- Historic Sites
The Newburgh Conspiracy
Encamped above the Hudson for the last, hard winter of the Revolution, the officers of the Continental Army began to talk mutiny. It would be up to their harried commander to defend the most precious principle of the infant nation—the supremacy of civilian rule .
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
It was enough. They’d not been impatient. The murmur was one of sympathy, understanding, affection. In their eight years together they had never seen Washington wear spectacles. He had seemed tired and worn before. Now he seemed older and vulnerable. He was only fifty but had aged this week. He had problems they didn’t even know about. If he still trusted the Congress, they could do no less.
Few heard as Washington haltingly read from Jones’s letter. No matter.
When he stopped, the officers crowded about him in reassurance and contrition. Some wept. Others simply stood, stunned and silent, as the general left the room.
If Gates hoped to regain the initiative, he had no chance. Henry Knox quickly moved to thank the commander for his speech. Then, after a quick review of McDougall’s report, General Ruf us Putnam moved that Knox’s committee prepare new resolutions for the officers’ consideration. In short order the officers resolved their “unshaken confidence” in Washington and in the Congress. The crisis was over.
News of the army’s action swept the states, redounding to the credit of Washington and his officers. The public knew nothing of the political manipulations that had caused the crisis. A congressional committee recommended commuting half-pay pensions to five years’ full pay, a compromise more palatable to Yankee constituents. Within another month Congress accepted a new impost amendment.
The states, however, ratified neither program in time to help the army. New Englanders once more resisted commutation and impost. Meanwhile, peace came at last. Washington ordered a cease fire for noon, April 19, 1783—eight years to the day since the war began. Congress ordered the army disbanded. To save money, Washington quickly furloughed his veterans, the furloughs to become discharges once the peace treaty was ratified. There was no back pay or pension settlement. It would be years before most soldiers saw them. By then many hard-pressed riflemen had sold their country’s IOUs to speculators.
Disillusioned and angry officers and men took up their scant belongings and the weapons Congress authorized them to keep for posterity. The New Windsor Cantonment quickly became a ghost camp.
Much of the Newburgh crisis remains hidden. Those contemporaries—like Washington—who pieced together the puzzle had few facts with which to prove a conspiracy. That is probably just as well. It was better that the world did not know of politicians’ tinkering with the American experiment in democracy. Better yet that it never knew how nearly they succeeded.
“By whatever name, the ‘new building served the army well.”
In the end, what is important about the Newburgh crisis is what did not happen. There was no mutiny, no coup, no military dictatorship. Had the public even considered that imminent possibility, relations between the military and the government it served would have been permanently strained. Once trust between military and civil authorities is broken, it never can be healed. Tyranny attempted once always can be tried again. The precedent that was set was that the first national army of the young republic totally rejected military interference in the government and affirmed its subordination to civil authority. America stood at a real crossroads in March of 1783. That Washington, by personal leadership, persuaded his officers to civil obedience ranks as one of his greatest victories.
At the New Windsor Cantonment our army waited for the peace treaty while its soldiers’ minds and wills were turned from thoughts of mutiny and military power to civilian authority. Here they received the word of peace and disbanded—but not in a victorious march with pomp and show. Like the winter snows they simply melted away—down the mountain roads back to the farms, back to the cities, back to the schools. For the succeeding two hundred years Americans have honored their soldiers and won great wars. But always they have yielded to the civil state. And General Washington left this post to become, not a king, but the President of a democracy.