Newburgh conspiracy

Newburgh conspiracy

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The Newburgh Conspiracy was unrest in 1783 among officers of the American Continental Army
Continental Army
The Continental Army was formed after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War by the colonies that became the United States of America. Established by a resolution of the Continental Congress on June 14, 1775, it was created to coordinate the military efforts of the Thirteen Colonies in...

 due to many officers and men of the Army not receiving pay for many years. Commander-in-Chief George Washington
George Washington
George Washington was the dominant military and political leader of the new United States of America from 1775 to 1799. He led the American victory over Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army from 1775 to 1783, and presided over the writing of...

 stopped any serious talk by appealing successfully to his officers to support the supremacy of Congress
Congress of the Confederation
The Congress of the Confederation or the United States in Congress Assembled was the governing body of the United States of America that existed from March 1, 1781, to March 4, 1789. It comprised delegates appointed by the legislatures of the states. It was the immediate successor to the Second...

. The officers had been promised a lifetime pension of half pay; instead, Congress gave them five years full pay.

Background


With the end of the war and dissolution of the Continental Army approaching, soldiers who had long been unpaid feared that Congress
Continental Congress
The Continental Congress was a convention of delegates called together from the Thirteen Colonies that became the governing body of the United States during the American Revolution....

 would not meet previous promises concerning back pay and pensions. Congress, at the mercy of the states for all revenue, had no money and could not pay more than a fraction of the money owed. The result was that, by March 1783, some officers were talking of forcing Congress to pay what had been promised to them, with an undertone of marching on the capital. There was no plan for a coup and the movement seems to have lacked any leaders or spokesmen.

The winter of 1783 marked the end of hostilities between the young nation and Britain, but a formal peace treaty had not yet been signed. Most of the Continental Army was camped near Newburgh, New York, where they maintained a watchful eye on the British, who still occupied New York City, some sixty miles to the south; any hint that there was turmoil in the Continental Army might have induced the British to attack and re-establish control over their former colonies.

Continental officers had been promised a pension of half their pay when they were discharged. At this point, the officers organized under the leadership of General Henry Knox
Henry Knox
Henry Knox was a military officer of the Continental Army and later the United States Army, and also served as the first United States Secretary of War....

 and sent a delegation to lobby Congress; the delegation was headed by Alexander McDougall
Alexander McDougall
Alexander McDougall was an American seaman, merchant, a Sons of Liberty leader from New York City before and during the American Revolution, and a military leader during the Revolutionary War. He served as a major general in the Continental Army, and as a delegate to the Continental Congress...

. The officers had three demands: the Army's pay, their own pensions, and the option of commutation of those pensions into a lump-sum payment.

Actions of Congress


The officers' warning reached the Congress amid seemingly fortuitous political circumstances. Those members of Congress who supported a stronger central government, prominently Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris
Gouverneur Morris
Gouverneur Morris , was an American statesman, a Founding Father of the United States, and a native of New York City who represented Pennsylvania in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He was a signatory to the Articles of Confederation. Morris was also an author of large sections of the...

, and Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton was a Founding Father, soldier, economist, political philosopher, one of America's first constitutional lawyers and the first United States Secretary of the Treasury...

, saw providence in the Army's statement of discontent. MacDougall was a New York acquaintance of Hamilton; the Congressmen later approached Knox, and John Armstrong, aide to General Horatio Gates
Horatio Gates
Horatio Lloyd Gates was a retired British soldier who served as an American general during the Revolutionary War. He took credit for the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga – Benedict Arnold, who led the attack, was finally forced from the field when he was shot in the leg – and...

, through Captain John Brooks
John Brooks
John Brooks was the 11th Governor of Massachusetts from 1816 to 1823; he was the last significant Federalist elected official in office in the United States....

, one of MacDougall's colleagues.

Robert Morris accompanied MacDougall to Congress when MacDougall lobbied that body for funds. Congress had none because the states refused to send the money they had promised. Robert counseled patience, as he attempted to secure funding for the Army. Hamilton and G. Morris encouraged both MacDougall and Knox to continue their appeals, and in a private coded letter G. Morris acknowledged the danger of threatening unknown consequences if their demands were not granted. Congress defeated proposals which would have resolved the crisis without establishing general Federal taxation: that the states assume the debt to the army, or that an impost be established but dedicated to the sole purpose of paying that debt.

The content of the Newburgh letter reveals the frustration of the Army. It states that they would refuse to disband if they were not paid, and they would refuse to fight to protect the Congress if it were attacked. Kohn (1970) argues that a coup d'etat
Coup d'état
A coup d'état state, literally: strike/blow of state)—also known as a coup, putsch, and overthrow—is the sudden, extrajudicial deposition of a government, usually by a small group of the existing state establishment—typically the military—to replace the deposed government with another body; either...

was never seriously attempted, and would have been politically impossible in the first place. The enlisted men had much less at stake than the officers, and might not have followed any rebellion; if they had, the insurgent army, completely unsupplied, would have had to catch Congress, which the British had attempted vainly for years. Once caught, any resolution imposed on Congress would still have had to be implemented by the states.

Washington's involvement


Washington, in response to a letter from Alexander Hamilton said that while he sympathized both with the plight of his officers and men and with those in Congress, he would not use the army to threaten the civil government: a course, which Washington believed, would violate the principles of republicanism
Republicanism in the United States
Republicanism is the political value system that has been a major part of American civic thought since the American Revolution. It stresses liberty and inalienable rights as central values, makes the people as a whole sovereign, supports activist government to promote the common good, rejects...

 for which they had all been fighting. A small group of officers, led probably by Major John Armstrong, Jr.
John Armstrong, Jr.
John Armstrong, Jr. was an American soldier and statesman who was a delegate to the Continental Congress, U.S. Senator from New York, and Secretary of War.-Early life and Revolutionary War:...

, aide to Major General Horatio Gates
Horatio Gates
Horatio Lloyd Gates was a retired British soldier who served as an American general during the Revolutionary War. He took credit for the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga – Benedict Arnold, who led the attack, was finally forced from the field when he was shot in the leg – and...

, attempted to forestall Washington's intervention, viewing him as too moderate; they would have forcibly installed Gates in his place as Commander-in-Chief
Commander-in-Chief
A commander-in-chief is the commander of a nation's military forces or significant element of those forces. In the latter case, the force element may be defined as those forces within a particular region or those forces which are associated by function. As a practical term it refers to the military...

. They published placards, the "Newburgh Addresses," calling for a meeting on March 12. They warned that come peace Congress would ignore them as they "grow old in poverty, wretchedness and contempt."


Washington canceled the March 12 meeting and called his own meeting of officers on 15 March 1783. It was held in the "New Building", a 40 by 70 foot (12 by 21 m) building at the camp
New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site
The New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site, also known as New Windsor Cantonment, is located along NY 300 a mile north of Vails Gate in Orange County's Town of New Windsor. The site features reconstruction buildings of the final encampment of the Continental Army.Between June 1782 and October...

. After Gates opened the meeting, Washington entered the building to everyone's surprise. He asked to speak to the officers, and the stunned Gates relinquished the floor. Washington could tell by the faces of his officers, who had not been paid for quite some time, that they were quite angry and did not show the respect or deference as they had toward Washington in the past.

Washington then gave a short but impassioned speech, the Newburgh Address, counseling patience. His message was that they should oppose anyone "who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.". He then took a letter from his pocket from a member of Congress to read to the officers. He gazed upon it and fumbled with it without speaking. He then took a pair of reading glasses from his pocket, which were new and few of the men had seen him wear them. He then said: "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 caused the men to realize that Washington had sacrificed a great deal for the Revolution, just as much as any of them. These, of course, were his fellow officers, most having worked closely with him for several years. Many of those present were moved to tears, and with this act, the conspiracy collapsed as he read the letter. He then left the room and General Henry Knox
Henry Knox
Henry Knox was a military officer of the Continental Army and later the United States Army, and also served as the first United States Secretary of War....

 and others offered resolutions reaffirming their loyalty, which were accepted by the group.

Congress finally resolved the crisis by giving a sum equal to five years pay to each officer entitled to half-pay-for life. They received government bonds which at the time were highly speculative, but were in fact redeemed 100 cents on the dollar by the new government in 1790.

End of the war


The soldiers continued to grumble—the unrest now spread to the noncommissioned officers (sergeants and corporals). Riots occurred and mutiny threatened. Washington rejected suggestions that the Army stay in operation until the states found the money for the pay. On April 19, 1783, that the General Orders of the day announced the end of hostilities against Great Britain. Everyone agreed that a large army of 10,000 men was no longer needed; the men were very eager to go home. Congress gave each soldier three months pay, but since they had no funds Robert Morris issued a total $800,000 in personal notes to the soldiers. Over the next couple of months, much of the Continental Army was furloughed and simply faded away, effectively disbanding nearly all the soldiers. The official disbanding came in the following November, and left only a small force at West Point and several scattered frontier outposts.

The main long-term result was a strong reaffirmation of the principle of civilian control of the military, and banishing any possibility of a coup as outside the realm of republican values
Republicanism in the United States
Republicanism is the political value system that has been a major part of American civic thought since the American Revolution. It stresses liberty and inalienable rights as central values, makes the people as a whole sovereign, supports activist government to promote the common good, rejects...

. It also validated Washington's stature as a leading proponent of civilian control.

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