One of the Revolutionary War's most dramatic scenes occurred at the Continental Army camp near Newburgh, New York, on 15 March 1783. Five days earlier, an anonymous letter had urged officers to take bold action against the Continental Congress for its delay in fulfilling promises of pay and pensions. George Washington quickly forbade a meeting toward that end and instead called a general officers' meeting while implying that he would not attend. Just after it began, however, Washington appeared and requested the floor. Speaking from a slightly raised platform, he read a prepared statement that excoriated the anonymous author and reminded officers that the army's steadfastness and acknowledgment of congressional authority had earned it universal respect. Rather than abandon the country or turn against Congress in its own cause, it should rely on his and Congress's pledged faith. Apparently thinking his reception cool, he began to read from a congressman's letter but paused, then reached for eyeglasses few knew he needed. "Gentlemen," he remarked offhandedly, "I have grown gray in your service, and now I am going blind." The emotional pull of this famous, and perhaps spontaneous, aside dissolved the Newburgh Conspiracy.
The conspiracy's real extent and intent remain murky in the absence of much direct evidence, but the army's widely known discontent lends support to some dire suspicions. Continental soldiers had long-standing grievances over arrears of pay, and officers additionally feared for pensions that Congress had promised but for which it had never made provision. Given its dilatory record, officers were surely unhappy at Washington's constant admonitions to trust Congress. Worse, rumors circulated widely in early 1783 of an imminent peace treaty, which would remove any urgency in Congress about the officers' claims and perhaps fatally tempt state governments to ignore Congress's very weak condition, fiscal and otherwise. The country had survived war, but its ability to survive peace looked doubtful, a bitter thought for men who tended to believe that only stronger national government could preserve what their sacrifices had earned. These issues were widely discussed in a nearly idle winter camp; at the same time, Washington's close associate and artillery chief, Henry Knox, was drawing up plans for an association of demobilized officers as he talked up the related problems of pay, pensions, and governmental weakness. But the conspiracy coalesced around Horatio Gates, the victor at the Battle of Saratoga (1777), a senior general and sometime rival of Washington; Gates's aide, John Armstrong, was in fact the author of the anonymously circulated letter of March 10 and another circulated on March 12. Scorning further moderation, the inflammatory first letter proposed that the army refuse to disband and either march on Congress for satisfaction or, if war continued, retreat to the wilderness and abandon the country to its fate. It was these notions that Washington targeted.
The conspiracy's usefulness to the intrigues of nationalists in Congress, however, raises suspicions that officers were either manipulated or instigated by players in a larger game. These nationalists, led by congressional finance chief Robert Morris, desperately wanted the states to agree to a dependable congressional revenue. That would enable Congress to function as an effective national government and pay its creditors, including officers; without it, Congress might only wither away and the nation face an uncertain future of squabbling among effectively independent states. But nationalists' hopes seemed to recede as a final peace came closer, and by late February they were also being blocked from pushing through a last-ditch compensation plan for the army. Morris and fellow nationalists looked for dramatic strokes to force reluctant hands. Approaches were made in February to Knox, who—though strongly nationalist—finally rebuffed apparent suggestions to use the army to face down Congress. At the same time, rumors of uncertain origin circulated in Philadelphia about the officers' desperate intentions and Morris, the indispensable linchpin of congressional finances, decided to heighten the pressure by announcing his resignation.
Contact seems to have been made between the Philadelphia nationalists and Gates at about this time, and the first Newburgh letter appeared within a few days. Earlier, however, Alexander Hamilton had written to Washington from Congress about rumored plotting among his officers. Washington was on the alert and ready with a response.
Officers and congressional nationalists shared many goals, but opinions vary whether the army plotters were merely pawns or seriously intended a coup, and it is unclear what they would, or could, have done had Washington not stepped in. Congress finally approved compensation shortly afterward, but the states still refused it a dependable revenue; other troops later menaced Congress directly but gained nothing. Nationalists, including many former Continental officers, acted through the Annapolis and Philadelphia Conventions within a few years to achieve the broader goal that had earlier linked Philadelphia and Newburgh.
Kohn, Richard H. "The Inside History of the Newburgh Conspiracy: America and the Coup d'État." William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 27 (1970): 187–220.
Marc L. Harris