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Washington at Newburgh

By: William Calhoun
March 15, 2005

Originally published March 15, 2005.

The inside cover of the U.S. Army's Field Manual-1 addresses the role of the military in a democracy by recalling the story of George Washington's speech at Newburgh, New York. After its victory at Yorktown in 1781, the Continental Army moved into quarters near Newburgh to await a final peace settlement. 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 several years. Many officers feared that Congress would simply disband the army and default on its promises. As the FM-1 notes, "by the winter of 1782-83, tension within the Army's formations had reached a dangerous level. The future of the republic was in doubt."

Unsigned papers began circulating throughout the army's restless camp. One paper ignored General Washington's authority by calling a mass meeting of officers. Another fiery appeal stated that the author had lost faith "in the justice of his country." A group of officers sought to compel Congress to settle its debts through veiled threats of armed action. They attempted to enlist their victorious commander-in-chief to support their plot, but he refused every appeal, and the mutinous officers began to make signs of taking action without him. On March 15, 1783, Washington entered the officers' assembly and warned them of the momentous danger inherent in their plot. He 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. Jones had recently written to Washington of the huge fiscal problems Congress had to solve before they could justly discharge the claims of the army.

The officers were surprised to see Washington momentarily fumble with spectacles he had received only the month before. None of them had seen their general and hero in his eyeglasses, and he seemed to age before them. But his off-hand comment, made to put them at ease, confirmed again the personal character that had sustained the Revolution. "Gentlemen, you must pardon me, I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind." The assembled officers were caught off guard emotionally. As Richard Kohn wrote in his book on the creation of the American military establishment, Eagle and Sword, years of frustration, recent rumor and conspiracy, and "then the unbearable strain of confronting their beloved commander seemed to hang suspended in that one moment." In his remarks, Washington had "stood them at the abyss, forced them to face the implications of rash action—civil war, treason, and the undoing of eight years' effort." Kohn concludes that "the contrast with this simple gesture, an act that blended Washington's charismatic influence with the deepest symbolic patriotism, was overpowering." The stress, the majestic bearing of the commander-in-chief, his appeal to duty, and then the very human act of their 51-year-old leader now worn by years of war destroyed the cabal and quelled the incipient rebellion. Some officers openly wept.

Washington biographer James Thomas Flexner has dramatically referred to this meeting at Newburgh as "probably the single most important gathering ever held in the United States." Kohn has noted that the Newburgh conspiracy was the closest an American army has ever come to revolt or coup d'etat, and it exposed the fragility of civil-military relations at the beginning of the republic. Had the army cast off civilian control at the critical moment of the nation's birth, a national military establishment as we know it today might have been impossible for generations afterward. 

The army's Field Manual-1 further observes that 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. All of our military services are heir to that legacy.

Washington's greatest biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, has noted that the most important triumph of Washington as an administrator was in his relations with Congress. His own long experience as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and as a member of Congress had served him well. He understood how legislative bodies worked and he had developed an unshakeable regard for civil authority. His practice in dealing with Congress does not appear to be calculated. It reflected his innate respect for the institution, his desire to avoid blame or mistakes from withholding information, his resolution to do his utmost for the American cause, and his memory of what he personally had needed as a legislator to decide important issues.

Freeman cites Washington's five rules for relations with Congress:

  1. Congress must receive prompt, concise reports on all questions that do not involve military secrets of immediate bearing.
  2. In these reports and in everything else, the authority of Congress is always to be acknowledged with proper deference, and the Army must be represented as consistently subordinate to the civil arm of continental government.
  3. Concerning matters that could not be discussed in papers transmitted officially to Congress, it is desirable to write personally to friendly delegates who would use their discretion in passing these letters to other members.
  4. Congress must have repeated and indisputable assurance that its orders would be obeyed promptly and economically if this were possible; and, if not, members are to be told why delay or change seemed necessary.
  5. There is to be no public criticism of Congress by Washington and no imputation of unworthy motive. On the contrary, delegates always are to be credited with seeking the country's welfare and that only.

 

These rules worked very well. While a general, Washington was never involved in any serious misunderstanding with Congress, and he never lacked the support and confidence of a majority of its members. The marvel is that, in demanding the impossible, Congress nearly got it in George Washington. His great dedication and deference to civil authority was a natural extension of his extraordinary character. His words at Newburgh echoed these qualities.

* * *

If Washington was, in Flexner's phrase, the "indispensable man" of the American Revolution, the Constitutional Convention, and the first decade of the American republic, he was so because of his character. His virtues and the trust he inspired in his contemporaries were the adhesive that held everything together. He was a man of the 18th century who strove to live his life in accordance with classical virtues, especially the Roman virtues of honor, republicanism, and duty. He had grown into a prudent and trusted decision-maker, combining caution, audacity, and humility in impossible proportions. In Jefferson's words, "never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed. His integrity was pure.... On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent."

Washington also led by his example of dedication and courage. His physical bravery was simply beyond dispute. He did not accept any pay for his services (only his expenses, which he meticulously kept), and he served for eight-and-a-half years, visiting Mount Vernon for only three days and leaving his army at all for only a few scant days more during the entire war. He understood he had become the army, and the army was the Revolution. And throughout the long and arduous conflict, he built trust by insisting on deference to the Congress while respecting the prerogatives of the separate states and the property rights of private citizens. 

During the war he never wrote in terms of sanguinary bombast, but expressed a desire to protect as much as possible "the essential interests of any individual." As Flexner has observed, Washington was never truly a military man, and remained to the end of the war a civilian serving half-reluctantly in uniform. One of the most well known likenesses of Washington, the life size marble statute by French master sculptor Houdon, depicts his subject in the word of Garry Wills, in "midtransformation" from general to planter, wearing his uniform but not his cloak, and holding a walking stick instead of a sword. In Flexner's view, the unreconstructed civilian was "less afraid of military defeat than of doubt and disunity within the patriot cause." This is an overlooked insight into the character of Washington as well as into the civil-military legacy he left our country. 

Washington's resoluteness, patience, and leadership during the Revolution ultimately made possible the American victory. And after the victory was won, in another momentous contribution to the tradition of civilian control of the military, he resigned from power. He received word in early November 1783 that the treaty in Paris had finally been signed. He said farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York on December 4th, the same day the last British troop transports there "weighed and came to sail" to depart America. He returned the commission that had been given to him by Congress in June 1775 to the assembled Congress in Annapolis on December 23rd. His rested horses were groomed and waiting at the door while he formally retired "from the great theatre of action." For the first time in eight years, he would be at Mount Vernon for Christmas. Unlike Cromwell and Napoleon (or later, Stalin and Castro), he gave up his sword and returned home like Cincinnatus, the ancient Roman who was called from his plow to rescue the republic and then returned to his fields after the danger had passed. Indeed, Washington longed to return to his "own vine and fig tree" at Mount Vernon, but he was not able to do so for several more years. He did not decline when duty summoned again.

It is also important to note that Washington was a man of deeds. His family motto was Exitus acta probat, "the end proves action." As Marcus Cunliffe has written, you can sense this in the thousands of pages of his wartime correspondence, where he hammered away "in plain, workmanlike prose, neither witty nor pompous, neither blustering nor apologetic," until he finds a way to pursue the goal he always kept in view—victory. He saw the quest steadily and he saw it whole; he occupied himself doggedly with the present, and his very literalness brought actuality to American independence.

Washington also did what he was asked to do while displaying the great good sense, or prudence. Prudence is not often viewed today as a spectacular quality of character, but when combined with Washington's elemental decency and humanness it has left us a worthy legacy. Our country and our military services owe a great deal to our first commander-in-chief, a great-souled patriot who gave us the solid foundations of democratic civil-military relations in America. The touchstone for Washington and for the concluding words he used at Newburgh was indeed patriotism and virtue.

In the end, the Newburgh affair was significant for what did not happen. As Richard Kohn has observed, no tradition was broken, and no event of military intervention with civil authorities would haunt future American political and military life. The disbanding of the Continental Army without incident assured this for the foreseeable future. If America did stand at the crossroads in 1783, perhaps contemporaries understood the issue more clearly than we view it today. To them, the shape of the country's political institutions and even whether the disparate sections could function and live together in union was uncertain. There was nothing inevitable about the outcome.

Thomas Jefferson surely described the general feeling of his countrymen concerning Washington's ultimate role when he wrote: "The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that Liberty it was intended to establish." Ever the realist, linking beliefs to deeds, Washington while at Newburgh had written in his "Circular to the States" that: "At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be intirely their own." The first commander-in-chief had done all he could.