How Washington thwarted the Newburgh Conspiracy & saved the republic

A painting of Washington by the artist Gilbert Stuart

When we learn about the US War of Independence in elementary school, emphasis is placed mainly on the colonists’ grievances with their English overlords, the early skirmishes that ignited the rebellion and the personalities who were the prime movers. At some point in our studies, it’s also impressed on us that, if he had wanted to, George Washington could have become King of America. But we’re never told exactly where or under what circumstances that happened. The answer may surprise you.

The circumstances of later Revolutionary battles, as the war dragged on for seven years, blur together in our minds unless we’re serious history buffs. Heritage-tourism pilgrimages focus on Boston-area flashpoints like Bunker Hill, Lexington and Concord, and to a lesser extent, Independence Hall in Philadelphia. By contrast, and despite having been the very first publicly owned historic site in the nation (officially preserved in 1850), the Jonathan Hasbrouck House in Newburgh tends to fly a bit under the radar as a destination. On the surface, this seems unsurprising: By the time it became Washington’s Headquarters, on March 31, 1782, active fighting had already been essentially over for nearly six months, since Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. General Washington remained ensconced there for more than a year, keeping an eye on British-occupied New York City while negotiations went on that would result in the Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783.

But amongst the troops encamped nearby at the New Windsor Cantonment, privation and inactivity were proving a volatile combination. The Articles of Confederation had neglected to give the Continental Congress the right to levy taxes at a federal level, relying instead on voluntary contributions from state legislatures to fund the war effort. The soldiers of the Continental Army had therefore gone a long time without being paid; when they were, it was often in the form of paper money or certificates that were quickly being depreciated. Some troops sold these documents off to speculators at a fraction of their face value, simply in order to be able to support their families a little longer. Many feared that when the peace treaty was finally signed, they would all be sent home with fulsome praise and no back pay – nor the lifetime pension at half-pay that they’d been promised.

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Twice during his sojourn in Newburgh, General Washington was faced with crises fueled by this discontent. Had someone else been at the helm in either instance, American history might have gone down radically different paths – toward a new monarchy in the first instance, toward a coup d’état potentially establishing a military dictatorship in the second. Writing retrospectively, Thomas Jefferson lauded Washington’s personal commitment to the creation of a new republic: “the moderation and virtue of a single character had probably prevented this revolution from being closed as most others have been by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”

The first threat came in the form of what became known as the “Newburgh Letter,” written to Washington on May 22, 1782 by one Colonel Lewis Nicola, who claimed to be speaking “in the name of the field officers of the army.” Nicola began with a passionate plea on behalf of the soldiers who hadn’t been paid in many months, but soon shifted to the argument that the US should become a constitutional monarchy, urging Washington to assume kingship even if he had to come up with a more palatable word for it. Among his rationales were the fact that Holland, once the most successful of “modern republicks,” had subsequently lost its domination of the seas and trade; and the potential threat posed by neighboring Canada, presuming that it would continue under a monarchical system.

Washington’s reaction to this suggestion was an immediate and vehement rebuke, calling it a provocation to “the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country.” Nicola backed down, apparently surprised that the general had not been flattered by this encouragement to pursue a grander ambition. But as the months went on without significant infusions of money from the states to support the army, the muttering among the troops did not subside.

The second incident, known to history as the Newburgh Conspiracy, was probably the brainchild of General Horatio Gates, who nursed a grudge against Washington for getting the appointment he had wanted for himself: to be commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Gates had some backing in Philadelphia: A cadre of “nationalists,” advocates of a strong central government – among them Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris, Jr. and his assistant Gouverneur Morris, James Madison and James Wilson – was not-so-subtly encouraging mutinous rumblings amongst the troops. Fear of a military coup was being leveraged in an effort to persuade the Congress to pass an amendment to the Articles of Confederation creating an “impost” or tariff on imported goods, specifically intended to finance the army.

Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s former aide-de-camp and now a congressman, was also a proponent of the impost. But he mistrusted Gates’ ambitions and was perturbed by the level of political gamesmanship that would risk provoking an actual coup without a strong guiding hand. So he wrote Washington a letter in February of 1783, urging him to take measures to “preserve the confidence of the army without losing that of the people.” Washington wrote back to thank him for the intelligence and shrug off the hint that he himself should assume leadership of any military uprising, noting that “the army…is a dangerous instrument to play with.”

The blow fell shortly thereafter. On March 8, Colonel Walter Stewart, a Pennsylvanian possibly acting as an agent for Robert Morris, arrived at Newburgh, returning to duty following an illness. He is believed to have met with General Gates almost immediately, urging that the army should threaten to refuse to disband until its demands for back pay and a guaranteed pension were met. On March 10 an anonymous letter – believed now to have been written by Gates’ aide-de-camp, Major John Armstrong – circulated among the troops, scheduling a meeting of officers for the following day and calling for an ultimatum to be issued to Congress, refusing to stand down once the peace treaty was signed until the pay issues were settled. It urged its readers to “suspect the man who will advise to more moderation and longer forbearance,” an apparent reference to Washington.

The general made his move quickly, rescheduling the “irregular” meeting from March 11 to March 15 and implying that he would not attend, but would be expecting a report from the presiding officer. In a turnabout that dramatically took the wind out of Gates’ sails, Washington strode into the tent, took over the meeting and began to denounce the “shocking” and “subversive” letter, terming its author “an insidious foe.” He called upon those present to demonstrate “proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue.”

Then came the coup de grace. As evidence that the military should have “full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress,” Washington produced a letter from a supportive Virginia Congressman, but had difficulty reading it aloud. He pulled a pair of glasses out of his pocket, saying, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” After that, according to witnesses, there was scarcely a dry eye in the house, and the shamed would-be mutineers swiftly reaffirmed their support for their long-suffering general.

Washington was still at Newburgh when he issued his Proclamation for the Cessation of Hostilities, officially ending the war, on April 18, 1783. “Happy, thrice happy, shall they be pronounced hereafter, who have contributed anything, who have performed the meanest Office, in erecting this Stupendious Fabrick of Freedom & Empire, on the broad basis of Independency; who have assisted in protecting the rights of human nature, and establishing an Asylum for the poor, and oppressed of all nations and Religions,” he wrote, evoking the stirring St. Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V. “No disorder, or licentiousness, must be tolerated” from the troops upon their dismissal, he added, even as he authorized an extra ration of liquor to be issued to each in order to raise a toast to “Perpetual Peace, Independence and Happiness, to the United States of America.”

Congress soon worked out a compromise in which veterans received their half-pay pension for five years after the Revolutionary War ended, rather than for life, and eventually got the ability to levy federal taxes. Washington agreed to serve two terms as president, never wavering in his faith that a republican form of government could thrive. In the long run, what happened at Newburgh after the battles were over turned out to have more significance in shaping America’s future than any of the fiery rhetoric that ignited the war in the first place.

The Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site, located at the corner of Liberty and Washington Streets in the City of Newburgh’s East End Historic District, returns to its extended hour for the summer season as of April 24: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday and Tuesday. Following an extensive renovation, the 125-year-old Tower of Victory at the site is now open for public tours for the first time since 1950. For more information, call (845) 562-1195 or visit www.facebook.com/washingtonsheadquarters.

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