The Last Crisis of the American Revolution

by: Donald Norman Moran

After our decisive victory over the British at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, the Army returned to the Hudson Highlands and established winter quarters at New Windsor, near Newburgh, New York.

7,000 soldiers accompanied by 500 women and children populated the encampment. The troops erected 600 huts. A large building was also erected, called the "Temple of Virture." It was used as a chapel, and served as an indoor place to hold celebrations and special meetings. The historic significance of the "Temple" is often just a footnote in a reference book. But, in 1783, a meeting held in the "Temple" could have cost America her recently gained independence and provided an occasion to prove the greatness that was George Washington's.

It is also the site where the Society of the Cincinnati was organized, and a large obelisk stands a few feet from the "Temple" commemorating that event, with an appropriate dedication plaque affixed to it, placed by the Cincinnati.

The Newburgh Conspiracy

In 1783, word was received from Minister Benjamin Franklin that he and the other negotiators in Paris had achieved a favorable treaty of peace with England. This treaty granted full independence to the United States, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River. The treaty would be submitted to Congress for ratification when France and England finalized their portion of it. This news caused understandable rejoicing, but the celebration was short lived.

Realizing the war was all but over, the officers of the Continental Army became even more intolerant of Congress then they had been in the past. Congress had not paid the officers in years! The promise of "half-pay for life" was being reneged on, and now that they, the officers, were no longer needed, there seemed little prospect of recovering what they were owed.

A delegation of officers led by Major General Alexander McDougall was sent to Philadelphia. They met on January 13th, 1783, with Congressmen James Madison (future President of the United States) and Alexander Hamilton (who left the Army after the Battle of Yorktown) and others. Both Madison and Hamilton were alarmed at the threats being made against Congress. Hamilton decided he had better notify General Washington that in his opinion the situation was about to explode.

George Washington was not an alarmist, but it appears that he did not realize the depth of the anger of the Officers or what was taking place at New Windsor. As the seriousness of the situation unraveled, Washington wrote Hamilton:

Headquarters, Newburgh,
March 12, 1783.
Dear Sir:

When I wrote to you last we were in a state of tranquility, but after the arrival of a certain Gentleman, who shall be nameless at present, from Philadelphia, a Storm very suddenly arose with unfavorable prognostic; which tho' diverted for a moment, is not yet blown over, nor is it in my power to point to the issue.

The Papers which I send officially to Congress, will supercede the necessity of my remarking on the tendency of them. The notification and Address, both appeared at the same instant on the day proceeding the intended meeting. The first of these, I got hold of the same afternoon; the other, not till next Morning.

There is something very mysterious in this business. It appears, reports have been propagated in Philadelphia, that dangerous combinations were forming in the Army. From this, and a variety of considerations, it is firmly believed by some, the scheme was not only planned, but also digested and matured in Philadelphia; but my opinion shall be suspended till I have better ground to found one on. The matter was managed with great Art; for as soon as the Minds of the Officers . . .

. . . . Let me beseech you therefore, my good Sir, to urge this matter earnestly and without further delay. The Situation of these Gentleman I do verily believe is distressing beyond description. It is affirmed to me, that a large part of them have no other prospect before them than a Goal1, if they are turned loose without a liquidation of Accts. and an assurance
of that justice to which they are so worthily entitled. . . . . . . .
. . . . G. Washington

Hamilton sent an urgent letter to General Washington advising him of the growing situation in Philadelphia with the officer's delegation, and it arrived just in time. The plan to redress their grievances had become a conspiracy. The delegation in Philadelphia and some of the Officers in New Windsor were organizing it.

Major John Armstrong, Aide-de-Camp to Major General Horatio Gates, General Washington's long time enemy, wrote Gates: "If the Army had someone like Mad Anthony Wayne at their head, instead of Washington, I know not where they would stop . . . . especially if they could be taught to think like politicians. Gates and his followers distributed "addresses" in the encampment, urging the Army not to disband until they received "justice"

Having been forewarned, General Washington was able to react with decisiveness. On March 13th, 1783, General Washington ordered a formal meeting of all Officers at the "Temple." Washington solemnly addressed the Officers of the Line.

As any prudent man would do on such an important occasion, Washington set his thoughts to paper2, then asked his fellow officers if they would allow him to read his message3.

The anonymous "address", he said, was finely written, but was 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 inevitably flow from such belief. For venturing to put this unsparing interpretation on the paper, Washington gave as his warrant his long army service, which he sketched proudly; and he went on to assert that the alternatives proposed by the anonymous agitator were to leave the country defenseless and to go into the wilderness, perhaps to perish, or else to turn the arms of the aggrieved officers against their own government. He denounced the courses and their advocates and then voiced the assurance he he had resolved to give: " . . . in the attainment of complete justice for all your toils and 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." He then proceeded: " . . . 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 and 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. . ."

There followed two or three minutes more of explanation in the same spirit that led to a fine climax. ". . . you will, by the dignity of your conduct, afford occasion for posterity4to 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."

Washington was not certain that he had convinced his fellow Officers of the dangers of pursuing the course of action they wanted to take. To finalize his efforts, he had brought with him a letter written by Congressman Joseph Jones. He pulled the letter from his pocket, but found that the print was too small for him to read. He then reached back into his pocket and withdrew his new spectacles. As he fumbled to put them on he said: "you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service, and now find myself growing blind." That emotional statement drew tears in the eyes of the men who had followed him in eight years of war.5

When Washington left the "Temple" the Officers not only voted to leave the matter of their grievances up to General Washington, but voted him their thanks.

Washington had faced many crises in his career as Commander-in-Chief, but he was never alone. He always had the support of the Army and his many friends. But, on this occasion, he stood alone, very much alone, against his own army. His brief speech and certainly the very presence of the great man himself carried the day.

The General then wrote a long report to the Continental Congress. In his
cover letter, it is obvious that he was very proud that his Officers had completely rejected the conspiracy. He wrote:

"Headquarters, Newburgh
16 March 1783


The result of the proceedings of the grand Convention of the Officers, which I have the honor of enclosing to your Excellency for the inspection of Congress, will, I flatter myself, be considered as the last glorious proof of Patriotism which could have been given by Men who aspired to the distinction of a Patriot Army; and will not only confirm their claim to the justice, but will increase their title to the gratitude of their Country . . .

With great respect, etc.
George Washington"

Washington's report reached the Continental Congress just in time. The Congress was about ready to declare war on the Officers! James Madison wrote in his personal journal, ". . . the dispatch dispelled the cloud which seemed to have been gathering."

What would have happened if Washington had failed to dissuade the Officers from their march on the Continental Congress?

First and foremost, Congress was bankrupt and totally without any financial credit. They were simply powerless to pay off the Army or make good any of their promises. The larger States, such as Massachusetts and Virginia, would certainly have rejected any threats from the Continental Army, relying on their large Militias to protect their sovereignty - leading to a civil war? The smaller States would have found themselves at the mercy of the marauding Continentals. In particular, New York and New Jersey, with sizable populations of loyalists, and still in New York City and its harbor was a large force of the British Army and the ships of the Royal Navy. Out of desperation, would they have agreed to an alliance with the British for self-protection?

How would England react to such a turn of events? In all probability, they would have taken advantage of the developments, ignored the already signed treaty of peace, and started a new campaign of reconquering their former colonies.

The many possibilities of what would have happened are pure historical conjecture. However, it is clear that George Washington, and George Washington alone, prevented what would have been catastrophic to the fledgling United States of America.


1 Gaol - an 18th century word meaning Jail - - Washington is implying that many of the Officers would end up in Debtors Prison without their back pay.

2 This writer has been unable to locate a copy of Washington's original address. It is not in the collections at the Library of Congress nor the University of Virginia, the two largest collections of Washington's papers.

3 On March 16th, 1783, J.A. Wright wrote to John Webb and advised of Washington reading his message.

4 Washington1s remark: ". . . afford occasion for posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to mankind . . ." is most interesting - how much of what he did was with an eye on history's opinion of him.

5 Captain Samuel Shaw, 1754-1794 - Massachusetts Continental Line, wrote a letter in April, 1783 (no day shown) in which he detailed the General's speech. Obviously, parts of it would have been paraphrased, but it is the best account of said speech available.

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