With the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, the war in America was over. The bulk of the Continental Army would find their way to their final encampment at Newburgh New York, to await news about the peace talks taking place in Paris.The fighting with Britain may have been over, but the Revolution was not. We shall look at how one mans simple act of pulling out reading glasses from his pocket to read a letter, would nip a conspiracy in the bud on March 15, 1783 and save the Revolution.
The Newburgh Conspiracy
The broad issue was financial justice for an army that thought it had been spat upon and generally abused by an ungrateful civilian populace. The officer corps was divided over the issue as to what should be done to solve their grievances. Washington was in the middle and was the voice of moderation.
There were two groups that wanted to force Congress to uphold their promises. The first group, normally loyal to their commander, was afraid that a peace settlement would allow Congress to sidestep the pension issue. This groups leaders included generals Henry Knox, and Alexander McDougall. The Knox-McDougall group, sent a strongly worded petition to Congress.
It bluntly stated: "We have borne all that men can bear-our property is expended-our private resources are at an end." They went on to state that their friends were tired of asking for credit. The demand was that the half pay pensions be commuted to five years full pay. If Congress did not act and guarantee them these payments, this group warned, that: "...any further experiments on their patience may have fatal effects."
The other group centered around the Nationalists in Congress, who saw this as a way to get what they wanted, to change the Articles of Confederation, and Horatio Gates. This group thought about taking the most extreme action, a coup d'etat against the central government.
Plan goes into Action
This would all come to a head in March 1783, when the Gates faction received the go ahead with the plan. On March 10, John Armstrong, aide to Gates, wrote the first Newburgh address, and it was circulated by Christopher Richmond, another Gates aide. This address urged that all officers attend an unauthorized meeting the next day to discuss grievances in full and to prepare for further action.
Washington was outraged by such a document, but not surprised. Warned beforehand of this meeting, Washington had appealed to the Knox-McDougall faction and won their support. Dislike for Gates had brought them around.
March 11, Washington put out general orders that labeled the Address and its proposal for a meeting as "disorderly" and "irregular." He advised the officers to meet, but on his authority at noon on Saturday March 15th. He would not attend, so the officers could speak freely.
This implied that Gates would be in charge of the meeting. Fooled, the Gates group accepted Washington's order by issuing a second Address, also written by Armstrong. Basically it stated that the meeting would be held as Washington's general order, and it cautioned the officers, the delay must not "lesson the Independence of your sentiments."
March 15, 1783 the appointed time had come. The officers assembled themselves, with Gates in the chair. As the meeting began, Washington entered and approached Gates and asked to speak.
Washington, looking for the right words, urged patience, and characterized the first address as a document appealing to "passions" rather than "reason and good sense." He quickly found that he was not making progress in reaching his officers. It is at this time that Washington stated that he wanted to read them a letter. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his glasses.
Many were surprised that Washington wore glasses, for they had never before seen him wear them. It was this act, and the statement "Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind." This caught the officers of guard, and his statement had verbalized for them their sense of personal sacrifice, of thwarted dignity and honor. Many officers upon seeing this act, wept. All thoughts of internal rebellion and conspiracy, ceased to exist.
A Respectable Army, The Military Origins of the Republic,1763-1789
by James Kirby Martin and Mark Edward Lender, Copyright 1982
Harlan Division, Inc. pp.186-193.
To read more on this pivotal event of the American Revolution, point your browsers to the following sites.
How Washington Saved the Revolution
Learn how General Washington and his Spectacles Saved the Republic written by George L. Marshall, Jr. at the Early America website.
The Newburgh Address
Read the Newburgh Address in this article from David Ramsay's Life of George Washington, first U.S. edition, 1807 at the Early America website.
Washington Prevents Revolt
From the History Place, another edition about the Newburgh Conspiracy.