Ep. 16: A Gulf of Civil Horror (George Washington)
Ever since 1797, the power of the American presidency has transferred from one person to another 44 times. Despite the trials of war, depression, and social upheaval, each transfer occurred peacefully – even when power was turned over from one political party to another. Whenever that transition occurred, the national discourse usually focused on the legacy of the outgoing president and the agenda of the one coming in. That debate is rarely about whether the transfer will occur – whether the outgoing president will stay on, refuse to leave, or reject the will of the people. It is almost never about whether someone in the military or some political faction will try to disrupt the transition and take power for themselves.
We rarely notice it, but that transition is one of the most remarkable things in all of history. It’s become so routine that we never worry about it or even question it. And yet, when we look at history, even recent history, we find just how unique remarkable this record of continuity is. In just the last 75 years or so, since the end of World War II, there have been over 550 coup attempts in countries around the world, with about 225 of them, or 40 percent, succeeding. That’s about 7 coup attempts every year. Some countries have had multiple coups throughout that time – Thailand has had 12. If you go all the way back to 1825, Bolivia has had a total of 150 attempted coups. And coup attempts are not limited to just the Third World. France had an attempted coup as recently as 1961, Greece in 1974, and Spain in 1981.
For many countries, coups seem to be a way of life. Some of them, like Turkey, actually have built-in provisions in the constitution that allow the military to take over under certain circumstances. But, somehow, the United States has managed to avoid all of this going back to its founding.
How has the United States achieved this remarkableextraordinary record – especially remarkable so because of the delicate balance between civilian and military authority. The second-century Roman poet Juvenal once asked “who guards the guardians?” What he meant by that is, who will guard those who are empowered to guard us – namely the military and the police? He was highlighting a dilemma that all nations face – how do you empower a military enough to protect the nation, but limit it so that it doesn’t threaten its people?
Americans are so used to the peaceful transfer that they almost never think about it. But this wasn’t always a given. In fact, there was once a time when that transition was threatened. At the very start of the republic, the balance of power between the civilian and military leadership in the country was tested and almost disrupted. The nascent republic found itself at the edge of chaos and disaster – and one man stood at the precipice, fighting to restore that balance. That man was General George Washington. At stake was the future of the republic and, in his words, the fate of unborn millions. How this man kept the peace in the midst of unprecedented turmoil is the subject of this episode of This American President.
It’s October 19th, 1781. On that day, in Yorktown, VA, were assembled the military officers of three nations – Great Britain, France, and the United States. Present were the commander of French forces, Comte de Rochambeau, age fifty-six; and the commander of the American forces, General George Washington, age forty-nine. On that day, the British were due to surrender to the combined French-American alliance. Back A week and a half earlier, on October 9th, the French and Americans began firing on the British, who were pinned against the Atlantic coast. For ten days, the Washington and Rochambeau’s combined forces laid siege against the forces under British Commander Lord Cornwallis. After French forces defeated a British fleet in the Chesapeake, Cornwallis’ men could count on no help from the sea. Cornwallis realized, there was no escape. But even after the British raised the white flag, they were in no mood to kowtow to the Americans. Lord Cornwallis feigned illness and refused to attend the surrender. Instead, the humiliated British leader sent his subordinate, Brigadier General Charles O’Hara. This was a slap in the face to the American and French commanders. And that wasn’t the only slight Washington would suffer. During the ceremony, General O’Hara attempted to surrender to Rochambeau, and not Washington – as if to recognize only France, not the United States, which was fighting for independence, as a sovereign entity. As a sign of respect to his ally, Rochambeau refused to accept O’Hara’s surrender and directed him to General Washington.
Regardless of these ceremonial faux pas, the battle was a triumph for George Washington. He had captured all of Cornwallis’ men – about 8,000 troops, and tons of weapons, ships, wagons, and horses. It was a major blow to British prestige. When word got back to British Prime Minister Lord north, he reportedly wailed “Oh God, it’s all over.”
By 1781, the war had been raging for six years. It began in 1775 with noble intentions – as stated in the 1776 Declaration of Independence – to secure the blessings of liberty and establish a nation based on the principle that all men are created equal. But like all wars, it devolved into a desperate struggle for survival. The Americans had declared treason against the most powerful nation on earth – and suffered the consequences for it. George Washington personally lost more battles against the British than he won. The British took over whole American cities, like New York, Charleston, and Savannah.
Time and time again, the Americans were on the ropes, on the brink of destruction. At times, Washington’s forces dwindled down to a mere 2,000 men, facing a British Army in the tens of thousands. The British officers trained in the finest military schools. Meanwhile, Washington was stuck with a ragtag force. His two top lieutenants, General Henry Knox and General Nathanael Green, were military amateurs. Knox was a bookseller and Greene was a farm boy – both men trained for the war by reading military strategy on their own.
And Washington had another handicap. He was the leader of a republican revolution – one that aimed to build a republic. And the American republic that most Americans envisioned was a loose, decentralized one. It consisted of numerous states bound together by a weak federal government. And that’s exactly what they had under the constitution of the time – called the Articles of Confederation. The government was so weak that it had no power to tax. The states were supreme. The Articles could only be amended if every state agreed to it. Practically speaking, it meant an impotent federal government. Although the government had a Congress, that Congress was paralyzed – and not just by its own constitutional limitations, but because it was a congress. Its members simply couldn’t agree on almost anything, whether it was because of differences of opinions or differences of interests.
But a weak central government was just fine for most Americans – after all, they were leaving the British Empire because they felt the government in London was too strong – so strong that it was imposing taxes on colonists in America without their consent. America would be a land of liberty – free from the oppressive hand of a tyrant king.
Sounds great, right? Well, perhaps not if you ask George Washington. That same impulse for liberty, and for a weak central government, made the war very difficult to fight. For one thing, it meant that Washington had to fight the war consistent with republican values – respect for the rights of man, their lives and their property. While many Americans wanted to uphold these values, it put them at a disadvantage, since the enemy had no such obligation. This love of liberty also made Washington’s own soldiers reluctant to submit to centralized military authority, especially since they were more loyal to their state than to the nation as a whole. It also meant Congress couldn’t raise the money needed to fully man and supply the army or regulate the army so that basic standards were met across the various states. Men from different states wore different uniforms. Unit cohesion was often nonexistent. And the men’s enlistments usually lasted one year. This meant that, after a year, it was up to the individual reenlist. Washington often had little in the way of a regular army. The result was dire. The lack of funds meant little in the way of food, clothes, supplies and weapons. It also meant that the soldiers weren’t getting paid. As a result of these deprivations, in the winters, men froze and starved to death. At one point, General Greene lamented the “want of cloathing, pay and the irregular supplies of provisions.” He said, “The distress of the Officers are great and many of them have drained every private resource in their power. Men may bear sufferings to a certain degree beyond which it is dangerous to push them.” Things got so bad some soldiers roasted boots to eat the leather. Army encampments featured poor sanitation and festered with lice and disease, like the dreaded smallpox. Historian William Fowler noted that, at one point, solders were seizing food from nearby farms.even eating the lice. I know that’s absolutely repulsive to hear, but there is a reason why people say war is hell right? Well, the American Revolution was no exception – it was a truly desperate conflict and, for most of the war, the Americans were on the losing end.
Washington saw all of that – he was with the army during its greatest victories, like those at Trenton and Princeton, and he was with them during the worst defeats, in New York, in Brandywine, and Germantown. He stood by the army’s side during the agonizing winter at Valley Forge.
Through these experiences, Washington came to believe that too little government was actually the enemy of liberty. The instinct that pushed Americans to declare independence was actually losing it for them. He believed that, had the Americans accepted a stronger, but limited central government, had that government had the power to raise money, it could have spared the soldiers a great deal of suffering, it could have made them a more effective fighting force. Had this happened, America could have won independence sooner and with less expense of blood and treasure. It’s no surprise that in a public paper, he later wrote, “timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it.” Some Americans agreed with Washington. There was a fear that, if there was no central government after the war, the states might go to war against each other. After all, that is what happened in Europe over the centuries.
It was a delicate balance. Washington wanted a government more powerful than it currently was, but not so powerful like that it would revert to a system of tyranny like that of Great Britain’s.
But that wasn’t Washington’s only problem. Even worse – Congress had made promises to the men that it wasn’t keeping. In 1778 it tried to give the soldiers incentive to serve, so it promised to anyone who served equivalent to half of their pay for seven years. George Washington pushed for more, so in 1780, it voted to give officers, specifically, half pay for the rest of their lives upon discharge. But without the power to tax, Congress had no money. When soldiers, who had often lost money because of the war, claimed their pay, they were given nothing.
Congress tried in 1781 to pass a tax to raise funds. In fact, it got 12 states to sign off on it – but, again, the approval of 13 states was needed. Rhode Island refused to approve it, so the tax remained a dead letter. The Army seethed in anger that one state might was ruining their future prospectswell-being.
Time and time again, Washington wrote to Congress and the state governors for them to do something – anything, to help his men. And time and time again, Congress and the states did nothing. Part of the problem was that the states often neglected sending any delegates at all. That meant Congress didn’t have a quorum to make any decisions. Another reason was the fear that giving Congress the power to tax meant creating a strong central government – the very thing many Americans feared. If you think gridlock in Congress is a new thing, think again. And so, that’s where things stood. America was fighting a war while being saddled with a dysfunctional government. All the while, the Army languished.
Even more frustrating was the fact that the American economy was actually thriving. Commerce continued despite the war – merchants and farmers were prospering, and some hucksters were even profiting off of the war at their expense. Congress had issued the soldiers IOUs for their pay, but since the treasury had no money, American credit collapsed. When that happened, the soldiers IOUs lost their values. The soldiers then resorted to selling them to speculators.
At the same time, food and supplies that could have gone to the soldiers were going to the British. Since American IOUs were worthless, Americans in places like South Carolina had a greater incentive to sell food and supplies to the British, with their reliable currency. The soldiers, on the other hand, were being left behindhe more food the British had the less food there was for the Americans. Congress soon issued them IOUs, but since the treasury had no money, American credit collapsed. When that happened, the soldiers IOUs lost their values. The soldiers then resorted to selling them to speculators.
For the men of the Continental Army, this was maddening. Here they were, fighting for liberty, while they, who were risking their lives, were being neglected by the nation they were fighting for and by their elected officials, whether at the state level or in the national Congress. One soldier, Colonel Henry Jackson, said “from morning to night and from night to morning you will hear some of the best officers and soldiers (that any nation could ever boast of) execrating the very country they are risking their lives, lands, and health to support.” Several times throughout the war, the army found itself at breaking point – Fowler records that there were over fifty munities throughout the war. Fifty times, men in the army threatened to leave the nation to its own devices! Washington was often forced in the position of disciplining these men – pardoning some and executing others – while keeping them ready for battle.
That’s where things stood as America entered 1782 – with a suffering and resentful army, thirteen states moving in different directions, and a feckless Congress. But, miraculously, and with the help of France, it had defeated the British at Yorktown. Perhaps the British would sue for peace – perhaps the war would be over.
After the victory, Washington moved his forces from Virginia to upstate New York, around the City of Newburgh. In March of 1782, Washington established his headquarters there. But while that was happening, there were those in both inside America and out, who saw what was happening, how feckless impotent the government was, and all the discontent going on in the camps. They wondered whether, America if it became independent, America it could survive. After all, history showed that republics didn’t last – that sooner or later, they devolved into anarchy and/or tyranny, like the Roman Republic. And America was doing something that hadn’t been done before – it was trying to establish a republic consisting of large nation-states, the size of whole European countries, a time when the vast majority of the people of the world were being ruled by kings and emperors.
One British official, Maurice Morgann, scoffed at America’s ambitions, predicting that the country would collapse into “despotism and mutual rage,” and that once the “republic experiment failed,” the Americans would seek “reunion” with the British Empire. It was not an uninformed opinion. After all, the British had established a republic in the midst of the English Civil War back in the mid-1600s, only to see that republic collapse into autocratic rule under Oliver Cromwell. Who was to say that the same thing wouldn’t happen in America?
The Nicola Letter
Even within the army, more than a few soldiers feared the same outcome. One of those was a Colonel named Lewis Nicola, who was in his mid-50s, and was in charge of the Invalid Corps – a group of veterans who were physically disabled but wanted to serve in some way. Nicola had a front row seat to the army’s everyday sufferings. On May 22nd, he wrote to Washington expressing his frustrations, saying he didn’t believe that the Congress would ever give the soldiers the pay that they deserved. He then revealed to Washington his thoughts on republics in general, pointing to examples in Venice, Genoa, and Holland. Nicola noted that the first two, Venice and Genoa, were more less corrupt aristocracies rather than true republics and that the latter, Holland, was a weak country, a pawn controlled by her European neighbors. He admitted to Washington, “I am not that violent admirer of a republican form of government as numbers in this country are.” He then compared these republics with the major monarchies of Europe. He admitted that those monarchies were not perfect, “yet they still subsist & shine with lustre.” He insisted he didn’t advocate for an absolute monarchy, but a “mixed government” close to the British monarchy but with more constraints on the King.
Nicola continued, noting that Americans “have so connected the ideas of tyranny and monarchy as to find it very difficult to separate them.” Thus, he acknowledged how difficult it would be to get Americans, with their deeply-ingrained disdain for monarchy, to accept anything close to one. So, he said “it may therefore be requisite to give the head of such a constitution as I propose, some title apparently more moderate” – in other words to have a limited king without the actual name of king for the time being, so that Americans wouldn’t freak out.
Nicola was taking an enormous risk revealing these ideas to Washington, the leader of a revolution against a king – a revolution, in principle, against the entire concept of a monarchy. But even that wasn’t Nicola’s boldest idea.
In his letter, Nicola subtly praised Washington’s leadership, saying that the army had been “under a proper head” and that his “qualities… have merited and obtained the universal esteem and veneration of an army.” He then suggested that the idea of a limited king might be adopted if that same person who led us through war were “to conduct and direct us in the smoother paths of peace.” In other words, after he sung the praises of limited monarch, Nicola was suggesting, in more understated language, that the country might be willing to accept Washington in that role, and that, therefore, he ought to become a king for the good of the nation.
It is almost certain that Nicola wasn’t the only person who believed that America should install a king – even though the American Revolution was fought against kingly power, prior to the outbreak of the war, they had spent all of their lives as British subjects. It’s not a surprise that, as America faced seemingly insurmountable problems, there were those who felt that some form of royal authority was needed to secure the country’s future.
As the commander in chief, George Washington was a busy man and a response to letters could take days, or even weeks. Well, right when Washington received this letter, he felt compelled to respond immediately. That same day, he wrote back to Nicola, saying “With a mixture of great surprise & astonishment I have read with attention the Sentiments you have submitted to my perusal.” He insisted that “no occurrence in the course of the War, has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the Army as you have expressed, & I must view with abhorrence, and reprehend with severity.”
The very idea that Nicola was suggesting, of an American crown with General Washington on the throne, was one that the General wanted to extinguish immediately. He wrote to Nicola, “I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country.” He insisted, “you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable.” Washington affirmed that “no man possesses a more sincere wish to see ample Justice done to the Army than I do,” and that he would use all his “powers & influence, in a constitution[al] way” to see that justice served. In short, Washington uncategorically rejected Nicola’s suggestion. He closed, imploring Nicola “if you have any regard for your Country, concern for your self or posterity—or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your Mind, & never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like nature.”
Nicola reeled from this spectacular repudiation by his commander. He immediately sent Washington letters of apology, and a few more in the days afterward. Washington, hoping that the issue would die then and there, never responded.
In the centuries since this episode, a myth has arose that Washington formally rejected the offer to become king. Technically speaking, there was never any formal offer – not by Congress, or some other form of national or international authority. Much of that mythology originated with this letter, written by a man who had no authority to implement a monarchy. All he could do was suggest one.
But even if we get our history right, Washington’s response is no less critical or reflective of his character. Washington knew that there was discontent in the army. He knew that not a few people were sympathetic to the idea of an American king. But he also knew that he had spent the last seven years of his life fighting against a monarchy, and that even the slightest indication of the support for a king could disturb that delicate balance on which the republic rested. Washington would not throw away all he had been fighting for. For now, Washington may have upheld the balance, but Nicola wasn’t alone in his ideas.
Britain Accepts Defeat
Meanwhile, back in Great Britain, things were coming to a head. Now that the war was stretching into its seventh year, the British population was getting weary. They had seen general after general, whether it was William Howe, Henry Clinton, or John Burgoyne, sent off to America with dreams of victory, only to return in defeat and disgrace. And ever since their age-old enemy France entered the war on the side of the Americans back in 1778, there was the growing sense that the conflict in America was draining resources away from the broader competition with Paris. When the news of the catastrophe at Yorktown arrived in London, opposition to the war reached fever pitch. By March of 1782, Lord North’s government collapsed. Over the next few months, the power of the Prime Minister changed hands, finally landing on William Petty, the 2nd Earl of Shelburne in July.
The reigning King, George III, remained steadfast in his belief that the colonies remain part of Great Britain. A new commander, Sir Guy Carleton, was sent to America to lead the British effort and negotiate some sort of agreement that would allow London to keep the colonies. But the new Prime Minister, the Earl of Shelburne, knew better. He knew that after seven years of war, the Americans would submit to British rule no longer. Shelburne wanted to cut British losses in North America so he could refocus his nation’s efforts against France. At this point, Shelburne hoped that an agreement with the Americans recognizing their independence might serve to split its alliance with France.
American envoys, including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay realized that the chance for independence – the goal of their revolution – was at hand. The Americans Franklin (?)He signaled to British envoys that America’s alliance with France might end if peace with Britain could be attainedheir willingness to talk, but Franklin refused to disavow the American alliance with the French. Still, Lord Shelburne moved quickly. In the summer of 1782, he sent a letter to Carleton, indicating that the time had come to negotiate peace. Talks continued through the fall. That November, representatives from the United States and Great Britain signed preliminary peace articles recognizing American independence. They would now be sent to the legislatures of both nations for ratification.
Peace Fuels Discontent
Throughout the United States, Americans were heartened by the prospect of peace. In the camps, however, the mood was the exact opposite. For seven years, the men of American army had fought for independence – and now that goal was nearly at hand. But there was, thanks to their dire situation and years of broken promises, a perverse incentive built in. Congress and the states were doing very little to provide for the Army, but at least the Army was together. If peace came, the Army would likely be disbanded. Any hope for obtaining their promised pay and pensions would evaporate. After all, if the nation’s leadership refused to provide for the Army during war, what incentive would it have to do so in a time of peace?
From the perspective of the American Army, it seemed that as one enemy, the British, was receding, another enemy was emerging. That enemy was peace. Yes, their country might be free, but peace could mean the army would be hung out to dry, going back home empty-handed, resigned to poverty. Anger and desperation reverberated throughout camps. There had always been talk of mutiny, and now the prospect loomed ever larger.
It fell to George Washington to lead his army in this trying time. He was hopeful for peace but he worried about his army. He knew his men had legitimate grievances – they had suffered beyond what could be expected and did not want to see them live the rest of their lives in deprivation. They say that those who go to war together forge a closer bond that one can imagine – that is what Washington felt for his men. He, too, was frustrated at the nation’s civilian leadership for doing little to take care of those who had sacrificed the most. He also worried about what the Army might do to rectify the situation. Washington was now torn – he loved his men but he also had a clear view of what he was fighting for. Still, he was determined that he would allow nothing to threaten civilian rule in America.
Even worse, in August of 1782, a familiar figure reentered Washington’s life – a man who he likely preferred to never have to see again. That man was General Horatio Gates. Gates was slightly older than Washington – he was in his mid-fifties, and had served with Washington in the French and Indian War back in the 1750s. When the American Revolution broke out in 1775, Gates – one of the few men in the Patriot cause with significant military experience – offered his services to General Washington. In 1777, Gates, along with Benedict Arnold, scored a critical victory against the British in the Battle of Saratoga – a victory that likely influenced France’s King Louis to forge an alliance with the United States. That same year, Washington suffered two crushing defeats in the battles of Brandywine and Germantown. In the aftermath of these battles, Gates’ star was rising and Washington’s was fading. Washington and Gates had an uneasy relationship – Gates sometimes acted in insubordinate fashion towards his superior, General Washington, failing make reports to his commander-in-chief, instead sending them directly to Congress. There were some in the Congress and in the army who hoped that Gates would replace Washington. Throughout the winter of 1777 and 1778, a murky plot involving elements in the Congress and the army was hatched to topple Washington from his prime position as leader of the Revolution. It involved a man named Thomas Conway, a European general who was fighting on the American side but wanted his share of laurels and titles and had a low opinion of Washington. It’s not clear how big of a role Gates played in all this, but it served to only sour his relationship with Washington. The plot, known as the Conway Cabal, ultimately failed and Washington retained his command.
Things got even worse for Gates. In 1780, engaged the British in the Battle of Camden in South Carolina and ended up suffering a humiliating defeat where he committed several strategic errors. In the aftermath, Gates’ military reputation took a severe hit and Congress even called for a board of inquiry investigation into his conduct. The investigation never occurred but Gates spent the next two years back home in Virginia, stewing in anger.
Gates wanted to rehabilitate his reputation and in 1782, he signaled to Congress his willingness to return to the army. Congress granted the request and Gates headed up to Newburgh to take his place as the second highest- ranking officer behind General Washington. Gates’ return likely brought back unwelcome memories for the commander-in-chief.
By the fall of 1782, the Army was enduring trying times, in large part, because there was little to do, both for Washington, and his men. We think of war as action-packed, and it often is. But much of war, especially in the 18th century, consisted of a lot of waiting. In the long winter months, armies ceased fighting and remained in camps. And even during the rest of the year, there was a lot of waiting. Since Washington, with his ragtag army, had such a disadvantage against the powerful, well-trained, and well-fed British Army, he spent much of the war avoiding battles and fighting only under the most favorable of circumstances. So he and his men waited. And now that peace talks were being held, the army continued tocould do nothing but wait. For the soldiers, including his officers, that meant brooding over in discontent… a discontent that easy turned into resentment. For Washington, it meant trying to keep his army busy with something – anything. In August, he tried to boost morale, by introducing a military award, called the Badge of Military Merit, to recognize “any singular meritorious action,” “unusual gallantry,” and “extraordinary fidelity.” The badge was shaped like a heart and made of purple cloth, and non-officers were eligible to be recipients, as long as they were nominated by regimental and brigade commanders. Unfortunately, those commanders ended up ignoring the award and only three soldiers were decorated. The Badge faded into obscurity, until, in 1932, President Herbert Hoover revived it to honor soldiers wounded or killed in the line of duty.
Even so, the Badge could have only done so much to boost morale. Washington knew he had to keep his men busy. He tried to keep them in shape for battle, ordering that they continued their daily military formations and drills. But they needed a bigger project. So, in December of 1782, Washington took the advice of a chaplain named Israel Evans, who suggested that the soldiers build a grand structure to serve as a sort of multi-purpose building. It could be used as a military headquarters, a place to have social gatherings, or a house of worship. It would be 110 feet long and 30 feet wide. Washington liked the idea, so construction began in nearby New Windsor in December and rapidly continued through the winter and would be finished in February of 1783. Upon completion, it was named the Temple of Virtue. But during its construction, schemes were being plotted that would threaten the balance of civilian and military power in the new nation.
As I said earlier, George Washington felt a strong, central government would have won the war sooner at less cost in lives and resources. Now that peace was at hand, he felt that a strong central government would be needed for the new nation to survive. Even if the country became independent, it was surrounded by European empires which claimed interests in Canada, the continent west of the United States, in Florida, and Latin America. Only by pooling their resources, could the United States be strong enough to deter potential adversaries. He hoped that, one day, a government could be created that could coordinate all 13 states, perhaps superseding them in authority.
Washington was not alone in this view. At the nation’s capital, then in Philadelphia, several government officials, including members of Congress, agreed with him. Many of them, like Washington, had first-hand experience in the war and shared Washington’s belief that a strong federal government could have ended the war sooner. They were frustrated at Congress’ impotence and inability to get anything done. One member described it as a place “of dissipation, unbounded avarice… divided councils and exhausted finances.”
Those who supported a strong government haveThis group has since been labeled by historians as nationalists. They included Robert Morris, the nation’s Superintendent of Finance. Morris, who, like Washington, was in his late 40s, basically ran the nation’s budget. And since the nation had virtually no budget, it was a miserably difficult job. Although Morris was inventive enough to introduce reform after reform, like starting a national bank, his plans were often hamstrung by the government’s lack of power. Try as he might, there was little he could do to get the Army paid.
Close to Morris was his assistant, Gouverneur Morris, of no relation. Gouverneur was a younger man, in his early thirties, from New York, and who had spent some time as a member of Congress. His support for a strong federal government was not popular and led to his defeat in his re-election bid. The two Morrises formed a bloc in the country’s nascent government in favor of stronger federal powers.
They had allies in the Congress. One of them was another young member in his early thirties – James Madison, delegate from Virginia. Madison was a bookish academic type, had been educated at Princeton, and had emerged as a rising political leader star in Washington’s home state of Virginia. He, too, had been frustrated at the federal government’s impotence throughout the war and had proposed to amend the Articles so Congress could impose tariffs to raise money.
Still younger was Alexander Hamilton, newly-elected delegate to New York, in his late 20s. Hamilton had grown up in in Caribbean and, unlike many Americans, felt little loyalty to any state. He was a natural supporter of a more centralized government system. But he had something that most of his colleagues didn’t have: he had a personal relationship with the most revered man in America, George Washington. For the bulk of the war, from 1777 to 1781, Hamilton served as George Washington’s aide-de-camp. Hamilton’s intellectual breadth and depth made him an invaluable aide for Washington. For most of the war, they got along well, but Hamilton grew frustrated with his desk job. Like many young men, he wanted military glory, but Washington felt he was too valuable to send to the battlefield and had no shortage of men to send to the battlefieldappoint. Things came to a head in February of 1781, when Washington and Hamilton had bit of a row. A small disagreement escalated into a full-scale confrontation and soon the headstrong Hamilton resigned his commission and left the army.
Although Washington was angered by Hamilton’s brash move, he sought reconciliation with his former aide. The general finally granted Hamilton his long-desired field command. During the Battle of Yorktown, Hamilton led three battalions in a courageous assault on a British redoubt. His actions contributed to the defeat of the British. Hamilton could now claim that he was a war hero for his resume.
The following year, in 1782, Hamilton was appointed a delegate to the Congress. After years serving under Washington, Hamilton had developed into an avowed nationalist. In a letter in 1780, Hamilton wrote, “The fundamental defect is a want of power in Congress…the confederation itself is defective and requires to be altered; it is neither fit for war, nor peace.”
These four men, Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton formed a nationalist bloc that hoped to push America in the direction of a strong, centralized modern nation-state, but their efforts would not be easy. As I said earlier, much of the country had a knee-jerk hatred towards anything that even hinted of a powerful government. Men in the Congress like Oliver Wolcott, and Arthur Lee, and David Howell had opposed them any efforts to pay the officers. Others would oppose any move to strengthen the Congress.
The nationalists shared with Washington the same basic political philosophy, but it wasn’t clear if they shared his respect for the balance between civilian and military authority. An opportunity would arise that would soon expose the wide gulf between the nationalists and the commander-in-chief.
Back in the fall of 1782, moral was at an all-time low in the Army. In October, Washington wrote to the Secretary of War Benjamin Lincoln, who was in Philadelphia, to describe the dire conditions his men were living in. He wrote that they were experiencing, “the total want of Money… the heavy debts they have already incurred, the loss of Credit, the distress of their Families.. and the prospect of Poverty and Misery.” He told Lincoln that his men resented “the ingratitude of the Public” and feared that they would never get paid for their service. He said his men were the picture of “patriotism” and suffered “distress which have scarcely ever been paralleled, never surpassed in the history of Mankind.” He warned, “the patience and long sufferance of this Army are almost exhausted, and that there never was so great a spirit of Discontent as at this instant.”
The commander-in-chief was making clear to civilian leadership that his men could only tolerate so much neglect. At some point, the army, which had seen many mutinies before, might be tempted to take even more desperate measures. Washington assured Lincoln that the army “may be kept from breaking out into Acts of Outrage,” but he warned “when we retire into Winter Quarters, cannot be at ease, respecting the consequence.”
Washington also kept in contact with a delegate in the Congress from Virginia, Joseph Jones. To Jones, Washington wrote of the soldiers, saying, “if their discontents should be suffered to rise equally high, I know not what the consequences may be.”
Washington himself would do his best to prevent any such acts, but he feared whether he could truly control the passions of his men once they came to the end of their patience. He was willing to let the army express its views to the Congress. In December of 1782, a committee in the army, largely led by Washington’s trusted lieutenant Henry Knox, drafted a memorial to be delivered to the Congress. The memorial affirmed the supremacy of civilian authority in the form of the Congress. It discussed the years of miseries borne by the soldiers, the “hunger and nakedness” they had endured. And it offered a compromise: if the soldiers could not obtain half pay, they would accept full pay for a certain number of years or a lump sum.
The army chose three senior officers to make the journey from the encampments in Newburgh and deliver the memorial to Congress in Philadelphia. They were Major General Alexander McDougall, Colonel John Brooks, and Colonel Matthias Ogden. On January 6, 1783, the trio, having arrived in Philadelphia, formally presented the memorial to Congress. Throughout their time there, the three met with several officials, members of the government like Robert Morris, and members of Congress. They lobbied hard for the nation’s civilian leaders to turn their attentions to the plight of the soldiers.
It’s here where we begin to see a convergence of viewpoints between the trio from the army and the nationalists in Congress. Both groups had a shared interest expanding the powers of the federal government. For the nationalists, it meant that they would finally have a functioning system that could lead the country in times of peace; for the army, it meant that that functioning system could raise the money to pay them. An alliance could be forged between the soldiers and the delegates civilian leaders of like mind.
Over the next few weeks, Congress debated away just what to do. The question of how to help the army inevitably involved questions of the power of the federal government – which raised passionate disagreements on both sides. Initially, Hamilton was optimistic. On January 12, Hamilton wrote to his friend, New York Governor George Clinton, “every day proves more and more the insufficiency of the confederation. The proselytes to this opinion are increasing fast.” To dramatize the situation, Robert Morris resigned his post as Superintendent of Finance. Ostensibly, it was due to exhaustion, but some historians believe that it may have been a tactic to force the Congress into action. Morris was synonymous with American finance. No one could imagine a replacement. Congress was terrified that news of Morris’ departure could spook the entire nation’s economy, so they worked to keep the news from getting out. The nationalists hoped that these moves would rouse Congress into action.
But the nationalists’ opponents were on to their efforts. Arthur Lee suspected that Morris’ resignation was a ploy, writing “Every engine is at work here to obtain permanent taxes.” Despite the arguments of the trio from the Army, and those of the nationalists, their opponents would not budge. Congress would not act on the soldiers’ request; they would not guarantee to the army that they would be paid. After six weeks in Philadelphia, McDougall, Brooks, and Ogden were left empty handed.
It was a bitter blow. Those who knew about the situation feared what the Army might do in response. McDougall decided to stay in Philadelphia to keep lobbying for the Army. Ogden had pledged that he would not return without good news, decided to go home to New Jersey. It fell to Colonel Brooks to travel back to Newburgh to report the bad news to General Washington. But before the trio left the capital, they met with the nationalists.
The nationalists knew their window of opportunity was closing – especially with the prospect of peace looming. For them, this was a matter of national survival – a Congress without sufficient powers could spell doom for the Republic. They decided that desperate times called for desperate measures.
We don’t know the exact details of these meetings, but we do know that the nationalists commenced a series of coordinated actions in February of 1783. Their goal: to get the army to use its influence in some way to force the Congress or the States to act. How would the army would influence the Congress and state government? Well, for one thing, it could refuse to disband when the war ended. It could march over to Philadelphia and pay Congress a visit. Perhaps a little show of force might do the trick? Either way, there was now a plot being initiated to use the army’s coercive abilities as leverage over the civilian leaders of the nation. That plot would put to the test the nation’s delicate balance of civilian and military authority.
The plan called for an appeal to the leaders of the army to join ranks in this effort. First, Gouverneur Morris wrote to Henry Knox, the officer closest to Washington, on February 7th to enlist his aid. Morris and Knox knew each other well. In the letter, Morris recounted the possibility that the army could be disbanded into oblivion. He then offered a solution to their problems, then mentioned broaching the possibility that “the Army may now influence the Legislatures.”
As important and respected Knox was, the commander-in-chief, George Washington, remained the critical factor in the nationalists’ plans – and they had someone who knew him well. Less than a week after Morris wrote his letter to Knox, on February 13th, Alexander Hamilton wrote a letter to his old chief, General Washington. He began the letter lamenting that the very Congress he was serving in was “not governed by reason or foresight but by circumstances.” He told Washington that if peace would come and the army disbanded, it “will part with the means of obtaining justice.”
Hamilton began to subtly suggest to Washington to that he take action with respect to the Congress. He wrote, “The claims of the army urged with moderation, but with firmness, may operate on those weak minds which are influenced by their apprehensions more than their judgments.” The key phrase here is that Washington “urge Congress with firmness.” He said that such an action “may add weight to the applications of Congress to the several states.” In other words, the Army could be used as a tool, not just to force Congress to do its bidding, but for the state governments to do so as well.
Hamilton knew that using the Army for these purposes was a risky endeavor. He wrote, “the difficulty will be to keep a complaining and suffering army within the bounds of moderation.” But he urged Washington “to take the direction of” the Army’s efforts to obtain justice. And then Hamilton added a final thought that, on one hand, might wound the commander-in-chief, but on the other, might motivate him. He said that “An idea is propagated in the army that delicacy carried to an extreme prevents your espousing its interests with sufficient warmth.” In other words, Hamilton was saying that there were those in the army who believed that Washington was being too moderate, that he was being too deferential to Congress, at the expense of his own men. It was a sentence designed to wound Washington’s pride and rouse his defensiveness ever so slightly, not to provoke him into anger at Hamilton, but to action – to prove him loyalty to the army. To clear himself in Washington’s eyes, Hamilton was sure to add, “The falsehood of this opinion no one can be better acquainted with than myself; but it is not the less mischievous for being false.”
If you know anything about Alexander Hamilton, whether it’s through biographies or the hit Broadway play, you know that he was no stranger to scheming. It was a bold letter, but one that was clearly calculating with the purpose of manipulating the leader of the American Revolution. Hamilton and Morris both were playing with fire – they knew it, which is why they used language that was subtle yet unambiguous. Neither would say it, but Washington and Knox knew what they meant – the time to exploit the delicate balance between civilian and military authority was at hand.
That same day, Colonel Brooks arrived from Philadelphia back to the encampment in Newburgh. It appears he spent his first two days back reporting to General Washington and General Knox about what had happened – including Congress’ continued refusal to pay the soldiers. We don’t know exactly what was said but historian William Fowler speculates that he may have told Washington and Knox about the nationalists’ plan.
Would their plan work? Would the two most respected generals in the army agree to use the army to coerce the Congress or the states?
Washington and Knox took some time to respond to their respective letters – perhaps to have time to reflect on the entire situation, or to let cooler heads prevail. . Washington was attending to various duties, both public and personal. He was getting older and realized his eyesight was deteriorating. He just purchased a new pair from noted inventor David Rittenhouse. In light of the two letters, it’s possible that Washington and Gates came together to talk about what was going on and how best to respond to their counterparts in Philadelphia. The nationalists were playing a dangerous game – especially since many in the army were likely sympathetic to their views.
Knox responded first, writing to Morris on February 21st, 1783. He was brief – affirming that the men of the army were “good patriots.” He then insisted that any changes to the powers of the government “must be directed in the mode by the proper authority.” He acknowledged that “the present Constitution is so defective,” but then he turned the question back to Morris, asking “why do not you great men call the people together to tell them so… to have a convention of the States to form a better Constitution?” Knox essentially refused to use the army for political purposes. It was clear that Knox would not join in on the plot – but would Washington?
After almost three weeks, Washington finally wrote back Hamilton, on March 4th, 1783. In the letter, Washington lamented the state of the army, writing “Unhappy situation this!” Washington then gave us a glimpse of the toll the entire situation was taking on him: “The predicament in which I stand as Citizen & Soldier, is as critical and delicate as can well be conceived—It has been the Subject of many contemplative hours.” Washington knew full well the balancing act he would have to pull off: “The Sufferings of a complaining Army on one hand,— & the inability of Congress & tardiness of the States on the other are the forebodings of evil and may be productive of events which are more to be depricated than prevented.”
But Washington knew something was up. He made a subtle reference to Hamilton’s claim that some in the army felt he wasn’t fighting hard enough for their interests. He said that “the source” of those ideas “may be easily traced as the old leven.” Old leven? What did Washington mean by this? Well, this was a reference to a verse in the Bible, specifically in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter five, where he compares sin to leaven, also known as yeast, saying that just as putting yeast in bread affects the entire loaf, a little bit of sin can infect an entire congregation. Thus, Paul argues, the congregation should get rid of an unrepentant sinful man to keep itself pure.
What he meantIn this case, Washington was referring to was General Horatio Gates as the sinful man. Washington couldn’t have known for sure, but he suspected that back in 1777, General Gates had been part of the Conway Cabel to topple him as the commander-in-chief of the army. After Gates had returned in August of 1782, . Now there were whisperings that raised doubts about Washington’s loyalty to the army. Might Gates and his allies be at it again?
Washington acknowledged to Hamilton that he couldn’t be certain, writing “for I have no proof of it” but he believed that there were elements in his army that were feigning loyalty to him on the surface while concealing hidden motives underneath. He wrote that the old leven “is again beginning to work under a mask of the most perfect dissimulation & apparent cordiality.”
Gates was in the thick of the intrigue. Back on February 20th, he had written Col. Brooks “The political pot in Philadelphia Boils so furiously… What a blessed prospect we Republicans have before us.”
With all that said, the question remained: would Washington join in on the plot? Could the nationalists count on his support? Washington made it clear: he would not. He wrote: “I shall pursue the same steady line of conduct which has governed me hitherto.” He continued to insist that the Congress was the proper channel for the army to obtain justice.
And so, the nationalists realized they could not look to Washington and Knox for their salvation. Time was running out. America and Britain were inching closer to peace. When that happened, and the army was disbanded, the nationalists would lose their best tool for pushing through the reforms they wanted and the army would lose its chance to be properly compensated. The nationalists now looked for another champion – and it just so happened that there was a man in the army who had no problem with stepping outside the proper bounds of authority – a man of burning ambition and simmering resentment. That man was Washington’s second-in-command, Horatio Gates.
Gates and Co. Initiate the Plan
Gates had three young, loyal aides with him at Newburgh: Major John Armstrong, Captain Christopher Richmond, and Major William Barber. Like Gates, they were not fans of General Washington. In the aftermath of Congress’ latest rejection, discontent was sweeping through the camps. For Gates and his aides, that discontent represented an opportunity – an opportunity, perhaps, to capitalize on resentment at Washington, perhaps to supplant him once and for all.
Just the previous year, Major Barber served as an assistant inspector for the northern army under the inspector, a Colonel Walter Stewart. Stewart had been staying in Philadelphia for some time where he remained well-informed about what was happening in the national government. He was also good friends with Robert Morris and Horatio Gates. Gates even described him as “a kind of agent from our friends in congress and in the administration.”
In the midst of all the machinations in Philadelphia and in the army camps, Colonel Stewart decided to pay the army a visit. He arrived on March 8th. He met with General Gates and his men. We don’t know what was said at that meeting. But we do know what happened next. Two days later, on March 10th, a document, or an address, was circulating through the army. Its writer remained anonymous but whoever it was had styled themselves as “A fellow soldier whose interests and affections bind him strongly to you, whose past sufferings, have been as great & whose future fortune may be as desperate as yours.” The address called for the officers to meet at 11am the following day, March 11th.
The rest of the document was designed to stir up intense emotion and resentment. The author described America as an ungrateful country “that tramples upon your rights, disdains your Cries—& insults your distresses.” He recounted how often the soldiers had “made known your wants to Congress” and “begged from their Justice.” He asked, “How have you been answered?” The answer, for anyone who had been with the army throughout the war, was clear. They had been shunned, ignored, neglected, while an ungrateful nation was preparing to move on, leaving the men who won them independence out to dry. The author asked, “If this then be your treatment while the swords you wear are necessary for the Defence of America, what have you to expect from peace; when your voice shall sink, and your strength dissipate by division—when those very swords, the Instruments and Companions of your Glory, shall be taken from your sides, and no remaining mark of Military distinction left, but your wants, infirmities & Tears.” He played up the soldiers’ sense of isolation, asking them “can you then consent to be the only sufferers by this revolution—and retiring from the field, grow old in poverty, wretchedness, and Contempt… If you can—Go—and carry with you the jest of Tories, & the Scorn of Whigs—the ridicule—and what is worse—the pity of the world—go—Starve and be forgotten.”
Having worked up his audience, the author offered an alternative solution. He called them “to oppose tyranny, under whatever Garb it may assume—whether it be the plain Coat of Republicanism—or the splendid Robe of Royalty.” The author was now going down a dangerous path. He was questioning whether there was any real difference between a monarchy and a republic, even though the goal of the war was to establish an independent republic. He was tempting the soldiers to reject the very thing they had been fighting for.
The author did not stop there. He urged the men to “Change the Milk & Water stile of your last Memorial—assume a bolder Tone, decent, but lively, spirited and determined—And suspect the man, who would advise to more moderation, and longer forbearance.” Suspect the man who would advice to moderation – the only person he could have been talking about was that man who was doing his utmost to moderate the extremes of both the Congress and the army – General Washington. The author was now challenging the soldiers to question their loyalty to their commander-in-chief – something foreshadowed earlier by Hamilton – and to take a bolder tone with the civilian leadership. How bold? He said “the Army has its alternative—If peace, that nothing shall seperate them from your Arms but Death—If War—that courting the Auspicies, and inviting the direction of your Illustrous Leader, you will retire to some unsettled Country.”
In other words, the writer of this address said the army should do one of two things, depending on the circumstances. If peace occurs and the army is ordered to disband, it should disobey Ciongress and refuse to lay down its arms – perhaps to maintain leverage over the civilian leaders to obtain what it wanted. If the war continued, the army should simply leave, maybe go out west, start a country of its own, and leave America to fend for itself.
The Address sent the camp into a frenzy. For desperate and bitter soldiers, the message resonated. They now saw that they, the soldiers, had the very tools for their own salvation: through their weapons and their very presence, they could force their way into getting what they wanted. By refusing to disband or threatening to leave the country exposed to enemies, they could coerce the Congress or the state governments to give them what they wanted. And why not? After all, hadn’t they been unjustly treated? After getting the country this close to independence, isn’t this what they deserved?
Resentment now focused on George Washington. It’s not hard to imagine that more than a few started to wonder, did he really care about us? It seemed like he cared more about making Congress happy. Congress – that useless institution of elites that had given us nothing but poverty and misery. Why wouldn’t our commander-in-chief do more for us? He was standing in our way. If only we didn’t have to deal with him, we could get what we wanted – what we deserved.
We cannot be truly certain, but historians like Thomas Fleming and William Fowler, who have sifted through the correspondence of the officers at Newburgh believe they’ve uncovered the writer of the anonymous address – John Armstrong, the same John Armstrong serving as an aide to Horatio Gates [GET MORE EVIDENCE FOR THIS]. Again, the evidence is murky. It’s hard to know exactly who did what, but we do know a few things: we know that in Philadelphia, the nationalists were plotting to get the army to take more forceful action, to use the army as leverage to force Congress into take action, perhaps to obtain greater authority. The army inspector Walter Stewart, who was close to one of those nationalists, Robert Morris, and Horatio Gates, traveled from Philadelphia to the army encampments in Newburgh. There, he met with Gates. Just two days later, an anonymous letter (very possible Gates’ top aide) appears, designed to provoke the army into action against the Congress. Again, it’s hard to prove anything beyond a certainty, but we can start seeing how the dots connect. We start seeing a plot, hatched in Philadelphia, now making its way to Newburgh, designed to strain the balance between civilian and military authority for the sake of a political agenda – one that exploited the suffering of the soldiers. How much Gates was involved in this we will never know, but it’s hard to imagine that a document so bold could come from his aide without him knowing, especially since they lived and worked in the same building.
The unfortunate thing, is that it was working. The soldiers were now tempted to take action into their own hands. George Washington, who had led the nation through almost eight years of war, was now facing his greatest test. His authority as commander-in-chief was being challenged as never before. He worried that, if he went down, Congress, and with it the republic, would be next.
Washington knew he had to act fast – the meeting was scheduled for the next day, but he also had to give the army time to let cooler heads prevailcool down. He immediately issued an order cancelling the meeting and expressing his disapproval “of such disorderly proceedings.” But he knew he couldn’t leave things there – cancelling the meeting wouldn’t solve the problem, it might even make things worse. So, Washington made a countermove, authorizing another meeting, this time at noon the following Saturday, March 15th. The purpose of the meeting would be to “devise what further measures ought to be adopted as the most rational and best calculated” to obtain justice for the army. That bought Washington time – and gave the army a chance to calm down. Curiously, the order did not indicate that Washington would attend but the senior officer in rank would preside – that man was Horatio Gates.
The following day, Washington wrote to Hamilton and indicated hinted that he suspected that Walter Stewart was behind all of this: “When I wrote to you last we were in a state of tranquility, but after the arrival of a certain Gentleman,1 who shall be nameless at present, from Philadelphia, a storm very suddenly arose with unfavourable prognostics; which tho’ diverted for a moment is not yet blown over.” Washington said that the army “stood wavering on a tremendous precipice.”
He explained that he was trying to put an end to the machinations brewing in the army “and to rescue them from plunging themselves into a gulph of Civil horror from which there might be no receding.” To Joseph Jones, Washington explained further his suspicions, saying “it is generally believ’d the Scheme was not only planned, but also digested and matured in Philadelphia; and that some people have been playing a double game; spreading at the Camp and in Philadelphia Reports and raising jealousies… by their vile Artifices.”
Despite Washington cancelling the meeting, Gates’ men were not ready to admit defeat. Just a day later, on March 12th, the anonymous author, again, probably Armstrong, circulated another address – and this one was even more devious and calculating as the first. It sought to dispel the notion that Washington’s general order was a signal of disapproval of the first address. Instead, it argued, that Washington’s call for a second meeting was his way of passing “the seal of office” – in other words, his rescheduling of the meeting was a way to give it his seal of approval. This crafty note boxed Washington in – he couldn’t escape the question that many of his soldiers wanted to know – was he for Congress or for them?
Ides of March
Just before noon on Saturday, the officers of the Army entered the Temple of Virtue for their sanctioned meeting. It was March 15th – the infamous Ides of March. On that day, in 44 BC, the Julius Caesar was assassinated by a conspiracy involving the Roman senate. Just prior, Caesar been declared dictator and many feared that he would overthrow the entire government. Now, on March 15, 1783, the question was, would the army decide to undermine the civilian government of the United States? The fate of the nation, just barely coming into existence, was at stake. With General Washington absent, there was no telling what would happen.
At noon, General Gates took his place as the presiding officer. The officers took their seats. Just as the meeting was about to begin, a figure emerged at the entrance – it was General Washington. The officers were shocked to see him there – he almost never attended these meetings or addressed the officers. There he was – the man who, throughout the years of war, the officers had once felt love, loyalty, veneration for, but now, those feelings were mixed with resentment and frustration.
One eyewitness, Major Samuel Shaw, later wrote “On other occasions he had been supported by the exertions of an army and the countenance of his friends, but in this he stood single and alone… Under these circumstances he appeared, not at the head of his troops, but as it were in opposition to them; and for a dreadful moment the interests of the army and its General seemed to be in competition.”
Washington moved to the front of room, took out a piece of paper with prepared remarks, and began to speak. Shaw wrote that “Every eye was fixed” upon the commander-in-chief. Washington began by denouncing the anonymous author of the Address. He called the Address “unmilitary and how subversive of all order.” He then addressed the author’s personal charge against Washington – to suspect the man of moderation: “the Author of the Address, should have had more charity, than to mark for Suspicion, the Man who should recommend Moderation and longer forbearance—or, in other words, who should not think as he thinks, and act as he advises.”
This was tough love. Washington’s officers were playing with fire by threatening the nation’s civilian leaders; there had to be some element of verbal discipline. Washington continued, laying bare his views on the plot he believed was hatched in Philadelphia to exploit the sufferings of the soldiers, saying its goal was “to effect the blackest designs” and “to answer the most insidious purposes.” He said “That the secret Mover of this Scheme (whoever he may be) intended to take advantage of the passions, while they were warmed by the recollection of past distresses.”
Washington was wounded by the insinuations that he didn’t care about his men. Several times during the war, Washington personally led his men into battle, facing the same musket fire they faced. He endured many of the same trials – throughout his 8 years of war, he moved to different locations about 280 times, an grueling rate of a move every week and a half. He reminded his men of his own sacrifice. “I was among the first who embarked in the cause of our common Country—As I have never left your side one moment, but when called from you, on public duty—As I have been the constant companion & witness of your Distresses, and not among the last to feel, & acknowledge your Merits—As I have ever considered my own Military reputation as inseperably connected with that of the Army—As my Heart has ever expanded wth joy, when I have heard its praises—and my indignation has arisen, when the Mouth of detraction has been opened against it.”
Washington then went to the heart of the anonymous address: the plot to threaten the Congress to act on their behalf. He referred to the plan of “turning our Army against it, (which is the apparent object, unless Congress can be compelled into an instant compliance).” To that, he said “humanity revolts at the idea. My God! 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? Rather, is he not an insidious Foe?”
Before the war, when Washington was a younger man, he had served in the Virginia legislature. He had also served in the Continental Congress. He knew the nature of legislative bodies. He was a rare figure at the time with both significant political and military experience. He explained to his officers, “like all other large Bodies, where there is a variety of different Interests to reconcile, their deliberations are slow.” But Washington had refused to give up on the people’s representatives. He had no illusions about them. He had seen political squabbling before – but he knew that, in a republic, the military had to subordinate itself to the civilian leadership. The only alternative was tyranny, military or otherwise. A republic was humanity’s last best hope for a political system free of that tyranny. He insisted to his men that Congress “will do it [the army] compleat Justice.” He promised “That their endeavors, to discover & establish funds for this purpose, have been unwearied, and will not cease, till they have succeeded, I have not a doubt.”
Washington promised he would do everything in his power to ensure that his men got their just due. He swore “in this public & solemn manner, to attain “compleat justice for all your toils & dangers.”
Washington now challenged his soldiers to take the long view, to think beyond their present circumstances. For years, the army had conducted itself honorably for the sake of liberty. To abandon this unimpeachable record would be to lose what they had fought for, had bled for, and what many of their colleagues had died for. To do so would “cast a shade over that glory which, has been so justly acquired; and tarnish the reputation of an Army which is celebrated thro’ all Europe, for its fortitude and Patriotism.”
Washington now ended on a dramatic note, highlighting the stark choice that now faced the army. On one hand, they could “overturn the liberties of our Country… open the flood Gates of Civil discord, & deluge our rising Empire in Blood.” If the army used violence against the civilian leadership, where would it end? If it compelled the states to act, would not the states at some point resist? Would men in those states, many of which were previously discharged, rise up to defend themselves against the army? Would a revolutionary war now devolve into civil war? In such a scenario, they would confirm what the world suspected: that republics, that men, could not govern themselves. And the threat to America wouldn’t end there. Remember, the British army and navy were still on or around the continent. If chaos broke out, London might take advantage of the situation and reassert control.
On the other hand, they could continue to fight for the cause of liberty and to show the world that free men fight with honor. If they did so, Washington concluded, “You will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism & patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings; And you will, by the dignity of your Conduct, afford occasion for Posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to man kind, “had this day been wanting, the World had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.”
George Washington was not a man known for oratory, but it was likely the greatest performance of his life. He poured his passion for his country and love for his men into that speech. He hoped that, in delivering the speech, he could save both. But as he looked out into the crowd, all he saw were faces unmoved, all he heard was silence. Their anger and their frustrations were too deep. They had been suckered by Congress and neglected by their country for too long. Washington may have spoken with great fervor, but. To them, they were just words.
It seemed as if Washington’s best efforts were failing. Perhaps he couldn’t stem the tide. Maybe nothing would stop the army from going on their present course. Maybe republics weren’t possible after all. It might just be too much to balance. Militaries couldn’t be trusted. Congresses couldn’t be trusted. States couldn’t be trusted. Too often they fall into anarchy and self-destruction. Remember, the whole plot originated with Congress – it was designed to exploit the army. But whether the plot began in Philadelphia or Newburgh, it didn’t matter – politicians and soldiers all bore some level of guilt for playing with fire. After years of war and thousands dead, the American Revolution might become just another example of man failing to achieve reaching for a better world and failing miserably.
Washington had nothing left – but he did have another sheet of paper in his pocket. It was a letter he had received from Joseph Jones. It documented some of the things that Congress was doing to try to help the army. Perhaps, he thought, if he read the letter, it might help, somehow. Washington took it out and unfolded it. He glanced down at the text, only to realize that he was having a hard time reading it. The words on the letter looked blurry. His eyesight had deteriorated after years of reading and writing orders and sending letters to Congress to take care of his men. The only thing that could solve the situation was to take out his reading glasses. But his officers had never seen him wear glasses.
If he wanted to read the letter, he had no choice. It was a moment of rare vulnerability. Washington had been known for his tall, athletic build, his feats of strength. He often led his men personally into battle and had no fear of bullets. He was known for his stoic demeanor. And yet, there he was, his vision so impaired that he couldn’t read a simply letter. And he couldn’t hide it either. As he reached for his glasses, he apologized, saying “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown grey but almost blind in the service of my country.”
For many Americans, Washington was an action hero. He was a war hero, the man who led his men across the Delaware. But the war had taken its toll. It had taken its toll on his family, who he was often separated from, on his estate – some estimates say it lost half its value during the war — and on his legendary physique. The officers then realized, that it was never them versus their commander-in-chief – it was always about them together. Washington was right – he was always at their side, fighting for their interests, leading them in battle at the front of the line, and enduring the same miseries of war. He loved his men deeply and they loved him. His call for them to reject the path of violence was not just about creating a republic or making Congress happy, but it was also about them. Washington wanted to stop them from losing the very thing they had been fighting for, and for throwing away the hard-earned admiration. It was about them earning a place of honor in the eyes of posterity.
This simple, perhaps accidental gesture – of putting on his glasses – struck to the core of the officers. Tears welled up in their eyes. Washington read through Jones’ letter. By the time he was done, the connection between commander and officers had been restored. The soldiers had come this far, and had achieved so much. Why not go a little while longer? The pain was temporary, but the glory would be live on for all of history. In the words of Major Shaw, “the tide of patriotism rolled again in its wonted course.”
General Knox made a motion thanking General Washington for his remarks. Knox later called it “a masterly performance.” With that, Washington departed. We have no record of how General Gates or his men reacted, but we do know that they were there and looked on as their plot melted away. The rest of the officers passed resolutions condemning the anonymous Address and affirming the army’s dedication “to the rights and liberties of human nature.”
For weeks the balance between civilian and military authority had been severely tested. On March 15th, 1783, it was almost at breaking point. At stake was the future of the republic. Had it not been for Washington’s unplanned gesture, that moment of vulnerability, it’s not clear what that future would have been. Months later, Thomas Jefferson, delegate from Virginia, would observe “the moderation and virtue of a single character has probably prevented this revolution from being closed as most others have been by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”
One week later, on March 22nd, 1783, Congress made tried to make good on Washington’s promise. They passed a bill promising the officers full pay for five years, provided a pension for invalid soldiers, and a bonus for enlistees. Although it was still yet to be determined how to raise the money, it was the most the Congress had ever done for the army. The state of New York, however, voted down the tax that would pay the soldiers. For the men of the Continental Army, the wait continued.
On April 15th, 1783, one month after the fateful showdown in the Temple of Virtue, the Congress approved the treaty. From then on, Washington busied himself with winding down the war, discharging thousands of soldiers and negotiating the final withdrawal of British forces from the new United States.
Still, the question remained: how to fix the structure of the government? The balance of civil-military relations may have been maintained, but the federal government remained alarmingly weak. Washington had spent much of the war deferring to civilian authority. Now, with the war nearing its end, he was planning to retire from public life, back to his farm at Mount Vernon. But he did want to impart some words of advice to the American people. Throughout the war, Washington had written circulars to the state governors updating them on the war. He wanted to use his last circular as a kind of farewell address, one where he could make clear his views on what path the nation should take, what it should do if it wanted to survive in a dangerous world.
On June 8th, Washington issued his farewell document. In it, Washington expressed his optimism about the prospects for America’s future: “The Citizens of America, placed in the most enviable condition, as the sole Lords and Proprietors of a vast Tract of Continent, comprehending all the various soils and climates of the World, and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniencies of life, are now by the late satisfactory pacification, acknowledged to be possessed of absolute freedom and Independency.”
In Washington’s eyes, no group of people were more blessed than the American people: “Here, they are not only surrounded with every thing which can contribute to the completion of private and domestic enjoyment, but Heaven has crowned all its other blessings, by giving a fairer oppertunity for political happiness, than any other Nation has ever been favored with. Nothing can illustrate these observations more forcibly, than a recollection of the happy conjuncture of times and circumstances, under which our Republic assumed its rank among the Nations.”
Washington also pointed to history, describing America as a culmination of centuries of progress towards a free society: “The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the Treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labours of Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government; the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment.”
But greater than all of these, Washington said, was the influence of something higher – something divine: “above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation… [has] had ameliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society.”
Given all of these blessings, the choice was now up to the American people: “At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be intirely their own.”
Washington them prescribed a series of policy solutions to secure American independence. There are two that stand out: first, “An indissoluble Union of the States under one Federal Head” – in other words, a fully empowered federal government. Second, “A Sacred regard to Public Justice,” – in other words, to fulfill our obligations and paying down all our debts, including those we owe to our soldiers.
But these were just policy prescriptions – they could not ultimately make Americans good, law abiding citizens. For that, Washington, again, looked somewhere else, somewhere transcendent, somewhere above. So he closed this document with a prayer for the American people: “I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field.”
He quoted from the ancient prophet Micah, asking God “that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy.” Washington closed, asking God to incline the American people to live in a way reminiscent of how a certain itinerant preacher from Nazareth lived almost 1800 years earlier, “and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion.” For Washington this was absolutely indispensable. You could have the right structure of government, but you couldn’t thrive as a nation unless the citizens conducted themselves with virtue. He concluded that without imitating that Divine Author, “we can never hope to be a happy Nation.”
Ron Chernow, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who wrote the book on Alexander Hamilton that became a Broadway play, noted that Washington referred to Jesus to underscore the pastoral tone in the circular, almost like a spiritual father advising his flock.
There remained many questions about where America would go from there. Congress did not yet have the powers Washington felt it needed for the country to survive. But there was little more he could do. In that sense, it is fitting that he was ending his public life with a prayer asking for help from a higher power.
On November 25th, the British evacuated New York City. The war is virtually over. But General Washington had one final task. When the war began he was granted a commission by Congress for this appointment as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Since he was planning to retire, he needed to return that commission back to Congress — symbolizing that he was relinquishing power back to civilian authority. He enquired Congress about the means with which he should do so. Congress understood the implications of what Washington was doing – most victorious generals throughout history parlayed their success into political power, often times as a dictator. It was what Caesar did after the Roman civil war, what Cromwell did after the English Civil War, and what Mao Zedong would later dodid during the Chinese communist revolution. But Washington would have no part of that. He fought for a republic – he had won independence, he had led the country through perilous threats from within and without, and how he would secure it by leaving power. It was an act unparalleled in the modern world, reminiscent of the great Roman general who fought to defend Rome and, upon victory, relinquished all power in 458 BC to go back to his farm. George Washington would be the American Cincinnatus.
Congress, which had moved to Annapolis, Maryland responded, arranging for a ceremony where Washington would return his commission on December 23rd, 1783. A three-man committee consisting of Thomas Jefferson, James McHenry, and Elbridge Gerry was selected among the members of Congress to plan for the ceremony. When Washington arrived in Annapolis on December 19th, he found General Gates there as part of a welcoming committee. We have no record of what was said between the two men. Perhaps they both reflected on the journey they had taken, the way their paths had crossed. Gates likely worked to undermine Washington throughout the war, perhaps even supplant him – and yet here they were, Washington the unquestioned hero of the war, whose prestige was in the stratosphere, while Gates was being relegated into historical footnote.
On December 23rd, General Washington appeared before Congress in the Maryland State House. The nation’s representatives sat in their seats on the floor of the chamber while many of the cities’ prominent citizens occupied the floor and the gallery above. Upon his entrance, the members of Congress remained seated. The presiding officer, Thomas Mifflin, sat on a raised platform elevated above Washington. This was all deliberate and contributed to the symbolism that the military remained subordinate to civilian authority.
Mifflin informed Washington that Congress would receive his communication. Washington began to read from a prepared text:
Mr. President: The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place; I have now the honor of offering my sincere Congratulations to Congress and of presenting myself before them to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me, and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the Service of my Country.
James McHenry marveled at what he was watching, knowing how rare it was to see a man surrendering power at the height of military success: “It was a solemn and affecting spectacle; such as history does not present.” Even the victorious General Washington trembled at this momentous occasion. McHenry noted “The General’s hand which held the address shook as he read it.”
Washington continued, now recognizing his officers and their “distinguished merits.” He recommended that Congress give them “favorable notice.” At this point, Washington began to break down. Perhaps the memories of the past eight years – of sending thousands of young men to fight and die, to suffer, to endure miseries untold – came flooding back. According to McHenry, “he was obliged to support the paper with both hands.”
The sight of General Washington, a man renowned for his legendary stoicism, laying bare the deepest of emotions touched struck a chord among all those present. McHenry noted, “The spectators all wept and there was hardly a member of Congress who did not drop tears.”
Washington gathered himself to finish his remarks. As he concluded, he once again looked to the Almighty:
I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life, by commending the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.
McHenry observed that at this point “his voice faltered and sunk, and the whole house felt his agitations.” Perhaps he was swept up with gratitude for the glorious result of the war – an outcome that had been in doubt throughout most of its duration – one that he would later attribute to God alone.
Washington ended, speaking what he believed would be his last words in public life:
Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life
With that, Washington drew out his commission from his pocket and handed it to President Mifflin. Washington then turned and greeted every member. McHenry later struggled to capture the myriad of emotions throughout the ceremony, one that recalled memories of blood, sweat, and tears. He ended his account with the following: “So many circumstances crowded into view and gave rise to so many affecting emotions. The events of the revolution just accomplished – the new situation into which it had thrown the affairs of the world – the great man who had borne so conspicuous a figure in it, in the act of relinquishing all public employments to return to private life – the past – the present – the future – the manner – the occasion – all conspired to render it a spectacle inexpressibly solemn and affecting.”
Washington departed the State House, mounted his horse and headed home to Mount Vernon and his wife Martha. Two days later, on Christmas Day 1783 he arrived home a private citizen of a new, independent republic.
George Washington’s retirement did not last long. As it turned out, several prominent men of the colonies, including Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Gouverneur Morris came together during the Convention in 1787 to write what would become the U.S. Constitution. Knowing that Washington’s unrivaled prestige would be a valuable asset to getting a constitution ratified, his fellow delegates elected him unanimously to preside over the Convention. They then proceeded to overhaul the structure of the government – fulfilling Washington’s vision in his final Circular to the States. Without his support, it is unlikely that the American people – so fearful of strong federal government – would have accepted its ratification.
In 2005, the great historian David McCullough published the book 1776. In it, he covers the heroic story of Washington’s thrilling victories in Trenton and Princeton. He leads us through Washington’s night march on Christmas night and the crossing of the Delaware. It very well might be the most popular George Washington book in recent memory. It portrays a dynamic commander-in-chief who emerges from overwhelming defeat to unlikely victory. It’s a great action-packed story, showcasing some of Washington’s finest moments.
But having researched our first president for many years, I believe that there is an even greater Washington – the Washington of 1782 to 1783. Ironically, it wasn’t a time of triumphant victories on the battlefield. Washington’s foes weren’t British generals, but the vices or shortsightedness of own fellow citizens. Many generals have triumphed in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. But very few accomplished what Washington did in those years. It was a time when the greatest threat came not from a foreign foe but from within. The Americans created a country based on the idea that the people could govern themselves; but no one had ever seen it done on that scale. To govern one’s self means to govern one’s own worst excesses. From 1782 to 1783, as America was on the cusp of independence, it faced many of its own demons. Various groups, whether in the Congress, or the states, or the military, had legitimate grievances but were so focused on short-term gain that they lost sight of the bigger pictures. Its leaders were tempted to give up the ideal of a republic, to believe that security, stability, and liberty were mutually exclusive. The schemes of various interest groups threaten to destroy the fabric of the country, and that delicate balance of civilian and military authority. As West Point Professor Matthew Moten noted, “Once an army has risen up against its government, the people can never fully trust it again.”
Ever since then, that balance has been maintained and America’s civilian leadership has never been seriously threatened. Elections occur at regular internals. This remarkable pattern of continuity was not foreordained. That it even began rests largely on the character of George Washington. He refused to give up his belief that men could govern themselves. While others conspired, Washington refused to be tempted to abuse his power as commander of the army, whether out of fear for his country’s stability or out of personal elevation. He unambiguously spurned all suggestions of using his power beyond the bounds set by Congress, even if it came from well-meaning men like Colonel Nicola. When he resigned his commission in December of 1783, he secured the republic, completing one of the great historical achievements of all time. Observers around the world, cynical about the American republic’s prospects, were stunned to hear about Washington’s resignation. In 1784, American painter John Trumbull, who was working in London, said that Washington’s act “”excites the astonishment and admiration of this part of the world.” In the words of historian Thomas Fleming, “this visible, incontrovertible act did more to affirm America’s faith in the government of the people than a thousand declarations and treatises by philosophers.”
Ultimately, history has proven Washington right. He believed that, despite the shortcomings of civilian leadership, its authority must be upheld in a republic. That conviction, as well as the government established under the new Constitution, one that Washington himself had envisioned, enabled America to become the most powerful nation in the world and the leader of the free world. That this was all accomplished at the expense of those who fought under Washington made his task both painful and poignant.
George Washington’s retirement did not last long. As it turned out, several prominent men of the colonies, including Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Gouverneur Morris came together during the Convention in 1787 to write what would become the U.S. Constitution. Knowing that Washington’s unrivaled prestige would be a valuable asset to getting a constitution ratified, the delegates to the Convention elected him to serve as its presiding officer. They then proceeded to overhaul the structure of the government – fulfilling Washington’s vision in his final Circular to the States. Without his support, it is unlikely that the American people – so fearful of strong federal government – would have accepted its ratification.
In 1789, Washington again was called from his retirement when he was unanimously elected the first president of the United States – the only man in American history so honored. He appointed Thomas Jefferson as his first secretary of state and Alexander Hamilton as his first secretary of treasury. He served two terms, laying the foundations of government, but presided over the increasing divisions in country – divisions that often centered on a familiar issue: just how much power should the federal government have. Although this issue is hotly debated in American to this day, one issue is not: the necessity of subordinating the military to civilian authority. Mirroring his resignation in 1783, Washington delivered a Farewell Address in 1796 and stepped down after two terms the following year, setting a critical precedent that all of his successors have followed, with the exception of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Washington returned to his beloved Mount Vernon and died two years later, in 1799, at the age of 67.