1776 Washington Before Boston Medal

Betts-542<br>1776 Washington Before Boston Medal

1776 Washington Before Boston Medal


Catalog Reference

Adams-Bentley 3
A.J.N., VII, 73; VIII, 27; XV, 1
Julian MI-1
Mooney M15
Musante GW-09

The story of the American Revolution begins in Boston. Once the first garrisons of British regulars were established in Boston in 1768 - a response to Boston patriots' notorious opposition to the Sugar Act and Stamp Act - progress toward outright rebellion was quick. The Boston Massacre of March 1770 and the Boston Tea Party of December 1773 were preludes to armed conflict, which began in April 1775 with the battles of Lexington and Concord.

General Thomas Gage, the Commander in Chief of British forces in North America, arrived in Boston in May 1774, not quite a year before shots were fired on Lexington Green. He was appointed Royal Governor of the colony, giving the people of Massachusetts a military government. In February 1775, King George III officially declared the colony in open rebellion, giving Gage permission to crack down on the upheaval. On April 19, when Gage moved on Lexington and Concord, the American Revolution turned from a political conflict into a war. On June 12, just days before the bloody Battle of Bunker Hill, Gage declared martial law. Boston had become an occupied city.

When George Washington left Mount Vernon on May 4, 1775, bound for Philadelphia as a member of the second Continental Congress, he undoubtedly presumed the next leg of his Virginia to Pennsylvania trip would return him to his Potomac River plantation. Instead, when the political temperature rose in Boston and the Continental Congress took charge of the troops that had gathered in Boston, the men gathered at Philadelphia's State House quickly turned to Washington as a potential commander. Passing over John Hancock, Richard Henry Lee, and others, Washington was named General and Commander in Chief of the Continental forces by Congress on June 15. His next stop would not be home. It would be Boston.

He left Philadelphia a little known Virginian on June 23 and arrived in Boston on July 2 as a celebrity. He took command across the river from Boston in Cambridge, Massachusetts and got to work building an army that would expel the British and win the war. That force would require men, materiel, and weapons: guns, to be sure, but also heavy artillery.

Fort Ticonderoga, on the west bank of Lake Champlain, was taken by American forces under Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold in May 1775. Once Washington began assembling his plans to push the British out of Boston, it became evident that the 59 British cannons captured at Ticonderoga represented the nearest American-held artillery - and those cannons were 300 miles away.

Fortunately, Washington's army included an amateur engineer (and professional bookseller) from Boston named Henry Knox, who had familiarized himself with fortifications and cannon during the early days of the campaign. Knox, just 25 years old, impressed Washington enough that the General gave Knox command of an expedition to deliver the guns of Ticonderoga to Boston. Knox left on November 17, 1775, and arrived at Fort Ticonderoga on December 5. The winter weather was brutal on Washington's troops, but welcome beneath the oxen hooves and the sleighs that Knox used to carry 60 tons of iron eastward. Knox took the guns south to Albany, then east to Boston, arriving in Cambridge on January 27, 1776.

The cannon were not originally intended for Dorchester Heights, a high ground that looked down on Boston from the south, but that's where they ended up - and they ended up there all in one night. Under cover of darkness, with the view somewhat blocked by hay bales and other temporary fortifications, Washington's men humped the big guns to the top of the Heights. On the morning of March 5, the British forces awoke to an unimaginable sight: the high ground fortified, the guns of Ticonderoga looming, and their own position under grave threat. Washington had overseen the seemingly impossible, and made the dug-in occupation of the British in Boston indefensible. The British commander on the scene, General William Howe, is supposed to have said "My God, these fellows have done more work in one night than I could make my army do in three months."

When the British artillery erupted on the night of March 9, it was clear to all present that the noisy cannonade was a cover for evacuation. It took ten days for the entire occupation force to leave. After they left, it took Congress less than a week to vote to award their very first ever medal to the man who oversaw the bloodless triumph that saved Boston.

By rights, this medal could just as easily depict the stout Henry Knox, whose image is measurably less easy on the eyes than Antoine Houdon's elegant bust of the godlike Washington. While Washington conceived the plan for the siege of Boston, only Knox's dashing-through-the-snow derring-do enabled the Commander-in-Chief to push Howe's army out to sea.

The Resolution:

Resolved, That the thanks of this Congress, in their own name, and in the name of the thirteen United Colonies, whom they represent, be presented to his excellency General Washington, and the officers and soldiers under his command, for their wise and spirited conduct in the siege and acquisition of Boston; and that a medal of gold be struck in commemoration of this great event, and presented to his Excellency; and that a committee of three be appointed to prepare a letter of thanks, and a proper device for the medal.

- Continental Congress Resolution of March 25, 1776

After Congress voted their hero a gold medal, the author of the proposal, Boston's John Adams, led the committee to prepare it. He also had the honor of telling General Washington of his new recognition, in a letter dated April 1.

I congratulate you, Sir, as well as all the Friends of Mankind, in the reduction of Boston, an event, which appeared to me of so great and decisive importance that next morning after the arrival of the news I did myself the honor to move for the thanks of Congress to your Excellency and that a medal of gold should be struck in commemoration of it. Congress have been pleased to appoint me, with two other gentlemen, to prepare a device. I should be very happy to have your Excellency's sentiments concerning a proper one. I have the honor to be, with very great respect,

sir, your most obedient and affectionate servant, John Adams.

The President of the Continental Congress, John Hancock, chimed in on April 2 in another missive to the General: "The Congress have ordered a Golden Medal, adapted to the Occasion, to be struck, and when finished, to be presented to you."

Hancock's "when finished" ultimately took over a decade, but Adams wasted no time in reaching out to Philadelphia's best-respected numismatist, Pierre Eugène du Simitière, for help with the design. He had already heard back from the artistic Swiss antiquarian when he wrote home to his wife, Abigail, from Philadelphia on August 14, 1776:

I am put upon a Committee to prepare a Device for a Golden Medal to commemorate the Surrender of Boston to the American Arms, and upon another to prepare Devices for a Great Seal for the confederated States. There is a Gentleman here of French Extraction, whose Name is Du simitiere, a Painter by Profession whose Designs are very ingenious, and his Drawings well executed. He has been applied to for his Advice. I waited on him yesterday, and saw his Sketches. For the Medal he proposes Liberty with her Spear and Pileus, leaning on General Washington. The British Fleet in Boston Harbour, with all their Sterns towards the Town, the American Troops, marching in.

Du Simitière produced a nice design and was paid for it by the Continental Congress. It was never produced. As Congress moved on to prosecuting a full-fledged war against the most powerful nation on the planet, Washington's medal was back-burnered by every committee assigned to it. Eventually, Benjamin Franklin, serving as the minister plenipotentiary to France, was asked to help in September 1779. Franklin dropped the ball, succeeding in obtaining only De Fleury's medal for Stony Point and his pet medallic project, the Libertas Americana medal. Time passed, and David Humphreys was asked to pick the medal project back up in the summer of 1784. He arrived in Paris soon thereafter, set to work, and by the spring of 1785 had successfully nailed down designs and inscriptions from the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris. Washington's medal, along with those for Horatio Gates and Nathanael Greene, was finally coming along.

Humphreys wrote to Washington with an update on May 10, 1785, describing the designs and inscriptions the medal would feature. "I think it has the character of simplicity & dignity which is to be aimed at in a memorial of this kind, which is designed to transmit the remembrance of a great event to posterity," Humphreys wrote, adding "you really do not know how much your name is venerated on this side the Atlantic." The next letter Humphreys sent to Washington from Paris, dated July 17, 1785, noted that "M. Houdon" was set "to depart for Mt Vernon" from Paris, with the help of Thomas Jefferson. Jean-Antoine Houdon and three assistant sculptors arrived at Mount Vernon on October 2, 1785 to produce a statue of Washington that had been commissioned by the state of Virginia. Houdon took a life mask during his two week stay, then returned to Paris to complete the project. Humphreys updated Jefferson on Washington's medal on January 30, 1786, noting "there is no obstacle to commencing the medal for Gen. Washington, since Houdon's return, etc."

While Humphreys apparently inquired with Augustin Dupre about accomplishing the Washington medal, the duty of executing the Houdon bust and other design elements fell to Benjamin Duvivier, who finally finished the dies in the spring of 1789. He was paid 3,600 livre tournois, more than twice the sum he received for the Cowpens medals for Howard and William Washington, and more than the 2,400 livre tournois Dupre was paid for each of the medals to be given to Daniel Morgan and John Paul Jones. The completed gold Washington medal was displayed at the Salon of 1789 that summer in Paris, then hand carried to the United States by Thomas Jefferson in October 1789.

Unlike other Comitia Americana medals, the exact circumstances of Washington's presentation of the medal are unknown. John Adams and Anne Bentley presume Jefferson delivered it to Washington when they met in New York on March 21, 1790. The medal disappears from the historical record until June 12, 1798, when a Polish soldier named Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz visited Mount Vernon and recorded his experience of being shown the gold medal by Martha Washington. In his diary, he noted: "Mrs. Washington showed me a small collection of medals struck during the Revolution. There is one of at least 100 ducats in gold, with the head closely resembling that of Gl. Washington, which was struck on the occasion of the evacuation of Boston." Niemcewicz also journaled about Washington's other medals, including his silver set of Comitia Americana medals and the diamond Eagle of the Society of the Cincinnati. The only other time Washington's gold medal was documented at Mount Vernon was in 1800, on Washington's estate inventory, where it was listed as "1 large gold medal of George Washington" and valued at $150.

View Betts-542 Auction Results

The example to the left was sold by Stack's Bowers Galleries in the March 2014 Baltimore Auction, where it realized $282,000.


  • Adams-Bentley — Comitia Americana by John W. Adams and Anne E. Bentley (2007)
  • A.J.N. — American Journal of Numismatics
  • B — Catalogue of American Coins and Medals of Chas. I. Bushnell (1882)
  • Julian — Medals of the United States Mint: The First Century, 1792-1892 by R.W. Julian (1977)
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