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This Day in History: George Washington squashes a military coup

On this day in 1783, George Washington brings the so-called Newburgh Conspiracy to an end. The potential military coup had been festering for a while.

At this juncture, the war was basically over, but a peace treaty between Britain and America had yet to be signed. As the soldiers waited, they grew restless. They had been paid only on an irregular basis throughout the war. They were ready to mutiny.

On March 10, someone called for a meeting of soldiers. An anonymous letter accompanied the call for the meeting. It urged the army to take a more forceful stand: Congress needed to pay monies owed or else the army would take action! The letter proposed one of two ultimatums: Either the army could immediately disband (leaving the country unprotected) or it could refuse to disband at all. In other words, the army could attempt a military takeover.

Washington Prevents a Military Dictatorship, by Albert Sterner (from the The Bicentennial Pageant of George Washington)

Naturally, a copy of this shocking letter landed in Washington’s lap.

Washington immediately took two steps. First, his General Orders of March 11 denounced the meeting that had been called and instead ordered a new meeting on March 15. His orders required the “senior officer in Rank present . . . to preside and report the result of the Deliberations to the Commander in Chief.” Next, Washington wrote letters to the President of Congress and to a few other members of Congress to notify them of the situation.

As the meeting opened on March 15, the soldiers received a surprise. General Horatio Gates had been prepared to lead the meeting, as outlined in Washington’s general orders, when Washington himself strode into the room and asked to address the soldiers.

An officer in the room, Samuel Shaw, later described the atmosphere that day: “On other occasions he [Washington] has been supported by the exertions of an army and the countenance of his friends; but in this he stood single and alone. There was no saying where the passions of an army, which were not a little inflamed, might lead . . . .”

Washington started off by denouncing the plan that had been concocted. The plan, he said, had “something so shocking in it, that humanity revolts at the idea.” But he wasn’t finished. “My God!” he continued, “What can this writer have in view, by recommending such measures! Can he be a friend to the army? Can he be a friend to this country? Rather is he not an insidious foe?”

To close his speech, Washington intended to read a letter from a supportive member in Congress. He took the letter out and attempted to read it, but he was having trouble. He reached into his pocket for his glasses. “Gentleman, you must pardon me,” he explained off-handedly, “I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.” This unplanned remark touched the soldiers deeply. Some began to cry.

Shaw described the scene in the room after Washington left: “He spoke—every doubt was dispelled, and the tide of patriotism rolled again in its wonted course. Illustrious man!”

Washington’s humility and sincerity saved the day. Once again, one has to wonder what would have happened to our country if any man other than Washington had been in charge of the American army.

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