Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2021-007
25 Jan. 2021
Review by Ciaran Jones, St. Mary's University School of Law
A Crisis of Peace: George Washington, the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the Fate of The American Revolution
By David Head
New York: Pegasus, 2019. Pp. xvii, 284. ISBN 978–1–64313–081–1.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 18th Century, US Revolutionary War Print Version

In A Crisis of Peace, historian David Head (Univ. of Central Florida) recounts the waning days of the American Revolution, when anger over Congress's inability to pay Continental officers roiled the Northern Army encamped in upstate New York. He argues that the gathering of officers at Newburgh in March 1783, which inflamed fears of a military coup and goaded Congress into a partial settlement of the soldiers' grievances, was not the product of a conspiracy. "My research has made me skeptical that a true conspiracy unfolded at Newburgh" (xii). Head eliminates possible conspirators and argues that prominent nationalists acted independently during the winter of 1782–83 to achieve greater unity among the states. He discusses George Washington's leadership ability, the economic uncertainty afflicting Continental officers, the severity of Congress's fiscal predicament, and the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.


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The United States struggled financially for most of the Revolutionary War. As expenses mounted in the wake of Lexington and Concord, Congress printed more money, which caused soaring inflation: "In January 1777, $1.25 in paper equaled $1 in specie. By April 1781, it took $167.50 in paper to get $1 of specie, a 13,300 percent increase" (13). As the Continental dollar ceased to circulate due to its diminishing value, states issued soldiers loan certificates as payment. But the men distrusted the states' ability to redeem them and sold them "to speculators who offered steep discounts in exchange for immediate cash" (36, 63). The discounted rate often exceeded 70 percent.

The states' reluctance to raise revenue led America into debt. Rhode Island scuppered an import duty devised by superintendent of finance Robert Morris, who then overdrew America's line of French credit to offer the Northern Army one month's pay. To facilitate this legerdemain Morris relied on a Dutch loan that serviced the interest on bonds his allies had flogged in Cuba. "It was a big risk.… Three months' pay would amount to some $750,000, and the only way to produce that amount rapidly was a 'paper anticipation,' meaning Morris Notes issued on the financier's own credit" (92, 201). Sutlers traded goods with Continental soldiers for notes discounted over 40 percent.

Congressional penury distressed Continental officers whose professional, marital, and social prospects looked bleak. While the British military establishment favored harsh punishments and long enlistments, Washington enforced discipline "by reproducing inside the army the social hierarchy of the civilian world, with officers as the gentlemen elite who kept soldiers subordinate" (31). Many officers struggled to maintain the lifestyle of eighteenth-century gentlemen. Most had toiled as tradesmen before the War presented an opportunity for social advancement. Even Washington faced massive indebtedness, for "he was rich in land and had few liquid assets. He enjoyed expensive living and liked to shop. Like his officers, then, he worried about his finances" (87). Traditional republicans in Connecticut and Rhode Island distrusted standing armies and resisted postwar pensions for Continental officers. "What would be [the officers'] fate," Major John Armstrong Jr. asked in an anonymous letter circulated throughout the Newburgh camp in March 1783, "but to languish in 'infirmities & Tears,' to 'grow old in poverty, wretchedness, and Contempt,' to 'owe the miserable remnant of their lives to "Charity" rather than honor?'" (130).

The Articles of Confederation impaired Congress's ability to collect revenue. The politicians gathered in Philadelphia relied upon voluntary requisitions from the states, who zealously guarded their sovereignty. "By the end of June [1783], a requisition of $8 million had brought in $29,925.43—that's 0.37 percent of the goal. Only three states sent money at all" (66). Robert Morris and his secretary Gouverneur Morris "called for reform of the Articles to give the central government more authority over the citizens and the states" (91). Led by James Madison, the Congress promulgated a plan calling for "a new impost, a mix of tariffs, and a modification of the Articles of Confederation's tax quota system" (171), but the plan restricted the duration of the new taxes. Commenting on the states' insistence that federal agents not collect the taxes, Morris wrote, "it is a Kind of Absurdity in itself that Congress should have a Right to the Tax and yet no Right to send their Servants to receive it" (171–72).

Head emphasizes Washington's deft managing of military angst at this critical time. Idleness threatened Continental discipline after Yorktown. Washington demanded that officers maintain a "liquor Roll" identifying which soldiers were continent enough to receive their ration of spirits and condemned "the vile practice of swallowing the whole ration of liquor at a single draught" (29). He always insisted that soldiers behave in an orderly manner. Though Washington lauded his troops when word arrived of King George III's acquiescence to American independence, "he followed the expression of heartfelt thanks overflowing from his bosom by scolding the Massachusetts regiments for the excrement piled around their huts" (167). "No detail was too small for the commander in chief" (29).

Washington's task proved daunting. "The difficulty," wrote Alexander Hamilton, "will be to keep a complaining and suffering army within the bounds of moderation" (113). Hamilton, who had served as Washington's aide-de-camp for most of the war, advised his former commander to preserve his impartiality and rely on trusted proxies such as artillery commander Henry Knox to mitigate the officers' demands. Washington, taciturn by nature, abjured an overtly political role. "Joining the army to one side in a political debate" about the Congress's authority to tax under the Articles of Confederation, notes Head, "would damage civil-military relations without a chance of success" (125).

His reserve notwithstanding, Washington adroitly thwarted a nascent coup. In March 1783, disgruntled officers met at the residence of Gen. Horatio Gates. John Armstrong Jr., an attendee, denounced moderation in a circular published after the meeting. Armstrong called for a more forceful representation of the officers' grievances than that made to Congress by Gen. Alexander McDougall in the preceding months. Washington reacted calmly. "He waited until Tuesday's general orders to notice the documents publicly. Washington could have issued supplemental orders Monday night, but he didn't. There was no emergency, he implied" (134). In his general orders, he expressed faith in the officers' judgment and rescheduled Armstrong's proposed meeting to a time and place of Washington's choosing. He "moved on to announce the promotion of a Massachusetts captain to major and to direct the Third Massachusetts regiment to prepare to relieve the Second New York the next week. The anonymous letter was wrong, he signaled. The army would still exist a week later" (135).

Privately, Washington felt anxious about the meeting. He noted his "inexpressible concern" to president of Congress Elias Boudinot and expressed "the most lively Expectation, that Congress have the best Intentions of doing ample Justice to the Army, as soon as Circumstances will possible admit" (135). The general wrote more directly to his fellow Virginia planter Joseph Jones:

Put this matter [of paying the army] to an issue and if there are Delegates among you, who are really opposed to doing justice to the Army, scruple not to tell them—if matters do come to extremity—that they must be answerable for all the ineffable horrors which may be occasioned thereby. (137)

Washington methodically prepared for his performance at the Newburgh meeting. He "wrote out [his] address himself" before making a surprise appearance and cordially requesting permission to speak. The general's penchant for drama served him well as he made an emotional appeal to officers who had witnessed his sacrifices during eight years of war. "He noted where to pause. He underlined words to emphasize. He peppered the text with large, robust exclamation marks for added punch" (144). His laconic approach to politics did not reflect intellectual deficiency. In a rhetorical flourish, he extricated a letter from Jones and fumbled with his glasses, proclaiming, "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" (150). Washington left the officers in tears. "The one ray of light for the Congress in the storm of the officers' discontent was General Washington: his constancy, his wisdom, his loyalty to civilian rule, his skill in dissipating the emergency" (175).

Though the crisis ultimately strengthened federal power, it was not through concerted action. Walter Stewart, an instigator at Newburgh, invested heavily in loan certificates, on which Robert Morris had suspended interest payments; nationalists did not need to convince Stewart to strengthen Congress's power to collect taxes. Furthermore, the leading nationalists in Philadelphia disliked Horatio Gates, who hosted the meeting of disgruntled officers in Newburgh. Morris was a friend of Philip Schuyler, who had clashed with Gates over command of the Northern Army. Alexander Hamilton, Schuyler's son-in-law, referred to Gates as "his personal enemy" (162). Hamilton had sparred with Gates after the latter's victory at Saratoga, when Washington dispatched his young aide-de-camp to ask for reinforcements. Alexander McDougall, the officers' representative in Philadelphia, suspected that Gates got lucky at Saratoga.

Looking at the lineup Gates indicated by "friends in congress and in the administration" casts doubt on a core argument that there was a conspiracy at Newburgh: the existence of a tightly knit group of nationalists in Philadelphia sending a clear message through Stewart to a tightly knit group of officers centered around Gates. (164–65).

Head maintains that such arguments depend more on Hamilton's ill-deserved reputation for intrigue and the prevalence of conspiracy theories in eighteenth-century republican ideology.

A Crisis of Peace will appeal to general readers rather than to scholars. Many of the themes, personalities, and events discussed in it are familiar to readers of Ron Chernow's biographies of Washington and Hamilton.[1] David Head's book is remarkable less for its groundbreaking scholarship than for its vivid evocation of the fragility of the Early Republic at a turning point in American history.

[1] Washington: A Life (NY: Penguin, 2010) and Alexander Hamilton (id., 2004).

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