The Newburgh Plot and the Greatness of George Washington

On March 15, 1783, General George Washington diffused a roiling rebellion of military officers against the fledgling U.S. government. This conspiracy against the Confederacy has been called the “near abortion of the Republic.” Having defeated the British at Yorktown less than two years previous, and having just signed a formal end of hostilities in January, America’s military leaders turned inward to continue the redress of grievances that began on July 4, 1776. 

Under the Articles of Confederacy, especially during the war years, the American national government was fairly impotent. It could make requests, but it had no power to enforce its just demands. One of the things the Confederation Congress failed at was paying its fighting men. Congress could barely equip and feed them, let alone pay them their due. In 1782, the Congress has formally stopped paying the soldiers. It was a situation that would strain even the best of men. 

I quote from describing the dire situation: 

“Under Major General Henry Knox, officers and soldiers drafted a memorandum to the Confederation Congress in the hope of once again receiving pay. In December of 1782, a group of senior Continental Army officers including Major General Alexander McDougall, Colonel John Brooks, and Colonel Matthias Ogden delivered the memorandum to the Confederation Congress. The memorandum asked for an option for a lump sum payment for their pensions and back pay instead of lifetime payments. It also expressed their distress over their lack of pay. Included in the memorandum was also a threat, it explained, “Any further experiments on [the Army’s] patience may have fatal effects.” 

“. . . The soldier’s long-term absence from civilian life meant that they would need to readjust and adapt to a new home that adapted in their own absence. Without that pension from the Confederation Congress, many soldiers and officers alike would be left penniless and jobless. 

“In Congress, the debate over whether to pay the Continental Army heated. Due to the Articles of Confederation, Congress did not have the power to tax, but the states did. Moreover, Congress was responsible for maintaining a standing army, and Congress was $6 million in debt, with only $125,000 in assets with other war debts to pay off. In lieu of the inability to tax, Congress could also only ask for funding from the states, foreign governments, and by selling Western lands. Congress could also not draft soldiers, and they could not trade. Representatives from certain states also barred their state’s representative from supporting any lifetime pension for soldiers . . . The Confederation Congress was unwilling to finance the soldier’s pensions. Upset and desperate, Continental Army officers gathered under Major General Horatio Gates, a long-time rival of George Washington’s, planned to use force.” 

Anyone can understand the dilemma and the predictable, natural emotions the men were feeling as Congress dragged its heels. They had fought, bled, gone without food, been separated from their families, watched their friends die in agony, and endured the fatigues of war for years, yet, now, either their country did not want to pay them or was incapable of doing so. 

The year before the Newburgh Plot gained steam, General Washington received letters from Colonel Lewis Nicola voicing support for a monarch and spurning republicanism. It seems to suggest that, should he choose, the General could become a king (though, there was never any serious movement to make him one). Colonel Nicola began by describing the neglect and offenses which the Continental Army had endured, stating: 

“The injuries the troops have received in their pecuniary rights have been, & still continue to be too obvious to require a particular detail, or to have escaped your Excellencies notice . . . doubtless the particular circumstances of the times have occasioned many of these injuries, yet we have great reason to believe they are not all owing to that cause, but often occasioned by schemes of economy in the legislatures of some States, & publick ministers, founded on unjust & iniquitous principles . . . the recompence of all our toils, hardships, expence of private fortune &c. during several of the best years of our lives will be, to those who cannot earn a livelyhood by manual labour, beggary, & that we who have born the heat & labour of the day will be forgot and neglected by such as reap the benefits without suffering any of the hardships. . . . 

“From several conversations I have had with officers, & some I have overheard among soldiers, I believe it is [sincerely] intended not to seperate after the peace ’till all [grievances] are redressed, engagements & promises fulfilled, but how this is to be done I am at a loss, as neither officers or soldiers can have any confidence in promises. . . . 

“God forbid we should ever think of involving that country we have, under your conduct & auspices, rescued from oppression, into a new scene of blood & confusion; but it cannot be expected we should forego claims on which our future subsistance & that of our families depend.” 

The colonel eventually came to his point, which he called “my scheme.” It involved an economic payment plan, which I won’t detail here, and, more poignantly, a call for monarchy. He said: 

“This war must have shewn to all, but to military men in particular the weakness of republicks, & the exertions the army has been able to make by being under a proper head, therefore I little doubt, when the benefits of a mixed government are pointed out & duly considered, but such will be readily adopted; in this case it will, I believe, be uncontroverted that the same abilities which have lead us, through difficulties apparently unsurmountable by human power, to victory & glory, those qualities that have merited & obtained the universal esteem & veneration of an army, would be most likely to conduct & direct us in the smoother paths of peace. 

“Some people have so connected the ideas of tyranny & monarchy as to find it very difficult to seperate them, it may therefore be requisite to give the head of such a constitution as I propose, some title apparently more moderate, but if all other things were once adjusted I believe strong arguments might be produced for admitting the title of king, which I conceive would be attended with some material advantages. 

“I have hinted that I believed the United States would be benefited by my scheme, this I conceive would be done, by having a savage & cruel enemy seperated from their borders, by a body of veterans, that would be as an advanced guard, securing the main body from danger. There is no doubt but Canada will some time or other be a seperate State, and from the genious & habits of the people, that its government will be monarchical. May not casualties produce enmity between this new State & our Union, & may not its force under the direction of an active prince prove too powerful for the efforts of republicks? It may be answered that in a few years we shall acquire such vigour as to baffle all inimical attempts. I grant that our numbers & riches will encrease, but will our governments have energy enough to draw them forth? Will those States remote from the danger be zealously anxious to assist those most exposed? Individuals in Holland abound in wealth, yet the government is poor & weak. 

“Republican bigots will certainly consider my opinions as heterodox, and the maintainer thereof as meriting fire & faggots, I have therefore hitherto kept them within my own breast. By freely communicating them to your Excellency, I am persuaded I run no risk, & that, tho disapproved of, I need not apprehend their ever being disclosed to my prejudice.” 

This was the feeling that had seized upon many of the troops in 1782-1783. General Washington’s response to Colonel Nicola sets the stage for the main act of the Newburgh Conspiracy. He wrote

“With a mixture of great surprise & astonishment I have read with attention the Sentiments you have submitted to my perusal. Be assured, Sir, no occurrence in the course of the War, has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the Army as you have expressed, & I must view with abhorrence, and reprehend with severity. . . . 

“I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country. If I am not deceived in the knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable—at the same time in justice to my own feeling I must add, that no man possesses a more sincere wish to see ample Justice done to the Army than I do, and as far as my powers & influence, in a constitution[al] way extend, they shall be employed to the utmost of my abilities to effect it, should there be any occasion—Let me [conj]ure you then, if you have any regard for your Country, concern for your self or posterity—or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your Mind, & never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like nature.” 

To my mind, it’s a powerful witness of the greatness of George Washington that the one man whom people would trust with the omnipotent power of a monarch was the one man who despised the idea more than any other. Was it not Washington who had, at his own personal expense, raised an army of 1,000 men to fight the British monarchy and rescue Boston in 1775? George Washington was not only public enemy #1 to the British crown, but to all systems of tyranny. He was the ultimate freeman! 

Colonel Nicola was not alone, however. By 1783, not only soldiers, but politicians, were involved in a conspiracy to mutiny against General Washington and take over the reins of both the military and government. In “How General Washington and his Spectacles Saved the Republic,” George L. Marshall, Jr., explained: 

“As luck would have it, a high-ranking weak link did exist. Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, once associated with a petty plot (the so-called Conway Cabal) to replace Washington, still possessed some political influence. He was also second in command at Newburgh. . . . 

“Gates, still smarting from his failure to discredit and oust Washington, saw a potential opportunity to even the score. Thus were laid plans aimed at the removal of Washington as well as for a military takeover of the Congress and the country. The exact details of the methods to be used are now lost in time, but by early January 1783 Gates was in touch with those in Philadelphia whom he thought would support the plan. 

“However, Gates, along with several others, was being deceived and used. The devious Federalist faction in Philadelphia was fanning the fire of rebellion with one hand and trying to douse it with water with the other. What they wanted was an unsuccessful uprising of the army, enough to secure their will in Congress but stopping well short of complete anarchy or military dictatorship. They were playing a dangerous chess game in which Gates, Washington, Congress and the army were to be the pawns. 

“Conscious of Washington’s pivotal role in the scheme of things, Hamilton wrote his former superior a carefully worded letter in which he discussed the severe crisis then existing in congressional finances and alluded to the general state of affairs within the army and the desirability of continued pressure for the redress of grievances. Hamilton went on to suggest that Washington, as commander in chief, would likely need to use his great prestige to “keep a complaining and suffering army within the bounds of moderation” if the seething unrest turned into open rebellion. He further noted that forces were at work within the army to diminish the general’s degree of influence. Finally, he suggested that Washington check with Knox to verify the truth of the allegations contained in his letter. 

“This letter, along with a second from one of Washington’s friends in Congress, Joseph Jones, warning of “dangerous combinations” and “sinister practices” in the army, convinced Washington to conduct his own investigation of the alleged state of affairs. What he discovered alarmed him greatly. The situation was worse than he thought. Gates and his followers were engaged in some sort of plot to coerce Congress and perhaps worse. 

“Washington found himself in a dilemma. Should he support his officers and the army and guide this nascent movement to correct obvious wrongs? Or was his first duty to Congress? Like [Henry] Knox, Washington made a momentous decision: He would not lead what he considered an improper and irregular attempt to rectify those egregious wrongs.” 

Modern historians are split on whether Alexander Hamilton was involved in the Newburgh Conspiracy – at least to the degree of trying to provoke a mild outburst that would prompt Congress to finally act to resolve its problems. It does come off as something he might do, given his betrayal of America by setting up a national bank, but there is little direct evidence. What we know is that General Washington trusted him and that Hamilton wrote to Washington in February of 1783 the following

“If the war continues it would seem th[at] the army must in June subsist itself to defend the [country;] if peace should take place it will subsist itself to pr[ocure] justice to itself. It appears to be a prevailing opini[on in] the army that the disposition to recompence their s[ervices] will cease with the necessity for them, and that if they [once] lay down their arms, they will part with the means of ob[taining] justice. It is to be lamented that appearances aff[ord] too much ground for their distrust. 

“It becomes a serious inquiry what will be the true line of policy. The claims of the army urged with moderation, but with firmness, may operate on those weak minds which are influenced by their apprehensions more than their judgments; so as to produce a concurrence in the measures which the exigencies of affairs demand. They may add weight to the applications of Congress to the several states. So far an useful turn may be given to them. But the difficulty will be to keep a complaining and suffering army within the bounds of moderation. 

“This Your Excellency’s influence must effect. In order to it, it will be adviseable not to discountenance their endeavours to procure redress, but rather by the intervention of confidential and prudent persons, to take the direction of them. This however must not appear: it is of moment to the public tranquillity that Your Excellency should preserve the confidence of the army without losing that of the people. This will enable you in case of extremity to guide the torrent, and bring order perhaps even good, out of confusion.” 

Whatever the truth behind this particular accusation, from Washington’s second-in-command to lower officers to others in the civilian sphere, the plot to turn the army into a weapon of mutiny and rebellion was spreading in March 1783. Being alerted by several letters from trusted sources, the General began to look into the claims of conspiracy. He was repulsed by the idea of disorder and mutiny, believing it a duty to respect constituted authority. He had fought so hard for representative government to allow the popular will to be turned out of its course by a conspiracy. 

As the idea of revolt was being transmitted to the army, Horatio Gates and the others called a meeting for Saturday, March 15, 1783. As the meeting began, General George Washington gate crashed and asked to speak to the stunned audience. Though mutinous and mad, who among them was going to tell the old General “no” to his face? 

In a short talk now referred to as the Newburgh Address, General Washington rebuked the author of documents calling for mutiny, opposed the conspiracy, and pleaded for patience and reason: 

“In the moment of this summons, another anonymous production was sent into circulation; addressed more to the feelings & passions, than to the reason & judgment of the Army. The Author of the piece, is entitled to much credit for the goodness of his Pen: and I could wish he had as much credit for the rectitude of his Heart . . . he had another plan in view, in which candor and liberality of Sentiment, regard to justice, and love of Country, have no part; and he was right, to insinuate the darkest suspicion, to effect the blackest designs. 

“That the Address is drawn with great art, and is designed to answer the most insidious purposes. That it is calculated to impress the Mind, with an idea of premeditated injustice in the Sovereign power of the United States, and rouse all those resentments which must unavoidably flow from such a belief. That the secret Mover of this Scheme (whoever he may be) intended to take advantage of the passions, while they were warmed by the recollection of past distresses, without giving time for cool, deliberative thinking, & that composure of Mind which is so necessary to give dignity & stability to measures, is rendered too obvious, by the mode of conducting the business, to need other proof than a reference to the proceeding. 

“. . . If my conduct heretofore, has not evinced to you, that I have been a faithful friend to the Army; my declaration of it at this time wd be equally unavailing & improper—But as I was among the first who embarked in the cause of our common Country—As I have never left your side one moment, but when called from you, on public duty—As I have been the constant companion & witness of your Distresses, and not among the last to feel, & acknowledge your Merits—As I have ever considered my own Military reputation as inseperably connected with that of the Army—As my Heart has ever expanded wth joy, when I have heard its praises—and my indignation has arisen, when the Mouth of detraction has been opened against it—it can scarcely be supposed, at this late stage of the War, that I am indifferent to its interests. 

“But—how are they to be promoted? The way is plain, says the anonymous Addresser—If War continues, remove into the unsettled Country—there establish yourselves, and leave an ungrateful Country to defend itself—But who are they to defend? Our Wives, our Children, our Farms and other property which we leave behind us. or—in this state of hostile seperation, are we to take the two first (the latter cannot be removed) to perish in a Wilderness, with hunger cold & nakedness? If Peace takes place, never sheath your Sword says he untill you have obtained full and ample Justice—this dreadful alternative, of either deserting our Country in the extremest hour of her distress, or turning our Army against it, (which is the apparent object, unless Congress can be compelled into an instant compliance) has something so shocking in it, that humanity revolts at the idea. My God! What can this Writer have in view, by recommending such measures? Can he be a friend to the Army? Can he be a friend to this Country? Rather, is he not an insidious Foe? Some Emissary, perhaps, from New York, plotting the ruin of both, by sowing the seeds of discord & seperation between the Civil & Military powers of the Continent? . . . . 

“. . . With respect to the advice given by the Author—to suspect the Man, who shall recommend moderate measures and longer forbearance—I spurn it—as every Man, who regards that liberty, & reveres that Justice for which we contend, undoubtedly must—for if Men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences, that can invite the consideration of Mankind; reason is of no use to us—the freedom of Speech may be taken away—and, dumb & silent we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter. 

“I cannot, in justice to my own belief, & what I have great reason to conceive is the intention of Congress, conclude this Address, without giving it as my decided opinion; that that Honble Body, entertain exalted sentiments of the Services of the Army; and, from a full conviction of its Merits & sufferings, will do it compleat Justice: That their endeavors, to discover & establish funds for this purpose, have been unwearied, and will not cease, till they have succeeded, I have not a doubt. But, like all other large Bodies, where there is a variety of different Interests to reconcile, their deliberations are slow. Why then should we distrust them? and, in consequence of that distrust, adopt measures, which may cast a shade over that glory which, has been so justly acquired; and tarnish the reputation of an Army which is celebrated thro’ all Europe, for its fortitude and Patriotism? and for what is this done? to bring the object we seek for nearer? No! most certainly, in my opinion, it will cast it at a greater distance. 

“For myself (and I take no merit in giving the assurance, being induced to it from principles of gratitude, veracity & justice)—a grateful sence of the confidence you have ever placed in me—a recollection of the Chearful assistance, & prompt obedience I have experienced from you, under every vicisitude of Fortune, and the sincere affection I feel for an Army, I have so long had the honor to Command, will oblige me to declare, in this public & solemn manner, that, in the attainment of compleat justice for all your toils & dangers, and in the gratification of every wish, so far as may be done consistently with the great duty I owe my Country, and those powers we are bound to respect, you may freely command my services to the utmost of my abilities. 

“While I give you these assurances, and pledge my self in the most unequivocal manner, to exert whatever ability I am possesed of, in your favor—let me entreat you, Gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures, which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, & sully the glory you have hitherto maintained—let me request you to rely on the plighted faith of your Country, and place a full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress. . . . 

“And let me conjure you, in the name of our common Country–as you value your own sacred honor—as you respect the rights of humanity, & as you regard the Military & national character of America, to express your utmost horror & detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our Country, & who wickedly attempts to open the flood Gates of Civil discord, & deluge our rising Empire in Blood.” 

If the General’s impassioned words had not already swayed the would-be conspirators, what he did next did. Upon closing his own remarks, he produced a letter from Congress to read. Because of the tininess of the text, he faltered in reading. He then pulled out his glasses, expressing a statement which will live in eternal glory: “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for, I have grown not only gray, but almost blind in the service of my country.” 

The words were electrifying, causing many in the audience to cry. They were remined of how much their General had sacrificed, how long he had fought for them and for their country, and how he had suffered alongside them and continued doing so at that very moment. One officer present, Major Samuel Shaw, later recounted: 

“There was something so natural, so unaffected in this appeal, as rendered it superior to the most studied oratory; it forced its way to the heart, and you might see sensibility moisten every eye. 

“Happy for America that she has a patriot army, and equally so that Washington is its leader. I rejoice in the opportunities I have had of seeing this great man in a variety of situations;– calm and intrepid when the battle raged; patient and persevering under the pressure of misfortune; moderate and possessing himself in the full career of victory. Great as these qualifications deservedly render him, he never appeared to me more truly so than at the assembly we have been speaking of. On other occasions he has been supported by the exertions of an army and the countenance of his friends; but on this he stood single and alone. There was no saying where the passions of an army which were not a little inflamed might lead; but it was generally allowed that further forbearance was dangerous, and moderation had ceased to be a virtue. Under these circumstances he appeared, not at the head of his troops, but as it were in opposition to them; and for a dreadful moment the interests of the army and its general seemed to be in competition! He spoke,– every doubt was dispelled, and the tide of patriotism rolled again in its wonted course. Illustrious man! What he says of the army may with equal justice be applied to his own character:– ‘Had this day been wanting, the world had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining’” (Washington Irving, Life of George Washington, Vol. 3, 1371-1372). 

Major Shaw related that when the General finished and departed, a resolution was unanimously passed by the group declaring their undying support of General Washington, their trust in Congress, and their commitment to never tarnish the good name of the Continental Army. Thus, with a few short words of passion from a true leader, hero, and patriot, the villainous Newburgh Conspiracy died. 

The above account cuts right to the point – the greatness of George Washington! There has never been a military commander in secular history who was so dutiful, upright, and unwavering. He was the greatest of men on the earth in his day and one of the most illustrious figures who has ever lived. His mere presence, and the passion of his soul expressed in such plain speech and sincere emotion, was all that was necessary to diffuse a mutiny by men who had fought through a grueling war without pay. 

I say again, General George Washington was a great man! He was a true patriot. Indeed, perhaps no man ever lived that embodied in the fullest terms the label “patriot.” He was a true friend to Liberty. He fiercely opposed mutiny and discord while simultaneously safeguarding free speech. He insisted on order and propriety while not restricting Freedom. He put his country first while never asking for anything in return. He attempted to retire but his country called him from his farm to save her time and time again. 

May the name George Washington live in the hearts of all true Americans. May we remember how indispensable he was to the birth of America. May we thank the God of Heaven for putting George Washington, and all of the other noble Sons of Liberty, in a position to erect the first free society in modern history. Godspeed, General Washington. 

Zack Strong, 
March 14, 2022