George Washington (The Athenaeum Portrait) / Gilbert Stuart / Oil on canvas, 1796 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired as a gift to the nation through the generosity of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation
The army is a dangerous instrument to play with.
On a raw and windy day in March, American army officers met to plan a mutiny. This was not a Tom Clancy or Brad Thor thriller; it actually happened. On March 15, 1783, an officers’ meeting was held in Newburgh, New York, as George Washington’s army awaited the completion of peace negotiations in Paris that would end the American Revolution and allow the soldiers to disband. The army had not been paid in months. Officers used blankets to hide their tattered uniforms; soldiers did not even have blankets; there was little food. The army, including its commander, believed that an ungrateful Congress had forgotten them.
Previous to the meeting of the army officers, an anonymous “Address” was circulated, demanding relief from Congress before the army would disband. Ominously alluding to Washington, it warned officers to “suspect the man who would advise moderation.” Even during the darkest days of the Revolution, Washington had deferred to Congress, never wavering on the principle of civilian authority over the military. He would not now.
The plot originated with politicians frustrated with the weak government under the Articles of Confederation and with several army officers, including General Horatio Gates, the “hero of Saratoga,” who sought to replace Washington as commander-in-chief. Congressmen Alexander Hamilton and James Wilson, Gouverneur Morris, and Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris schemed to have the army mutiny, intimidating Congress into passing an import tax that would provide resources to pay the soldiers and supply the government with permanent revenue. These men did not want a military coup, which they believed would result in civil war or chaos, but a stronger national government. Plotting with Gates, however, was a dangerous game, since he did want a coup. Not unaware of the danger, the politicians depended on GeneralWashington to keep the army “within the bounds of moderation.”
Tension was high as Gates opened the proceedings on the morning of March 15. Washington was not expected to attend but entered the meeting hall through a side door and asked for permission to speak; Gates could not refuse. Instead of pleading for moderation, Washington attacked the Address as “subversive of all order and discipline.” He reminded the officers of his loyalty to them and declared that rebellion would lead to “the ruin” of both the army and government. He pledged himself to their cause. Then, the unexpected happened. Attempting to read a letter from a congressman supporting the army, Washington became disoriented, and reached into his pocket for a pair of glasses. Excusing himself, he explained that not only had he grown grey in serving his country, but now found himself growing blind. The officers were stunned. Their frustrations and anger dissolved before their commander’s admission of frailty. Some officers openly wept. Washington brought them back from the abyss.
The army received relief from Congress, but the politicians did not get their tax. Some may minimize an event that did not happen, but contemporaries realized its seriousness. A mutiny might have weakened the position of those seeking a stronger national government and would have delayed the formation of a national military establishment. Thomas Jefferson later best expressed the significance of Washington’s role in the new and fragile republic: “that the moderation and virtue of a single character had probably prevented this revolution from being closed as most others have been by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”
The best account of the “Newburgh conspiracy” is Richard H. Kohn, Eagle and Sword: The Beginnings of the Military Establishment in America. (New York, 1975).
—Sidney Hart, Historian Emeritus