March 15, 1783 - The Newburgh Conspiracy
Updated: Jun 3, 2021
March 15, 1783. The United States has just been born, and already it faces a crisis. Officers of the Continental Army, furious at Congress’s inability to provide them with pay or pensions, threaten what amounts to a military coup at the New York town of Newburgh. The only man who can stop them is their leader, General George Washington. This may be his finest hour.
Some of this may be boring – it involves Congress, politics, petitions – but bear with me. This is a big story.
By 1783, the end of the American Revolution was on the horizon. American, British and other European politicians were busy haggling out the terms of peace in Paris. The Continental Army, General Washington’s main force that had won the victory at Yorktown, had consolidated near New York City to watch the British force still stationed there. The camp at Newburgh, up the Hudson from New York and the American fortress at West Point, was in constant communication with the Continental Congress in Philadelphia as the conflict dragged on.
Congress and the states had passed the Articles of Confederation in 1781. It was their first attempt at a structure for their new nation and, to put it lightly, was not a rousing success. The Articles provided for a very weak federal government with no power to directly raise taxes and not even a specific clause permitting a national army. The ramshackle nature of the Revolutionary government had always left it short of money in the first place, and the Continental Army was used to not getting paid due to Congress being short of cash. Now, however, the Articles of Confederation codified the helplessness of the federal government, and they had no ability to request money from the states.
In 1782, Congress was finally forced to recognize that they did not have enough money in the coffers to continue paying the Army at all, but promised that all arrears would be paid up when the war was over. The topic of the Army’s pay was a regular point of conversation in Congress and at Newburgh. Continental Army officers had been promised a pension by Congress in earlier years, but now that funds were drying up, they suspected that Congress would walk back on that promise.
Under the leadership of General Henry Knox, in late December 1782 a large number of officers – including generals – whipped up a memorandum that they sent to Philadelphia. The memo criticized Congress for withholding pay, and demanding a lump sum payment rather than a lifetime pension that could be up to the whims of the electorate. The memorandum concluded with a vague threat that “any further experiments on the Army’s patience may have fatal effects.” Not to put too fine a point on it, this veiled saber-rattle was a warning that if Congress did not satisfy their demands for pay, they might have to take matters into their own hands.
General Alexander McDougall and a small delegation of officers were sent to Congress along with the memo. Congress was divided on how to respond to the Army’s delegation; the “nationalist” faction in Congress supported a stronger and more centralized federal government, and it included such luminaries as James Madison, Alexander Harrison, and Robert Morris, and they hoped to use the threat of the army's mutiny as a prod to force a stronger central government. On January 6, Congress established a committee to hear out the Army delegation. When the committee pointed out that they had no money at all, one of the officers said that “a disappoint might throw us into…blind extremities.” This was Enlightenment-era speak for “you better cough up.”
As the debate went on with no solution, McDougall sent a note back to Knox at Newburgh, saying that the Army might have to mutiny if progress was not made on their pay. Back at Newburgh, many of the Continental Army’s officers began to prepare for a mutiny against Congress. A number of them fell into the camp of General Horatio Gates, Washington’s longtime rival. Many of them were in correspondence with the nationalist faction and there was rumor of not just mutiny – there was talk about a coup d’etat.
Alexander Hamilton, a member of the nationalist faction, wrote to Washington urging him to lead the Continental Army in demanding their money and urged him to “take the direction of the Army’s anger.” Washington refused. He sympathized with his officers and men, but also understood the position of Congress, and was adamant that the Army must remain loyal to the civilian government. A mutiny or a coup would violate the very principles of democracy and liberty that the Army had been fighting for, and the infant republic might not survive such a challenge.
On March 10, an anonymous letter – in fact written by one of General Gates’ aides – began circulating the camp at Newburgh. It called for the Army to send an ultimatum to Congress demanding its pay, and planned a meeting of all the officers in the Army the next day. Washington, on the scene and coldly furious at the sedition in camp, put out a General Order objecting to the “disorderly and irregular” nature of the meeting. He scheduled a different meeting – on the 15th of March. Some officers believed that this meant Washington was on their side in threatening Congress. In the same order, though, Washington requested a report of the meeting – implying he would not attend.
On March 15, 1783, the officers of the Continental Army convened in a wooden building known as the “Temple.” At first, General Gates – Washington’s rival and the erstwhile ringleader of the Newburgh Conspiracy – stood up to open the meeting. To everyone’s surprise, General Washington stepped into the building, fashionably late. Washington stated that he wanted to speak to the officers of his army, and Gates stepped back as the chief moved forward to address his men.
As Washington looked out over the stony, cold, and angry faces of his officers, he saw many men he knew. These men had followed him through the failures at New York, in front of Philadelphia, and the long winter at Valley Forge. They had seen triumph at Trenton and Yorktown. They had been his comrades of almost a decade, and as he looked out at them now he saw none of their usual respect and deference. After years of being rebels together, Washington was now the “man”, and they were in rebellion against him and his beliefs.
Washington gave a short but passionate speech. He emphasized the importance of civilian control of the Army, of the dangers of military rule, of the values of liberty, republicanism and government by the people that they had all sacrificed and fought for. The Army should oppose anyone “who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord,” and appealed to them “in the name of our common country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity…” He asked them for “one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue” in acceding to Congress and withdrawing any threat of mutiny or coup.
Washington’s speeches had always been good, but this one had no effect on his men. They remained somber, silent and hostile, their eyes boring into their leader as he tried to change their minds. Looking for anything to persuade them, Washington pulled a letter from a Congressman from his pocket. He stared at it, threading the paper through his fingers. Then Washington tugged a pair of glasses from his pocket. Only a handful of officers had ever seen him wear them, and none knew how heavily he depended on them; his eyesight was fading. As he put them on, he told the audience offhandedly:
“Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”
That did it. As Washington read the letter, many in the Temple began to sob. The mutinous officers realized that Washington had sacrificed just as much as any of they had. They may have remembered crossing the Delaware with him on Christmas Eve the night before Trenton. They might have remembered Valley Forge and their virtual rebirth as a force and a nation. They could have been thinking of the great victory at Yorktown and their final defeat of the British. The Newburgh Conspiracy collapsed as Washington read the letter with his spectacles.
As soon as Washington finished and left the building, Henry Knox and a swarm of other officers declared their loyalty to Washington and Congress. They drafted up a new resolution, proclaiming “unshaken confidence” in Congress and denouncing the letters and proposals of previous days. Washington, with one statement and a display of vulnerability, had caused the officers of the Continental Army to understand what was important. They were called to think not of what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country.
Over the next several months, the Army went home, and they were issued government bonds with the promise of later pay. Congress did eventually make good on this payment, especially after George Washington and the Constitutional Convention created a new government with the power to tax and provide for a national defense. The Continental Army did get their pay after all.
The Newburgh Conspiracy was possibly George Washington’s finest hour and greatest victory. In the Revolutionary War, he had faced a powerful British Army and had faced many challenges and hardships. Here, though, his challenge was in keeping control of his own army at the moment of crisis. In doing so, he reaffirmed the American principle of civilian control of the military that he did more than anyone else to establish.
This is more critical than it may seem. In almost every country in world history, there has been a military coup or a time that the military has exerted near total control over the civilian authorities. This has never happened in the United States, despite many near misses and close calls. This was thanks to the principle established in large part by George Washington. His place as precedent-setter in American history usually revolves around his role as our first President, but more people should know about one of his last acts as Commander of the Continental Army.
At Newburgh, Washington affirmed the sense of apolitical, steadfast, and unshakeable duty that the United States military has held ever since. That’s not as flashy as a battle or a siege, but I think it’s even more important.
Book Recommendation: One of America's best biographers, Ron Chernow, strikes at the heart of who Washington really was with his Washington: A Life (New York: Penguin, 2010).