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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Historical: Washington at Newburgh

By William Calhoun

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.
For more see additional details.

Washington's Newburgh Address
March 15, 1783
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.

In the moment of this summons, another anonymous production was sent into circulation, addressed more to the feelings and passions than to the reason and judgment of the army. The author of the piece is entitled to much credit for, the goodness of his pen; and I could wish he had as much credit for the rectitude of his heart; for, as men see through different optics, and are induced by the reflecting faculties of the mind, to use different means to attain the same end, the author of the address should have had more charity than to mark for suspicion the man who should recommend moderation and longer forbearance, or, in other words, who should not think as he thinks, and act as he advises. But he had another plan in view, in which candor and liberality of sentiment, regard to justice and love of country, have no part; and he was right to insinuate the darkest suspicion to effect the blackest design. That the address is drawn with great art, and is designed to answer the most insidious purposes; that it is 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 unavoidably flow from such a belief; that the secret mover of this scheme, whoever he may be, intended to take advantage of the passions, while they were warmed by the recollection of past distresses, without giving time for cool deliberative thinking, and that composure of mind which is so necessary to give dignity and stability to measures, is rendered too obvious, by the mode of conducting the business, to need other proof than a reference to the proceeding.

Thus much, gentlemen, I have thought it incumbent on me to observe to you... 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 sheath your swords," says he "until you have obtained full and ample justice." This dreadful alternative of either deserting our country in the most extreme 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 designing 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? But, here, gentlemen, I will drop the curtain, because it would be as imprudent in me to assign my reasons for this opinion, as it would be insulting to your conception to suppose you stood in need of them. A moment's reflection will convince every dispassionate mind of the physical impossibility of carrying either proposal into execution. There might, gentlemen, be an impropriety in my taking notice, in this address to you, of an anonymous production; but the manner in which that performance has been introduced to the army, the effect it was intended to have, together with some other circumstances, will amply justify my observations on the tendency of that writing.

With respect to the advice given by the author, to suspect the man who shall recommend moderate measures and longer forbearance, I spurn it, as every man who regards that liberty and reveres that justice for which we contend, undoubtedly must; for, if men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences that can invite the consideration of mankind, reason is of no use to us. The freedom of speech may be taken away, and, dumb and silent, we may be led, like sheep, to the slaughter. 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 compleat justice: that their endeavours 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 determinations 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 greater distance. 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 extent 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 pretences, to overturn the liberties of our country; and who wickedly attempts to open the flood-gates of civil discord, and deluge our rising empire in blood.

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 of attaining."

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