February/March 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 1
The English writer G. K. Chesterton once observed that journalism largely consists of saying “Lord Jones is dead” to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive. So perhaps does telling the story of the Conway Cabal, a military-political convulsion of 1777 that might have sent Gen. George Washington home to Mount Vernon prematurely. It ended up accomplishing nothing, and historians tend to label the affair a nonevent. But a closer look at it provides, for those who find Washington not quite human, a visceral glimpse of him come down from Mount Rushmore as a wounded animal. And the episode has also brought out the beast in historians.
Thomas Conway came from an Irish-born Catholic family that had fled to France because of English oppression when he was six. He served for years in the French military and also under the legendary Prussian Frederick the Great before coming to America, “to increase my fortune and that of my family,” in 1777, when he was forty-two. He made a good first impression on Washington, who found him a “man of candor . . . infinitely better qualified to serve us than many who have been promoted, as he speaks our language.” Washington’s new aide, the Marquis de Lafayette, who barely had turned twenty, advised his commander, “General Conway is a so brave, intelligent and active officer that he schall, I am sure, justify more and more the esteem of the army and Your approbation.” On May 13,1777, Congress made Conway a brigadier general. He fought well at the battles of Brandywine and Germantown and became “the idol of the whole army,” in the words of Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia.
But things soon soured. Washington was not impressed with Conway’s performance at Germantown and even considered courtmartialing him, according to another young aide, John Laurens, because Conway was “a considerable time separated from his brigade.” Conway further disenchanted his admirers by lecturing them on what the great Frederick would have done had he been in the untutored Americans’ place. Conway had an I-toldyou-so look, with bulging eyes, pursed lips, and pinched little chin perched on a long neck that loomed up from slumped shoulders, like a scolding Ichabod Crane.
The animosity simmered along until another ingredient was added: Gen. Horatio Gates, who was on top of the world at the moment. In October 1777 Gates’s Continentals defeated and captured John Burgoyne’s entire British army at Saratoga. It was the greatest victory to date, hundreds of miles away from Washington and his string of unbroken defeats around Philadelphia and light-years away politically from Congress, which now sat in York, Pennsylvania, having fled there because Washington could not even keep the national capital out of British hands. Across the Atlantic news of Saratoga would tip France into an official alliance with America four months later.
After Saratoga, Gates basked in the victor’s glory, deluged with congratulatory letters, including ones from Lafayette and Washington. His commander in chief wrote, “I do myself the pleasure to congratulate you on the signal success of the Army under your command.” Lafayette was “very desirous, sir, to convince you how I wish to cultivate your friendship.” Gates had been in command less than eight weeks before Burgoyne surrendered, arriving just in time to claim the lion’s share of the victory. Gen. Philip Schuyler had done most of the planning, and Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan had done all the fighting—facts barely discernible in Gates’s dispatches. At fifty, Gates was five years older than Washington and had more military experience, being a former British officer who had moved to America from his native England only four years before the Revolution. Both had served under Gen. Edward Braddock and been with him when he was killed at the disaster of Fort Duquesne in 1755; Gates had been wounded, and Washington himself was nearly killed. During the Revolution Gates’s men called him Granny because of his fussiness. Gilbert Stuart’s superb portrait of him shows warm, sad eyes write his life have been able to bear with him long enough to complete it.”
Gates’s singular success served to magnify Washington’s mediocrity in the eyes of Congress. Only six members still remained from 1775, when the body had elected him Commander; as few as fifteen new faces bothered to show up for sessions. Some began believing Washington had been justified when upon accepting the job, he pleaded “a conviction of my own incapacity and inexperience.” As failure mounted, he pointed out that he had never “assumed the character of a military genius .” Among prominent citizens inclined to agree were John and Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Rush, and—particularly—Thomas Mifflin, Washington’s unhappy quartermaster general. James Lovell of Massachusetts also was not in Washington’s camp and wrote mooning letters to Gates wishing he were in charge, as did Rush.
With teasing allusion and shadowy inference, Henry Laurens, the new president of Congress, wrote his son John about purported intrigues. Since John was an aide in Washington’s youthful circle, the warning surely was passed on to his chief, to bore like pine beetles into Washington’s tormented psyche. Henry Laurens wrote that there was one man in particular—unnamed—whose “idleness, duplicity & criminal partialities in a certain Circle laid the foundation of our present deplorable state,” and he added that this was somebody Washington trusted, for whom he held “the most favorable Sentiments.” Henry Laurens discerned “Agents from our Enemies if not within Doors, yet too closely connected with some who sat there. . . . I will attend to all their movements & have set my face against every wicked attempt however specious.”
Such warnings preyed on Washington. Who were these false friends? Mifflin, his first aide at the start of the war? Richard Henry Lee, a fellow Virginian? John Adams, who had nominated him for command? Samuel Adams, who had seconded the motion? Surely not the solicitous Dr. Rush, the army’s surgeon—until an anonymous letter crying for Washington’s replacement was passed along to the general. Sadly, after “having always received . . . the strongest professions of attachment and regard” from his surgeon general, Washington recognized Rush’s handwriting.
Lafayette consoled the man who had become his spiritual father in words that reflected their growing bond. He called Washington’s detractors “stupid men who without knowing a single word about war undertake to judge you, to make Ridiculous Comparisons; they are infatuated with Gates without thinking of the different Circumstances.” The young Frenchman made his own allegiance clear: “I am now fixed to your fate and I shall follow it and sustain it as well by my sword as by all means in my power. . . . You will pardon my importunity. . . . Youth and frienship make perhaps myself too warm, but I feel the greatest concern of all what happens since some time. . . . With the most tenderest and profond respect I have the honor to be, dear general, Your most obedient humble servant Lafayette.”
It was a timely, supportive letter, and its childlike tone, that of a man struggling with English, only enhances its heartfelt beauty. It obviously touched Washington, and he momentarily turned philosophical: “It is much to be lamented that things are not now as they formerly were; but we must not, in so great a contest, expect to meet with nothing but Sun shine. . . . if you will give me your Company in Virginia, we will laugh at our past difficulties and the folly of others.”
The eruption came when Gates’s aide James Wilkinson bragged to an aide to Gen. William Alexander, Lord Stirling, about a letter Gates had received from Conway. Stirling, smarting over remarks Conway had made to Congress about his own drunken ineptitude, passed the bit on to Washington, as an example of “wicked duplicity of conduct.” Washington exploded. The next day Conway received a fire-and-ice letter from his commander: “Sir: A letter which I receivd last Night, containd the following paragraph. In a letter from Genl. Conway to Genl. Gates he says: ‘ Heaven has been determind to save your Country; or a weak General and bad Councellors would have ruind it .’ I am Sir Yr. Hble. Servt.”
Conway wrote back that although he had made some critical remarks about the Army, “I Believe I can assert that the expression Weak General has not slipped from my pen.” He said he was willing to have Washington read the original letter in Gates’s possession and added, “I Defy the most keen and inveterate Detractors to make it appear that I levell’d at your Bravery honesty, honour, patriotism or judgment of which I have the highest sense. . . . Your modesty is such that although your advice is commonly sound and proper you have often been influenced by men who were not equal to you.” In a later reply, Conway stood on his tiptoes in wounded protest. Other officers were free to express their opinions; why not he? “Must such an odious and tyrannical inquisition begin in this country? Must it be introduced by the Commander-in-chief of this army raised for the defence of liberty? It cannot be, and I am satisfied you never had such thoughts.” He followed this with an incredible slap, referring to himself as a veteran sailor of thirty years and Washington as a new admiral: “An old sailor knows more of a ship than admirals who have never been at sea .”
Conway then wrote to Congress offering his resignation, mainly because of his lack of promotion but also mentioning his falling-out with Washington. Washington had wished the matter to remain private. After stating that only Congress could make such a decision, the general, with an icy formality one can only imagine, responded, “I shall not object to your departure, since it is your inclination.” He doubtless agreed with Conway’s own words that he could serve “more effectively in another part of the World.”
But Congress did not accept Conway’s resignation; instead it promoted him to major general over twenty-three American officers senior to him. In a series of decisions remarkable in their heavy-handedness, Congress set up a new Board of War to oversee Washington—with Horatio Gates as president. Conway was to be Washington’s new inspector general! The Virginian had, after all, called for help, “if any new source can be opened for alleviating our distresses.” Now he would get more than he bargained for.
Henry Laurens later wrote soothingly to Lafayette (his prior letter to his son notwithstanding) that no one in Congress wanted Washington’s head, not one soul. “If he has an Enemy, a fact which I am in doubt of . . . the whole amounts to little more than tittle tattle. . . . In a word Sir, be not alarmed I think it is not in the power of any junto to lessen our friend without his own consent.”
Don Higginbotham, in his history The War of American Independence , concludes that “barring the discovery of new information, we may assign the Conway Cabal to the realm of myth, though, to be sure, it was a troublesome thing while it supposedly lasted.” This is hard to accept. Given those official acts of Congress, surely more than a single committed foe of Washington was afoot. At the least, as the historian Page Smith has remarked, “There was either malice or stupidity in the act, perhaps a bit of both.”
On learning of Conway’s elevation, Washington fired both barrels at Richard Henry Lee over “as unfortunate a measure as was ever adopted” for the morale of his officers. Conway’s “importance in this Army exists more in his own imagination than in reality: For it is a maxim with him, to leave no service of his own untold.” He added a poignant note that may be read as a threat of resignation: “I have been a Slave to the service: I have undergone more than most Men are aware of, to harmonize so many discordant parts; but it will be impossible for me to be of any further service , if such insuperable difficulties are thrown in my way.” He later wrote a friend that he hoped “that those who come after may meet with more prosperous gales than I have done, and less difficulty.”
Richard Henry Lee conceded that perhaps Conway’s promotion might not be such a good idea since “it is likely to produce the evil consequences you suggest ,” and he predicted that it might not happen after all. Such a sop was temporary. Conway soon rode into Washington’s camp at Valley Forge as his official inspector general. He had not solicited his position, he assured Washington, and if the appointment displeased the general, “I am very ready to return to France where I have pressing business.” Relations between them were glacial, despite Washington’s writing to Conway that his appointment “has not given the least uneasiness to any Officer.” This was modified by “I believe”—and clearly did not include himself. Conway complained of a coldness “as I never met with before from any general during the course of thirty years in a very respectable army.” In sparkling candor Washington shot back to Congress: “If General Conway means, by cool receptions . . . that I did not receive him in the language of a warm and cordial Friend, I readily confess the charge . . . my feelings will not permit me to make professions of friendship to the man I deem my Enemy.”
Washington next wrote to the president of Congress that “a malignant faction had been for some time forming to my prejudice. . . . My Enemies take an ungenerous advantage of me—they know the delicacy of my situation.” How could he defend himself without disclosing military secrets? At this lowest moment in his career, Washington could offer Congress nothing but good intentions: “My heart tells me it has been my unremitted aim to do the best circumstances would permit; yet, I may have been very often mistaken in my judgment of the means, and may, in many instances deserve the imputation of error.” Washington’s aide Tench Tilghman noted at the time, “I have never seen any stroke of ill fortune affect the General in the manner that this dirty underhand dealing has done.”
Washington’s disaffected former aide Thomas Mifflin, learning of the “weak general” bombshell, warned Gates that Washington had an extract of Conway’s letter. He added his own opinion that Conway’s evaluation expressed “just sentiments.” Chagrined, a now defensive Gates wrote Washington expressing mildly persuasive shock over finding his private letters being “stealingly copied; but which of them, when, and by whom is to me as yet an unfathomable secret.” Would Washington do him “a very important service, by detecting a wretch who may betray me?” Gates soon made the mistake of believing that wretch to be Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s twenty-two-year-old aide, sent on a previous errand to Gates. Washington, meanwhile, was further aroused by Gates’s reference to Conway’s “letters” to him, in the plural. The Virginian had assumed the two did not know each other. What else had been going on? With no hint of apology to his commander, Gates informed him he was writing Congress, since he had no idea from what source, civilian or military, Washington had received the extract.
Washington was far from mollified. He and Gates were not close, and the latter had the irritating habit of sending all his communiqués to Congress, bypassing his commander in chief. Two weeks after Gates’s victory at Saratoga, Washington still had not heard from him in an official capacity, as he had tweaked Gates in his letter of congratulation: “I cannot but regret, that a matter of such magnitude . . . should have reached me by report only .” Now Washington answered Gates in a series of letters that his biographer Henry Cabot Lodge hailed as “models of cold dignity, and calm indifference” but that in fact bristle with suppressed fury and convoluted sarcasm.
The Virginian first expressed “my great surprize” to learn that Gates had dragged Congress into the spat—“for what reason, I find myself unable to acct. . . . I am laid under the disagreeable necessity of returning my answer through the same channel.” Gates had asked Washington to help locate the wretch who betrayed him. Washington was happy to comply. It was Gates’s own aide, Wilkinson, who “fell in with Lord Stirling.” Washington repeated verbatim the “weak general” passage to Gates—twice. Washington wrote that he had kept the letter secret, not telling “a single Officer in this Army . . . excepting the Marquis de la Fayette . . . under injunctions of secrecy.” Having thus established his “openess and candour which I hope will ever characterize and mark my conduct,” Washington turned disingenuous. Knowing the opposite to be true, he stated that he had originally assumed Gates had told Wilkinson to make the letter known, “with a friendly view to forewarn, and consequently forearm me , against a secret enemy.” This enemy was that “dangerous incendiary; in which character, sooner or later, this Country will know Genl. Conway. But, in this, as in other matters of late, I have found myself mistaken . I am, etc.”
In his next letter to Gates, Washington was even more caustic. Gates had tried to explain that the brouhaha was surely over “a wicked forgery,” since Conway’s original was “harmless.” If a bit critical here and there, it did not contain the “weak general” phrase. Gates further praised Conway as “a firm and constant friend of America.” With something warmer than calm indifference, Washington repeatedly used Gates’s own words to facetiously slay each straw man. (The biographer Douglas Southall Freeman sees Hamilton’s legal touch in his drafting.) He began by assailing Gates’s frankness: “I am so unhappy as to find no small difficulty in reconciling the spirit and import of your different Letters, and sometimes of the different parts of the same Letter with each other.” Instead of whining over who leaked the damnable passage, Washington pressed, why not send the original letter and remove all doubt!
Washington finished with a salvo at his bête noire , Conway, that “constant friend to America": It was “greatly to be lamented that “the United States have lost much” from Conway’s “unseasonable diffidence , which prevented his embracing the numerous opportunities he had in Council, of displaying those rich treasures of knowledge and experience he has since so freely laid open to you .” It surely could not have been “to any other cause than an excess of Modesty.” Washington finished by describing the “qualifications of his heart; of which, at least, I beg leave to assume the privilege of being a tolerable judge.” In that department “he is capable of all the malignity of detraction, and all the meanesses of intrigue, to gratify the absurd resentment of disappointed vanity.”
Things began cooling down after another exchange of letters. Gates stated that he had no personal connection with Conway, “nor had I any correspondence, previous to his writing the letter which has given offence [a falsehood]. . . . He therefore must be responsible; as I heartily dislike controversy. . . . I solemnly declare that I am of no faction; and if any of my letters taken aggregately or by paragraphs convey any meaning, which in any construction is offensive to your Excellency, that was by no means the intention of the writer.” Gates implored Washington not to “spend another moment upon this subject.”
Washington responded the next day, beginning nominally to paper over differences with flourishes of equanimity: “I am as averse to controversy, as any Man. . . . Your repeatedly and Solemnly disclaiming any offensive views . . . makes me willing to close with the desire, you express, of burying them hereafter in silence, and, as far as future events will permit, oblivion.”
But matters had moved past nasty letters among Washington, Gates, and Conway, with Congress a giddy audience. Even before the episode, John Adams had complained to his wife: “I am wearied to Death with the Wrangles between military officers, high and low. They Quarrell like Cats and Dogs. They worry one another like Mastiffs. Scrambling for Rank and Pay like Apes for Nutts.” In rallying around their chief, Washington’s officers at Valley Forge went to the power of the pen and beyond. Nine of his generals had already signed a petition protesting Conway’s promotion, while forty-seven colonels had protested the promotion over them of Gates’s pet, Wilkinson. These soldiers were already riled because Congress was balking in promising half-pay for life to officers.
Now the factions ominously inched toward settlement by affairs of honor. Trembling with rage, Col. Daniel Morgan physically confronted the Board of War’s secretary, Richard Peters. Two days later Peters, still smarting, wrote, “I don’t see how any Man of Feeling or Sentiment can continue in a public Department where every measure is looked upon with a jaundiced Eye, and of course all Mistakes magnified into Sins political and moral.” An aide to Nathanael Greene (who topped Mifflin’s list of “bad counsellors” to his “weak general") suggested that “a few Ozs. of Gun-powder diffused thro proper channels will answer a good purpose.” John Laurens wrote to his father in Congress asking “whether Genl W is to be sacrificed to Gnl C.” Young Laurens even raised the idea of Washington’s getting into a duel: Conway’s letter “is such an Affront as Conway would never have dared to offer if [Washington’s] Situation had not assured him of the impossibility of it’s being revenged in a private way. I hope that some virtuous and patriotic men will form a Countermine to blow up the pernicious Junto.”
With his political enemies beginning to run, Washington’s rage grew. He was said to be amused on learning that Thomas Mifflin was resorting to quick steps to avoid a duel with an ominous stalker, Gen. John Cadwalader, whose Welsh blood was on a boil. By now Mifflin was exclaiming to one and all—met by hoots—that Washington was the best friend he had ever had in his life. In a bit of retrograde nastiness, Washington showed young Wilkinson portions of Gates’s letters that demeaned him. In the complex masked ball, Wilkinson unsuccessfully tried to divert the tattletale finger to another aide and then turned like a betrayed lover on Gates with words that made all prior recriminations seem tepid. He declared he would “hasten on the wings of resentment to assert my wounded honor at the point of my sword and ratify my integrity in blood. . . . May the God of justice help you!” He did precisely that. A duel between him and Gates was set up; just before the meeting Gates asked his former protégé to accompany him into an alley for a last moment of privacy. Gates burst into tears, and Wilkinson relented.
Conway was not so fortunate. On the following Fourth of July, he and Cadwalader looked down pistol barrels at each other on another field of honor. The Welshman wounded him in the jaw; the ball, exiting from the back of Conway’s neck, “stopped his lying mouth.” From what Conway presumed to be his deathbed, he wrote Washington a final note: “My career will soon be over. . . . Therefore, justice and truth prompt me to declare my last sentiments: You are in my eyes the great and good man. May you long enjoy the love, veneration, and esteem of these States whose liberties you have asserted by your virtues.” Washington did not respond. Conway recovered and lived an active life one year longer than Washington himself.
What then are the truth and meaning of the Conway Cabal? Was there a real plot to overthrow Washington’s command? The full truth will never be known. In 1855 Washington Irving, writing his biography of Washington, found the trail cold: “Of the men who showed themselves to be the enemies of Washington, we yet remain in ignorance, and perhaps ever shall be. The record of their deeds is destroyed.” Only a few months after the dust settled, even Washington was trying to assign the episode to oblivion, as he had promised Gates: “Whether any members of Congress were privy to this scheme, and inclined to aid and abet it, I shall not take upon me to say; but am well informed, that no whisper of the kind was ever heard in Congress.” Decades later, however, the Virginian reversed himself: “The attempt was made by a party in Congress to supplant me.” A congressman, Eliphalet Dyer, also denied “the most distant thought of removing Genii. Washington, nor ever an expression in Congress looking that way.”
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.
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.”
Whatever its interpretation, the Conway Cabal confirmed Washington as the indispensable man that Flexner, and Freeman before him, described. No one put it more concisely than Lafayette, in a letter to Henry Laurens. Speaking as one who loved him, the Frenchman lamented that Washington “does not deserve that neglect, I say more that kind of insult.” He asked the ultimate question: “If you should loose that same man, what would become of the American liberty? Who could take his place? Certainly some body should raise from the earth—for now I do not [know] any body, neither in the south, neither in the north, neither Gates neither Mifflin, neither Greene . . . who could keep an american army for six months.” After reflection, the politicians, the people, and the generals all agreed: There was no one else.