. At a time when the average male stood 5’8′, Washington towered over the crowd at 6’2″.   George Washington was a hard man to miss.

For Washington to draw his sword against King George III, was itself an act of magnificent courage.  According to British law of the time, one of four definitions of High Treason was “If a man do levy war against our lord the King in his realm”.  By drawing that sword against the crown, Washington was clearly committing High Treason.  He surely understood that such a prominent person as himself would be dealt with harshly, if caught.

At that time, the centuries-old penalty for High Treason was as savage as it was gruesome. Even now the language of the death sentence is difficult to read.  You may consider that to be my warning if you don’t care to read what follows.

The full sentence as read to the condemned was: “That you be drawn on a hurdle (a sledge) to the place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck and being alive cut down, your privy members shall be cut off and your bowels taken out and burned before you, your head severed from your body and your body divided into four quarters to be disposed of at the King’s pleasure”.

These were the terms of employment under which George Washington accepted his assignment.  He even declined to accept payment, beyond reimbursement for his personal expenses.

The 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence would show the same brand of courage, by signing that document a year later. It must have been a supreme in-your-face moment when John Hancock put his pen to that parchment, which ended: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor”.


At the signing, Ben Franklin famously said “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately”.  This was no empty philosophical statement they were signing.  Should circumstances turn against them, the founding fathers well understood. Each was signing his death warrant.

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a father, a son and a grandfather. A widowed history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m well over a thousand. I do this because I want to. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anyone else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thank you for your interest in the history we all share. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

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