At the close of the Revolutionary War in America, a perilous moment
in the life of the fledgling American democracy occurred as officers of
the Continental Army met in Newburgh, New York, to discuss grievances and
consider a possible insurrection against the rule of Congress.
They were angry over the failure of Congress to honor its promises to
the army regarding salary, bounties and life pensions. The officers had
heard from Philadelphia that the American government was going broke and
that they might not be compensated at all.
On March 10, 1783, an anonymous letter was circulated among the officers
of General Washington's main camp at Newburgh. It addressed those complaints
and called for an unauthorized meeting of officers to be held the next
day to consider possible military solutions to the problems of the civilian
government and its financial woes.
General Washington stopped that meeting from happening by forbidding
the officers to meet at the unauthorized meeting. Instead, he suggested
they meet a few days later, on March 15th, at the regular meeting of his
Meanwhile, another anonymous letter was circulated, this time suggesting
Washington himself was sympathetic to the claims of the malcontent officers.
And so on March 15, 1783, Washington's officers gathered in a church
building in Newburgh, effectively holding the fate of democracy in America
in their hands.
Unexpectedly, General Washington himself showed up. He was not entirely
welcomed by his men, but nevertheless, personally addressed them...
By an anonymous summons, an attempt has been made to convene you together;
how inconsistent with the rules of propriety, how unmilitary, and how subversive
of all order and discipline, let the good sense of the army decide...
Thus much, gentlemen, I have thought it incumbent on me to observe
to you, to show upon what principles I opposed the irregular and hasty
meeting which was proposed to have been held on Tuesday last - and not
because I wanted a disposition to give you every opportunity consistent
with your own honor, and the dignity of the army, to make known your grievances.
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 would be equally
unavailing and 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
and witness of your distresses, and not among the last to feel and acknowledge
your merits. As I have ever considered my own military reputation as inseparably
connected with that of the army. As my heart has ever expanded with 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 separation, are
we to take the two first (the latter cannot be removed) to perish in a
wilderness, with hunger, cold, and nakedness? If peace takes place, never
sheathe your swords, says he, until 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 arms against it (which is the apparent
object, unless Congress can be compelled into 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 and separation between
the civil and military powers of the continent? And what a compliment does
he pay to our understandings when he recommends measures in either alternative,
impracticable in their nature?
I cannot, in justice to my own belief, and what I have great reason
to conceive is the intention of Congress, conclude this address, without
giving it as my decided opinion, that that honorable body entertain exalted
sentiments of the services of the army; and, from a full conviction of
its merits and sufferings, will do it complete justice. That their endeavors
to discover and 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 through all Europe, for its
fortitude and patriotism? And for what is this done? To bring the object
we seek nearer? No! most certainly, in my opinion, it will cast it at a
For myself (and I take no merit in giving the assurance, being induced
to it from principles of gratitude, veracity, and justice), a grateful
sense of the confidence you have ever placed in me, a recollection of the
cheerful assistance and prompt obedience I have experienced from you, under
every vicissitude 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 and solemn manner, that, 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.
While I give you these assurances, and pledge myself in the most
unequivocal manner to exert whatever ability I am possessed 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 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; that, previous to your dissolution
as an army, they will cause all your accounts to be fairly liquidated,
as directed in their resolutions, which were published to you two days
ago, and that they will adopt the most effectual measures in their power
to render ample justice to you, for your faithful and meritorious services.
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
pretenses, to overturn the liberties of our country, and who wickedly attempts
to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in
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
George Washington - March 15, 1783
Postnote: This speech was not very well received by his men. Washington then took
out a letter from a member of Congress explaining the financial difficulties
of the government.
After reading a portion of the letter with his eyes squinting at the
small writing, Washington suddenly stopped. His officers stared at him,
wondering. Washington then reached into his coat pocket and took out a
pair of reading glasses. Few of them knew he wore glasses, and were surprised.
"Gentlemen," said Washington, "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."
In that moment of utter vulnerability, Washington's men were deeply
moved, even shamed, and many were quickly in tears, now looking with great
affection at this aging man who had led them through so much. Washington
read the remainder of the letter, then left without saying another word,
realizing their sentiments.
His officers then cast a unanimous vote, essentially agreeing to the
rule of Congress. Thus, the civilian government was preserved and the young
experiment of democracy in America continued.