Reflections on the Anniversary of the Defeat of the Newburgh Conspiracy
We have known of the tale for over 2000 years, but especially for the past 420, since William Shakespeare’s play immortalized the moment.
It was on March 15 – the Ides of March – in the year 44 BC, when Julius Caesar was assassinated by a cadre of Roman Senators.
They claimed to have committed this murder to save the Roman Republic, even though the nation had suffered a procession of other dictators for a century already, and it was actually “a Republic in name only” long before Caesar ever arrived on the scene.
In some ways, the day celebrates an even more important day for us Americans, on this side of the Atlantic, because there was a dinner at Newburgh, New York, along the banks of the Hudson River, on a much more recent March 15 – in 1783. This one could also very easily have changed the course of world history, were it not for the principled leadership of our Commander in Chief, the one and only General George Washington – known the world over as The Indispensible Man.
A Long Time Coming
In March of 1783, the War of Independence had already been going on for eight hard years. The battles at Lexington and Concord, in a long-ago Massachusetts that had been living under martial law for seven years, had grown into a coastwide revolution.
Thirteen upstart colonies had declared themselves states, and united in a loose federation to fight for independence from the greatest military power on earth. And they handed over the reins to George Washington, to make it happen.
It was a long and difficult war – thirteen colonies that had been dependent on trans-Atlantic trade with mother England were plunged into economic depression when they went to war with both their primary source and primary customer. Without a stable currency of their own, each state struggled to fund their governmental obligations – maintaining and defending ports and roads, managing police, jails and courts, defending against bandits and hostile Indian tribes, and funding their share of the war effort.
Reading General Washington’s stack of messages to Congress and his Circulars to the States – his periodic progress reports and pleas for funds and supplies – we see that the problems encountered at the beginning were never solved; they only grew as the can was kicked ever farther down the road.
At the start of our War of Independence, the Continental Army lacked sufficient men, cannon, and gunpowder. Eight years in, the Continental Army still lacked all that and more, and in addition, we had eight years of debts.
Each state was supposed to send regular contributions to the national treasury to help with their share of the cost of the war; all were perennially in arrears. Yes, all. No state was ever up to date; no state ever made the full contribution expected of them.
It was partially understandable – we were in an economic depression, international trade was hamstrung by war with the world’s primary naval power, and we had still not developed a stable currency. But, understandable or not, the situation was still real. The government couldn’t pay its bills.
The nation kept taking out loans – from private individuals and from foreign governments – on the theory that when we won the war, the depression would end, trade would recover, and we could repay our debts. But in 1783, eight years into it, this was getting to be a more and more difficult position to defend. The stalling, however understandable, had just gone on too long.
How great was this war debt, and to whom? It was huge, and scattered across every sector.
Our war debt wasn’t just owed to foreign countries like France, Spain and Holland, though that’s what we remember from history class.
We also owed private businessmen, once-rich shipping magnates and bankers like Robert Morris and Haym Salomon, who had loaned millions to the government, again and again, never to be fully repaid, some, never to be even partially repaid (both Morris and Salomon were impoverished by the war and died in penury).
We owed the private suppliers of clothing and food, whom General Washington had paid with promissory notes throughout the war. Unlike many an army, Washington refused to ever confiscate needed supplies from farmers, ranchers or mills. He and his supporters pled for donations of clothing and shoes (the wives of officers and politicians, like Martha Washington and Abigail Adams, led sewing circles for years, making socks and shirts for the troops), but food had to be paid for, so the countryside was strewn with Washington’s promissory notes for the animals, fruit and vegetables, and grain they had purchased from local farmers to keep the army in the field for eight years.
And we owed the soldiers. For eight years, most of the Continental Army had never been paid. They were promised a salary, and combat bonuses, and pensions, but year after year, these promises were postponed. Imagine a farmer having neglected his farm for five or six years to serve his country, and returning without even a meager severance check to buy seed for the next season. Imagine an injured veteran, returning home both broke and handicapped, to become a burden on his family without some kind of pension from the government he had served. By 1783, many long-serving soldiers and their officers had lost both their patience and their tempers.
Victory was near at hand; the British lost their resolve after the stirring defeat at Yorktown in 1781, and the entirety of 1782 had been spent in peace negotiations. But that only worsened some people’s fears; once the war was over and the country no longer “needed” its army, might they become even more lackadaisical about paying these debts? With a war soon to end, might the new reason for postponement be the old saying, “out of sight, out of mind?”
At least now, for the time being, the starving and desperate troops were a fighting force, united in camp, at winter quarters at Newburgh, New York. Perhaps, some thought, now was the time to act.
The Newburgh Conspiracy
Some of the most honorable members of the Confederation Congress – Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and their allies – had long argued for Congress to have the right to somehow obtain revenue without dependence on donations from the states.
The dependence model had been tried, and it was a failure; none of the states would ever pay their share of the government’s costs, no matter what. So these congressmen proposed that the national government collect import duties at the ports, a reasonable approach… but all it took under the worthless Articles of Confederation was a single state’s veto, and every such proposal was vetoed.
The responsible members of Congress were at wit’s end, just as many officers were getting desperate enough to whisper the forbidden word. Yes, “mutiny” was on the minds of our troops.
Too many soldiers were thinking to themselves, “we’re starving, our families are starving, soon we’ll be sent home with nothing after risking life and limb for all these years… the government has been lying to us; they’ll never willingly pay our back salary now… but for now, for the time being… we have an army.”
What have armies done, since time immemorial? They pose a threat, they conquer, they demand, and if necessary, they fight.
The time had come – in the minds of some, no, in the minds of many – for the Continental Army to act as history predicted.
Rumors of such rumblings caught the ears of those in Congress in late 1782, and some Congressmen thought that perhaps they could harness such rumblings to their advantage. We don’t want a mutiny, of course; we don’t want the army to rise up and turn on the state and federal government, but… perhaps if we realized that things were that dire, then this realization might prime the pump for the action that was needed.
We’ll never know for sure who was involved and who wasn’t; certainly some in Congress were oblivious to what was going on. But we know that Alexander Hamilton wrote a letter to General Washington warning him of the rumblings, informing him that both a mutiny against Washington and an uprising against Congress and/or nearby state governments were now being discussed by some of the army’s most desperate officers.
Hamilton’s letter to Washington came in February, 1782, even as a ship carrying news of the British peace agreement was on its way. The officers were going to act soon; Hamilton estimated that the army would rise up by June to take what was due them by force if Washington didn’t somehow stave it off.
The hope was that Hamilton could use the fact of these rumblings to get the states to see reason and authorize the government to pay its debts, but this depended on Washington’s ability to both expose the situation and stave off the violence that was simmering.
General Washington learned that some officers had planned a meeting for March 12 in New Windsor, at which to plan their action. Washington decided to get involved, and, giving the impression he would not personally attend, announced that the date had been changed to March 15, and the venue too was changed, to the winter quarters right at Newburgh.
We don’t think of George Washington as a writer, since he was surrounded by so many of the greatest polemicists and orators of the era. But he wrote thousands of letters, circulars, and speeches on his own over his long career as a legislator, general, businessman and president. He could give a moving speech when one was needed – like the day when he exhorted the Virginia House of Burgesses to join the coastwide boycott in 1769, and the day he inspired the troops at New York in 1776 while Congress debated the Declaration of Independence, and the day he ended the Newburgh Conspiracy, on the Ides of March, in 1783.
When the soldiers gathered at Newburgh, they planned to draft demands for the government. They had every intention of leading their own insurrection – this time, against Congress and the States – to demand the back pay and pensions that were rightfully theirs. They had defeated the greatest military power on earth; no one would question that they could defeat these worthless do-nothing politicians.
Somehow, General Washington had to nip this danger in the bud. Almost every revolution in history has ended in tyranny; they almost always result in a more overbearing government than there had been before. Washington could not allow that to happen here. He felt duty-bound – honor-bound – to ensure that this revolution did not go the way of others.
He had devoted eight years of his life to ensuring that we did it the right way… buying supplies rather than confiscating them, restricting violence to the battlefield instead of attacking local loyalists in person, doing everything he could by the letter of the law and setting that example for his army and the nation’s people. Today in Newburgh, he saw everything they had worked for, balanced on the edge of a cliff, “this-close” to joining the other failed revolutions in the history books.
Unexpectedly, George Washington entered the room at the appointed hour. He took command – as our nation’s greatest leader always did – and strode to the head of the room to speak.
As he addressed these angry, frustrated, honorable men – men with whom he had served in battle, men he knew well, some for eight years, some for decades longer – he reminded them of the values at the heart of the Glorious Cause of Independence, that cause they had served so well, for so long.
Washington spoke for five minutes to a hushed room. In those five minutes, the officers were brought back down to earth, as they remembered what they’d fought for, and what they would be jeopardizing if they acted as planned.
You will, by the dignity of your conduct, afford occasion for posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to mankind. “Had this day been wanting, the world had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.” (from the Newburgh Address, George Washington, 3-15-1783)
He looked around the room, and was uncertain whether everyone was yet convinced, so he added something more. In his pocket, he happened to have a letter from a member of Congress that would show their commitment to finding some way to honor their obligations. He announced that he would read from this letter, and he reached into his pocket for his reading glasses.
George Washington was the greatest man in America – tall, strong, never injured in battle despite often being the most conspicuous target. He was considered to have been under the special protection of Divine Providence. He was – to the hearts of our servicemen – invincible.
But he took command of the Continental Army when he was just 43, and now he was 51. He needed reading glasses, but only his family and his closest aides happened to know it. This probably wasn’t from vanity; he wore glasses in the office, not while riding his horse or in battle, but the fact remains that the sight of these eyeglasses was a shock to his audience that night.
As he reached for his spectacles, he said aloud “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.”
Well, that did it. The roomful of soldiers could not help but reflect on the past eight years and consider the fact that Washington had served with them – the winter at Valley Forge, the stormy escape over the Delaware, riding at the head of columns in battle, begging and pleading on their behalf with politicians in every state. Whatever they suffered, he had suffered more, always as their greatest champion.
The mutiny collapsed in that instant.
America’s War of Independence was more than a revolution; it was a statement in support of Western Civilization, and a fierce proclamation to the world that the ideals of the Enlightenment were achievable. It was a declaration to the world that republican government could work on a large scale, and that we – the Americans – were determined to prove that our government would honor its obligation to secure the liberty of its people. We, these United States, may not be perfect, but we would do our best to strive for these principles.
George Washington’s speech to the officers at Newburgh may have been the most important speech of his lifetime. We will never know for sure what would have happened had he not intervened, but the odds of a military takeover were high, and then who knows? Would Gates have become our Napoleon? Would we have suffered an internal civil war before our external War of independence was even resolved? Would we have collapsed entirely, to be retaken by the English or split up among various European powers, as much of the world had expected all along?
All these outcomes would have been possible, had Washington not handled it the way he did, by appealing to the higher calling present in the hearts of every American soldier… by calling them to continued patience and patriotism.
He continued to honor his promises; he and Hamilton and the Morrises continued to work for ways to honor the government’s debts. Four years later, they all participated in the Constitutional Convention, to remake the government and correct the fatal flaws of the Articles of Confederation. They honored their debts in the end. George Washington made no empty promises.
But that wouldn’t have been possible if the Newburgh Conspiracy had been allowed to reach its intended ends. Washington saved the American Republic on that day, and changed the world.
The history books aren’t sure why Washington chose that day in particular. He took control of the meeting by changing the date and venue, certainly, but people generally just assume he wanted the three extra days to compose his speech. Personally, I doubt that. He was a quick enough writer, and knew his audience well. He knew what he wanted to say.
I like to think that he chose March 15 for a reason. He knew that the Roman Republic changed, in some ways very much for the worse, on a long-ago March 15, and perhaps he wanted to reclaim the day, and use March 15 as a day to save our republic, to uphold the rule of law, to prevent the centuries of tyranny that resulted from that earlier one.
On the Ides of March, in 1783, George Washington ended a rebellion without firing a shot; he terminated a threat to the republic without shedding a drop of blood. Our greatest wartime leader was also a peacemaker.
George Washington “grew gray in our service,” and for over two hundred years now, we have been grateful to Divine Providence for giving him to us. God Bless these United States.
Copyright 2019 John F Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based Customs broker, trade consultant, writer and actor. His columns are regularly found in Illinois Review.
Shown: Jean-Antoine Houdon's bust of George Washington, from the life mask he cast in 1786.
For further reading on His Excellency, allow us to recommend James Thomas Flexner’s wonderful biography, “Washington, the Indispensible Man,” which has a great chapter on the Newburgh Conspiracy, and also Willard Sterne Randall’s “George Washington – A Life” and Richard Brookhiser’s “Founding Father.”
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As usual John, an excellent article….
Thank you, John. An enjoyable read for all of us to reflect upon. I will make sure to order a Caesar Salad (while closely watching my back) when I take my wife out to eat tonight. You can never be too careful.