- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2008

At the end of the Revolutionary War, Gen. George Washington, calling on his keen leadership skills, innate wisdom and good judgment, defused a powder keg known in history as the Newburgh Conspiracy, the closest America has ever come to a coup d’etat.

The not-prone-to-exaggerating future president warned: “The predicament was as critical and delicate as can well be conceived,” one that could plunge the nation into “a gulph of Civil horror.”

The sun had shone on young America, flush with pride and optimism from its victorious battle for independence. Now, mired in debt estimated at $25 million, only darkness and “the forebodings of evil” loomed ahead.

An impost (tax) to raise money had just been defeated. The states were not going to make payments voluntarily, and Congress could not force them. Robert Morris, the superintendent of finances, cleverly stated that the Articles of Confederation gave Congress “the privilege of asking for everything” but gave the states “the prerogative of granting nothing.”

Believing the very survival of America in jeopardy, many felt corrective action, no matter how extreme, was necessary. Money, not patriotism, paid the bills - but there was none.

Politicians whining about money was one thing, but they weren’t alone. Army officers also felt the crisis. Intrepid soldiers who had spent years fighting and suffering feared they would get neither their long overdue back pay nor their future pay - that is, pensions they had been promised.

“Pay must be found for the army,” lamented future president James Madison, who maddeningly wondered, “Where it is to be found, God knows.”

Time was working against the army, most of which was encamped at Newburgh, N.Y. Fighting had ceased months earlier, and American diplomats in Europe were hammering out a peace treaty. Once signed, few would pay attention to the army or its complaints. When their guns were taken away, their leverage and voice would go, too. Henry Knox warned that if not paid, the army might “be so deeply stung by the injustice and ingratitude of their country as to become… tygers and wolves.”

Playing a very dangerous game, the conspirators warned that money must be raised quickly by the government or else. The ‘or else’ was an implied coup, contained in an anonymous letter, actually written by John Armstrong Jr., an officer loyal to Gen. Horatio Gates, an archenemy of Washington.

Gates, Armstrong and a few others had conspired for years to embarrass, criticize and smear Washington. This threat of a coup meant, in addition to forcing Congress to raise money to pay the army, there now existed the added possible bonus of achieving their long-held dream: Gates replacing Washington as commander of the American army.

It was a perilous time. Fifteen years afterward, Secretary of War Benjamin Lincoln recalled that he “tremble* for his country.” However, the sage of Mount Vernon, who called the incident “distressing beyond description,” knew how to use words as weapons. His arsenal didn’t include the sheer brilliance or eloquence of some other statesmen of his era, but he wielded the finely honed sword and scepter of persuasion and wisdom.

Sure, the soldiers were angry. They were also, as Pvt. Joseph Martin wrote, “starved, ragged and meager … [without] a cent to help themselves.” Another lamented “the insults and neglects” of the “cowardly countrymen” who would “damn the world rather than part with a dollar for their army.” These soldiers, however, were still the same good men who had sacrificed tremendously. They had weathered the war’s adversities and hardships. Just as important, Washington knew that, with very few exceptions, his soldiers and officers revered and respected him.

Washington’s handling of the incident should be mandatory reading in management textbooks. The anonymous letter, circulated on Monday morning, March 10, called for the officers to meet the following day to redress their grievances, specifically, “the coldness and severity of government” toward the soldiers who had put the country “in the chair of independence.”

The mutinous letter criticized their own country, which “tramples upon your rights, disdains your cries and insults your distresses.” Washington acted quickly. He authorized the officers to discuss the matter among themselves but changed the meeting to Saturday the 15th. Washington gave the impression he would not attend the meeting, leaving Gen. Gates, the second in command, in charge.

The meeting started as planned on the 15th - the Ides of March. Washington walked into the den of hostility and deftly cured the mad beast with a powerful concoction of shame, pride and patriotism. He called on the soldiers to recall why they had fought so long and implored them not to be lured into dangerous mischief by a few anonymous malcontents. He appealed to their sense of honor, forcefully pointing out the folly being contemplated as wrong and dangerous. He asked for a little more patience, requesting: “Give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue.”

He played on their sympathies, reminding them that he also had suffered greatly for eight long years. Certainly it was well understood that if things had gone the other way, Washington’s neck would have been the first one with a rope around it.

Military battles a thing of the past, his youth a fading memory, the old war horse who had won so much with so little was simply losing the battle of time. He took a letter, from a congressman, out of his pocket and began reading. The “Father of our Country,” who had seen some tough times, pulled out a pair of spectacles. Those not swept over with shame upon hearing the sentence about soldiers “who harbour wicked designs … to lessen [Washington’s] popularity in the Army,” certainly were overwhelmed with guilt when Washington quietly said, “I have grown gray in the service of my country and now find myself going blind.” The tears on many soldiers’ faces washed away the conspiracy.

Washington then left the room, and that was that. The officers agreed to immediately terminate the matter. Without fanfare, an incident that could have destroyed America quietly slipped into history.

Paul N. Herbert (pnh9202 @verizon.net) of Fairfax County is a frequent contributor.

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