Americana Corner: The Newburgh Conspiracy
We take civilian control of the military for granted today in America. However, without the actions and words of General George Washington in the so-called Newburgh Conspiracy, things might be a little different.
In the winter of 1782, the Continental Army had been fighting for over seven years. Since Lord Cornwallis’ defeat at Yorktown about a year earlier, on October 19, 1781, there had been no major battles with the British. However, the peace negotiations were not yet complete and therefore Congress had not dissolved the military.
As a result, the soldiers were simply stationed near Newburgh, New York, just upstream of the Hudson River from West Point Stronghold. From there, they could keep an eye on the British forces still occupying New York. The men had a lot of free time to think about what life would be like after the military, especially from a financial perspective. Seen by the soldiers, it was not a rosy picture, and they were not happy.
Even General Washington saw it. In a private letter to his friend Congressman Joseph Jones of Virginia dated December 12, 1782, Washington said: “The mood in the Army is very sour and has become more irritable than at any time since the start of the war. the war. He added: “If their dissatisfaction (of the officers) were to increase to the same level, I don’t know what the consequences might be. “
The Confederation Congress adopted a resolution in 1780, when the outcome of the war was in great question, which promised Continental Army officers a lifetime pension of half of their pay when they left service. . However, we must remember that the nation operated under the Articles of Confederation, a system that greatly favored the rights of individual states over those of the central government.
Under the provisions of the articles, Congress could not impose any taxes or collect income on its own. While it could pass legislation to fund military and officer pensions, the money had to come from states and no state could be forced to comply with these guidelines.
In other words, Congress could make promises, but it was up to the states to deliver the goods. In addition, any amendment to change this system required the unanimous consent of states. Therefore, only one of the thirteen could prevent changes to the articles.
As the peace talks progressed and the need for the military diminished, Congress and states began to flout their promise to provide pensions. The nation’s treasury was empty and the Confederation Congress was powerless to do anything about it. Things got so bad that financier Robert Morris, the US superintendent of finances, cut all payments to soldiers in 1782. He said the lost wages would be made up once the war was officially over.
In November 1782, Congress attempted to pass an amendment allowing the central government to enact an import tariff to raise funds to finance pensions. However, states refused to ratify this measure. Some states have gone so far as to pass legislation prohibiting its delegates from approving money for any type of pension.
Suddenly, a “nationalist” contingent (Robert Morris, Governor Morris, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton) which supported the tax measure saw an opportunity. These men had been frustrated by the inability of the central government since its inception to raise revenue on its own. They feared that this deficiency would paralyze the young nation financially and lead to its demise.
This group believed they could manipulate the military’s growing discontent with the nation’s civilian rulers to pressure states to grant the Confederation Congress the power to raise their own revenues. It was a dangerous game called mutiny and it had potentially serious consequences, but they seemed ready to play it.
In December, a group of officers led by General Henry Knox sent a note to Congress complaining that their pay had been in arrears for several months and that their long-promised lifetime pension was now in doubt. The letter proposed a compromise in which officers would accept a lump sum payment instead of perpetual annual grants. He also warned of the growing discontent among the men.
Knox’s message was delivered to Congress by a contingent of high-ranking officers led by General Alexander McDougall. The Nationalists quickly met McDougall and told him of their plan to manipulate states into accepting their tax plan by suggesting that the military could revolt if his demands were not met.
Hamilton and the others knew they needed an influential commander to lead their efforts to sow discord within the military. However, everyone knew that General Washington was too conscientious and devoted to duty to support their plan. They thought General Knox might be their man, but they were wrong.
Washington’s artillery chief made it clear that he didn’t want anything to do with their intrigues. When McDougall asked Knox to support their efforts, Knox wrote, “I consider the reputation of the US military to be one of the most immaculate things on earth. We should even suffer harm and injury to the highest degree of tolerance rather than sullying it to the slightest degree. The conspirators should look elsewhere, and we’ll talk about that in Part 2.
Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae”, love of the fatherland guides me.
Tom Hand is a Ford resident and West Point alumnus. You can reach him at tom @ americanacorner. com or check out his website at americanacorner. com.