Newburgh Conspiracy


While the British wolf’s teeth had flashed nearby, the states had neglected to adequately support their men in the field. With the threat rapidly abating, they were even less inclined to open their coffers. During the two years that followed Yorktown, the army continued to suffer for want of basic necessities. General Greene begged Congress and the states for supplies. His men suffered from lack of clothing and food. Many still went barefoot.

With peace now casting its warm light across the nation, many civilians became convinced that it was republican virtue that had won the war. The Continental Army soldier, a hireling who had submitted to military discipline, was not a model of a free man. “Civilians could portray themselves,” historian Charles Royster has observed, “as the rescuers of the army at Valley Forge rather than the main cause of the army’s hardship.” In 1782 a Virginia official noted that “some how there is a general disgust taken place for” Continental soldiers.

Now the distinction between summer soldiers and actual soldiers faded. Sunshine patriots emerged from the shadows. “There are too many of our Citizens,” Anthony Wayne had noted in the spring of 1781, “that would not hesitate, to wipe off the large debt due to the army, with a Sponge.”

As early as 1777, Daniel Morgan, in his usual blunt language, had given his opinion “that the War should not end until the Soldiery were provided out the Estates made by it and of such as had too much Property to their Share.” The reluctance of the people and the states to honor their debt to the fighting men had reached a crisis with the mutinies of 1781, when soldiers had felt they were “starving in detail for an ungrateful people who did not care what became of us.”

The officers, as Washington knew, had also spent “the flower of their days” fighting for a cause that often seemed hopeless. Like their men they had seen little pay. They nursed similar grievances. During the desperate months of 1780, with American hopes hanging by a thread, Congress had voted to give the officers half pay for life, the standard pension in the British army. In early 1783, as peace negotiations moved toward conclusion, the army’s leaders realized that the time to make Congress live up to this promise would soon pass. They changed the demand to five years’ full pay. They insisted that Congress amend the Articles of Confederation to allow the money to be raised through taxes.

Events came to a head in March 1783. By this time, Horatio Gates was serving as second in command, overseeing the bulk of the troops outside Newburgh in New York’s Hudson Valley. One of Gates’s aides passed among the officers two anonymous circulars. They suggested that if Congress failed to agree to the officers’ just demands, the men should pursue one of two alternatives. If the war continued, they should refuse to fight and should lead the army westward, leaving Congress and the major cities to the mercy of the British. If peace was concluded, they should keep the troops under arms and march to Philadelphia to obtain what they deserved by force.

The issue became part of a vitriolic debate. Opponents felt the war had been fought to get rid of just such special privileges, which would perpetuate an idle class of ex-officers at the expense of the yeomanry. Those who favored the officers’ position saw that these men had sacrificed eight years of their lives while others had tended their farms or made money in trade. They deserved recompense. What was at stake this time was no sergeants’ mutiny, but a full-blown military coup that could snuff out the infant republic. Conversely, any officer who even tolerated talk of mutiny could be court-martialed and hanged.

The disgruntled officers called a meeting for March 15, 1783, in the spacious central meeting hall of the camp. Washington had been alerted to the gathering in advance. He remained the moral keel of the army. The soldiers, one officer told him, “universally think and speak of you with love, pleasure, gratitude and applause.”

He carefully planned his strategy, enlisting the help of Henry Knox. Like Washington, Knox sympathized with the officers’ plight but abhorred their attempt to bully the civil authority.

On the day set, the grumbling officers filed into the great room. Gates opened the meeting. At the appropriate moment, Washington strode in, “visibly agitated,” to address his officers. He appealed to their sense of dignity and self-sacrifice. Their behavior, he hoped, would allow posterity to say of them, “Had this day been wanting, the world had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.”

Washington’s rhetoric did not appear to sway the angry men. But he was not done. He had received a letter, he told them, from a member of Congress. It appeared to indicate that the officers’ demands were likely to be met. He begged their permission to read it. He began, then fell silent. He pulled from his pocket a pair of spectacles that he had recently begun wearing. Only a few close aides had seen them perched on his nose. As he slipped them on, he asked the officers’ forgiveness, “observing at the same time,” a witness recorded, “that he had grown gray in their service and now felt himself going blind.”

It was a consummate performance by a skilled actor. Many of the men, who had lived through all the horrors of war, now wept. By the time Washington had finished reading and left the hall, the mood had changed completely. After a half hour of debate, Knox offered a proposal condemning the threats contained in the anonymous circulars that had touched off the affair and affirming the officers’ loyalty. It passed unanimously. The so-called “Newburgh Conspiracy” was over.

The affair had served its purpose. Members of Congress were sufficiently spooked to comply with most of the officers’ demands. Urged on by Washington, they issued interest-bearing certificates for the five years’ pay and amended the Articles to allow for a modest tax.

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