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This Week in History
March 10-16, 1783:
George Washington Foils the Newburgh Plot

March 2013

General George Washington.

In March of 1783, peace negotiations were underway in Paris, and there was every indication that the Revolutionary War would soon be ended and the United States would be free to enjoy its independence. Yet, the approach of peace, which should have been the cause for deep joy, also brought a sense of increasing dread to Gen. George Washington and to the Continental Army, which was encamped at Newburgh, N.Y. For it appeared that the bankrupt Confederation government could not, and some members simply would not, fulfill a commitment to remunerate the members of the Continental Army for their years of difficult service to the cause of independence. If the army were to be disbanded before some assurance of pay was received from Congress, many felt that the state governments would refuse aid as well, and that therefore the soldiers would be justified in claiming their rights at the point of a bayonet.

Discontent had been building since the previous spring, when Col. Lewis Nicola had sent Washington a letter describing the army's plight and proposing that Washington take over the government as king. The General was aware that there was not only a military faction in operation, but also a faction in Congress which was searching about for someone to replace him if he should refuse a crown. The tensions in the army became so volatile by the fall, that Washington channelled them into a petition from the officers to Congress, that was conveyed by three officers of high rank who were to remain in Philadelphia until the issue was settled one way or another. No sooner had they arrived, when their hopes were blasted by the states of Rhode Island and Virginia, who refused to vote for an amendment to the Articles of Confederation which would have allowed Congress to collect taxes on some imports.

In January of 1783, there was a reduction in the size of the army, but those soldiers who were mustered out had to make their way home with no pay in their pockets. Washington wrote to his brother John Augustine,

"The army, as usual, is without pay, and a great part of the soldiery without shirts; and the patience of them is equally threadbare. It seems to be a matter of small consequence to those at a distance. In truth, if one were to hazard an opinion for them on this subject, it would be that the army, having contracted a habit of living without money, it would be injurious to it to introduce other customs."

Warnings of a Plot

In February, Washington started receiving letters warning him that a plot had developed to discredit him and replace him with another general who would lead the troops against Congress. His old friend and physician, Dr. James Craik, wrote with a dire warning after a tour of the Eastern seaboard, and convinced him that the plot was known in many locations. Joseph Jones, a delegate to Congress from Fredericksburg, Va., who was one of the trusted "confidential correspondents" who kept Washington up to date on intelligence, also warned the Commander-in-Chief of a pending military coup.

On March 12, Washington wrote back to Jones, describing the situation:

"...It may be necessary it should be known to you, and to such others as you may think proper, that the temper of the Army, though very irritable on account of their long-protracted sufferings, has been apparently extremely quiet while their business was depending before Congress until four days past. In the mean time, it should seem reports have been propagated in Philadelphia that dangerous combinations were forming in the Army; and this at a time when there was not a syllable of the kind in agitation in Camp.

"It also appears, that upon the arrival of a certain Gentleman from Philadelphia in Camp, whose name, I do not, at present, incline to mention, such sentiments as these were immediately and industriously circulated. That it was universally expected the Army would not disband until they had obtained Justice. That the public creditors looked up to them for redress of their Grievances, would afford them every aid, and even join them in the Field, if necessary. That some Members of Congress wished the Measure might take effect, in order to compel the Public, particularly the delinquent States, to do justice. With many other suggestions of a Similar Nature; from whence, and a variety of other considerations it is generally believed the Scheme was not only planned, but also digested and matured in Philadelphia; and that some people have been playing a double game; spreading at the Camp and in Philadelphia Reports and raising jealousies equally void of Foundation until called into being by their vile Artifices; for as soon as the Minds of the Army were thought to be prepared for the transaction, anonymous invitations were circulated, requesting a general Meeting of the Officers next day; at the same instant many Copies of the Address to the Officers of the Army was scattered in every State line of it."

Washington acted quickly and sent out his General Orders the next day, calling for a meeting of the officers on March 15, where they might "devise what further measures ought to be adopted, as most rational, and best calculated to attain the object in view." As he wrote to Jones, "It is commonly supposed, if the Officers had met agreeable to the anonymous Summons, resolutions might have been formed, the consequences of which may be more easily conceived than expressed. Now, they will have leisure to view the matter more calmly and seriously."

In the days leading up to the meeting, General Washington met privately with most of the leading officers, impressing them with the fact that if the Army were to dictate policy to the government on the point of a bayonet, such a desperate measure would lead, as he wrote Alexander Hamilton, to "civil commotions and end in blood." Washington also warned Hamilton, "in strict confidence," that there was a secret scheme to make the officers of the Army "puppets to establish continental funds."

Washington, Hamilton and many others favored the establishment of a stronger central government, with the power to tax in order to pay current expenses and to honor loans and other debts. Part of those debts were in the form of certificates which Washington, for lack of funds, had been forced to give in exchange for food and supplies for the Army. Many of the recipients were poor, and had sold their certificates to speculators at a fraction of their value in order to raise some cash. Some of these speculators planned to use the Army's muscle as a front, in order to cash in their certificates. As much as he favored the development of a national treasury, Washington could not agree that the end justified the means.

Call to Action

When the time came for the officers to meet, Washington spoke about the consequences of what had been suggested in the anonymous letters, and then ended by saying:

"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, and as you regard the Military and National character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our Country, and who wickedly attempts to open the flood Gates of Civil discord, and deluge our rising Empire in Blood. By thus determining and thus acting, you will pursue the plain and direct road to the attainment of your wishes, You will defeat the insidious designs of our Enemies, who are compelled to resort from open force to secret Artifice. You will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings; And 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 had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.'"

After Washington left the meeting, Gen. Henry Knox and Gen. Israel Putnam proposed, and the assembled officers passed, an address to Congress which stated that they "view with abhorrence and reject with disdain the infamous propositions" contained in the anonymous Newburgh letters.


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.