When becoming a member of the United States military, each individual, officer or enlisted, swears an oath to “support and defend” the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” This is a tradition that stretches back to the very founding of the country, as the Constitution is a direct expression of the country’s core principles. Near the end of the American Revolution, an American commander was faced with having to choose between the ideals he was fighting for or the potential ruin of his country. The country’s fate rested on his decision. He was General George Washington. This is the incredible story of his greatest personal triumph, which did not occur on the battlefield, but when he dissuaded his fellow American officers from overthrowing the duly elected American government.
Throughout the American Revolution, George Washington resisted the temptation to become a military dictator. When he accepted command of the Continental Army in 1775, he swore allegiance to the Continental Congress and faithfulness to the American cause. He even refused to be paid for his services. He only wanted to serve his country. Over the years, he often had to mediate disputes between the army and the Congress over matters of payment. He also had to put down several mutinies among the enlisted soldiers. He even remained in loyal service when there was a plot to replace him with General Horatio Gates in the winter of 1777-78, known as the Conway Cabal. Each of these actions proved his ultimate loyalty was to America and his belief that Congress was the country’s true representative body. He believed that the military had to be subordinate to the civilian government. As the war was winding down, however, his commitment was put to the test.
The American Revolution seemed all but over as the year 1783 began. The surrender of Lord Charles Cornwallis’ British army at Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781 had resulted in peace negotiations in Paris, France. A preliminary peace treaty was signed in November 1782, and a permanent treaty was signed in January 1783. Back in America, meanwhile, Washington had moved his army from Virginia to New York. He set up headquarters in Newburgh, New York in the Hudson River valley. With the war nearly over, Washington, like most of his soldiers, anticipated returning home. His hopes for a peaceful retirement were threatened by the bleak state of America though. The country’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, had been in effect for nearly two years. Fearing a return to the offensive taxation policies of the British prior to the war, the Confederation Congress was denied the power to tax. That power rested with the states, but by this time, many states were near bankruptcy. Without money, the national government could not repay foreign and domestic creditors, nor could it adequately fund the country’s defense in wartime, or even peacetime for that matter.
George Washington watched as many Continental Army officers demanded payment for their military services. He knew the government lacked the money. He sympathized with his officers though. The government owed some of them nearly six years’ worth of back pay. In an effort to appease the officers, the government had earlier promised a half-pay lifetime pension to them. Now that promise appeared hollow. Attempting an intercession, General Washington petitioned Congress to provide some money for the officers’ use as they returned home. He knew Congress had to do something or the officers would likely revolt. In May 1782, he had received a letter from an American colonel asking him to assume power himself and stabilize the government. Washington wrote back and told the colonel he would not participate in one of the “greatest mischiefs that can befall my country.” He further advised the colonel “to banish these thoughts from your mind, and never communicate…a sentiment of like nature” again. His words made clear that there was no greater friend to American republicanism than himself. As the crisis mounted, he realized he would have to decide to whom he owed greater loyalty.
In early January 1783, the officers tried one more time to reach a settlement with Congress. Three officers travelled to Philadelphia to petition that body to either provide the officers with six years’ worth of full pay or with the pension. The officers found support among several Congressmen, including Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Lincoln, but Congress still rejected both offers. In the wake of the officers’ rejection, there soon began to be whispers of a military coup. A meeting to discuss such plans was scheduled for March 10, 1783. Before the officers could assemble, however, Washington received news of the gathering and cancelled it. He then called his own conference for March 15 and invited all of his officers to attend.
On that March day, America’s future lay in Washington’s hands. He arrived at the meeting and stood in front of his fellow officers in a building fittingly called the Temple of Honor. As he looked at the assembly, he gave an impassioned address. He urged them not to take any action against Congress. He was not a skilled public speaker, and the officers seemed in no mood to compromise. It looked as if his own words had little effect, so Washington decided to appeal to his officers by reading a letter from a sympathetic Congressman. He pulled it out and prepared to read it. The officers stood motionless as they waited to hear what the letter said. Instead of reading it though, Washington stared at the page for several long moments. Then, to everyone’s shock, he pulled out a pair of glasses. The officers murmured amongst themselves. They had never seen their commander wear glasses before. Only his closest aides knew he needed them. Glasses were for preachers or for revered statesmen like Benjamin Franklin. To his men George Washington was the consummate warrior and still, at age fifty-one, a relatively young man. Washington could see their astonishment and replied, ”I have already grown gray in the service of my country. I am now going blind.”
Those few heartfelt words did what his speech could not — it ended the threat of military action. It struck to the heart of the sacrifices made for the American cause. Some officers later remembered that many of them had tears in their eyes. They realized in that moment that Washington had never lost sight of what he had been fighting for. He had argued with Congress many times, but he had never forsaken his duty to that body or to the nation at large. He would not allow anyone, not even his own men, to destroy the dream of American self-government at its moment of triumph. The American republic would not fail as others had. He was certain of that. His opposition to a military coup was proof that he would not play the role that Julius Caesar and Oliver Cromwell had played and that Napoleon would later play. He did not want power. All he wanted was to go home to his plantation at Mount Vernon and to his wife Martha.
The “Newburgh Conspiracy,” as it came to be known, was over. The officers agreed not to take any action against Congress. They allowed Washington to work out a deal acceptable to all. Rather than half-pay pensions for life, each officer received a lump sum worth of five years’ pay. Only a few weeks later, a French ship arrived carrying the news of the signed peace treaty. At last General Washington could declare an end to hostilities with Britain. He remained outside of New York City until December, at which point the last British soldiers left and he entered the city. It was not long after that he gathered his officers together to deliver a farewell address. He then made his way to Congress and formally resigned his commission as commander-in-chief. With his duties done, he arrived home at Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1783.
George Washington’s refusal of dictatorial authority showed how far he would go to protect America’s republican government and the idea of freedom. He was willing to stand up to those he trusted in, served with and depended on most if they threatened those ideals. He expressly told them all Americans owed faithful allegiance to the country they had created. Had it succeeded, the “Newburgh Conspiracy” would have turned America into a mirror image of Rome. Instead, thanks to Washington, the elected civilian government maintained control of the nation. To rephrase Winston Churchill, “This was his finest hour.” George Washington was a man who truly lived his personal oath to “support and defend” his new and beloved country “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”