The Ides of March: George Washington and the Newburgh Conspiracy

By:  Joe Wolverton, II, J.D.
The Ides of March: George Washington and the Newburgh Conspiracy

On the Ides of March, General George Washington defused a potential coup that might have brought down Congress.

The Ides changed everything.
                        — Cicero, 44 B.C.

It was the end of 1782 and the War for Independence was all but over, but the details of the official peace treaty had not yet been hammered out between the American delegation (John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams) and their British counterpart (David Hartley). The peace was uneasy, however, as British troops remained stationed in New York and various western outposts and American troops were ordered not to stand down until the British abandoned their posts. The lack of wartime duties gave way to boredom among the soldiers, fresh from victory over a tyrant.

In this atmosphere the plan for a coup d'état developed, a plot known to history as the Newburgh Conspiracy.

Named for the town in New York where the Continental Army was camped, the Newburgh Conspiracy was not the first attempted revolt of soldiers experienced by the American military. There were insurrections in Connecticut in 1780 and in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 1781. However, the Newburgh Conspiracy was the first mutiny headed by a cabal of officers. This mutiny was fomented by congressional inability to raise money from the states for the payment of the army's payroll.

The army was further provoked to anger by proposals in several state legislatures to disband the Continental Army and, by implication, discharge themselves of the burden of making good on promises of payment of a salary to the soldiers and of a half-pay lifetime pension and reenlistment bonuses made in 1780 by Congress.

The expediency of war spurred a reluctant Congress to make these promises, but it was unwilling and constitutionally unable to keep them in the peace that followed the war.

Incredibly, debtor’s prisons awaited retiring officers because of their magnanimous sacrifice of personal financial management during the War for Independence and the systematic and repeated breaking of illusory promises of back pay on the part of state and national legislatures. Washington wisely feared that an exasperated corps of officers might vacate the position they had traditionally occupied between mutinous soldiers and the civil government and that the result would be a bloody civil war.

Washington’s comprehensive knowledge of the histories of the ancient republics of Athens and Rome taught him that the inevitable result of such a violent revolt would be a disdainful tyranny of armed despots that would not be removed but through the shedding of much blood. Such a prospect led Washington to send an envoy of officers to try to persuade friends of liberty in that body that the situation was dire and immediate action was necessary.

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