How General Washington and his Spectacles Saved the Republic
by George L. Marshall, Jr.
By early 1783, active hostilities of the American Revolutionary War had been over for nearly two years and commissioners Franklin, Jay, and Adams were still negotiating in Paris to establish a final treaty with Great Britain. With a formal peace almost secured and with no fighting to do, the Continental army had grown bored and restless, but Congress had decided to retain it as long as the British remained in New York to ensure that the gains of seven years of fighting would not be lost.
Disillusionment and doubt had been building among many officers of the army, then headquartered at Newburgh, New York. Born out of this growing loss of morale and confidence was a conspiracy to undertake a coup d’etat and establish a military dictatorship for the young United States, a plot to be styled later as the Newburgh Conspiracy. At the last minute, General George Washington, commander in chief of the army, and his reading spectacles intervened and prevented this drastic step from occurring.
Mutinies within the Continental army were nothing new. Major uprisings had occurred in 1780 by Connecticut soldiers and in 1781 by Pennsylvania and New Jersey troops. The Newburgh incident, though, was unique in that it was initiated within the corps of officers, the very elite of the military.
“The Newburgh incident… was initiated within the corps of officers, the very elite of the military!”
What caused these officers to consider so bold a plan, so foreign to the very concepts of democracy and the republic for which they had fought? Primarily, impatience with a Congress that by 1782 was largely without dynamic leadership and, even worse, was bankrupt. The Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781, gave the Congress power to maintain a wartime army, but not the power to levy the taxes needed to pay it. That power was retained by states unwilling or unable to impose it on their citizens to the extent needed to adequately fund the operations of the new United States.
Thus, by the summer of 1782, Congress had but $125,000 of a required $6 million . It could not pay the interest on loans due its creditors or meet the military payroll. Most states were reluctant to grant Congress authority to raise funds directly. Robert Morris, the superintendent of finances, observed that the Articles of Confederation gave Congress the ” privilege of asking everything” while giving the states the “prerogative of granting nothing.”
Many soldiers had considerable back pay due them, up to six years worth in some cases. They had not been paid at all in months. Some officers recalled that in 1780, a wartime Congress worried over the loss of the army through desertions and resignations had offered a lifetime pension of half-pay to all officers and a bonus of eighty dollars to enlisted men who would stay with the cause to the end of the war. These promises had been made prior to ratification of the Articles of Confederation. The officers now feared they would be repudiated or repealed, so loud was the public clamor against them, and wondered how an impoverished, ineffectual Congress could live up to those promises.
This distrust of republican government had found voice in mid-1782 in a letter to Gen. Washington from Col. Louis Nicola of Pennsylvania, cogently stating the troubles of the times, and urging Washington to step forward as the savior of a disorganized civil society and accept the crown from the hand of his faithful soldiers. Nicola was likely acting as a spokesman for a clique consisting of an unknown number of officers. Washington indignantly refused, replying that Nicola could not have found a person to whom such a scheme could be more odious. Because knowledge of this attempt would likely enhance popular distrust of the army, Washington said nothing about it.
Officers’ apprehensions were further strengthened by the announcement of a reduction in the allowance for meals, and by discussions in statehouses around the country proposing the abolition of the Continental army, with the implication that such an action would void the necessity of paying the men. An initial step in the dismantling of the army was the consolidation of regiments, set to occur on January 1, 1783. Such a move would reduce the number of officers needed, and Congress was unwilling to commit itself to issue promissory notes for amounts owed or to reaffirm the promise of a pension. Many officers had let their personal affairs during the war fall into great disarray, and unless they soon received a bonus or substantial payment of back wages, had nothing to look forward to upon returning home except imprisonment for failing to pay their accumulated debts. Washington worried that a failure to pay the troops would set loose ” a train of evils.” Talk of the officer corps resigning as a body was rampant.
In November of 1782, a group of officers headed by Major Gen. Henry Knox, with Washington’s encouragement, drafted a letter of grievances to present to the Congress. It read, in part, ” We have borne all that men can bear — our property is expended — our private resources are at an end, and our friends are wearied out and disgusted with our incessant applications.” The petition also agreed to exchange the promised half-pay pension for a lump sum payment upon severance, or full pay for a fixed number of years, but insisted that the enlisted men receive the eighty dollars bonus money. The petitioners also sought at least some of the back pay due, with a commitment for the rest. The petition concluded with allusions to the folly of trying to dupe the army and that ” any further experiments on [ the officers’ ] patience may have fatal effects” if the demands were not met. To insure that Congress would receive and give prompt attention to their petition, the officers selected a committee of three, headed by Major Gen. Alexander McDougall, to carry it to Philadelphia in December 1782.
Shortly after the committee’s arrival, several prominent politicians who were later to become leaders in the Federalist faction (those who wanted a strong central government) in Congress, among them Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris (his assistant), Richard Peters (active head of the Board of War), James Wilson (Robert Morris’ friend and a congressman) and Alexander Hamilton ( Washington’s former aide and a congressman) sought out McDougall and advised him and his committee to begin a strenuous lobbying effort on individual members of Congress, to point out to them the shameful conditions in the army and the ire of its officers. By doing so, Hamilton and the others hoped to weaken the power of the states’ rights advocates in the Congress and force them to support the need for Congress to develop a plan for central taxation and taxation authority as a result of pressure from a discontented army, as well as to secure ratification of such authority by the states through pressure from organized public creditors.
Accordingly, congressional delegates were told that the emotions of the officers were overcoming reason, causing them to look favorably on the performance of “extreme actions” to secure their demands. The nation could expect “at least a mutiny” if the officers’ petition was ignored. The small group of Federalists also encouraged McDougall to alert all the officers at Newburgh to begin preparing for action beyond petitioning. Thus, “the terror of a mutinying army” was used to attempt to influence important members of Congress.
At first, the lobbying effort seemed to be succeeding. By the end of January, a majority of Congress concurred that the army’s plight must be relieved promptly. They directed Morris to resolve the salary problems, including back pay. Delegates also promised to push for the passage of a package to give Congress taxation authority.
However, certain unfortunate snags also began to occur: the lump sum payment to many still savored too much of a pension, and a large number of delegates had instructions from their states to adamantly resist any pension plan. It was argued that the states could not pay their own debts and resistance by states with small debts was strong to Congress assuming the debts of all states. Thus, a large incentive to adopt a taxation measure was stymied.
Also, Knox failed to produce requested evidence of deterioration of morale, and some legislators began to suspect the army was being used to twist arms. Then, too, the news from the peace commission was good, the official state of war would end soon, the army could be released, and Congress could step down its activity. In fact, as in times past, some delegates had already departed for home and it was becoming difficult to even keep a quorum together.
Given this state of affairs, the conspirators now proceeded to try to get the officers to overtly refuse to disband. Well aware that Washington would have no part in this attempt to intimidate the Congress, the plotters decided to approach Henry Knox, Washington’s chief of artillery who was in sympathy with Federalist aims, had openly complained about Congress, and enjoyed Washington’s trust. In early February urgent missives were carried to Gen. Knox in an attempt to enlist him in the effort. However, Knox saw clearly that this amounted to nothing less than mutiny, and refused to help. As he said, ” I consider the reputation of the American army as one of the most immaculate things on earth. ” In his estimation, the officers should suffer almost any wrong rather than bring discredit upon the Army in any form.
As luck would have it, a high-ranking weak link did exist. Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, once associated with a petty plot (the so-called Conway Cabal) to replace Washington, still possessed some political influence. He was also second in command at Newburgh.
One of his former aides, Col. Walter Stewart, holder of a large number of public securities had met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1782 with a committee of public creditors and had received their encouragement for action to induce Congress to get its financial house in order. Later that year, Stewart and some hotheaded young officers met with Gates at his official residence, scathingly critical of both Congress and Washington. These zealots longed for a sympathetic senior officer to come forward and lead the army in an open rebellion.
Gates, still smarting from his failure to discredit and oust Washington, saw a potential opportunity to even the score. Thus were laid plans aimed at the removal of Washington as well as for a military takeover of the Congress and the country. The exact details of the methods to be used are now lost in time, but by early January 1783 Gates was in touch with those in Philadelphia whom he thought would support the plan.
However, Gates, along with several others, was being deceived and used. The devious Federalist faction in Philadelphia was fanning the fire of rebellion with one hand and trying to douse it with water with the other. What they wanted was an unsuccessful uprising of the army, enough to secure their will in Congress but stopping well short of complete anarchy or military dictatorship. They were playing a dangerous chess game in which Gates, Washington, Congress and the army were to be the pawns.
Conscious of Washington’s pivotal role in the scheme of things, Hamilton wrote his former superior a carefully worded letter in which he discussed the severe crisis then existing in congressional finances and alluded to the general state of affairs within the army and the desirability of continued pressure for the redress of grievances. Hamilton went on to suggest that Washington, as commander in chief, would likely need to use his great prestige to “keep a complaining and suffering army within the bounds of moderation” if the seething unrest turned into open rebellion. He further noted that forces were at work within the army to diminish the general’s degree of influence. Finally, he suggested that Washington check with Knox to verify the truth of the allegations contained in his letter.
This letter, along with a second from one of Washington’s friends in Congress, Joseph Jones, warning of “dangerous combinations” and “sinister practices” in the army, convinced Washington to conduct his own investigation of the alleged state of affairs. What he discovered alarmed him greatly. The situation was worse than he thought. Gates and his followers were engaged in some sort of plot to coerce Congress and perhaps worse.
Washington found himself in a dilemma. Should he support his officers and the army and guide this nascent movement to correct obvious wrongs? Or was his first duty to Congress? Like Knox, Washington made a momentous decision: He would not lead what he considered an improper and irregular attempt to rectify those egregious wrongs.
“A notice was circulated inviting all field-grade and company level officers to a meeting”
Gates, meanwhile, had received word from the civilian plotters that he had the support of certain key members of Congress and public creditors for his efforts, and that the time for overt action was fast approaching. Accordingly, the rumor was spread throughout Newburgh that although Congress itself was going to do nothing for the army or its officers, a substantial number of government leaders and legislators, as well as civilian creditors, were prepared to back the army in its determination to stand up for its rights.
A notice was circulated inviting all field-grade and company level officers to a meeting on March 10 to consider these issues. As this meeting was against regulations, it implied a casting-off of Washington’s leadership and the taking of drastic action. A further message suggested that the officers should not disband until they had obtained “justice” and also implied that Gen. Washington was secretly in favor of such an act, but because of his position could not take an open stand. Thus, the officers should not worry about disregarding Washington’s public stance and acting independently. It further hinted that the time had come to employ swords, not words. This inflammatory letter concluded, ” If you have sense enough to discover and spirit to oppose tyranny, whatever garb it may assume, awake to your situation. If the present moment be lost, your threats hereafter will be as empty as your entreaties now. Appeal from the justice to the fears of government, and suspect the man who would advise to longer forbearance.”
Washington, upon receiving and reading copies of these circulating communications smacking of mutiny, trembled with anger and shock. Shaking off his momentary astonishment, he immediately began the task of defusing the planned rebellion. To gain time, he canceled the illicit March 10 meeting and rescheduled it with one for March 15. He secured the support of influential subordinates, including Henry Knox, to back him in the upcoming confrontation and to keep him abreast of developments in camp. He sent messages to Congress to apprise them of the situation. All the while, he was carefully preparing a set of remarks to be presented to the meeting, ostensibly not by himself but by a high-ranking subordinate. By giving the impression that he would not attend, he hoped that the conspirators would relax their guard and become bolder, openly showing themselves and thereby becoming more vulnerable.
By late morning of March 15, a rectangular building 40 feet wide by 70 feet long with a small dais at one end, known as the Public Building or New Building , was jammed with officers. Gen. Gates, acting as chairman in Washington’s absence, opened the meeting. Suddenly, a small door off the stage swung open and in strode Gen. Washington. He asked to speak to the assembled officers, and the stunned Gates had no recourse but to comply with the request. As Washington surveyed the sea of faces before him, he no longer saw respect or deference as in times past, but suspicion, irritation, and even unconcealed anger. To such a hostile crowd, Washington was about to present the most crucial speech of his career.
“As he read the letter, many were in tears”
Following his address Washington studied the faces of his audience. He could see that they were still confused, uncertain, not quite appreciating or comprehending what he had tried to impart in his speech. With a sigh, he removed from his pocket a letter and announced it was from a member of Congress, and that he now wished to read it to them. He produced the letter, gazed upon it, manipulated it without speaking. What was wrong, some of the men wondered. Why did he delay? Washington now reached into a pocket and brought out a pair of new reading glasses. Only those nearest to him knew he lately required them, and he had never worn them in public. Then he spoke: “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.” This simple act and statement by their venerated commander, coupled with remembrances of battles and privations shared together with him, and their sense of shame at their present approach to the threshold of treason, was more effective than the most eloquent oratory. As he read the letter to their unlistening ears, many were in tears from the recollections and emotions which flooded their memories. As Maj. Samuel Shaw, who was present, put it in his journal, ” There was something so natural, so unaffected in this appeal as rendered it superior to the most studied oratory. It forced its way to the heart, and you might see sensibility moisten every eye.”
Finishing, Washington carefully and deliberately folded the letter, took off his glasses, and exited briskly from the hall. Immediately, Knox and others faithful to Washington offered resolutions affirming their appreciation for their commander in chief, and pledging their patriotism and loyalty to the Congress, deploring and regretting those threats and actions which had been uttered and suggested. What support Gates and his group may have enjoyed at the outset of the meeting now completely disintegrated, and the Newburgh conspiracy collapsed.
In the long run, though, the Federalist cabal ultimately saw things work out as they had hoped. Washington had acted to suppress the incipient rebellion. The Newburgh incident did scare the Congress into adopting such actions as giving officers who were eligible for half-pay for life five years of full pay and enlisted men four months’ pay upon separation. This in turn led to the confirmation of a taxation measure to be administered by the central government. However, it was a watered-down version of needed taxation powers and authority, asking the states for permission to levy a twenty-five year impost. Further, as it turned out, the army was given furloughs instead of being discharged, without immediately thereon receiving any pay, although eventually they did get most of what was due them.
The Congress itself in June of 1783 was scared out of Philadelphia by a few hundred newly released soldiers and some civilians who threatened to rob the national bank and hold the delegates hostage. Although nothing beyond the exchange of some acrimonious threats and insults occurred, Congress deserted Philadelphia for Princeton, not to return to the City of Brotherly Love until after the national Constitution had been adopted.
Washington did not dwell upon the Newburgh incident, but he was apparently aware that certain members of the Congress had taken prominent roles in abetting and encouraging the discontents, and he let them know as much, admonishing Hamilton that the army was a “dangerous instrument” to play with.
1. McDonald, Forrest. E Pluribus Unum. The Formation of the American Republic, 1776-1790, Houghton-Mifflin Co., Boston, 1965, pp. 23-30.
2. Fiske, John. The Critical Period of American History, 1783-1789, Houghton-Mifflin Co., Boston, 1916, pp. 105-113.
3. Palmer, Dave R. 1794: America, Its Army, and the Birth of the Nation, Presidio Press, Novato, CA, 1994, pp. 3-20.
4. Morris, Richard B. The Forging of the Union, 1781-1789, Harper and Row, New York, 1987, pp. 41-50