The Conway Cabal

General Thomas Conway
General Thomas Conway
The Conway Cabal was a conspiratorial attempt to remove General George Washington as the Continental Army’s commander-in-chief in favor of General Horatio Gates, thus setting the stage for a negotiated settlement to end the American Revolution during the fall and winter of 1777 and 1778.

Washington and his closest allies in Congress recognized it as an attempt to end the war without first securing a British recognition of American independence. The effort to remove General Washington came at a crucial time during the war. Since taking on the assignment as commander-inchief of the Continental Army, Washington had few successes to call his own, with the exception of two minor victories at Trenton and Princeton in the winter of 1776–1777.

As the spring campaigns began, British General John Burgoyne launched an ambitious plan to sever New England from the rest of the new country, while General William Howe set his sights on the American capital, Philadelphia.

The ensuing British occupation of Philadelphia established a situation conducive toward a negotiated end of the war, something that both General Howe and the more conservative members of Congress desired. Such goals withered away as it became increasingly apparent that Washington and his closest allies in Congress were not going to allow for a negotiated settlement that did not first recognize American independence.

Opposition against Washington in Congress had been brewing for some time. Members of the New England delegation were critical of the general’s inability to achieve a decisive victory against the British. As the war entered its second year, their criticism became increasingly loud, as they made it abundantly clear that the time had come for a new commander-in-chief.

Following British General John Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga in October 1777, Washington’s strongest congressional critics became convinced that they had found the man to replace him—General Horatio Gates, the “hero of Saratoga.”

Gates’s newfound status as savior of the Revolution enhanced the ambitions of many men who surrounded him, and they hoped to advance their own careers on the general’s coattails. Thomas Conway, whose name was later given to the conspiracy, was one such individual.

General Horatio Gates
General Horatio Gates

Conway was of Irish-French origin, and he received a commission in the Continental Army from Silas Deane, an American diplomat stationed in France. Deane, much to Washington’s chagrin, started awarding positions to a large coterie of foreign officers in the Continental Army without the prior approval of Washington or Congress.

General Thomas Conway was one such individual who sought advancement, but soon realized that his opportunities were limited as long as Washington was commander-inchief. Conway gravitated toward those who rallied around General Horatio Gates, who also had influential friends in Congress.

In late October 1777, Conway addressed a letter to Gates that contained disparaging references to Washington’s abilities as a military leader, stating, “heaven has been determined to save your country; or a weak General and bad Councilors would have ruined it.” When the existence of the letter was brought to Washington’s attention, he confronted Gates and the conspiracy began to unravel, but the matter was not put to rest completely until the beginning of spring 1778.

The concerns raised by members of the New England delegation and the ambitions of men like Thomas Conway played into the interests of the more conservative members of Congress who believed that a negotiated settlement was the best that the Americans could hope to achieve.

Washington and his allies in Congress, however, represented the biggest obstacles in their path. Many of these individuals already had close ties with Horatio Gates, and they were convinced that he would be more supportive of seeking a negotiated peace with the British. Gates’s identification as the “hero of Saratoga” made him a strong candidate to replace Washington.

The conspiracy unraveled as Washington and his allies in Congress closed ranks and resisted any serious attempt to remove him as commander-inchief. The divergent and conflicting interests of those who desired Washington’s removal prevented them from mounting a sustained challenge against the general.

They were united only by their shared desire to remove Washington as commander-inchief, but they sought this goal for opposing reasons—the general’s New England critics thought that by replacing Washington with Gates, independence would be assured; the conservatives in Congress thought that by removing Washington, the stage would be set for a negotiated end to the war. Consequently the conspiracy failed.