The Newburgh Conspiracy

June 21, 2011

General Washington Averts a Mutiny at Newburgh

George WashingtonThroughout history, war has been the great destroyer of free government. It seems always to have been the case that the necessities, accidents, and passions of war undermine liberty. The forces that contributed to the collapse of free government among the ancient Greeks were first catalogued by Thucydides in his history of the Peloponnesian war. They have remained the same since then.

The United States, in contrast, has remained free while fighting numerous wars during the Republic’s 200 plus years. The American military has successfully defended the Republic on the battlefield while avoiding threats to civilian control. It could have been otherwise. Had it not been for the actions of George Washington in defusing a near mutiny on the part of aggrieved officers of the Continental Army at Newburgh, New York, a free Republic defended by a military establishment that willingly subordinates itself to civilian authority might well have been stillborn.

Washington faced a volatile situation during the winter of 1782-83. With no war to unify them, the states had begun defaulting on their commitments of support to the weak national government while corrupt war suppliers drained the treasury. The Continental Congress could not raise the funds to provide pay or pensions to the soldiers who had fought the war, some of whom had not been paid in years. Many officers feared that Congress would simply disband the army and default on its promises. Tensions within the army had reached a dangerous level. The future of the republic was in doubt.

Unsigned papers began circulating throughout the Newburgh cantonment, one ignoring General Washington’s authority by calling a mass meeting of officers, another stating that the author had lost faith “in the justice of his country” and calling for a general meeting intended to compel Congress to settle its debts through veiled threats of armed action.

On March 15, 1783, Washington surprised the assembled officers by appearing at the unauthorized meeting and requesting permission to address it. The speech he delivered seemed to be having little effect until he retrieved a pair of spectacles from his pocket to read a letter from Virginia congressman Joseph Jones. Momentarily fumbling with spectacles, he remarked “Gentlemen, you must pardon me; I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.” None of them had seen their general in eyeglasses and his off-hand comment confirmed again the personal character that had sustained the Revolution. The assembled officers were caught off guard emotionally. In the words of the eminent historian Richard Kohn, this act, blending Washington’s charismatic influence with the deepest symbolic patriotism, was overpowering. Many officers wept openly. The challenge to civilian control was averted.

Washington’s willing subordination of himself and the army he commanded to civilian authority established the essential tenet of that service’s professional ethos. His extraordinary understanding of the fundamental importance of civil preeminence allowed a professional military force to begin to flourish in a democratic society and established the fundamental principle that undergirds US civil-military relations.

Mackubin T. Owens, Professor of National Security Affairs, U.S. Naval War College

Read the documents:

George Washington to Joseph Jones, December 14, 1782:

George Washington to the President of Congress, March 12, 1783:

Washington’s Speech to the Officers of the Army at Newburgh, March 15, 1783:

George Washington to the President of Congress, March 18, 1783:

The Newburgh Address, John Armstrong, March 1783:

Master of American History and Government at Ashland University

Ashland University’s Master of American History and Government program is designed with high school teachers in mind. Courses are offered only during the summers, and you may earn the degree in as few as three summers of intensive coursework. You may also attend specific courses for continuing education graduate credit. Uniquely, the program engages in the substantive study of history and government, with no courses limited to teaching methodology. All courses emphasize the use of primary historical documents. Learn more about the program.

A Sample Core Course in the MAHG program: The American Revolution

A core course in the masters curriculum, this seminar begins with the political developments in North America and the British empire that prompted the colonists to seek independence, their arguments for and against the break with Britain, and the ideas expressed in their Declaration of Independence. It covers the Revolutionary War as a military, social and cultural event in the development of the American nation and state. It concludes by assessing the situation of the United States under the Articles of Confederation, providing background for the study of the drafting and ratification of the Constitution (which is the subject of another core course on The Founding). Instructors in the course, which is offered twice this summer, are Mickey Craig of Hillsdale College; Natalie Taylor of Skidmore College; Robert M. S. McDonald of the US Military Academy and Todd Estes of Oakland University.

EDSITEment Features for June 2011

This month, EDSITEment offers a list of recommended summer reading for college-bound students. Based on the College Board’s recommended reading lists, this guide covers government, nonfiction and autobiography, as well as fiction, drama, poetry, mythology and folklore, religion and philosophy. To help students understand the texts, the list includes EDSITEment lesson plans and reviewed websites related to these books. Teachers doing planning this summer for the next academic year will find this a valuable list of resources.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom XTwo lesson plans prepared by the Ashbrook Center are included in these resources: to illuminate the essential writings of Martin Luther King and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, EDSITEment recommends the Teaching unit Competing Voices of the Civil Rights Movement, with its lessons: “Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nonviolent Resistance” and “Black Separatism or the Beloved Community? Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Another resource recommended for summer readers is the special web exhibit on the Ratification of the Constitution, which among other things supplies the context for a classic text of American government, The Federalist. The Ratification website offers an overview of the essays written by Madison, Hamilton and Jay; an analysis of the design of the complete work; a summary of each Federalist paper, and links to their full texts. You can also find there information on other Federalist authors and on the Antifederalists.

EDSITEment has begun compiling an online library of resources on the states: the U.S. State and Territory Online Encyclopedias. To date, this collection of free, authoritative source information covers the history, politics, geography, and culture of the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Virginia and West Virginia and the territories of Puerto Rico and Guam. Each is updated regularly. New states and territories will be added as they become available.


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