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It was a blustery saturday morning on March 15, 1783, and patches of snow still flecked the ground. General George Washington strode up a long hill toward a rocky promontory at the American army encampment seven miles southwest of Newburgh, New York. He was about to face the greatest personal challenge of his career. He was uncharacteristically nervous and uncertain, roiled by sensations of anger, frustration, and inadequacy. He had led his army to a brilliant victory over the British at Yorktown some seventeen months earlier. Yet the soldiers at Newburgh remained in the field, languishing, while peace negotiations dragged on in Paris. His troops had not been paid for many months, and the Continental Congress’s promises of a generous pension seemed as empty as the coffers of the bankrupt Confederation government.
To make matters worse, a cabal of American army officers, angry over the failure of the continental government to make good on its promises, had decided to take matters into their own hands. Five days earlier, Major John Armstrong, aide- de- camp to the commander at Newburgh, General Horatio Gates (Washington’s longtime rival), circulated an “address” to the soldiers, urging them to cease their meek supplications to an uncaring Congress and, if necessary, to throw off Washington’s leadership and redress their grievances by force of arms. In a letter to his former aide- de- camp and protégé, Alexander Hamilton, Washington expressed his fear that the disgruntled soldiers might throw “themselves into a gulph of Civil Horror.” Yet at the same time he had deep sympathy for their plight. Indeed, Hamilton had been gently nudging his mentor to throw in his lot with the discontented soldiers. As he approached his destination, Washington faced a painful choice: to remain loyal to his long- suffering troops or to honor the rule of law.
America’s ambitious experiment in liberty had seemed full of promise seven years earlier, in the summer of 1776, when Washington had ordered his commanders to read the Declaration of Independence aloud to their troops in order to steel them for the sacrifices ahead. And they had met the challenge. Since that time they had persevered through the cold and deprivation of Valley Forge, through nearly seven years of often dispiriting battle against the better- equipped British Army. Washington had come to understand that American liberty and American union—a strong union—were inseparable. The discontented soldiers at Newburgh threatened to put both liberty and the union at risk.
When he reached the top of the promontory, Washington entered a cavernous, drafty building, one hundred ten by thirty feet, which looked down on the Continental army encampment below. The “New Building” had been constructed a few months earlier to encourage “sociability” among the officers. But as Washington walked the length of the long hall past the five hundred assembled officers toward a small stage and lectern at the far end, there was little feeling of sociability in the air. The spectacle presented by the officers, many of them with faces set in anger, deepened Washington’s gloom. Everything about their appearance testified to the shameful neglect they had suffered at the hands of the continental government—from their torn and soiled uniforms to their worn- out boots and gaunt faces. And these were the privileged few, the officers. Washington knew that the enlisted men, waiting in their barracks for news of the outcome of the meeting, had suffered even greater privation. While the officers were at times reduced to making their overcoats out of blankets, they wore those overcoats, as historian Charles Royster has observed, “in the presence of men who had no blankets.” Forced to endure bitterly cold winters, often clad in uniforms pieced together from an old hunting shirt, overalls, or even rags, and subsisting on a diet barely adequate to keep body and soul together, the ordinary foot soldiers in Washington’s army had every reason to believe their country had betrayed them. The failure of the government to pay the soldiers their wages hit the enlisted men the hardest, and it seemed to Washington nothing short of criminal. Their wives and children back home were reduced to begging in the streets in order to avoid starvation. Was this the “liberty” for which Americans had fought?
By the time Washington made his entrance, General Gates had already opened the meeting. Washington interrupted him, asking for permission to address the officers. Visibly shaken by Washington’s presence, Gates had no choice but to accede to the request of his rival, who was, after all, the commander in chief of the Continental army.
A man typically comfortable and confident in any public situation, Washington was visibly agitated and uneasy. He began with an apology. He had not intended to involve himself in the controversy, but upon reading the content of Major Armstrong’s address, he felt it necessary to speak his mind. In a departure from his usual manner in speaking to his officers, he would not speak off- the- cuff. Instead he took from the pocket of his coat a speech he had painstakingly written out the day before. He began by vowing that he would extend every effort and power at his command “in the attainment of complete justice for all of your trials and dangers,” but then, assuming a suppliant tone, he proceeded.
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. . . . 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 of which human nature is capable of attaining.”
It was an impressive ending, perhaps as impressive a speech as Washington had ever given, but looking out at his audience, he could see that many of the officers remained unmoved. At that point he pulled from his pocket a letter from one of his Virginia friends—Joseph Jones, a delegate to the Continental Congress—who had written him expressing sympathy for the plight of the soldiers and promising to work in the Congress to honor the government’s obligations to them. The letter was scrawled out in barely legible form, and Washington stumbled over its first few sentences. Disoriented, he searched in the pocket of his coat once again and pulled out a pair of spectacles that had recently been sent to him by the Philadelphia scientist, David Rittenhouse. It was probably the first time anyone had ever seen Washington wear spectacles in public. “Gentlemen,” he said, “you must pardon me. I have grown grey in your service, and now find myself going blind.” He put on the glasses and finished reading the letter, making it clear to the officers that he would place his prestige and honor on the line in their cause, so long as that cause was served in a peaceful and lawful manner. Then, without fanfare, he left the room—and the soldiers to their deliberations.
As he made his exit, tears streamed down the cheeks of some of the soldiers’ faces, and a hush—a hush borne of contrition and shame—fell over the hall. When they recovered their composure, the soldiers gave him a formal vote of thanks, repudiated Major Armstrong’s address, and asked their commander in chief to act as their agent in securing their just rewards for service to their country.
Was it a guileless performance? It probably was not, for Washington was a man who always carefully gauged the effects of his demeanor and his words in any public situation. But one thing is certain. No other man in America could have pulled it off. And Washington was true to his word. The Continental Congress, terrified by the threat of armed revolt and grovelingly grateful to Washington for his intervention, pledged its support for a financial settlement that went at least a part of the way toward meeting the soldiers’ salary and pension demands.
If one is looking for critical turning points in American history, times when the future direction of the republic might have altered course, Washington’s performance at Newburgh, the Constitutional Convention, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and the subsequent passage of the constitutional amendments eradicating slavery from the American Constitution stand out as decisive. Washington was the only man in America who possessed the combination of charisma, political and military experience, and public support capable of converting America’s experiment in republican liberty into a dictatorship—a benevolent dictatorship perhaps, but a dictatorship nevertheless. Given the financial disarray and civil disorder represented by the discontent of the soldiers at Newburgh, Washington could have convinced himself that military solutions to civil political problems were the best course of action, as did many leaders in the revolutions of Latin America in the century to come. Some, like Simón Bolívar in Venezuela, Peru, and Columbia, did so reluctantly. Others, like Santa Anna in Mexico or Bernardo O’Higgins in Chile, did so more eagerly. All of these countries have lived with a tradition of military intrusion in the affairs of their governments ever since.
As he confronted the soldiers, Washington realized that his standing with the officers might not be enough to assuage what were very reasonable grievances. His discomfort was all the more acute precisely because he shared these grievances so deeply and, indeed, shared much of the soldiers’ contempt for the weakness of the central government. How tempting it must have been to think that he—alone among all others—had it in his power to correct the weaknesses of the Confederation by stepping in and assuming control of the country. But he never even considered it.
Washington’s decisive performance at Newburgh was one of the moments in his career that help explain why he occupies such a preeminent place in our nation’s history. But the fact that he found himself in a position in which he had to put his prestige on the line in order to avert a military uprising reflected the weakness and fragility of the Confederation government. We will never know all of the details of the “Newburgh Conspiracy,” for, as with most conspiracies, the planning behind the soldiers’ efforts was shrouded in secrecy. But one thing was clear to all. The soldiers’ grievances cast a harsh spotlight on many of the fundamental weaknesses of the new American union, in particular the potentially disastrous effects of the bankruptcy of the Confederation government’s treasury. And another thing was becoming clear as well. Certain politicians in America were eager to leverage the soldiers’ discontents to further their own plans to strengthen the continental union.
It is hardly surprising that Americans had been wary about giving too much power to a new continental government. One of the logical conclusions to be drawn from the struggles with Great Britain leading to the Revolutionary War was that government should be small, weak, and, whenever possible, local. How else could lawmakers be sensitive to the effects—good and bad—of the laws they had enacted? And how else could the people express their displeasure when things went wrong?
Yet the imperatives of fighting and winning a war would clarify the need for a government that was neither purely local nor provincial. It was one thing to declare independence. It was quite another to secure it. Military victory required a sizeable army drawn from all of the colonies. And the financing of that effort required a measure of sacrifice and a degree of cohesiveness far greater than any the British had ever demanded of them. Securing independence would require Americans to act not as individual states but as “united states.”
How would the former British colonies in America, often ignorant and suspicious of one another, overcome their provincialism and unite in a continental union? On the eve of independence, residents of the thirteen colonies were more likely to be familiar with events and fashions back in England than they were with those of a neighboring colony, and the representatives of those colonies, when they first gathered in Phila - delphia in the fall of 1774 to consider common action against the British, were just as often struck by the differences as the similarities among them. The resolutely provincial John Adams, surveying his fellow delegates to the Continental Congress, exclaimed that “the art and address of Ambassadors from a dozen belligerent Powers of Europe, nay, of a Conclave of Cardinals at the Election of a Pope . . . would not exceed the Specimens We have seen [in the Congress].”
America’s patriot leaders knew, however, that some form of union was essential if they were to succeed in their quest for independence. Just a week after they had adopted the Declaration of Independence, America’s representatives in the Continental Congress began work on a new frame of government, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. The Articles of Confederation, America’s first “constitution,” was not really a proper constitution, but rather a peace treaty among thirteen separate and sovereign states. It amounted to nothing more than a league of friendship, a form of alliance in which “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”
Faced with the task of fighting a war against the world’s most formidable military power, the Articles of Confederation created a government with vast responsibility—but little authority. Armed with the power only to “request” contributions of men, materiel, and money from the individual states, officials in the Confederation government discovered how ephemeral public support of the war effort could be. America’s commitment to liberty and independence had been accompanied by a surge of utopian idealism in the summer of 1776, with the newly established state governments pledging solemnly to contribute to the common cause. But as the optimism of 1776 confronted the reality of a protracted and bloody war, officials in the continental government struggled to persuade the individual state governments to match their words with their deeds. By the beginning of 1777, those government officials were reduced to begging the states to contribute their fair share to the war effort. When it became clear that the states themselves were too strapped for cash to contribute money to finance the war, the Continental Congress began to request that the states meet their obligations by providing supplies— food, clothing, weapons—directly to the army. Unfortunately, the economic dislocations caused by the war made it difficult for the states to do so.
The American military effort ebbed and flowed between hope and despair. America’s eventual victory at Yorktown in October of 1781 seemed nearly miraculous, coming as it did in the wake of a devastating military campaign in the South, where victory in most of the savage and bloody battles—fought amidst a divided American population—went to the British. The successful outcome of the Patriot war effort owed as much to British indecisiveness as it did to American military prowess. Even after victory was secured, the leaders of the American government in Philadelphia faced the daunting task of holding their fragile continental union together.
The Articles of Confederation suffered from three fatal flaws. It didn’t allowthe continental government the power of the purse—the power either to levy taxes directly or to compel the states to pay their fair share of the expenses of the government. It required unanimous approval of the state legislatures for any amendment to the Articles—including any amendment thatmight provide a remedy for the government’s inability to raise revenues independently.And it failed to provide for a chief executive capable of giving energy and direction to the new central government as it sought to carry out its essential tasks. Lacking the power to tax and unable to rely solely on voluntary contributions from the states, the Continental Congress initially issued paper currency whose value was supposedly guaranteed by the thirteen states.Those guarantees proved meaningless, and over the course of the war continental currency depreciated to the point of near worthlessness— from whence came the derisive phrase “not worth a Continental.” Beginning in late 1776, the Continental Congress began to experiment with another expedient, issuing loan office certificates—government bonds— which offered a modest rate of interest, but that, like the continental currency, were quickly depreciated by rampant inflation. The results of this dubious system of public finance were predictable. Confidence in the credit of the continental government—andin the government itself—plummeted. Theevents atNewburgh brought into bold relief the inadequacies ofAmerica’s first experiment in union.
THE CONTROVERSIAL ROBERT MORRIS
Philadelphia merchant Robert Morris, surveying the wreckage of America’s finances, could not contain his dismay. Writing to Benjamin Franklin in the fall of 1781, Morris observed, “A Revolution, a war, the dissolution of government, the creating of it anew, cruelty, rapine, and devastation in the midst of our very bowels. These Sir, are circumstances by no means favorable to finance.”
Morris was thirteen years old when he emigrated from Liverpool to Oxford, Maryland, in 1747 to join his father, a tobacco trader of modest means. He quickly made his way to Philadelphia as an apprentice to a major shipping company. Just a few years later, at the age of twenty, he became a partner in the company, and in the process established a reputation extending well beyond Philadelphia for extraordinary financial acumen. By 1776 he was quite possibly the wealthiest man in America. He was also one of his city’s most reluctant revolutionists. In the years immediately preceding independence, he consistently argued for reconciliation with Great Britain, fearing that his trade with the mother country—and the profits he derived from it—would vanish should America go to war with England. As a member of the Continental Congress, he voted against the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776, but he reconsidered in August, signing the document only when he realized that the consequences of being branded a Tory might be even worse than the risks of being identified by his British trading partners as a Patriot.
A large man standing fully six feet tall, with a round, somewhat fleshy face and graying brown hair, Morris sported a stoutness of frame that bespoke a healthy appetite for both food and drink. He rarely hesitated to use either his wealth or his imposing physical presence to intimidate a business associate or a rival. Self- assured to the point of arrogance, he had little patience for those “vulgar souls,” as he derisively labeled them, whom he did not consider his social or intellectual equals. Operating in an eighteenth- century world that viewed unbridled ambition with unease, Morris was, undeniably, ambitious. His critics tended to view him as a man whose single- minded devotion to the pursuit of wealth and power led to business practices that were self- serving and dishonest.
Arthur Lee and Richard Henry Lee, influential members of the Continental Congress from Virginia, positively despised Morris. They considered his conduct and character a “danger to liberty.” Thomas McKean of Pennsylvania, contemplating Morris’s rise to power, went so far as to suggest that Morris’s ambition would lead him to become the “financial dictator” of the new republic. But however much some may have disliked his personal manner and distrusted his business practices, few doubted his financial genius.
In February 1781, the Continental Congress, desperate to put the country’s finances in order, offered Morris the position of superintendent of finance. But Morris drove a hard bargain before he would accept the job. He insisted not only that he be given sweeping powers over government finance, but that he be given power over virtually every other aspect of the Confederation government’s operations as well—including its dealings with other nations. Morris’s demands seemed outrageous to some members of the New England and Southern delegations to the Continental Congress, but his supporters—who viewed him as the only man in America capable of bringing the country back from the brink of insolvency—won the day. With the greatest reluctance, the Continental Congress acceded to Morris’s demands, and on May 14, 1781, Morris accepted the job. The Articles of Confederation’s third fatal flaw—the failure to provide for a chief executive or “president” within the structure of the new central government—effectively left Morris as the closest thing to a “prime minister,” British style, that America has ever had. Indeed, Morris had prevailed. But at what cost? Because so much of Patriot feeling and rhetoric was driven by an intense fear of concentrations of power of the sort they had faced under the British, many in the country worried that the Morris cure might be worse than the disease.
From a purely financial point of view, Morris’s efforts to put the failing finances of the Confederation government in order were heroic. Using a combination of his business expertise, his own considerable wealth, the strength of his personal credit rating, and the influence of his prominent and wealthy friends in the mercantile community, he halted the spiral of inflation and introduced up- to- date management practices in the conduct of the continental government’s financial business. Aided by the shrewd diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin, he was successful in securing $5.9 million in loans from France and, with the help of the American ambassador to Holland, John Adams, another $2 million from the Dutch. For all his skill and power, Morris could not remedy the central government’s inability to obtain for itself a stable, permanent revenue. Without that revenue, even a man of Morris’s formidable abilities found it difficult to pay and supply the troops. Moreover, the task of getting every state in the fragile new union to agree to grant the government the allimportant power to impose taxes proved formidable indeed.
Using a combination of his forceful personality and his extensive financial leverage, Morris relentlessly pressured the state legislatures, many of whose members included some of his mercantile associates, to ratify an amendment permitting the government to levy an impost (a tax on imported goods) of 5 percent. By the fall of 1782, it looked as if he might attain the unanimous approval required. But Morris had not reckoned on a dramatic change in the political winds in America’s smallest state. Rhode Islanders had a long history of resistance to intermeddling by any outside authority, beginning in 1636 when Roger Williams, banished from Massachusetts because of his unorthodox religious views, established the colony. The fall 1782 elections for the legislature produced a strong resurgence in that independent resolve. Led by a fiery agrarian democrat, David Howell, the state legislature expressed its implacable hostility to any cession of power to the central government. In a letter to the governor of the state, Howell and his colleagues wrote that it was “as clear as the Meridian sun,” that the power to levy taxes, once granted to the central government, would “add the Yoke of Tyranny fixed on all the states, and the Chains Rivotted.” The opposition of that single group of Rhode Island provincial politicians was enough to sink Morris’s plans to strengthen the continental government.
Morris, furious that a tiny state could stand in the way of the welfare of the entire country, was quick to act when he learned of the discontent brewing among the troops at Newburgh. Morris encouraged the soldiers to press their demands, and, having fomented a more rebellious mood, he spread the word to the Congress meeting in Philadelphia that “the army have swords in their hands” and that a “most violent political storm” threatened the very existence of the union. James Madison, who was not part of the cabal with the soldiers, was nevertheless thoroughly alarmed. “The opinion seems to be well founded,” he wrote, that “the arms which have secured the liberties of the country will not be laid down until justice [for the soldiers] is secured.” Others openly hinted that if Congress did not act, the army would be “ripe for annihilating them.”
This was the point at which Washington made his fateful appearance before the soldiers at Newburgh, after which he managed to prod the Continental Congress into fulfilling at least part of their obligations to the soldiers. Robert Morris and his nationalist aims did not fare so well. The Continental Congress refused to act on Morris’s demand for a permanent source of revenue for the government. Moreover, Washington, long a supporter of Morris, was infuriated by the financier’s role in fomenting the unrest at Newburgh and broke off relations with him. (Although, as we will see, they would eventually reconcile.) On Septem ber 3, 1783, American and British diplomats reached final agreement on terms of a Treaty of Peace in Paris, and when news of the signing of the treaty reached America in late October, the Continental army began quietly to disband. Morris, left with little support either in Congress or in the military, had no choice but to resign as superintendent of finance.
Washington, for his part, received the news of the signing of the Treaty of Peace with an overwhelming sense of joy and relief. As the British prepared to evacuate their troops from New York in November 1783, Washington issued a proclamation to his troops declaring the achievement of American independence “little short of a standing miracle.” At last, America’s citizen- soldiers, and their commander in chief, could lay down their arms.