Guest Essayist: Tony Williams


Essay Read By Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner


The way is plain, says the anonymous Addresser. If War continues, remove into the unsettled Country; there establish yourselves, and leave an ungrateful Country to defend itself. But who are they to defend? Our Wives, our Children, our Farms, and other property which we leave behind us. or, in this state of hostile separation, are we to take the two first (the latter cannot be removed), to perish in a Wilderness, with hunger, cold and nakedness? If Peace takes place, never sheath your Swords Says he until you have obtained full and ample justice; this dreadful alternative, of either deserting our Country in the extremest hour of her distress, or turning our Arms against it…what can this writer have in view, by recommending such measures? Can he be a friend to the Army? Can he be a friend to this Country? – George Washington, Speech to the Officers of the Army at Newburgh, in response to petitions for the United States military to protest in mutiny. March 15, 1783.

In late 1782, General George Washington was encamped with the army at Newburgh, New York and was deeply troubled. He had won the Revolutionary War with the stunning allied victory over the British at Yorktown and awaited word of a preliminary peace treaty that had been signed in France. However, the British still occupied New York City. Virginia revoked its approval of a five-percent tariff which meant that Congress had little funds. Therefore, it could not pay the officers and soldiers of the Continental Army who were increasingly disgruntled and ready to mutiny. Washington would soon face one of his greatest crises that would test his character and the survival of the republic.

Throughout the war, as Commander-in-Chief, Washington had scrupulously deferred to the civilian authorities of the states and the national Congress. Even when the states and Congress did not pay the troops or offer much-needed supplies, weapons, and money, the general always supported the republican government. He was often frustrated by the civilian government as it hampered the war effort, but he set the right precedents for civil-military relations within a republic.

On December 28, the officers sent a delegation from Newburgh to Congress with a threatening petition that read, “We have borne all that men can bear – our property is expended – our private resources are at an end, and our friends are wearied and disgusted with our incessant applications.” They warned, “Any further experiments on [our] patience may have fatal effects,” and hinted at an overthrow of Congress and civilian government.

A few politicians in Philadelphia saw an opportunity to use the anger to secure a more powerful central government rather than the weak government under the Articles of Confederation. For example, financier Robert Morris threatened to resign if Congress did not pass a tax to collect revenue to pay the soldiers. Representative Alexander Hamilton and others also wanted to use the threats of the officers to pressure Congress to adopt greater powers.

Despite the woeful financial situation, Washington did not stand alone in his support of Congress. His trusted friend and general of the artillery, Henry Knox, was a patriot who refused to take the bait of his fellow officers and defended the civilian government. Knox told them, “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.”

In February, Hamilton tried to persuade Washington to join the scheme. Hamilton wrote, “The claims of the army urged with moderation, but with firmness, may operate on those weak minds . . . so as to produce a concurrence in the measures which the exigencies of affairs demand.” Washington would have none of it and responded that the consequences of a general mutiny against Congress “would at this day be productive of civil commotions and end in blood. Unhappy situation this! God forbid we should be involved in it.” He cautioned Hamilton that, “the army is a dangerous instrument to play with.”

In mid-March, General Horatio Gates, the hero of the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, joined the conspiracy. Gates’ aide penned an address to American soldiers that fanned their anger towards Congress: “Faith has its limits, as well as temper; and there are points beyond which neither can be stretched.” Gates called the officers to a meeting to discuss the situation.

The rebellion against the government was averted by the character of George Washington, who dedicated himself to the republican principle of military deference to the civilian government. He learned about the Newburgh conspiracy and strode into the appropriately-named Temple of Virtue on the symbolically-fraught March 15—the Ides of March. In the Newburgh Address, he called on his soldiers to stop those who would “overturn the liberties of our country, and who wickedly attempt to open the flood gates of civil discord.”

Washington continued: “This dreadful alternative, of either deserting our Country in the extremest hour of her distress, or turning our Arms against it…what can this writer have in view, by recommending such measures? Can he be a friend to the Army? Can he be a friend to this Country?” His view of patriotism was rooted in Roman virtue—serving the republic, acting with reason over passion, putting country over himself, respecting civilian authority.

When the general’s patriotic appeal fell somewhat flat and his audience seemed unpersuaded, Washington made a dramatic appeal based upon his love of theater. He pulled out his glasses while stating, “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.” Most of the men present had never seen their general use eyeglasses; this simple action reminded the officers that Washington, like the men he led, had made great sacrifices for the cause of liberty. The men renounced their intent to overthrow Congress and pledged their support for the republican government.

Washington quelled the rebellion in the army and established the right precedent for civilian control of the military. He refused to become a Caesar who overthrew the Roman republic for his own glory and became a modern Cincinnatus who served the republic in its hour of need and returned to his plow. The Newburgh Conspiracy became Washington’s finest hour.

The history of American civil-military relations has seen its share of challenges from ambitious individuals. Perhaps the most notable and infamous case was President Harry Truman firing an insubordinate General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. In each challenge, the example laid down by Washington held, and the American republic continued to be governed by the constitutional rule of law and popular self-rule rather than military dictatorship.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.


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