Vast Early America

George Washington and the Newburgh Conspiracy

Continental Army soldiers were angry that they hadn’t been paid. Tensions flared, and for a moment it looked like all was lost.

The Newburgh Conspiracy refers to the threat of a coup during the American Revolution. Continental Army soldiers hadn’t been paid in a long time and a disgruntled letter circulated in the camp at Newburgh. Tensions flared, and for a moment it looked like all was lost. Historian David Head explains what happens next and discusses his new book, A Crisis of Peace: George Washington, the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the Fate of the American Revolution.

Who is David Head?

I grew up in Western New York, and went to school at Niagara University for my B.A. in history and to the University at Buffalo for my Ph.D., also (surprise!) in history.

I teach at the University of Central Florida, and I live in Orlando with my wife and our two little girls, ages 5 and 3, and our little boy (9 months), who is actually not that little—he’s growing all the time.

I love living in Florida where shorts are always appropriate and in Orlando especially, since we go regularly to Disney World. When you live close by and have an annual pass, you can go for the afternoon or evening, do a few rides, and then go home, rather than the all-day, cram-every-moment-full-of-fun approach you have to take when traveling to Disney for vacation (make that “vacation”).

It’s a much more humane way to do the parks.

What was the genesis for A Crisis of Peace: George Washington, the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the Fate of the American Revolution?

It actually started one day at the gym. I was listening to an audiobook, William Hogeland’s Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty. In a background section, Hogeland, a left-wing critic of the founders, discussed the event as definitely a conspiracy.

I was turning my dissertation into a book at the time, but I was also searching for a second book project. Surely, I thought, a book about the Newburgh Conspiracy already existed!

Lucky for me, it didn’t!

The only sustained treatment of the topic came in the 1970s with a three article exchange in the William and Mary Quarterly among several historians who advanced different theories about the incident, who was involved, and whether it was really a conspiracy.

Here was an opportunity for me to say something new and different about an important episode from Washington’s life.

What was going on in 1783 that set the stage for the Newburgh Conspiracy? Why did the end of the war signify a “crisis of peace”?

The line “crisis of peace” reveals the unexpected reality of life in those two years. The nation’s finances were dire, with inflation soaring, and the states had little to keep them together besides fighting a common. If the war ended, were the bonds really strong enough to persevere as one country?  

The officers in actually feared the war would end too soon. They hadn’t been paid during the war and they could see that pensions they had been promised remained just promises, with no fund of money set aside to make payments. The officers feared they would be forgotten if peace arrived and the civilians wouldn’t need them anymore.

You would think that peace would be a great blessing, but in 1783, the expectation of peace was tinged with anxiety:

  • What would happen once independence was actually achieved?
  • Would the new nation last?
  • Or would it collapse under the weight of problems like unpaid and unhappy offices?

Nobody could say for sure.

What was the anonymous letter circulated through the Continental Army on March 10, 1783?

By early March 1783 some officers lost patience. A couple months earlier the officer corps encamped along the Hudson River sent a memorial to Congress outlining their grievances, but they hadn’t received a formal response yet. Tired of waiting, a group of officers gathered one night and decided to invite all the officers to meet and draft a new, more strongly worded message to Congress. To accompany the invitation and set the agenda for the meeting, Major John Armstrong, Jr., wrote a letter that circulated anonymously the next morning.

The letter was uneven. In part, it was completely reasonable. It looked like Congress wasn’t doing much and a fresh message might get things moving again. Armstrong wrote that the new letter should “Change the Milk & Water stile of your last Memorial—assume a bolder Tone, decent, but lively, spirited and determined.”

Can’t really object to that. Respectful but lively and spirited. Who wants something abusive, dull, and boring?

Unfortunately, Armstrong struck a different note in the letter as well when he encouraged his officer-readers to consider their “alternative”; that is, if the war continued, the army could refuse to fight and abandon the civilians to their fate. Or, if peace arrived, the army could refuse to lay down its arms until paid.

That threatening language didn’t help the officers’ cause. Armstrong should have slept on it and revised one more time in the morning.

But he didn’t and his friends started making copies right away.

What was the effect of the letter on the officers as a group?

What I did find shows the reaction was, predictably, mixed. Some officers were furious. For example, Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Walker, an aide to Washington, denounced the letter as “perfectly calculated to inflame the passions & prepare the Minds of the Officers for any Violent measures which might be recommended to them.” Walker, though, was confident that only a handful of men found the letter appealing.

Other officers were more worried. General Henry Knox, the commander at West Point, feared what the men might be capable of. “Officers expectations are at an end,” he told a colleague. “What will be the consequences, God knows.”

Timothy Pickering, the quartermaster general, reported that the anonymous letter was widely praised upon its release.

I think it’s revealing, though, that Armstrong felt compelled to vindicate himself in a second anonymous letter released two days after the first letter appeared. The tone is so self-defensive that he must have been answering criticisms he’d been hearing in camp. He says weird things like how his skepticism of Congress’s motives was praiseworthy because “Suspicion is the loveliest trait of political Characters.”

That leads me to infer Armstrong didn’t get the universal acclaim he expected.

How did George Washington react when he first learned of the Newburgh Conspiracy letter?

Most of the army was encamped at a cantonment in New Windsor, NY, which is a little south of where Washington had his headquarters in the next town over, Newburgh. Whoever had to deliver the news, I wouldn’t have wanted to be that guy!

One officer reported that on reading Armstrong’s anonymous letter, the general was “amazingly agitated.” Washington had a furious temper, which he kept mostly under control, at least in public, though he often vented his anger at his servants, enslaved people, and aids. Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s aide-de-camp for much of the war, was often on the receiving end of Washington’s frustrations.

Washington is of course upset about the officers going outside the chain of command and making plans to meet without his permission. At best that’s irregular, and it wouldn’t take much to turn that into an act of mutiny, if Washington had wanted to pursue it.

At the same time, the letter is even more alarming to Washington because of information he had recently received from a couple of members of the Continental Congress, then meeting in Philadelphia.

In February 1783, both Alexander Hamilton, representing New York, and Joseph Jones, a Virginian, had written Washington about rumors swirling that nefarious forces were at work to damage his reputation among the army and that some kind of plot against his leadership was, as they said at the time, “in embryo.” To Washington, here was confirmation that something was up. He could not believe the anonymous letter originate with his officers. He assumed it must have been instigated by someone in Philadelphia.

All that is private, however.

Publicly, Washington was all calm and quiet. He rescheduled the officers’ meeting for March 15 and gave them a new agenda: “mature deliberation” on how best to proceed vis-à-vis Congress and pensions. He sent the message that there was no cause for alarm, his command was unquestioned, and everything was proceeding according to the same old, boring camp routine.

Did the Newburgh Conspiracy letter pose a threat?

That’s an important question, and I think to answer it, we need to think carefully about what’s meant by “threat.”

So, was there a danger that the letter would persuade the officers as a group to take up Armstrong’s message, refuse duty, and leave the civilians in the lurch? Or, like the New Model Army during the English Civil War, refuse to disband they were paid?

No, I don’t think so.

Judging by the evidence we have of officers’ reactions, Armstrong’s sentiments were far from universal. Besides, the army was mostly the enlisted men, and those guys wanted to go home, not go crusading for officers’ pensions.

More subtly, though, I think the letter was a serious threat in the sense that you never know what’s going to happen when you get a bunch of unhappy people together in a room to complain about things. Negativity feeds on negativity. Even the most dedicated officers had their gripes about army life. Even the most accomplished officers could be nervous about their prospects for life after the war.

Moreover, the army didn’t need to go to an extreme like staging a coup to make the episode a disaster. Simply the wrong kind of letter sent to Congress—something too spirited, too angry, too naked in its hinting about violence—would have marked the Continental Army as unpatriotic and permanently disfigured their service.

Civil-military relations were already tense enough. It wouldn’t have taken much to convince people that the officers were the real enemy as the war wound down.

Timothy Pickering captured the drama of the moment when he wrote his wife, Rebecca, the night before the March 15 meeting. He hope something good might come from it, he told Rebecca, but feared it could easily go wrong:

“Should rashness govern the proceedings, the consequences may be such as are dreadful even in idea. God forbid the event should be so calamitous!”

—Timothy Pickering, March 14, 1783

What is the Newburgh Address?

The Newburgh Address is the speech Washington delivered to his men on March 15, 1783, when they gathered to discuss how to respond to Congress.

Washington shows up unannounced. He’d previously indicated he would not attend the meeting. Then he walks in the door with his speech ready to read.

Washington deploys a number of rhetorical strategies—some more effective than others—but the central point is a call for the officers to turn away from the temptation to let their emotions get the better of them, to turn back to the way of duty and preserve their honor from the stain of challenging civilian control of the military, which would have undone everything they’d achieved during the Revolution.

Most importantly, Washington presents himself—his reputation and his character—as the ultimate guarantee of Congress’s good intentions.

The message: I trust Congress. If you trust me, you should trust Congress, too.

That personal appeal was vital. It was more persuasive than any logical argument.

What happened when George Washington paused to get his spectacles at the end of the Newburgh Address? Was this a planned strategy?

Washington putting on his glasses is a wonderful moment. It’s actually the only thing I knew about the Newburgh Conspiracy before I started looking at the incident more carefully. It does seem too good to be true—the stuff of Parson Weems’ legend—but I think it really happened.

Washington ended his prepared remarks and then to demonstrate Congress’s good will, he started reading a letter he’d recently received from a Virginia Congressman named Joseph Jones.

The address was written by Washington and in a large script, so he could read that without glasses no problem. Jones’s handwriting was smaller, less familiar, and the letter has more cross-outs. It’s less polished.

Washington had a hard time reading it. He’d only started wearing glasses the previous month, so I think there must have been an awkward pause as he put his glasses on and tried to find the right focus.

That’s when he said something like, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my Spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind, in the service of my country.”

I think the moment was part planned and part spontaneous. Washington brought the Jones letter as one of several documents to lay before the officers. He also apparently did not read the whole letter, which makes sense because there are several paragraphs on topics that weren’t germane to the officers. Looking at the manuscript of the Jones letter—the actual paper version—and comparing it to some copies made by officers at the time, indicates that Washington carefully selected which parts to read. He must have done that in advance.

The business with the glasses and growing gray and blind, though, I think that was spontaneous.

There would have been an uncomfortable pause as Washington put on and adjusted his glasses, and part of being a gentleman was saying the right thing to smooth over life’s little bumps.

It’s easy to believe Washington thought of the perfect quip in the moment.

Did the Continental Army officers ever get their pensions?

The short answer is yes, the officers did receive what they asked for. The somewhat longer answer is that the officers did not technically get a pension but rather a lump sum payment in lieu of the promised half pay for life. The officers had been willing to make that deal as far back as December 1782 when they first sent a memorial to Congress. The body wrestled over the exact amount for a while, but eventually came to a figure the officers agreed to. Amounts varied by rank. Lieutenants, for example, received $1,500 while generals got $10,000.

The even longer answer is that although the officers received payments, they seldom enjoyed the full value of the long sought after pension because they often sold their payment notes to speculators at a deep discount.

The officers were paid in notes called “Pierce Notes,” after the paymaster general, John Pierce, and their value was tied to the likelihood the Congress would be able to redeem them. Pierce Notes circulated as media of exchange following the war at a fraction of their face value.

Was the Newburgh Conspiracy a formal plot between Philadelphia nationalists and Continental Army officers?

You have to read the book! OK, I’ll give you a taste of the answer.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking for evidence and pondering how a conspiracy could have worked, and I don’t think there was really a conspiracy among Philadelphia politicians and army officers. The most I can see is that the officers and some politicians had a common interest in seeing particular fiscal policies enacted and they were willing to work together. But I think that’s called “politics,” not “conspiracy.”

Unfortunately, in the eighteenth century, any politics you don’t like is automatically labeled “conspiracy,” and I think looking back, we’ve been too eager to embrace that conspiracy analysis rather than interrogating it as a product of the political culture of early America.

What did the 1783 events at Newburgh reveal about the state of the nation?

The events at Newburgh are a microcosm of the war’s final two years and reveal how the American Revolution really ended. Sadly, it was much more ending with a whimper than a bang.

Can you imagine World War II ending not with the celebrations of V-E and V-J Days that followed directly from the military defeat of the enemy but instead having the fall of Berlin and the bombing of Japan and then two years of waiting around to learn if the war was really over?

Newburgh was the most dangerous of the many frustrations faced by Americans in that period but there were many more.

Another thing I found revealing about the Newburgh Conspiracy story is how it exposed the unhealthy relationship between soldiers and civilians.

Early in my research I was shocked by how badly civilians talked about the army as it awaited discharge. So many people really saw their own army as a threat. Ordinary soldiers were the dregs of society, people thought, and officers were looked down on as would-be aristocrats who just wanted pensions to live high on the hard work of honest farmers.

I think people know the army suffered—the Valley Forge winter and all that—but the depth of suspicion harbored by soldiers and civilians toward each other is hard to appreciate.

What would David Head most want to learn if he could go back in time and observe George Washington in March 1783?

I’d be most interested in the ordinary things of daily life. What’s a day in the life of George Washington really like?

Maybe it’s because I’m the father of small children and my life revolves around a schedule of feedings, changings, and napping, but I wonder what George’s daily routine was.

(By the way, I wonder if George ever changed a baby’s diaper? I’m guessing not….)

I’d also love to know what it was like to be in his presence. He was famous for being tall, but other men were just as tall if not taller. (One surprise from my research was realizing how many other figures, like Robert and Gouverneur Morris, were also six feet or greater.) Was it the way he carried himself that made the difference?

A painting of Continental Congressmen Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris.
Continental Congressmen Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris (no relation), by Charles Wilson Peale. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1925.

I’d love to know what it was like someone for someone like Washington to live in constant pain. His teeth weren’t good, and there wasn’t a good remedy available. How does anyone live that way?

Further reading

Learn more about the Revolutionary War and early history of the United States:

Newburgh Conspiracy resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

One reply on “George Washington and the Newburgh Conspiracy”

As a history major and former US Army Accounting Staff Sergeant I would point out this: “conspiracy” is indeed a term more apt than merely “politics”, because the Newburg letter attempted to conspire the reader to either abandon the country it is own fate or forcefully take over Congress, in order secure backpay. This goes well beyond the scope of taking a vote or sending a letter of grievance. Secondly, these “dregs of society” were largely farmers in an agrarian society, hence the backbone. The letter was addressed to officers in particular. At that time, officers purchased their commissions. Hence, they at least started the war financially well off.

Leave a Reply

Discover more from From the Desk

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading