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Newburgh “conspiracy”

Newburgh “conspiracy” (1783).Following victory at the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781, George Washington's army returned to the Hudson Highlands to stand watch over the British garrison at New York City, forty‐five miles downriver. The Revolutionary War now entered a new phase in which the army seemed to Congress to absorb scarce money and supplies for no immediate purpose. Moreover, some Americans worried that an idle standing army might overthrow civilian control and sought to keep it under tight supervision. Increasingly marginalized, the army's officers brooded about their lack of pay, food, clothing, pensions, and respect from the public.

The crisis in civil‐military relations came in early March 1783 when an anonymous address circulated at army headquarters at Newburgh, eight miles north of West Point, threatening that the army would not disband at the end of the war if its financial demands were not met or that it would refuse to fight if the war continued. The address called for a meeting of officers on 11 March; Washington, who knew the officers' concerns were legitimate but who also understood the need to maintain order and discipline, issued his own call for a meeting for 15 March, transforming an irregular proceeding into an official airing of grievances.

At that meeting, Washington entreated his officers not to “lessen the dignity and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained” and produced a letter from a Virginia congressman that attempted to explain Congress's problems in meeting the army's financial demands. Beginning to read, he stumbled over the tightly written words, and drawing out his eyeglasses, reportedly “begged the indulgence of his audience,” observing that “he had grown gray in their service, and now found himself growing blind.” No other words could have reminded the officers so effectively that, if anyone had a right to be frustrated with Congress, it was Washington. If he was willing to trust Congress's goodwill, so should they. The so‐called conspiracy collapsed immediately.

There is reason to doubt the seriousness of the officers' threat to civilian control of the military. While they had cause to complain about a dilatory and pusillanimous Congress, they were members of the same society, with no real prospects but a return to their homes and former employments when the war ended. There is, however, no reason to doubt the power of Washington's leadership. At Newburgh, he reasserted the principle that Congress controls the army, the cornerstone of the American military tradition.
[See also Civil‐Military Relations: Civilian Control of the Military; Continental Army; Revolutionary War: Military and Diplomatic Course.]

Bibliography

Richard H. Kohn , The Inside History of the Newburgh Conspiracy, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., vol. 27 (April 1970), pp. 187–220.
Paul D. Nelson , Horatio Gates at Newburgh, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., vol. 29 (January 1972), pp. 143–58.

Harold E. Selesky

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