In March 1783 allegations erupted surrounding an attempted coup d’état by Continental Army officers encamped at Newburgh, New York. The relationship between Congress and the Continental Army had been strained throughout the Revolutionary War.
As Congress was notoriously short on cash, payments to soldiers and officers were insufficient and erratic; many went without remuneration for several consecutive years. Officers hoped for a recognition of their services in the form of pensions, and Congress had in 1780 voted to award them half pay for life.
However, the impost tax of 1781, designed to finance pensions, failed to achieve ratification by the states. Furthermore, as the financial situation of many officers worsened, they started to call for a lump sum instead of a lifetime of small payments, a demand known as commutation.
In late 1782, the army sent a delegation under the leadership of General Alexander McDougall to Congress in order to demand a redress of their grievances. Despite the general’s vigorous and outspoken lobbying effort, Congress voted against commutation in January 1783.
With commutation rejected, no feasible prospect of financing pensions, and a peace treaty with Britain imminent—which meant the subsequent disbanding of the Continental Army—discontent grew among officers who had sacrificed much for the Revolution and now feared being left out in the cold.
A group of young officers connected to Major General Horatio Gates, an old rival of George Washington’s, started spreading a series of anonymous pamphlets around the Newburgh encampment in early March 1783.
These Newburgh Addresses, written by Major John Armstrong, accused Congress of betraying the army, lambasted the ineffectiveness of McDougall’s petition, criticized Washington for undue moderation, and called for a meeting of officers on 11 March in order to decide on further measures. It was quite possible to see in the Newburgh Addresses a call for rebellion against civil authority, or even a full-scale coup d’état, but more moderate readings were also possible.
At the very least the pamphlets proposed an ultimatum to Congress and advocated a refusal to disband the army until their demands were met. In any case, Washington stepped in to defuse the situation. Forbidding the meeting on 11 March, he called for another a few days later to discuss the results of McDougall’s petition.
At this meeting, Washington condemned the Addresses and made an emotional appeal to remain loyal to Congress and the American Republic. Washington’s speech won over the officers, who passed a resolution asking Congress for redress, but also affirming their loyalty and condemning the Newburgh Addresses.
The most controversial aspect of this crisis in military loyalty, which became known as the Newburgh conspiracy, did not involve the officers responsible for the Newburgh Addresses as much as a group of nationalist politicians, especially Robert Morris, the congressional superintendent of finance, as well as Gouverneur Morris and Alexander Hamilton.
They hoped that lobbying efforts by the military would induce Congress to pass a second impost law, thus fulfilling their hope of securing the power of taxation for Congress. Robert Morris had been in touch with McDougall’s delegation and had urged the officers to impress upon Congress in no uncertain terms the level of discontent in the army.
After Congress had rejected commutation, McDougall wrote to Major General Henry Knox under the pseudonym Brutus, suggesting that the army refuse to disband until its demands were met. Knox, however, refused to spearhead so blatant a defiance of civil authority.
At this point, theories diverge considerably. One interpretation holds that, spurned by Knox and thoroughly discouraged with Congress, the Morrises and Hamilton turned to Gates and his followers to start a coup and finally consolidate national government in this way.
Another theory argues that the nationalists did encourage Gates’s group to make their move, but that Hamilton warned Washington of the danger in a letter, thus making sure the coup was quelled before it really started.
Some evidence exists to support the second claim, but much remains unclear and inconclusive. It seems doubtful that Washington actually needed a warning from his former aide Hamilton to be aware of trouble brewing in Newburgh, and there is some controversy over whether Gates was actually involved.
Nevertheless, the impression of a narrowly averted rebellion shocked Congress into voting in favor of commutation as well as a new impost law designed to secure an independent income for Congress, endorsing central demands of both officers and nationalists. Eventually, however, this new impost failed to achieve ratification by the states, and thus the pension question remained unanswered.
Distrust of the officer corps, nationalist politicians, and special privilege remained contentious throughout the early Republic; they figured prominently in the controversy surrounding the Society of the Cincinnati and the ratification of the Constitution.