The Newburgh Conspiracy represents a time when our nation came closest to deviating from our core revolutionary principles of representative government with civilian control of the military. Because of a weak Confederation Congress and unhappiness within the officer ranks of the Continental Army, the stage was set for our new nation to drift into a military dictatorship or monarchy.
Only General George Washington’s steady and unselfish leadership on March 15, 1783, when he calmed the discontent of the men, prevented this devastating event from happening. For that, America should be eternally grateful.
The aftermath of this crisis was that Congress, on March 20, 1783, finally did pass legislation to pay the soldiers a lump sum payment of five years of pay instead of half pay for life. The men were issued government bonds that at the time were very speculative but were redeemed by the new Constitutional government in 1790.
General Washington declared an end to hostilities with England on April 19, 1783, exactly eight years after the battles of Lexington and Concord. Congress soon thereafter ordered Washington to begin furloughing the troops and disbanding the Army, except for a small garrison at West Point and some posts in the northwest. In November 1783, the Continental Army that had won our independence from England was officially disbanded and became just a part of our wonderful history.
Later that year, General Washington traveled to Annapolis, where the Confederation Congress was meeting, to resign his commission which he did on December 23, 1783. This act of selflessness and his voluntary surrender of power to civilian authority was so incredible that King George remarked, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” I think the King was right.
In 1784, Horatio Gates, the leader of the officer conspirators, retired to his home in Virginia and left the public arena. He never recovered his reputation.
Finally, in the summer of 1787, the so-called “nationalists” led by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, finally got their wishes for a stronger central government with the creation of our new Constitution. To bring home their points regarding the need for this new form of government, these two men, along with John Jay, penned the greatest of all writings on a constitutional government, The Federalist Papers.
Interestingly, their new Constitution called for a stronger Executive branch to lead the country. Naturally, this task fell to the indispensable man, George Washington, further cementing his position as the Father of our Country.
WHY IT MATTERS So why should the Newburgh Conspiracy and General Washington’s actions to thwart it matter to us today?
In 1783, George Washington was already held in higher esteem by his fellow Americans than anyone in our new nation. Moreover, he commanded the Continental Army and had the full respect of the officers and men in the ranks. He lived at a time when military leaders did not voluntarily surrender power. One must only look back to Oliver Cromwell or ahead to Napoleon Bonaparte to recognize the way of the world in Washington’s time.
This incredible man was essentially being offered a chance to be king. Fortunately for America, George Washington resisted this temptation. It is scary to consider what our country might look like if someone other than George Washington had been in his position.
His decision to uphold the tone and tenor of the revolutionary principles and place ultimate authority in our civilian leaders rather than the military set an example for others to follow. While our successes on the battlefields defeated the British Army, it could be argued that General Washington’s greatest victory for America happened in Newburgh on March 15, 1783. We must never forget that and be forever thankful.
SUGGESTED READING A Crisis of Peace: George Washington, the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the Fate of the American Revolution, written by David Head is an excellent account of the Newburgh crisis. Published in 2019, it provides a detailed account of this critical episode in our nation’s past.
PLACES TO VISIT The New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site near Newburgh, New York is where the Continental Army spent their last winter. It was here that the Newburgh crisis took place. Today this beautiful state park features several reconstructed buildings and a cantonment area.
Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae,” Love of country leads me.
Tom Hand is a West Point graduate and a resident of Ford Plantation. Read more of his work at www.americanacorner.com.