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Americana Corner: The Newburgh Conspiracy
tom hand new

We take civilian control of the military for granted today in America. However, were it not for General George Washington’s actions and words in the so-called Newburgh Conspiracy, things might be quite a bit different.

By the winter of 1782, the Continental Army had been fighting for over seven years. Since the defeat of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown about one year earlier on October 19, 1781, there had not been any significant battles with the British. However, peace negotiations had not yet concluded and so Congress had not disbanded the Army.

Consequently, the soldiers were simply in garrison near Newburgh, New York, just up the Hudson River from the stronghold of West Point. From here, they could keep an eye on the British forces still occupying New York City. The men had plenty of idle time to consider what post-Army life would look like to them especially from a financial standpoint. As viewed by the soldiers, it was not a rosy picture, and they were not happy.

Even General Washington saw it. In a private letter to his friend Congressman Joseph Jones of Virginia dated December 12, 1782, Washington stated, “The temper of the Army is much soured, and has become more irritable than at any period since commencement of the War.” He added, “If their (the officers) discontents should be suffered to rise equally high, I know not what the consequences may be.”

The Confederation Congress had passed a resolution in 1780 when the outcome of the war was very much in question that promised Continental Army officers a lifetime pension of half pay upon discharge from the service. However, we must remember that the nation was operating under the Articles of Confederation, a system that greatly favored the rights of the individual states over those of the central government.

Under the provisions of the Articles, Congress could not impose any taxes or raise any revenues on its own. While it could pass legislation to fund the army and officer’s pensions, the money had to come from the states and no state could be forced to comply with those directives.

In other words, Congress could make promises, but it was up to the states to deliver the goods. Moreover, any amendment to alter this system required the unanimous consent of the states. Consequently, one lone state out of the thirteen could prevent modifications to the Articles.

As peace talks progressed and the need for the Army decreased, Congress and the states began to waffle on their promise to provide pensions. The nation’s treasury was empty, and the Confederation Congress was helpless to do anything about it. Things got so bad that financier Robert Morris, the Superintendent of Finance for the United States, curtailed all payments to the soldiers in 1782. He declared the lost pay would be made up once the war was officially over.

In November 1782, Congress tried to pass an amendment allowing the central government to enact an import tariff to raise money to fund the pensions. However, the states refused to ratify this measure. Some states went so far as to pass legislation forbidding its delegates to approve any money for any type of pension.

As a result, a “nationalist” contingent (Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton) who supported the tax measure saw an opportunity. These men had been frustrated at the inability of the central government since its inception to raise revenues on its own. They worried that this deficiency would financially cripple the young nation and lead to its demise.

This group thought they might be able to manipulate the Army’s growing discontent with the nation’s civilian leadership to pressure the states into granting the Confederation Congress the authority to raise their own revenue. It was a dangerous game called mutiny and it came with potentially severe consequences, but they seemed willing to play it.

In December, a group of officers led by General Henry Knox sent a memo to Congress in which they complained of their pay being several months in arrears and their long-promised lifetime pension now in doubt. The letter offered a compromise in which the officers would accept one lump payment instead of perpetual annual subsidies. It also warned of growing discontent among the men.

Knox’s message was delivered to Congress by a contingent of high-ranking officers led by General Alexander McDougall. The nationalists quickly met with McDougall and told him of their plan to manipulate the states into agreeing to their tax plan by implying the Army might mutiny if its demands were not met.

Hamilton and the others knew they needed an influential commander to lead their effort to sow dissention within the Army. However, everyone knew General Washington was too conscientious and devoted to duty to support their scheme. They thought perhaps General Knox might be their man, but they guessed wrong.

Washington’s artillery chief clearly indicated he wanted nothing to do with their intrigues. When McDougall asked Knox to support their efforts, Knox wrote, “I consider the reputation of the American Army as one of the most immaculate things on earth. We should even suffer wrongs and injuries to the utmost verge of toleration rather than sully it in the least degree.” The conspirators would have to look elsewhere, and we will talk about that in part 2.

Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae”, Love of country leads me.

Tom Hand is a Ford resident and a West Point alumnus. You can reach him at tom@americanacorner. com or check out his website at americanacorner. com.

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