The Newburgh incident of 1783 was nothing more than a conspiracy, a series of rumours and verbal proposals, so very little is known about it. Nevertheless it reveals some of the dissatisfactions and fractures in the new society, particularly tensions between the army and the civilian political leadership. Though nothing came of the talk at Newburgh, it was a potential turning-point where the revolution could have stumbled from a bold republican experiment into military dictatorship. America could well have ended up with a Napoleon rather than a Washington; peace might have given way to civil war; or the monarchy could have been restored. Instead, order was calmly restored and the goals of the revolution reaffirmed, apparently because of a fatherly talk by Washington himself.
The affair derives its name from Newburgh, New York, where several regiments of the Continental Army were camped in the last weeks of the Revolutionary War. Hostilities with Britain were now over but a formal peace treaty was not yet signed. This moment of pause and relaxation gave the officers, several of them long-serving, a chance to reflect on and discuss their war service, as well as the support they had received – or not received – from the Continental Congress. Prior to the enactment of the Articles of Confederation the Congress had, in a desperate attempt to retain its commissioned officers in service, promised all serving officers a lifetime pension at half-pay. This measure was strongly criticised in some state assemblies and there were strong doubts about whether Congress would or could fulfill this promise. After all, payment of officers’ salary had become increasingly sporadic in 1781-2; some officers had not seen or heard of a payroll for months. In November 1782 a clique of officers, lead by Major-General Henry Knox, drafted a petition to Congress which read in part: “…we have borne all that men can bear, our property is expended, our private resources are at an end, and our friends are wearied out and disgusted with our incessant applications… Any further experiments on our patience may have fatal effects”.
Peter Karsten, historian
It was a clear threat of mutiny. The Continental Army had known mutinies before, particularly in the Pennsylvania and New Jersey regiments during 1781-2; however this was amongst high-ranking officers with influence over hundreds of men. If it escalated it could lead to an assault on the Congress itself. The officers’ petition found support from some individuals in the Congress, chiefly those nationalists who had long advocated a strong central government with the authority to tax. They saw this incident as a prime example of how the Confederation Congress was failing and were prepared to ‘use’ the officers’ plight – even at risk of a military coup – to expand the power of Congress relative to the states. As tensions increased, a meeting was scheduled with the officers, where Washington made a surprise appearance. He spoke to those present about the perilous economic state of the nation, the need to uphold civilian political authority, and the virtue of loyalty. With a sense of theatre he also took out his eye-glasses, 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.” Legend has it that the disgruntled officers were won over by Washington’s words and his visible self-sacrifice. The Newburgh conspiracy effectively ended in that room, although the issue of back-pay and pensions was not resolved for several years.