March 15, 2013
After the Battle of Yorktown, where British forces under the command of Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington’s Continental Army on Oct. 19, 1781, the fighting between the former colonies and Great Britain was essentially over as the battle shifted to the negotiating table. But the Confederation Congress could neither afford to let the army disband nor pay them.
The Continental Army repaired to Newburgh, N.Y., to keep watch over the British-occupied New York City, and waited for the diplomats to end the war. The idleness allowed suppressed problems to surface, particularly the fact that soldiers had not been paid, and they were fearful Congress would renege on its promises. In 1780, Congress had voted to award Continental officers a pension of half-pay for their lifetimes, and with negotiations proceeding, the officers were afraid that Congress would disband the army without settling its debts.
Victory over the British was all but assured, and the Confederation Congress was sharply divided on how the government should raise revenues. By early 1782, the United States was bankrupt. Robert Morris, who was the Superintendent of Finance and also one of the government’s largest creditors, (he personally guaranteed the funds needed to move the Continental Army to York in 1781), stopped paying army salaries to conserve what little credit the government had. He also reduced the civil bureaucracy and pushed the reluctant states to fulfill their financial commitments to the war. Congress could not reach agreement on duties or on forcing the states to pay up.
In December 1782, the army sent three officers, Maj. Gen. Alexander McDougall, Col. John Brooks and Col. Mathias Ogden, to Philadelphia with a petition to Congress demanding their back pay and assurances that pensions would be honored. The petition was signed by a number of general officers, including Gen. Henry Knox. The petition expressed the officer’s concerns and said: “… any further experiments on their patience may have fatal effects.”
Morris saw a disgruntled army as a way to leverage Congress. With the help of his assistant, Gouverneur Morris (who was not related to Robert), and Alexander Hamilton, Morris combined the army’s grievances with the demands of the creditors to put pressure on Congress to establish permanent revenue structures for the government.
Congress was immune to the pressure, and by early February 1783 had twice refused to vote for either pay for the soldiers or permanent duties and taxes. On February 13, rumors arrived from Paris that a peace treaty was imminent.
At this point historians diverge on the magnitude of what happened, whether the events of the next several weeks were leading up to an attempted coup d’etat by some members of the army, or just natural agitation to push for settlement.
Perhaps a frustrated Morris encouraged a group of officers at the Newburgh camp to become more vocal in their demands, to create a “menace” of a disgruntled army, and approached Knox to lead them. Knox was not interested, but some of the younger officers, frustrated with Gen. Washington’s meek leadership on these issues, were eager to force the issue. They were followers of Gen. Horatio Gates, a Washington rival, and some historians think this group of “young Turks” saw an opportunity to overthrown the Confederation and take control of the government. Speculation is that the nationalists, led by Morris and Hamilton, fueled these ideas to create a stronger central government.
Between March 10 and March 14, the group of officers gathered support, and called for a meeting on March 15, 1783, to compose an ultimatum to Congress. Gen. Gates opened the meeting, but, to gathered officers’ surprise, Gen. Washington strode into the building and delivered a short, impassioned speech. He opened by saying:
“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 army decide. …”
The Newburgh Conspiracy was broken.