Washington's "Dictatorial Powers"

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Washington's "Dictatorial Powers"

WASHINGTON'S "DICTATORIAL POWERS." 27 December 1776–27 June 1777. When the British advance reached the Delaware River in December 1776, Congress fled from Philadelphia to Baltimore (26 December) and the fate of the Revolution appeared to rest solely in military hands. Before Congress adjourned, it resolved "that, until the Congress shall otherwise order, General Washington be possessed of full power to order and direct all things relative to the [military] department, and to the operations of the war" (Journals, 6, p. 1027). Writing on 20 December that "ten days more will put an end to the existence of our army" unless drastic measures were accepted, Washington asked for more sufficient and specific authority to deal with the military emergency. He pointed out that if

every matter that in its nature is self-evident, is to be referred to Congress, at a distance of 130 or 40 miles [to Baltimore], so much time must necessarily elapse, as to defeat the end in view. It may be said, that this is an application for powers, that are too dangerous to be entrusted. I can only add that, desperate diseases require desperate remedies and with truth declare, that I have no lust after power. (Twohig, ed., 7, p. 382)

Robert Morris carried the burden of administration until 21 December, when Congress appointed George Clymer and George Walton of Georgia to join him in a three-man committee "with powers to execute such continental business as may be proper and necessary to be done at Philadelphia" (Journals, 6, p. 1032). Washington dealt with this committee as he planned the counteroffensive that resulted in the brilliant victory at Trenton on Christmas Day. On the evening of 31 December, an express reached his headquarters with a congressional resolution adopted in Baltimore on 27 December:

This Congress, having maturely considered the present crisis; and having perfect reliance on the wisdom, vigour, and uprightness of General Washington, do, hereby, Resolve, That General Washington shall be, and he is hereby, vested with full, ample, and complete powers to raise and collect together, in the most speedy and effectual manner, from any or all of these United States, sixteen battalions of infantry, in addition to those already voted by Congress; to appoint officers for the said battalions; to raise, officer, and equip three thousand light horse; three regiments of artillery, and a corps of engineers, and to establish their pay; to apply to any of the states for such aid of the militia as he shall judge necessary; to form such magazines of provisions, and in such places, as he shall think proper; to displace and appoint all officers under the rank of brigadier general, and to fill up all vacancies in every other department in the American armies; to take, wherever he may be, whatever he may want for the use of the army, if the inhabitants will not sell it, allowing reasonable price for the same; to arrest and confine persons who refuse to take the continental currency, or are otherwise disaffected to the American cause; and return to the states of which they are citizens, their names, and the nature of their offences, together with the witnesses to prove them: That the foregoing powers be vested in General Washington, for and during the term of six months from the date hereof, unless sooner determined by Congress. (ibid., 6, pp. 1045-1046)

The delegates were obviously breathing more easily in Baltimore when, after Washington's Trenton victory, they felt some further statement as to their position was in order. In a circular letter of 30 December 1776, it informed the thirteen states that:

Congress would not have Consented to the Vesting of such Powers in the military department … if the Situation of Public Affairs did not require at this Crisis a Decision and Vigour, which Distance and Numbers Deny to Assemblies far Remov'd from each other, and from the immediate Seat of War. (ibid., 6, p. 1053)

It is evident from the wording of the 27 December resolve that the powers granted Washington were far from "dictatorial." When he used his authority to make all citizens who had taken the British offer of protection surrender the papers they had accepted or move within the British lines, Congress violently criticized this policy. He has been criticized by historians for failing to use fully his power to take provisions for his army from the profiteering inhabitants of New Jersey. Yet in January 1777, thanks largely to his new, temporary authority, Washington was able to start rebuilding a real army.

When in the fall of 1777 the British army again approached Philadelphia, Congress again evacuated the capital, heading through Lancaster to York, Pennsylvania, and again it gave Washington "dictatorial" powers. This time it was for a six-day period only, and he used the authority sparingly.

SEE ALSO Continental Congress; New Jersey Campaign; Philadelphia Campaign; Princeton, New Jersey; Trenton, New Jersey.


Ford, Worthington C., ed. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789. Vol. 6: October 9-December 31, 1776. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1906.

Lengel, Edward G. General George Washington: A Military Life. New York: Random House, 2005.

Twohig, Dorothy, et al., eds. The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series. Vol. 7: October 1776–January 1777. Edited by Philander D. Chase. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.

                               revised by Harold E. Selesky

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Washington's "Dictatorial Powers"