A crisis at the beginning of the American experiment

Looking at the problems looming before us, it is easy to forget those of equal or greater danger that we have surmounted in the past.   My previous post, Washington’s Gift, described one such.  Here is another…

As America’s revolutionary war drew to a successful close, many critical problems remained unsolved.  Among them was the pay and pensions due the Army.  Congress seemed unwilling to pass the necessary legislation; the States seemed unwilling to pay.   From Chapter One of FM 1 (one of the Army’s two capstone field manuals):

Following victory at Yorktown in 1781, the Continental Army moved into quarters near Newburgh, New York, to await peace.  The national situation was grim.  The Continental Congress could not raise the funds to provide pay or pensions to the Soldiers, some of whom had not been paid for several years.  Many officers feared that Congress would disband the Army and renege on its promises.  By the winter of 1782-83, tension had reached a dangerous level.  The future of the Republic was in doubt. 

A group of officers determined to use the threat of military action to compel Congress to settle its debts.  They attempted to enlist their commander, General George Washington, to lead the plot.  He refused every appeal, and the rebellious officers prepared to act without him.  On 15 March 1783, Washington entered an officers assembly and warned them of the grave danger inherent in their scheme. He was having little effect until he took a pair of spectacles from his pocket to read. 

The officers were astonished. None of them had seen their hero in his eyeglasses. Washington seemed to age before them. But an offhand comment demonstrated the depth of character that had sustained a revolution: “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 act, the statement, and the power of a leader’s example quelled an incipient rebellion. 

Washington’s selfless leadership and willing subordination instituted the tradition of civilian control of the American military profession.

The above details are from a letter by Col. David Cobb, who concluded with “This little address, with the mode and manner of delivering it, drew tears from [many] of the officers.” 

For more information, here are Washington’s documents about the meeting.  Both are from The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources (1745-1799 Vol. 26), by John C. Fitzpatrick (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931).

TO THE PRESIDENT OF CONGRESS
Head Quarters, March 12, 1783

It is with inexpressible concern, I make the followg Report to your Excellency.

Two Days ago, anonymous papers were circulated in the Army, requesting a general meeting of the Officers on the next day. A Copy of one of these papers is inclosed, No. 1. About the same Time, another anonymous paper purporting to be an Address to the Officers of the Army, was handed about in a clandestine manner: a Copy of this is mark’d No 2. To prevent any precipitate and dangerous Resolutions from being taken at this perilous moment, while the passions were all inflamed; as soon as these things came to my knowledge, the next Morng. I issued the inclosed Order No. 3.* And in this situation the Matter now rests.

As all opinion must be suspended until after the meeting on Saturday, I have nothing further to add, except a Wish, that the measures I have taken to dissipate a Storm, which had gathered so suddenly and unexpectedly, may be acceptable to Congress: and to assure them, that in every vicisitude of Circumstances, still actuated with the greatest zeal in their Service, I shall continue my utmost Exertions to promote the wellfare of my Country under the most lively Expectation, that Congress have the best Intentions of doing ample Justice to the Army, as soon as Circumstances will possibly admit. With the highest Respect etc.

Speech To the Officers of the Army
Head Quarters, Newburgh, March 15, 1783.

Gentlemen: By an anonymous summons, an attempt has been made to convene you together; how inconsistent with the rules of propriety! how unmilitary! and how subversive of all order and discipline, let the good sense of the Army decide.

In the moment of this Summons, another anonymous production was sent into circulation, addressed more to the feelings and passions, than to the reason and judgment of the Army. The author of the piece, is entitled to much credit for the goodness of his Pen and I could wish he had as much credit for the rectitude of his Heart, for, as Men see thro’ different Optics, and are induced by the reflecting faculties of the Mind, to use different means, to attain the same end, the Author of the Address, should have had more charity, than to mark for Suspicion, the Man who should recommend moderation and longer forbearance, or, in other words, who should not think as he thinks, and act as he advises. But he had another plan in view, in which candor and liberality of Sentiment, regard to justice, and love of Country, have no part; and he was right, to insinuate the darkest suspicion, to effect the blackest designs.

That the Address is drawn with great Art, and is designed to answer the most insidious purposes. That it is calculated to impress the Mind, with an idea of premeditated injustice in the Sovereign power of the United States, and rouse all those resentments which must unavoidably flow from such a belief. That the secret mover of this Scheme (whoever he may be) intended to take advantage of the passions, while they were warmed by the recollection of past distresses, without giving time for cool, deliberative thinking, and that composure of Mind which is so necessary to give dignity and stability to measures is rendered too obvious, by the mode of conducting the business, to need other proof than a reference to the proceeding.

Thus much, Gentlemen, I have thought it incumbent on me to observe to you, to shew upon what principles I opposed the irregular and hasty meeting which was proposed to have been held on Tuesday last: and not because I wanted a disposition to give you every oppertunity consistent with your own honor, and the dignity of the Army, to make known your grievances. If my conduct heretofore, has not evinced to you, that I have been a faithful friend to the Army, my declaration of it at this time wd. be equally unavailing and improper. But as I was among the first who embarked in the cause of our common Country. As I have never left your side one moment, but when called from you on public duty. As I have been the constant companion and witness of your Distresses, and not among the last to feel, and acknowledge your Merits. As I have ever considered my own Military reputation as inseperably connected with that of the Army. As my Heart has ever expanded with joy, when I have heard its praises, and my indignation has arisen, when the mouth of detraction has been opened against it, it can scarcely be supposed, at this late stage of the War, that I am indifferent to its interests. But, how are they to be promoted?

The way is plain, says the anonymous Addresser. If War continues, remove into the unsettled Country; there establish yourselves, and leave an ungrateful Country to defend itself. But who are they to defend? Our Wives, our Children, our Farms, and other property which we leave behind us. or, in this state of hostile seperation, are we to take the two first (the latter cannot be removed), to perish in a Wilderness, with hunger, cold and nakedness? If Peace takes place, never sheath your Swords Says he untill you have obtained full and ample justice; this dreadful alternative, of either deserting our Country in the extremest hour of her distress, or turning our Arms against it, (which is the apparent object, unless Congress can be compelled into instant compliance) has something so shocking in it, that humanity revolts at the idea. My God! 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? Some Emissary, perhaps, from New York, plotting the ruin of both, by sowing the seeds of discord and seperation between the Civil and Military powers of the Continent? And what a Compliment does he pay to our Understandings, when he recommends measures in either alternative, impracticable in their Nature?

But here, Gentlemen, I will drop the curtain, because it wd. be as imprudent in me to assign my reasons for this opinion, as it would be insulting to your conception, to suppose you stood in need of them. A moment’s reflection will convince every dispassionate Mind of the physical impossibility of carrying either proposal into execution.

There might, Gentlemen, be an impropriety in my taking notice, in this Address to you, of an anonymous production, but the manner in which that performance has been introduced to the Army, the effect it was intended to have, together with some other circumstances, will amply justify my observations on the tendency of that Writing. With respect to the advice given by the Author, to suspect the Man, who shall recommend moderate measures and longer forbearance, I spurn it, as every Man, who regards that liberty, and reveres that justice for which we contend, undoubtedly must; for if Men are to be precluded from offering their Sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences, that can invite the consideration of Mankind, reason is of no use to us; the freedom of Speech may be taken away, and, dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter.

I cannot, in justice to my own belief, and what I have great reason to conceive is the intention of Congress, conclude this Address, without giving it as my decided opinion, that that Honble Body, entertain exalted sentiments of the Services of the Army; and, from a full conviction of its merits and sufferings, will do it compleat justice. That their endeavors, to discover and establish funds for this purpose, have been unwearied, and will not cease, till they have succeeded, I have not a doubt. But, like all other large Bodies, where there is a variety of different Interests to reconcile, their deliberations are slow. Why then should we distrust them? and, in consequence of that distrust, adopt measures, which may cast a shade over that glory which, has been so justly acquired; and tarnish the reputation of an Army which is celebrated thro’ all Europe, for its fortitude and Patriotism? and for what is this done? to bring the object we seek nearer? No! most certainly, in my opinion, it will cast it at a greater distance.

For myself (and I take no merit in giving the assurance, being induced to it from principles of gratitude, veracity and justice), a grateful sence of the confidence you have ever placed in me, a recollection of the chearful assistance, and prompt obedience I have experienced from you, under every vicissitude of Fortune, and the sincere affection I feel for an Army, I have so long had the honor to Command, will oblige me to declare, in this public and solemn manner, that, in the attainment of compleat justice for all your toils and dangers, and in the gratification of every wish, so far as may be done consistently with the great duty I owe my Country, and those powers we are bound to respect, you may freely command my Services to the utmost of my abilities.

While I give you these assurances, and pledge myself in the most unequivocal manner, to exert whatever ability I am possessed of, in your favor, let me entreat you, Gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures, which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained; let me request you to rely on the plighted faith of your Country, and place a full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress; that, previous to your dissolution as an Army they will cause all your Accts. to be fairly liquidated, as directed in their resolutions, which were published to you two days ago, and that they will adopt the most effectual measures in their power, to render ample justice to you, for your faithful and meritorious Services.

And let me conjure you, in the name of our common Country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the Military and National character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our Country, and who wickedly attempts to open the flood Gates of Civil discord, and deluge our rising Empire in Blood. By thus determining, and thus acting, you will pursue the plain and direct road to the attainment of your wishes. You will defeat the insidious designs of our Enemies, who are compelled to resort from open force to secret Artifice. You will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings; And you will, by the dignity of your Conduct, afford occasion for Posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to Mankind, “had this day been wanting, the World had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.”

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5 thoughts on “A crisis at the beginning of the American experiment

  1. Fabius, I have never read this before. These are some of the most beautiful words I have ever read. From a true patriot.

    If I was an American I’d print them out and post them up on walls all over the country.

  2. Fabius,

    One of my favorites is Washington’s Farewell Address. Not only was it eloquent and beautiful, it was a brilliant grand strategy! It is disturbing to me to see America stray from the guiding fundamentals of the Founding Fathers, especially Washington.

    Salaam and Happy New year!

  3. There is no question that the financial mess the country was in at the end of the Revolutionary War dwarfs even our current situation. The only way we pulled through that one (very much against the odds, by the way) was the brilliant leadership of Washington and Hamilton. Hopefully Barack and his cabinet will rise to the occasion as well.

  4. Link #5, above, a post reviewing FM’s “core beliefs” in December 2007, has a very thoughtful comment on those beliefs by “gPanfile”, and a follow-up response by FM. In his response, FM says “democracy is the best system of government known to the world” and says he is not willing to debate this opinion.

    Most of the excellent critical commentary on this site seems to me to run against FM’s optimism on this. Democracy, as exemplified in this country, has not proved able to educate and provide material security for the majority of its own citizens, live peacably with other nations, follow its own constitution, prevent the growth of an overweening military, or separate its political institutions from the corrupting influence of money.

    Of course there are many versions of democratic government. In Germany, France and the Scandinavian countries, most of the above criticisms wouldn’t apply. But those countries, like our own, are more corporatist forms of government than democracies. Rousseau observed the ideal democracy should be no more than 60,000 citizens. It seems like a waste of time to believe in a form of government that may never have existed in the real world anyway.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: This is absurd.

    “has not proved able to educate and provide material security for the majority of its own citizens.”

    Perhaps on a relative basis, compared to some theoretical optimum or ideal. Like Heaven. But not compared to the people of almost every nation on this planet. And certainly not true of any similar large area (i.e., China, Russia, the EU — vs. comparison to a tiny state like Luxemberg or Finland).

  5. Know nothings of our contemporary culture assume Washington’s purported greatness, his portrait on the dollar bill, the monuments, cities, and states commemorating his name, are doubtless examples of early American spin doctoring, and political propaganda. They cannot conceive an American president who was the real thing. Of course, he was the real thing, the father of a nation.

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