When most people think of the American War for Independence, their first thought is of the Declaration of Independence or one of the war's battles. But today in 1783, an event occurred that could have unraveled everything that the new nation had gained in nearly seven years of conflict. The actions of one man reversed a dangerous tide of emotion and saved the day. Today, we remember and honor the man, but the day has been all but lost.
In March, 1783, the fighting was over but the young United States and the British Empire were still at war. Most of the Continental Army was camped at Newburgh, New York about 60 miles north of New York City, which was still held by a British garrison. Peace talks were underway in Paris, but the Americans were not going to give the Redcoats any last-minute opportunities to reverse the tide of war.
Although independence and peace were within reach, there was trouble in the camp. The Continental Army received its payroll from the Continental Congress, which in turn depended upon the good will of the thirteen colonies to support the war effort. Under the Articles of Confederation, the forerunner of the Constitution, Congress could not levy taxes. All financial power rested with the colonies, who had local and regional problems of their own. As a result, all of the officers and men present were owed back pay. Some had not been paid in six years. What's more, in 1781 the officers had been granted a life-long pension of half their active duty pay. Now, it seemed foolhardy to expect the pension would ever be paid. But as long as the Army was still in existence, there was hope. Once the officers and men were mustered out, however, the chances of receiving anything from Congress or the colonies were nil.
Many of the officers at Newburgh were in deep personal debt. They had left farms and businesses in the hands of families and friends only to find them mismanaged, sold or destroyed by the British. In some way, economic hardship had visited all of them. Tired of waiting for Congress to act on their behalf, some of the officers began to plan for a war of their own. They sent a message, or memorial, to Congress in which they told of their plight and listed the promises that had been made to them over the years: money, clothing and land grants. In the subtle wording of 18th century gentlemen, they left no doubt that distrust and hostility was growing in the ranks. It did not take much imagination to see what was being hinted at: armed rebellion.
Several members of Congress, especially Alexander Hamilton, saw an opportunity in the Army's discontent. They supported the establishment of a strong central government, something that did not exist at the time. They reasoned that the Army could be used to force Congress to become a self-financing body, a necessary first step. Some of the members contacted Washington's generals directly and asked for their help. What they were asking for was essentially a threatened military takeover of the government.
Alexander Hamilton had, at one time, been General Washington's aide-de-camp. Washington wrote to Hamilton and said that while he sympathized with his officers and men, the Army simply could not be used to force political change. It could set a precedent so dangerous that the nation's very survival could be at stake. Washington knew he had to act.
An officer's meeting was called for March 15, 1783, with Major General Horatio Gates presiding. The officers would be free to discuss their grievances in the hope that the situation could be diffused. As the meeting began, General Washington entered the room. The officers were stunned. He walked to the front of the group and faced the men. He knew all of their names; some of them had been with him from the very beginning of the war. They were tired and cold, having just endured another harsh New York winter. He saw a bitterness in them; the usual awe-struck respect that met Washington wherever he went was not evident now.
General Washington reached into his jacket pocket and produced a piece of paper. He looked at it for a moment, as if he was confused. Then he reached into another pocket and drew out a pair of reading glasses. Only a few of the men had ever seen him wear them. He said, wearily, "Gentlemen, 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." This made the officers realize, if they had not before, that Washington had sacrificed as much as any of them.
He urged the men to not take harsh measures that might, in the future, sully their reputations as the nation's first generation. He called on their patriotism one last time, calling it superior to the pressures they now faced. By the time the general finished, most of the men had tears in their eyes. The Newburgh Conspiracy, such as it was, was over.
Almost exactly one month later came the official announcement of the end of the war. The Continental Army was disbanded over the next few months except for small contingents stationed at various forts. The issue of back pay still hung over the men; it would not be resolved until after the Constitutional Convention of 1787. It is not an exaggeration to say that had Washington not spoke to his officers that March day, the United States as we know it today might not exist.