Imagine what would happen today if Congress was unable to provide the money to pay the salaries of our military personnel over a period of several years, requiring them to pay for all of their expenses out of their own pockets. What do you think would happen?
That’s exactly what happened during much of the Revolutionary War with Great Britain. The Continental Congress was not authorized to raise revenue to pay the army. Nor did they have the ability to provide much of the needed supplies for the army which just adds to the miracle of the American victory over a well-supplied and paid British army.
After the American victory in 1781, a large contingent of the army was kept ready until an official treaty of peace with the British could be settled and signed. Around 7,000 Americans troops, 500 women and children settled in a military camp near Newburgh, New York. The camp contained 600 huts and a large central building referred to as the Temple of Virtue, which was used for chapel services and other important meetings.
By early 1783, a number of the American officers were growing disgruntled with the Continental Congress for not living up to their promises of payment for service and reimbursement for what the officers and soldiers had paid out for their own food and clothing. Among the promises made by Congress was half pay for the rest of their lives, but as yet the officers had not seen a single payment.
In January, 1873, Major General Alexander McDougall led a delegation of officers who went to Philadelphia where they met with then Congressmen James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. McDougall and the officers not only expressed their grievances to the congressmen but they also shared some not so idle threats towards the Continental Congress.
Hamilton shared his concerns with General of the Army George Washington. He told Washington that he believed the situation could erupt into revolt or overthrow of Congress if not dealt with soon. Washington was not known for being an alarmist so he didn’t take any immediate action.
The situation with the officers impacted Hamilton to the point that he used it to help him argue for the formation of a strong federal government that had the power of taxation to raise revenue to pay a standing military and for other necessary purposes.
Washington understood the concerns of the officers at Newburgh, but when word reached him that there was talk of a military coup against Congress, he took action. He invited the officers to a meeting to be held on March 15 at the Temple of Virtue. Washington had sent a letter to the officers trying to urge them to be patient but telling them he would not be able to attend.
However, feeling the situation was growing more dangerous, Washington surprised the officers at the meeting when he showed up in person. Taking the floor, Washington tried to appeal to the honor of the officers, asking them not to throw away all they had fought for, but his words appeared to fall on deaf and hardened ears.
In a move worthy of a consummate actor, Washington then took a letter out of his jacket pocket and started to read it to the officers. He struggled through the first part and then stopped, reached into his jacket took out a pair of spectacles, telling the officers:
“Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”
As Washington read the letter from Congress, the hardened hearts of the officers melted. Some of them were led to tears as their humbled commander continued to read the letter. Historians disagree on whether it was Washington’s speech, the letter from Congress or his humbling performance with his spectacles, but when the meeting ended, the threat of a military coup against Congress, known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, had been quelled by the same man who performed other miracles when commanding the American army against the British. Had it not been for George Washington’s intervention, America could have easily ended up as a military dictatorship or worse.
Just over a month later on April 19, 1783, America and Great Britain signed the treaty that officially ended the war. Most of the military went back to their homes. Some years later, the situation of the promised pay to the officers was somewhat settled.
Sources for the above includes: Newburgh Conspiracy; George Washington and the Newburgh Conspiracy; The Newburgh Conspiracy, December 1782-March1783; Washington puts an end to the Newburgh Conspiracy; The Last Crisis of the American Revolution; The Rise and Fall of the Newburgh Conspiracy.