George Washington Personified Courage, Poise
George Washington's birthday deserves celebrating for a reason few
Americans appreciate: at the end of the Revolutionary War, the future
president prevented a military revolt that would have undermined the new
republic. By early 1783, the fighting had ended, and the victorious
Continental Army, headquartered at Newburgh, N.Y., was waiting
impatiently for American and British negotiators in Paris to complete
the peace treaty.
Amid a brutal winter, the 11,000 soldiers were
weary and restless, eager to collect their back pay and go home to renew
their civilian lives. Congress, however, was unwilling to disband the
army until a peace treaty was signed and the last British troops had
left New York .
What threatened to ignite the combustible
situation was the fact that the hamstrung Congress could not pay the
army. It had no taxing authority; it depended upon the individual states
for its revenue. And the states were not rushing to fill the national
Some soldiers were owed as much as six years of back
pay. Officers were especially angry. In 1780 the Continental Congress
had promised them lifetime pensions at half pay if they would serve out
the war. Three years later those pledges seemed bankrupt. It did not
help matters when some state officials called for the cash-strapped
Congress simply to disband the national army and renege on its pledges
to the troops.
In early 1783 a group of hotheaded American
officers led by Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates hatched a plot to oust George
Washington as commander in chief and take control of the impotent
Congress and the new nation. Gates nursed a festering grudge against
Washington , and he seized the chance to embarrass his rival.
March, Gates and his lieutenants circulated a message inviting all
officers to a secret meeting to plan a rebellion. "If the present moment
be lost," the circular said, "your threats hereafter will be as empty
as your entreaties now."
On the morning of March 15, 500 officers
crowded into a large meeting hall in Newburgh . The air was electric
with the energy of intrigue and resentment. As Gen. Gates called for
quiet and began speaking to the mutinous group, George Washington walked
on stage. Gates had no choice but to defer.
The commander in
chief told the hostile audience that the effort to intimidate the
government by threatening a coup violated the very purposes for which
the war was fought and directly challenged his own integrity. While
agreeing that the officers had been poorly treated by the government and
deserved their long overdue back pay and future pensions, he expressed
his "horror and detestation" of any effort by the military to assume
dictatorial powers. He told the officers that they should do nothing to
"lessen the dignity and sully the glory" of what they had accomplished
on the battlefield. A military revolt would open "the flood-gates of
civil discord" and "deluge our rising empire in blood."
closed his heartfelt remarks by reading a letter from a congressman
explaining the new nation's financial plight. Before reading it, he
dramatically paused to don a pair of glasses. "Gentlemen," he
apologized, "you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not
only grown gray but blind in the service of my country."
It was a
virtuoso performance by the venerable commander. Maj. Samuel Shaw
recorded in his journal the emotional reaction to Washington 's speech:
"There was something so natural, so unaffected in this appeal as he
rendered it superior to the most studied oratory. It forced its way to
the heart, and you might see sensibility moisten every eye."
sooner had Washington finished his speech than he folded the letter,
removed his spectacles, and left the hall. His supporters immediately
proposed resolutions renewing their loyalty to Washington and the
Congress. The mutiny disintegrated. Soon thereafter, Congress fashioned a
new plan to pay the army, and the crisis was averted.
defusing the rebellion while coaxing Congress to find a solution, George
Washington demonstrated that the new nation would be a republic of
laws. He also displayed the poise and courage that would define his
presidency. For this, and for so much more, we remember and celebrate
the first commander in chief.