CONWAY CABAL. Winter 1777–1778. The name of Major General Thomas Conway has improperly been given to a secret movement by which the New England faction of Congress was trying to regain their lost leadership of the Revolution. The disasters suffered by the army under George Washington left many Patriots with reason to suspect that the Virginian was not up to the task assigned him, particularly when his failures were contrasted with the success of Major General Horatio Gates at Saratoga. Although there were many individual expressions of dissatisfaction, as in Conway's private letters to a number of other officers, certain politicians apparently got together to organize what could properly be called a cabal. The best-known leaders of this shadowy movement were Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Mifflin, and Dr. Benjamin Rush. Their cautious approach was to drop hints and suggestions in influential circles and to circulate an anonymous paper called "Thoughts of a Freeman." The latter was not only a formal attack on Washington's ability but also on his popularity. "The people of America have been guilty of idolatry in making a man their God," it said, borrowing a phrase from a letter of John Adams (quoted in Page Smith, A New Age Now Begins, vol. 2, p. 1020). But the leaders of the cabal wanted to find out how deeply rooted this popularity of Washington really was before they made a serious move to effect his ouster. What they did not know was that the President of Congress, Henry Laurens, was reporting on these machinations to his son John, a member of Washington's staff. It is probable that the elder Laurens knew that his son would pass on the substance of these letters to Washington, as he did.
Into this situation rushed Thomas Conway, a French officer of Irish birth who was one of Silas Deane's recruits to the American cause. After participating in the battles of Brandywine and Germantown as a brigadier general, Conway became critical of Washington's leadership. Conway also began pestering Congress with requests that he be promoted, even though Conway was the most junior of twenty-four brigadier generals in the American service at this time.
The sequence of events culminating in the controversy known as "Conway's cabal" may be said to have started the night of 28 October when the ever-conniving James Wilkinson, aide-de-camp to General Gates, passed on to Major William McWilliams, aide-de-camp to General Lord Stirling (William Alexander), a certain tidbit of headquarters gossip. General Conway, Wilkinson said, had written General Gates: "Heaven has been determined to save your country; or a weak General and bad Councellors would have ruined it" (Smith, vol. 2, p. 1022). Stirling immediately sent this information on to Washington.
What shocked Washington most was not the disparaging remark but the evidence that two of his subordinates were in collusion to discredit him. Washington assumed that Gates had charged Wilkinson with passing on this information, which is unlikely. Washington's only action was to send Conway a brief note reporting what he had heard.
Conway immediately wrote back to protest that there was nothing improper in his conduct. Apparently sensing Washington's suspicion of collusion, he said he had written Gates on 9 or 10 October to congratulate him on his Saratoga victory; he admitted that his previously voiced criticisms of American military methods may have been in this letter but denied using the expression "weak general." Conway added that he was willing to have his original letter shown to Washington.
The affair might have ended on 14 November, when Conway sent Congress his resignation. As reasons he mentioned the criticism he had received in requesting promotion, but he particularly cited the promotion to major general of Johann de Kalb, who was Conway's junior in the French army. Congress did not act on the resignation but sent it to the Board of War. The latter was in the process of reorganization, but Thomas Mifflin was already its most powerful member and Gates soon became its president. During the delay in acting on Conway's resignation, some congressmen began to support a proposal that an inspector general be appointed for the army. On 13 December Congress adopted this proposal, and shortly thereafter Conway was given the post with the grade of major general. Washington viewed this development with disgust, and he knew that Conway's promotion would be strongly resented by the twenty-three brigadier generals who were senior to him. (Conway's promotion, incidentally, was "on the staff," so he had no command authority over the brigadiers who held their rank "in the line"; but this mollified the latter little if at all.) The new inspector general visited Valley Forge winter quarters and was received with icy civility. When Washington sent an officer to ask Conway how he intended to go about his new duties, the latter answered on 29 December with a general outline of his plans and then volunteered that, if Washington preferred, Conway would be delighted to return to France, where he had some business that needed his attention.
An interchange of letters followed in which Washington calmly and formally told Conway that, although the brigadiers were determined to protest his promotion, he (Washington) would always respect the decisions of Congress. The French officer then proceeded to impale himself on his own pen. Conway wrote:
The general and universal merit which you wish every promoted officer might be endowed with is a rare gift. We know but the great Frederick in Europe and the great Washington in this continent. I certainly never was so rash as to pretend to such a prodigious height. However, sir, by the complexion of your letter and by the reception you have honored me with since my arrival, I perceive that I have not the happiness of being agreeable to your Excellency and that I can expect no support in fulfilling the laborious duty of an Inspector General. (Smith, vol. 2, pp. 1023-1024).
Quite apart from his anger at the Frenchman's hypocrisy in pretending a sincere parallel between him and Frederick, Washington was infuriated by Conway's accusation that Washington would not support him in the execution of his inspector general duties and by Conway's charge that he had not been properly received. On 2 January Washington forwarded this correspondence to Congress with a straightforward statement of his position that, though "my feelings will not permit me to make professions of friendship to a man I deem my enemy," he had every intention of working with Conway in the fulfillment of his duties (Smith, vol. 2, p. 1024).
Meanwhile there were developments resulting from Wilkinson's report of Conway's remark about "a weak General." Conway had seen Wilkinson and gotten a denial that the aide had uttered the exact words relayed to Washington. When Conway reported the occurrence to Mifflin, the latter was aghast at this breach of secrecy and wrote Gates to be more careful about his papers. Gates, in turn, was much disturbed, but he thought he saw a way of capitalizing on the blunder. He decided that Alexander Hamilton, Washington's aide, had taken advantage of being left alone in Gates's room during a recent visit and had secretly copied a letter; Gates believed he could use this to disgrace Washington and Hamilton. On 8 December, therefore, Gates wrote to Washington in feigned alarm: Conway's letters to him had been "stealingly copied"; having no reason to suspect any member of his own headquarters, he thought Washington could render "a very important service, by detecting a wretch who may betray me, and capitally injure the very operations" that Washington himself was directing (Smith, vol. 2, p. 1024). Since he did not know whether Washington's note to Conway was based on information from an army source or from a congressman, Gates said he was reporting the matter to Washington and Congress simultaneously.
Gates had hoisted himself on his own petard. He learned from Washington that the information had come from Gates's own aide, and he got this news in a letter sent through Congress. Wilkinson had succeeded up to this point in shifting suspicion to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Troup, another aide to Gates and the officer who had carried the trouble-making letter from Conway. When Gates learned the truth about the leak and dressed Wilkinson down, Wilkinson challenged his commander to a duel, but the two men were reconciled before it took place.
Congressmen who had championed Gates as a possible successor to Washington were now faced with the two sets of correspondence Washington had sent them to review, which discredited both Gates and Conway while demonstrating Washington's professional conduct. At the same time, nine brigadier generals joined in a "memorial" to Congress protesting the promotion of Conway, and several colonels were preparing a similar paper objecting to Wilkinson's brevet promotion to brigadier for bringing Congress the news of Saratoga. Congress was in a difficult position for having promoted a pair of scoundrels.
On 19 January Gates reached York with the original of the famous letter, and Conway thought his position had been strengthened by this proof that he had not written the sentence Wilkinson had passed on to Stirling's aide. Conway put up a show of wanting to have the letter published, yet neither he nor Gates offered to let Washington see it. President Henry Laurens was not offered a look either; but after reading a copy secured from another source he wrote a friend that, although Wilkinson's quote was not verbatim, Conway's original was "ten times worse in every way" (Smith, vol. 2, p. 1025). Both Gates and Conway maintained in subsequent correspondence with Washington that the letter was harmless, but neither offered to send him a copy.
The attack on Washington had failed completely. Congress sent Gates, Conway, and Mifflin back to the army, and those rival authorities, the Board of War and the office of inspector general, ceased to represent any significant threat to Washington's position as commander in chief. Washington was able to establish a harmonious working relationship with Gates. Mifflin and Conway soon were taken completely off his hands.
Historians disagree as to whether any real cabal actually existed. The consensus is that the ambitions of Gates and Conway matched dissatisfactions and concerns within Congress. Many members of Congress, even such supporters of Washington as John Adams, had their confidence shaken by the repeated British victories in the Pennsylvania campaign of 1777. They also feared the growing public adoration of Washington, despite these defeats, and hoped to protect civilian control of the military against what they saw as an incipient Caesarism and possible military dictatorship. They had no real cause for these latter fears, as Washington always adhered to a strict respect for civilian authorities, no matter how ineffectual and inept. After Conway was thoroughly discredited by his own clownishness, these rumblings that Washington should be replaced were calmed, though misunderstandings and disputes would certainly persist.
Much of this controversy must hinge on the question of when the normal opposition to any leader reaches the state of organization necessary to qualify it as a "cabal." It should be borne in mind, however, that Washington undoubtedly thought there was a cabal, regardless of what subsequent scholarship has concluded, and his reactions must be judged accordingly. One thing certain—and ironic—is that Thomas Conway's main contribution to the affair remembered as "Conway's cabal" was to wreck it.
Rossie, Jonathan G. The Politics of Command in the American Revolution. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1975.
Royster, Charles. A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775–1783. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.
revised by Michael Bellesiles
CONWAY CABAL, the name applied to the New England coterie in the Continental Congress and its efforts (1777–1778) to regain control of the army and the Revolution. The name comes from Major General Thomas Conway's letter to Horatio Gates, proposing to replace Washington with Gates as leader of the military campaigns. More generally, members opposed the alliance with France and resented Congress and Washington's authority. The plan backfired, however. When the plots were exposed, Washington received renewed public support that overwhelmed the conspirators both in Congress and in the army. Conway resigned from the army and was replaced by Gen. Friedrich von Steuben.
John C.Fitzpatrick/t. d.
See alsoRevolution, American: Military History ; War and Ordnance, Board of .