Wednesday, February 19, 2014

George Washington's Finest Hour

In December, 1782, as General George Washington awaited news of a preliminary peace treaty with Great Britain, he had little reason to be optimistic.  The British still occupied New York, a congressional tax on imports had failed, and his soldiers had not been paid in months or years.  In the midst of these continuing difficulties, a delegation of three officers rode into Philadelphia to issue a warning to Congress. 

The officers met with certain key nationalist members of Congress such as Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris, as well as with financier, Robert Morris, hatching a plan to use the discontent in the army to force Congress to adopt more powers adequate to a national government.  It was a dangerous game to play in a fledgling republic. 

On January 6, 1783, the officers presented an ominous petition to Congress: “We have borne all that men can bear – our property is expended – our private resources are at an end, and our friends are wearied out and disgusted with our incessant applications.”  The officers demanded that Congress make good on its promise of a half-pension as an “honorable and just recompense for several years hard service in which the health and fortunes of the officers have been worn down and exhausted.”  They gave a final warning of the consequences of not paying the army: “The uneasiness of the soldiers, for want of pay, is great and dangerous; any further experiments on their patience may have fatal effects.” 

Congress responded by appointing a committee.  Meanwhile, Robert Morris ratcheted up the pressure on that body by threatening to resign if Congress did not establish a “permanent provision for public debts.”  Hamilton, Washington’s former intimate aide, worked on the general to win over his support for the scheme.  “The claims of the army urged with moderation, but with firmness . . . may add weight to the applications of Congress to the several states.” 

Washington, however, was not taking the bait.  From his humble acceptance of the position of commander of the Continental Army through his continued deference to the civilian government during the war despite the constant sufferings of the army due to a penurious Congress and state governments, Washington was unwaveringly dedicated to the republican government. 

When the general caught wind of the plot afoot among the officers at Newburgh, he feared that their machinations would plunge the nation “into a gulph of civil horror.”  Washington was sympathetic to their plight and the continental vision but would not countenance military threats to the civilian government.  He called a meeting of the officers at the appropriately-named Temple of Virtue on March 15 – the Ides of March. 

When General Washington unexpectedly marched into the meetinghouse, he immediately addressed the men with a deeply-moving speech, appealing to their patriotic and republican principles:

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 acting 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 your 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.” 

Washington loved the theater throughout his life, especially his favorite play, Joseph Addison’s Cato.  Indeed, he had been playing the role of the aloof general for years and commanded as much as anything by his presence.  He understood the human response to a dramatic gesture.  At Newburgh, he pulled out a pair of spectacles, candidly admitting his declining vigor in front of his men, muttering, “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 cabal collapsed on the spot.  The tension broke and the officers wept openly.  They pledged their “unshaken confidence” in Congress. 

In the end, Congress failed to fulfill its promises and never assumed greater powers.  These failures would help lead to the Constitutional Convention to erect a new framework of government with adequate powers.

For now, Washington established the critically important precedent that in America the republican civilian government was superior to the military.  Washington could easily have decided to march on Congress and become a Caesar or Alexander.  Instead, he became as the legendary Roman Cincinnatus who patriotically served the republic and returned to his plow. 

To paraphrase Churchill’s great praise for the fighter pilots who defeated the Nazi air assault in the Battle of Britain, perhaps we can say of the virtuous Washington that if the American republic lasts a thousand years, men will say, this was his finest hour. 
Tony Williams is the WJMI Program Director and the author of four books including America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character.  

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