Monday, March 15, 2010

Washington Saves America at Newburgh

On March 15, 1783, General George Washington made an impassioned and ultimately successful appeal at Newburgh, New York for his Continental Army officers to not lead a coup against the civilian U.S. government.

The Road to Newburgh

Tensions between the Continental Army and the U.S. government over back pay and poor supplies had existed throughout the American Revolution. They became volcanic in the latter part of the war, nearly causing an eruption several times. Following the British surrender at Yorktown, the patience of the Continental Army wore extremely thin.

As negotiations dragged on between American diplomats and their British counterparts over how to resolve remaining differences and establish formal recognition of the United States, Washington kept his army in the field. Yet, in doing so, Washington kept officers and troops in the field who had not been paid for years. With the war winding down (and, in fact, all but over), many Continental officers and soldiers believed (with good reason) that they would NEVER receive what had been promised them.

It was in this context that George Washington was asked to declare martial law and install himself as dictator. He flatly refused. But a conspiracy to use the army to pressure the civilian government and force the states into a strong federal union continued to build. Many of the conspirators were determined to move ahead, with or without Washington's support.

Washington at Newburgh

To get ahead of events, Washington called for a special March 15 meeting of his officers, with Horatio Gates presiding. Washington indicated he would not attend. But...he did. When he arrived unexpectedly, the facial expressions of his officers and the tension in the room let it be known that he was not welcome.

Washington gave an impassioned speech to the assembly, urging patience and restraint. And he read a letter from a congressman to support his case. While reading the letter, he fumbled with the words and then fished out a pair of spectacles. Most of those in the room were unaware of the General's declining eyesight. Washington, a fan of the theater, played the awkwardness to the hilt! Explaining his use of glasses, Washington said simply: "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."

When he had finished reading, he looked up, saw most of the room in tears. Knowing when to exit, Washington quickly concluded his remarks and left the room. And the conspiracy collapsed!

In that moment, General George Washington saved the legacy of the American Revolution, confirmed civilian oversight of the military, and put the United States on the course to being the most successful republic in world history.

Related Reading

For more on this subject, check out...

"The Rise and Fall of the Newburgh Conspiracy" by George Marshall, Jr.

George Washington's War: The Forging of a Revolutionary Leader and the American Presidency by Bruce Chadwick

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful; brings tears to my eyes too. A little judicious "acting" is all part of great leadership.