As the Revolutionary War drew to a close, relations between the government and the army rapidly deteriorated. American victory at Yorktown virtually ended combat, but the Continental Army had to remain vigilant in bivouacs outside New York City in case the British still occupying the place changed their minds and loaded their muskets. With nothing much else to do but brood over being neglected by the government, American ranks grew restive as the country’s debt mounted, inflated currency became worthless, and soldiers’ pay simply stopped. That situation gave rise to one of the more troubling episodes of the American Revolution. Practically on the eve of peace in the spring of 1783, the Continental Army seemed ready to stage a mutiny, overthrow Congress, and install a strongman as a sort of American Cromwell. Worst of all, plans for this ugly little frolic were evidently being directed by the army’s senior officers.
The previous year, the states had rejected Congress’s effort to establish a national impost (the euphemism for a compulsory tax). The impost was supposed to raise revenue to pay soldiers and fund veterans’ pensions, and its rejection was the last straw for the army. A protest to Congress by highly placed officers led to tense meetings that produced no solution but did provoke, it was said, those highly placed officers to make barely veiled threats. On the face of it then, these men began developing a sinister plan to stage a military coup. If it had happened, it would have been the sad end to a noble effort, and simply another example of the timeless story of people taking a wrong turn at the intersection of crucial events, losing their way, and impulsively sacrificing everything that is good and worthwhile for the worst reasons.
It wasn’t even a plot, inasmuch as it wasn’t much of a secret. Rabble rousing writings openly circulated, men openly gathered, and grumbling was not muttered but spoken in full voice by soldiers whose feet had bled into snow for want of shoes. After all, their families were nearly destitute as breadwinners served far from home, carrying arms, but unpaid for their trouble. It was in the shadow of this dark mood that the army encampment at Newburgh, New York, became the center of the unrest, and a meeting scheduled for March 15, 1783, was to be its decisive moment.
General George Washington sympathized with the discontent, but the rumors of an army uprising infuriated him. He realized, however, that denunciations were likely to touch off the powder keg instead of defusing it. Because he had little choice, he appeared uninvited at the March 15 meeting ready to plead for patience. To bark at these men would violate the fundamental rule of command: One must never give an order unless there is the reasonable expectation that it will be obeyed. How deep was this anger and how strong was the tide it pushed?
Washington’s opening remarks seemed ineffective. Hard faces of impassive men met his explanation that brute force would throw away everything and make their eight years of fighting meaningless. Unable to talk the gathering down, he fumbled to open the pages of an encouraging letter from a congressman, but as he began to read he faltered over the first sentences. He could not make out the words. His grumbling audience fell silent and watched as Washington pulled a pair of spectacles from his pocket. They were a recent capitulation to presbyopia and something most of them had never seen Washington wear. Suddenly, it struck them all how very old he looked, how worn down he was, how changed from the strapping forty-three-year-old redhead he had been at the start of the war. He was now a year past midcentury and wearing the weight of the world, poignantly, on the wide bridge of his nose. “Gentlemen,” he said quietly, with just a trace of embarrassment, “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.”
He read the letter, but they did not hear it. They did not need to. Their heads were lowered. Many were weeping.
The collapse of the “Newburgh Conspiracy” through the irresistible influence of George Washington at this critical moment makes a grand story, and we are tempted to leave it at that. But, of course, some historians doubt that it’s true. At least, there is doubt that it happened in just this dramatic way. The question they ask is, did nationalists in the Confederation’s Congress engineer this crisis and exaggerate its dangers to convince their reluctant colleagues that the country needed a stronger central government?
Historians have not settled the question and never will, for we likely know everything we shall ever know about the events at Newburgh in the spring of 1783. The evidence for calculated manipulation is more circumstantial than documentary and requires a fair amount of inference, which makes it thin enough to raise doubts that there was anything cynical about the affair at Newburgh. The interpretation of the conspiracy as high theater also exaggerates the influence Washington’s associates could exert on him to engage in dramatic play acting during a dangerous situation. Army discontent was real and on the edge of ugly. That same year a mutiny by Pennsylvania militia was serious enough to frighten Congress out of Philadelphia.
George Washington knew at least this much. The Americans arrayed around New York City in the spring of 1783 had endured hardships and suffered hazards during the war that were unimaginable at its start. Whatever had inspired them to serve in the first place had survived years filled with humiliating retreats from battlefields littered with dead friends and shattered bodies. It had survived winters when they had nothing to eat and little more than rags to wear in places like Valley Forge where they had shivered in crude huts on the edge of the world, or at Morristown where they had watched smallpox claim more casualties than redcoats ever could.
Washington knew this much and more. Tyrants stood in the shadows waiting for the very event that Newburgh portended and smiling over the certainty that yet again in the affairs of men, tyrants would have their way, just as they always had in the thousands of pathetic places where men had fought to be free but afterward learned to live on their knees. And now the tyrants in waiting were smirking over the muddled men in the muddy soil of Newburgh, New York. Washington went to that meeting as certain of that as he was certain that no direct order was likely to be obeyed. So he brought a letter and tried to buy time. His revelation of failing eyesight laid bare to disgruntled men his careworn eyes behind new spectacles, but those men saw something else too. And suddenly, they were ashamed of themselves.
Washington knew that tyrants would always be waiting in the shadows to cajole shameless men with velvet promises before controlling them with iron fists. But tyrants did not smile that day in Newburgh. It was this day, March 15, then as now the harbinger of springtime in America.