Mar 9, 2020
This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we take a look at one of the most perilous moments during the American Revolution: The Newburgh Conspiracy of 1783 that threatened to plunge the new republic into civil war. That is until George Washington intervened and defused the would-be revolt among officers of the Continental Army.
And we also take a look at some key events that occurred this week in US history, like the 1862 battle between the ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia and FDR’s first fireside chat in 1933. And birthdays, including
March 10, 1867 - progressive reformer and nurse Lillian Wald
March 12, 1922 novelist and poet, Jack Kerouac
March 15, 1767 - the seventh President of the United States, Andrew Jackson
Feature Story: George Washington Defuses the Newburgh Conspiracy
On March 15, 1783 – 237 years ago this week - Gen. George Washington arrived at Newburgh, NY, which was the winter quarters of Continental Army. A peace treaty with England had yet to be signed, but combat between American and British forces had ended sixteen months earlier in October 1781 with the British surrender at Yorktown. But the mood among the men and officers was decidedly not celebratory. They were angry at Congress for not paying them and for providing poor provisions. They felt disrespected and ignored by the national government.
But Washington had not come to Newburgh to cheer them up. He had come to thwart a scheme that threatened to destroy the young republic that had just earned its independence. One of the key figures in that scheme – what came to be called the Newburgh Conspiracy - was Major John Armstrong, aide de camp to Washington’s chief rival, Horatio Gates. Five days earlier, Armstrong had issued an inflammatory address in which he said the time for politely pleading with Congress to fulfill its obligations to the army had come to an end. The officers of the army, said Armstrong, should issue an ultimatum. If Congress did not act, the army would either disband, leaving the nation vulnerable to renewed British attack, or it would refuse to disband once a peace treaty had been signed. This latter option was a thinly veiled threat of a military coup.
When Washington learned of Armstrong’s address and talk of mutiny among the officer corps, he sent a message urging the men to keep their cool and not do anything rash. He sympathized with the men and understood their anger, but he also feared that any unauthorized action could lead to civil war and the end of the American republic. Washington, like most of the Founders, knew that many revolutions in history were followed by a civil war, as the factions that had united against a common foe turned on each other.
To defuse this perilous situation, Washington called a meeting of the officers at Newburgh for March 15 to discuss the matter, implying that he would not be in attendance.
One can only imagine their surprise when, as their meeting was getting under way, in strode General Washington. The atmosphere was tense. A hush fell over the room and Washington began to speak, urging the men to resist the call to mutiny. For if they did act illegally, they would squander all the good will they had accumulated during the war:
“Let me entreat you, gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures, which viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained; let me request you to rely on the plighted faith of your country, and place a full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress.… By thus determining — & thus acting, you will pursue the plain & direct road to the attainment of your wishes. You will defeat the insidious designs of our enemies, who are compelled to resort from open force to secret artifice. You will give one more
distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism & patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings…”
When he finished, Washington reached into his pocket and pulled out a letter. But as he scanned the text, he fumbled for his reading glasses, saying to the officers, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown old in the service of my country and now find that I am growing blind.” With that offhand reference to his personal sacrifice on behalf of the American cause, many in the room began to cry and the anger subsided. Washington had snuffed out the Newburgh Conspiracy.
Three days later, Washington wrote to Congress to assure them that the crisis was over.
Who exactly was behind the Newburgh Conspiracy and how serious was the talk of mutiny and insurrection, remains a mystery. But the crisis was significant for several reasons. One, it revealed how weak and ineffective the national government was under the Articles of Confederation, and therefore it played a role in spurring on the movement for what became the Constitutional Convention four years later. Second, the crisis provided one of several moments in this period where the leadership of George Washington proved critical. As one biographer put it, Washington was the “indispensable man” who at every critical moment in the nation’s founding, provided the steady hand, dignified demeanor, and selfless leadership that helped maintain unity and dedication to the common cause.
For more information about the In The Past Lane podcast, head to our website, www.InThePastLane.com
Music for This Episode
Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)
The Joy Drops, “Track 23,” Not Drunk (Free Music Archive)
Borrtex, “Perception” (Free Music Archive)
Blue Dot Sessions, "Pat Dog" (Free Music Archive)
Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)
The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)
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