- Historic Sites
The Conway Cabal
February/March 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 1
Judging from a private letter he wrote to Patrick Henry, Washington did believe that three men outside Congress were guilty. He wrote the governor of Virginia, almost a month after he and Gates had made their hollow peace, that “it appeared in general, that General Gates was to be exalted, on the ruin of my reputation and influence. This I am authorised to say, from undeniable facts in my own possession. . . . General Mifflin, it is commonly supposed, bore the second part in the Cabal; and General Conway, I know was a very Active and malignant Partisan; (but I have good reasons to believe that their machinations have recoiled most sensibly upon themselves).”
What “undeniable facts” did Washington have? He never said. In his memoirs Lafayette accused as being part of the cabal the two Lees of Virginia, the two Adamses of Massachusetts, and Thomas Mifflin. Conway himself he dismissed as “a lost child.” Lafayette was quick to point out to Washington that Conway was not really French—but “an irishman . . . but I mention that only as a remark.” As for Gates, Lafayette differed with Washington, observing, “It is singular that the shrewdest people did not believe that Gates was the true object of the intrigue.” Bernhard Knollenberg agrees in his book Washington and the Revolution: A Reappraisal , arguing that although most historians have condemned Gates for two long centuries, they have done so out of “so religious a devotion to Washington as to be incapacitated from dealing fairly with Gates (or anyone else) in his relations with their god.”
Now let us turn to exhibit A. Did the infamous “weak general” letter in fact exist? Probably not exactly, at least in the opinion of Henry Laurens. He was shown what historians guess was a copy of Conway’s letter and assessed: “It is true Gen. Washington was misinformed, the Letter does not contain the words which had been reported to him—but—ten times worse in every view.”
What, then, is the episode’s meaning—and as interpreted by whom? The answers have shifted over time. Before Washington Irving, the historian Jared Sparks in 1837 looked into the matter at length and concluded there had been no “fixed design” or “concerted plan.”
Sparks’s opinion was largely ignored by Washington’s later supporters, who lined up the suspected cabalers and executed them in print over and over. It was well into this century before Sparks’s untheory gained popularity—along with the embarrassing revelation that he had a habit of altering Washington’s papers. Perhaps it is not coincidental that support for Sparks’s conclusion coincided with the wave of Washington debunkers that in this century followed the long reign of his idolaters. Knollenberg’s book is dedicated, in his words, to exposing Washington’s “hypersensitiveness to criticism and morbid determination to prove himself always in the right; traits which led him to shift responsibility to others.” Not surprisingly, Knollenbere finds only a cabal of historians protecting the hysterical father of our country.
JOHN Laurens raised the possibility that Washington might even get into a duel .
But Alexander Hamilton, no constant admirer of Washington either, had no doubt of a cabal—indeed “a monster,” as he wrote to the governor of New York, George Clinton. Hamilton had “discovered such convincing traits of the monster” that he could not “doubt its reality in the most extensive sense"; it had failed only because “it unmasked its batteries too soon.” As for Conway, Hamilton wrote, he was “vermin.”
Beyond the factual truth or shifting historical meaning, what is the lasting importance of the Conway Cabal? For students of Washington, it is a rare peek beneath his famous glacial equanimity. As George Scheer and Hugh Rankin write in their book Rebels and Redcoats , “In dealing with his enemies, real or fancied, George Washington had not always been judicious, fair, or gentlemanly: he had been ruthless and, it might be suspected, perhaps a little disingenuous, but he resolved, when the whisperings rose to a clamor, to silence them, and this he did without a shadow of a doubt.” Douglas Southall Freeman concluded: “His enemies sneeringly styled him ‘demigod,’ but he was in nothing more completely human than in dealing with the Conway cabal.” The biographer James Flexner saw Washington “forced to stoop to protect himself from pygmies.”
For students of democracy the question addresses a larger issue, that of military threats to civilian authority. An anonymous broadside titled “Thoughts of a Freeman,” which was foisted around during the fracas after being literally left on the doorstep of Congress, concluded that “the people of America have been guilty of Idolatry by making a man their god .” As John Adams had written to Abigail about Washington before the cabal, “We can allow a certain Citizen to be wise, virtuous, and good, without thinking him a Deity or a saviour.” Thomas Paine accused Adams of being part of the cabal; Adams called that “a scandalous Lye.”