On March 15, 1783, a date which raises few, if any eyebrows in modern times,
the fate of a young Nation rested in the hands of a few individuals. On this
date, officers of the Continental Army met in Newburgh, New York, to discuss
various grievances and consider a possible insurrection against the rule of
Congress. The officers were quite angry over the failure of the Congress to
make good on a number of its' promises; salary, pensions, etc. They were
tired men, who had invested a number of years. They knew that many of the common
soliders felt the same way. Their actions now, would be the deciding factor
in the future of the United States
Earlier in the week, an anonymous letter had been circulating among the officers.
It spoke of rebellion, a "military solution" that could solve the
problems that the current civilian one was having. The letter called for a meeting
mid week, General Washington learned of it, & forbid them to convene.
He instead suggested that they all meet at the usual date for the officers meeting,
March 15. During this time, another anonymous letter was being circulated. This
one was suggesting that the General himself was sympathetic to their claims.
As March 15th arrived, so did the planned meeting. The officers were surprised
to see the General there himself. Some were not pleased, but he addressed them
By an anonymous summons, an attempt has been made to convene
you together; how inconsistent with the rules of propriety, how unmilitary,
and how subversive of all order and discipline, let the good sense of the
Thus much, gentlemen, I have thought it incumbent on me
to observe to you, to show upon what principles I opposed the irregular and
hasty meeting which was proposed to have been held on Tuesday last - and not
because I wanted a disposition to give you every opportunity consistent with
your own honor, and the dignity of the army, to make known your grievances.
If my conduct heretofore has not evinced to you that I have been a faithful
friend to the army, my declaration of it at this time would be equally unavailing
and improper. But as 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 and witness
of your distresses, and not among the last to feel and acknowledge your merits.
As I have ever considered my own military reputation as inseparably connected
with that of the army. As my heart has ever expanded with joy, when I have heard
its praises, and my indignation has arisen, when the mouth of detraction has
been opened against it, it can scarcely be supposed, at this late stage of the
war, that I am indifferent to its interests.
But how are they to be promoted? The way is plain, says
the anonymous addresser. If war continues, remove into the unsettled country,
there establish yourselves, and leave an ungrateful country to defend itself.
But who are they to defend? Our wives, our children, our farms, and other
property which we leave behind us. Or, in this state of hostile separation,
are we to take the two first (the latter cannot be removed) to perish in a wilderness,
with hunger, cold, and nakedness? If peace takes place, never sheathe your swords,
says he, until you have obtained full and ample justice; this dreadful alternative,
of either deserting our country in the extremest hour of her distress or turning
our arms against it (which is the apparent object, unless Congress can be
compelled into instant compliance), has something so shocking in it that 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? Some emissary, perhaps, from New York, plotting
the ruin of both, by sowing the seeds of discord and separation between the
civil and military powers of the continent? And what a compliment does he
pay to our understandings when he recommends measures in either alternative,
impracticable in their nature?
I cannot, in justice to my own belief, and what I have great
reason to conceive is the intention of Congress, conclude this address, without
giving it as my decided opinion, that that honorable body entertain exalted
sentiments of the services of the army; and, from a full conviction of its merits
and sufferings, will do it complete justice. That their endeavors to discover
and establish funds for this purpose have been unwearied, and will not cease
till they have succeeded, I have not a doubt. But, like all other large bodies,
where there is a variety of different interests to reconcile, their deliberations
are slow. Why, then, should we distrust them? And, in consequence of that distrust,
adopt measures which may cast a shade over that glory which has been so justly
acquired; and tarnish the reputation of an army which is celebrated through
all Europe, for its fortitude and patriotism? And for what is this done? To
bring the object we seek nearer? No! most certainly, in my opinion, it will
cast it at a greater distance.
For myself (and I take no merit in giving the assurance, being
induced to it from principles of gratitude, veracity, and justice), a grateful
sense of the confidence you have ever placed in me, a recollection of the cheerful
assistance and prompt obedience I have experienced from you, under every vicissitude
of fortune, and the sincere affection I feel for an army I have so long had
the honor to command will oblige me to declare, in this public and solemn manner,
that, in the attainment of complete justice for all your toils and dangers,
and in the gratification of every wish, so far as may be done consistently with
the great duty I owe my country and those powers we are bound to respect, you
may freely command my services to the utmost of my abilities.
While I give you these assurances, and pledge myself in
the most unequivocal manner to exert whatever ability I am possessed of in your
favor, let me entreat you, gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures
which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity and sully
the glory you have hitherto maintained; let me request you to rely on the plighted
faith of your country, and place a full confidence in the purity of the intentions
of Congress; that, previous to your dissolution as an army, they will cause
all your accounts to be fairly liquidated, as directed in their resolutions,
which were published to you two days ago, and that they will adopt the most
effectual measures in their power to render ample justice to you, for your faithful
and meritorious services. And let me conjure you, in the name of our common
country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity,
and as you regard the military and national character of America, to express
your utmost horror and detestation of the man who wishes, under any specious
pretenses, to overturn the liberties of our country, and who wickedly attempts
to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.
By thus determining and thus acting, you will pursue the plain
and direct road to the attainment of your wishes. You will defeat the insidious
designs of our enemies, who are compelled to resort from open force to secret
artifice. You will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism
and 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
mankind, "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 - March 15, 1783
His speech, to be kind, was poorly received. Washington then took out a letter
from a member of congress, which went into some detail, explaining the financial
difficulties of the Government.
He read a portion of the letter, the entire time his eyes squinting horribly.
Stopping abruptly, his officers staring at him, wondering what's going on, he
then reached into his coat pocket, & pulled from it a pair of well worn
glasses. Very few of them knew he wore glasses, and were quite surprised.
"Gentlemen," Said Washington, "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."
Few times in history has a leader made himself so vulnerable. Washington's
men were deeply moved, some in tears, all ashamed at their previous actions.
Looking at this man, who had aged so, and led them through so much. They knew
in their hearts what was right.
Washington finished reading the letter from the Congressman and left without
saying a word.
Shortly after, the officers cast a unanimous vote, agreeing to the rule of
the civilian government.
No man is perfect, these officers cannot be blamed for their actions. After
years of a long, difficult war, with an essentially bankrupt government, they
felt angry. They had lost sight of the goals for which they had began their
journey, all those years ago. It took a man who had begun that journey with
them, to bare his soul, to remind them of their duty, and their obligation.