The great rebellion effectively came to an end in October 1781 with Lord Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, though no one knew it at that time. Eight years after the “shot heard round the world“, the American Revolution had slowed to a standoff.
King George III remained personally in favor of prosecuting the war even after the Patriot victory at Yorktown, while opinion in Parliament, was split. Across the water, some 26,000 British troops remained in occupation in Charleston, Savannah and New York, backed up be a mighty fleet.
The Americans’ greatest ally departed in 1782, never to return. With state finances already prostrate with debt, l’Ancien régime (French: “the old order”) would be overthrown by its own revolution inside the next ten years, the French King Louis XVI and Queen Consort Marie Antoinette executed, by guillotine.
Negotiations carried on for nearly three years in Paris while, an hour’s drive north by modern highway from the British occupation of New York, the Continental Army waited at Newburgh.
France wasn’t the only one, ruined by this war. The American Revolution debilitated the finances of all three principle belligerents, none more so than the new-born American Republic, itself. In fact, the fledgling United States nearly died on this day in 1783, by the very hands which had given them birth.
The Articles of Confederation, ratified by the states in March 1781, provided for a loose alliance of sovereign states. In theory, Congress possessed the authority to govern foreign affairs, conduct war and regulate currency. In practice, these powers were limited to a national body with no authority to enforce its will on the states.
In 1780, Congress promised Continental officers a lifetime pension, equal to half-pay upon discharge. The government in Philadelphia attempted to amend the Articles, to allow a new import duty or “impost”. States were divided against the measure. Two years later, the cupboard was bare. Continental soldiers weren’t being paid at all.
It wasn’t even possible to borrow. That required evidence, of an income stream.
The politician who alienates a battle hardened army in the field walks on dangerous ground. Don’t pay for their services, that’s a good way to do it. At the outset of war, these guys left homes and fields and families, to risk their lives on behalf of the dream of Liberty. Many among their number, had given all in service to that dream.
There was little to do during those long winter months of 1782-’83, but wait. Each with his own financial hardship waiting at home, every man worried that his promised compensation, would not come. The rumor mill worked overtime: The Army would be disbanded. The promised pensions would remain, unfunded.
The vague unease of rumor turned to a fury of near certainty through the late winter months, as one overture after another met with defeat, in Congress. On March 10, an unsigned letter believed to have been written by Major John Armstrong, aide to General Horatio Gates, urged unspecified action against the Continental Congress. Another called for a meeting on the morning of March 11. Events were building toward armed insurrection. A coup d’état.
General George Washington reacted quickly, objecting in his General Orders of March 11 to the “disorderly” and “irregular” nature of such a meeting. Washington specified the morning of March 15 for an officer’s meeting and requested a report, implying that he himself, would not be present.
The mood was one of surprise and anger when the Commander-in-Chief himself walked into the room, hard men pushed past the point of patience, and now determined to take action. The General urged patience in a brief and impassioned speech remembered as the Newburgh address.
Washington’s words may as well have fallen on deaf ears. There was little of the usual deference, in this room.
The future President of the United States then produced a letter from a member of Congress, to read to his officers. The content is unimportant. George Washington gazed on the letter in his hands without speaking and, fumbling in his pocket, came up with a pair of reading glasses. These were new. Few men in the room even knew the man required glasses.
Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.
The words were as a physical blow, on the men assembled in that room. Obstinate and unheeding mere moments before, the realization dawned on all at once. This man had been at their head and by their sides. Washington had personally endured every bit of the hardship, as these men bent on mutiny.
There was hardly a dry eye in the place. The moment was broken for all time. Bent on mutiny a mere moment before, the cream of the continental army now determined, to wait. This Republic to which we owe so much may have died before it was born, two hundred thirty-six years ago on this day. All but for one magnificent man with an actor’s sense of timing. And a new pair of spectacles.
A Trivial Matter
At age twenty-six, George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow with two children: Jacky and Patsy. The Father of the Nation never had any children of his own. At 6 feet, 3½ inches and 200-pounds, George Washington towered above his fellow Continental soldier, with an average height of 5-feet, 8-inches in height.