I'm trying to pin down the details of something which I believe once happened to George Washington, before the end of the American War of Independence. Back around the late 1980s, I was reading a book I'd found in a library. It was talking about the political system of the United States of America.

According to the author, as filtered through my imperfect memory, once upon a time the following sequence of events occurred:

  1. It was sometime during the Revolutionary War. General George Washington had already been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the rebel forces.

  2. A regiment (I think) of volunteers turned up at Washington's current field headquarters, wherever that was. The commanding officer of this newly-formed unit introduced himself to General Washington, and stated that he and his men were here to follow Washington's orders in the struggle to break free of the British Empire.

  3. Washington said something along the following lines: "Thank you, Colonel. Now, please have all your men prepare to swear an oath of loyalty and obedience to the Continental Congress."

  4. The colonel said something along the following lines: "I am sorry, General, but I cannot do that. Every man in my regiment has already sworn an oath of loyalty and obedience to the sovereign state of Maryland!"

  5. The unspoken implication was approximately this: "My men and I will follow your orders, General, because our legislature has chosen to join in this Revolution, and it recently voted to send us here to fight under your command. Until further notice! If word comes to us, a month from now, that the legislature has reconsidered, then it will become our sworn duty to pack up our things and march home, no matter how you or the Continental Congress may feel about losing our services so abruptly!"

As I recall, the author was citing this early example of friction between "loyalty to your home state" and "loyalty to a Congress representing many states" in order to illustrate a general point about how the question of where to draw the line between "broad federal authority" and "states' rights" was already a knotty problem in American politics long before the events that triggered the Civil War.

In recent years, I have occasionally Googled, trying to pin down just when this happened. I have not been successful. You should bear in mind that I am not quite certain that it was a "regiment" that showed up on Washington's doorstep, nor that these volunteer soldiers were from the state of Maryland (as opposed to Delaware or some other state). I just think I remember it being "a colonel commanding a regiment from Maryland" who absolutely refused to swear an oath to obey the Continental Congress . . . but after 30 years or thereabouts, my memory may be very blurred!

Does anyone recognize this anecdote? Can you tell me if it really happened, and if so, where I can learn more about the details of that incident? (For instance, the author of the book, near as I can recall, did not inform his readers of precisely what Washington ended up doing about this troublesome situation after the colonel had explained his position. I've always wondered!)

1 Answer 1


I can't provide a good answer, but I think this is an amalgamation of several events; I'm not aware of anyone refusing to swear to the Continental Congress on this basis, but I am aware of units refusing orders that violated their charters.

First, the Oaths Clause, which touches in turn on State's Rights as discussed in the Federalist period.

Second the ongoing challenge that Washington had in retaining recruits, most of whom were obligated to state militia and had no obligation or desire to serve in "national" conflicts. ( I regret that I cannot find a more terse summary)

The first American armies were formed of men from the original colonial militias. These citizen soldiers performed valiantly in many battles, but their commitment to the overall war effort was often dictated by the extent of British aggression in their home colony and the duties of farm and family life. Regular military commanders, including George Washington, could not rely solely on the militia to fight the war for independence. History.Org

You are correct and perceptive to bound the question to after Washington was confirmed as Commander In Chief, (again, I regret the longwinded quote)

Washington was never enamored of the militia, once writing that "to place any dependence upon militia is assuredly resting upon a broken staff." Toward the end of summer in 1775, he noticed that farmers serving in the militia vacated the field of battle as harvest time approached. Militia units dissolved when hostilities moved away from their home locales. Discipline was all but nonexistent in many units because most elected their officers and command authority was thus compromised. Of the New England militia, Washington wrote, "Their officers generally speaking are the most indifferent kind of people I ever saw." Militia privates ignored commands issued by officers of the Regular Army, which disturbed Washington. History.Org

I think the third element of this mix is the militia's refusal to serve away from home,

The fervor of the early days in the reorganized militias wore off in the long grind of an eight-year war. Now the right to elect their own officers was used to demand that the men not serve away from their state. Wikipedia:Militia

  • I heard some even werider stories of units trying to operate without officers at all via voting on what their orders should be.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 25, 2017 at 17:55
  • Those were true - Pennsylvania regiments mostly although voting for officers was not uncommon. I don't have references to hand, so I can't edit into the question, but the stories were not just wierd, they were historical.
    – MCW
    Nov 16, 2017 at 17:33

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