The Newburgh Conspiracy

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Even if money existed, the officers knew that their countrymen, many of whom had grown rich while the soldiers fought the war, would never approve continuing veterans’ pensions. So in December, 1782, led by General Henry Knox, the officers drew up another petition to the Congress. It demanded long-overdue pay and suggested that the half-pay-for-life provision be commuted to a one-time lump-sum payment.

From Philadelphia, General Arthur St. Clair had warned Knox to make it very clear that, unless Congress acted quickly, it could expect “a convulsion of the most dreadful nature and fatal consequences.” Following that suggestion, Knox wrote: “We have borne all that men can bear...our property is expended...our private resources are at an end...our friends are wearied...with our incessant applications.” Knox ended the petition with the obvious threat that “any further experiments on their [the army’s] patience may have fatal effects.”

In a private letter, Washington confided to his friend Congressman Joseph Jones of Virginia: “The temper of the Army is much soured, and has become more irritable than at any period since the commencement of the War.

“The dissatisfactions of the Army had arisen to a great and alarming height....No part of the community has undergone...hardships, and borne them with the...patience and fortitude, as the Army has done.”

He added: “Hitherto the Officers have stood between the lower order of the Soldiery and the public and… have quelled very dangerous mutinies. [I]f their discontents...rise equally high, I know not...the consequences.” He ended wearily: “The spirit of enthusiasm...is now done away. ”

Major General Alexander McDougall and Colonels John Brooks and Matthias Ogden carried the petition, signed by almost all the officers at the cantonment, to Philadelphia. Superintendent Morris, however, immediately dashed their hopes for a quick and satisfactory response by telling them that Virginia had repealed her earlier ratification of the 1781 impost. As Rhode Island had never ratified the tariff, Virginia’s added rejection killed that legislation. The nationalists had called that impost “the only means of restoring Public Credit, of preventing a Disunion of the States, and saving the Country....” Now that hope seemed dead.

If the officers smelled defeat, however, the nationalists viewed the situation differently. A customs duty remained vital to their plans for national revenue and a strong central government. Now they saw the officers’ petition as their weapon to get it. Its threat of “exhausted patience” was potent. Congress had to find new revenue. Paper money was worthless. More foreign loans were unlikely. A new impost amendment was the only answer. Hamilton assured Washington that “the necessity and discontents of the army presented...a powerful engine”; and Gouverneur Morris predicted, “Depend on it, good will arise from the situation to which we are hastening.”

The “good” had to be reached by a dangerous route. Even now historians cannot agree on the nationalists’ exact plan or the specific roles individuals played in it. Their basic idea, however, was extortion, pure and simple. Let the states yield power to raise funds and satisfy the army, or face mutiny. And, with mutiny, loss of the war. Morris and his associates played a dangerous game. Without risking it, they saw no impost, only continuing erosion of the Confederation. If they tried it, they risked anarchy, civil war, a violent end to the Confederation. They decided to chance it. Let the army threaten, even act. Then the nationalists could force an acceptable impost. What is not clear (and never has been) is how far they were willing to let the army go before stopping it—and how they expected the mutiny genie, once uncorked, to be forced back into its bottle.

Morris had General McDougall open the campaign. The general easily convinced Congress that Washington was sitting on a powder keg, that only a satisfactory response to the army’s petition could prevent an explosion at Newburgh.

While Hamilton drafted a report supporting the army’s claims, Morris offered a new impost proposal. Then, as Congress debated, Morris upped the ante by threatening his own resignation unless “permanent provision for the public debt of every kind” be established. Congress took the bait, but Morris could not win the whole pot. The legislators accepted only the back-pay claims and urged Morris to “make every effort to obtain from the respective states substantial funds, adequate to the object of funding the whole debt of the United States.” Morris had won the responsibility but no authority to carry it out. Our federal bureaucracy worked in strange ways, then as now. As January ended, Congress again rejected Morris’ efforts for commutation and impost.