(also known as The Newburgh Conspiracy)
From David Ramsay’s Life of George Washington, first U.S. edition, 1807
The year was 1783. Though the War had virtually ended in October of 1781 with Cornwallis’ defeat at Yorktown, negotiations for a formal peace treaty had begun in Paris. On March 10 of 1783 a litany of mounting grievances by Continental army officers reached a crescendo. Complaints were many: arrears in pay, failure to settle food and clothing accounts and Congress’ lack of action in making provisions for the life pension of half pay.
Read the Original! Washington was aware of the discontent among his officers but suspected nothing untoward until March 10 when he was given a written call for a meeting of general and field officers the next day. Accompanying the call for the meeting was an anonymous letter circulated among the officers in the camp at Newburgh, New York, a fiery appeal later known as the first Newburgh address. The unsigned document urged the officers that unless their demands were met, they should refuse to disband when the war ended, and that if the war continued they would “retire to some unsettled country” and leave Congress without an army.
The next day, March 11, George Washington issued General Orders denouncing the “irregular invitation” and the “disorderly proceedings.” At the same time he called for a meeting on March 15 of representatives of all the regiments to decide how “to attain the just and important object in view.” Shocked and deeply worried, Washington reported the developments in a letter to Congress.
The next day, March 12, a second unsigned letter was circulated expressing the view that the language of Washington’s General Order made him party to the complaints.
With these developments Washington realized that unless he took control of the meeting on the 15th, he faced the prospect of a military coup. Appearing before a tense group of officers on March 15, Washington read a statement he had prepared. In his address he denounced the proposed alternatives and criticized the anonymous letters for implying that the civil authorities were guilty of “premeditated injustice.” Washington’s Reply!
After urging his officers not to take any action that would “lessen the dignity and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained,” the commander in chief took a letter from his pocket describing the financial problems confronting Congress before it could meet the officers’ claims. As Washington stumbled over the closely-written letter, he paused momentarily to put on his glasses, remarking, in effect, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find my self growing blind.”
When Washington left the meeting, a few of his most trusted officers took charge. Without dissent the officers in attendance expressed their confidence in Congress, and repudiated the “infamous propositions in a late anonymous address.” At that point the conspiracy was dead.
Eventually, it was learned that Colonel Walter Stewart was the original organizer of the movement. Stewart had turned to General Horatio Gates for support, and received a sympathetic ear. The unsigned letters were written by Gen. Gates’ Aide de Camp Major John Armstrong, Jr.
In handling this potentially damaging incident, Washington once again displayed powerful evidence of his personal leadership, a quality he would invoke on the new nation’s behalf in the years that followed.
- The complete text version of these documents are also included.
More about The Newburgh Conspiracy: