NEWBURGH ADDRESSES. 10 and 12 March 1783. Angered that their pay was several months in arrears and that Congress consistently opposed pensions for members of the Continental army, a number of officers began planning what verged on a coup. They were spurred on by some members of Congress and also by Robert Morris, the superintendent of finance, who hoped to use the crisis to increase national power, and especially to levy taxes. Early in January 1783 a delegation of officers sent Congress a memorial listing officer grievances. Major General Alexander McDougall headed the committee of senior officers that formulated this document and took it to Philadelphia. The prime organizer of the movement, however, was Colonel Walter Stewart, who argued that the officers should act in concert to insist that Congress promptly pay all that had been promised them. It is not clear how far the officers were willing to go to win their demands, but there were rumors of marching on Philadelphia and seizing power.
Washington supported the monetary claims of his officers and often called on Congress to make good on its promises. Washington was aware of the increasing discontent among his officers but suspected nothing ominous until 10 March, when he was handed a written call for a meeting of general and field officers the next day and was also given a copy of the fiery and rhetorical appeal subsequently known as the first Newburgh address. The anonymous document proposed that the officers inform Congress that unless their demands were met, they would refuse to disband when the war ended, and that if the war should continue, they would "retire to some unsettled country" and leave Congress without an army. In General Orders of 11 March, Washington denounced the "irregular invitation" and the "disorderly proceedings" and directed that representatives of all regiments meet on 15 March to decide how "to attain the just and important object in view." A second anonymous address appeared on 12 March, expressing the crafty view that the language of Washington's General Orders made him party to the complaints. Deeply worried, the commander in chief reported developments to Congress. He realized that he would also have to step forward at the meeting of the 15th and do all within his power to keep his officers from going further with their movement.
What followed was one of the most dramatic moments of the Revolution. Visibly agitated, Washington appeared before a tense group of officers on 15 March and read them a statement he had prepared, probably with the help of Jonathan Trumbull Jr. Commenting that the anonymous addresses showed a good literary style, he criticized them for the implication that the civil authorities were guilty of "premeditated injustice." He denounced the alternatives proposed in the first address and entreated his officers to not take "any measures which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained." He warned that the Revolution itself was at stake, with the threat of civil war looming before them. Climaxing his appeal with a call for them to once more show their greater patriotism in the face of adversity, Washington assured them that by trusting in the American people to do right, "you will, by the dignity of your conduct, afford occasion for Posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to Mankind, 'had this day been wanting, the World have never seen the last state of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining'" (Fitzpatrick, ed., 26, pp. 226-227).
Not quite sure that he had convinced his officers that Congress meant well toward them, Washington took from his pocket a letter from Virginia delegate Joseph Jones, who had written of the financial problems with which Congress had to cope before it could meet the just claims of the officers. After stumbling over the closely written letter, Washington stopped to get out his glasses "and begged the indulgence of his audience while he put them on, observing at the same time that he had grown grey in their service and now found himself growing blind" (Smith, 2, p. 1770). The assembled officers were deeply moved by these simple and sincere remarks, and by the time Washington left the meeting a few minutes later, the conspiracy was dead. Against mild opposition from Timothy Pickering, the meeting voted Washington its thanks and, without dissent, expressed its confidence in the justice of Congress and repudiated the anonymous addresses issued in the officers' names.
Washington never knew the entire history of these addresses, which were the work of General Horatio Gates's aide-de-camp, Major John Armstrong Jr. They were copied by Gates's friend, Captain Christopher Richmond, and distributed by Major William Barber. Armstrong and others considered reviving the movement in April 1783, but they abandoned their plans when Armstrong came to believe they had been revealed to Washington.
In his handling of this incident, Washington demonstrated firm leadership and set the stage for the peaceful demobilization of the Continental Army. Congress remained weak and unable to pay its soldiers as it had promised.
Fitzpatrick, John C., ed. The Writings of George Washington. 39 vols. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931–1944.
Kohn, Richard H. Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America, 1783–1802. New York: Free Press, 1975.
revised by Michael Bellesiles