- A Crisis of Peace: George Washington, the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the Fate of the American Revolution by David Head
In the traditional telling of the American Revolution, the young republic's darkest hour came not while the cannons blazed but instead on the [End Page 554] very precipice of peace. As a ship carrying the welcome news cruised toward Philadelphia in early March 1783, the Continental Army, encamped along the Hudson River at Newburgh, New York, seemed poised to do the unthinkable—abandon the cause, perhaps even overthrow the Congress. Americans faced what David Head calls "A Crisis of Peace."
Head's fast-paced narrative reconstructs the factors that drove many long-serving Continental Army officers to challenge the principle of civilian control of the military; a principle eighteenth-century Americans understood as a crucial bulwark against a republic's descent into despotism. In short, it came down to money and respect, both in short supply. After years of printing unbacked paper currency, while simultaneously running up debts to domestic and international creditors, Congress was destitute. Neither the confederation government nor the state legislatures had the ready cash to pay their soldiers or to guarantee the officers their pensions. For men who had fought and suffered for the Revolution, Congress's empty promises smacked of ingratitude and neglect. Many of the officers had sacrificed their prime earning years, as well as their credit, to serve their country. Head skillfully analyzes the social anxiety that gripped these men. Without the trappings of officer status, would their neighbors see the impecunious veterans as gentlemen? A pension for services rendered seemed the only guarantee for their social security.
To the average war-weary civilian, pensions for officers looked like the foundation of a new aristocracy—an aristocracy of the sword. What could be more anti-republican than a subset of society—men who were armed and experienced soldiers no less—maintained at the public expense? Clearly, a conspiracy to destroy the republic and create a military oligarchy in its place lurked behind the officers' demands. Tax-funded standing armies, especially peacetime standing armies, were the tool of tyrants. The only thing separating George Washington from George III was virtue, which increasingly looked more like façade than bedrock. The delegates in Philadelphia had to balance the outrage of constituents who feared the liberty-depriving implications of a national tax and that of the officers who with the approach of peace had become redundant but remained dangerous. [End Page 555]
At the heart of this impasse was eighteenth-century Americans' propensity for conspiratorial thinking. Head deftly reconstructs the revolutionary generation's intellectual world in which power and liberty were locked in mortal combat. Nothing happened by accident. At this point, Head argues, "the Revolution could have easily collapsed" (222). As many in Congress feared a military conspiracy so too did the officers suspect a nefarious plot at work in Congress's dilatory response to their requests. Rumors flurried both in camp and in the capital. The officers assembled to air their grievances on March 15 at Newburgh. A largescale mutiny was not out of the question. Perhaps even Washington himself would lead the troops to Philadelphia.
Thankfully for the United States, Washington would be no Caesar. Acutely aware of his position as a citizen–soldier and servant of Congress, the general gave the speech of his lifetime. Head's assiduous research reveals that Washington painstakingly prepared for this moment. At a critical juncture in the speech, Washington paused, asking the officers' pardon as he donned his spectacles. He confessed that he had not only gone gray but nearly blind in the service of his country. Evincing vulnerability was so uncharacteristic of the stoic Washington that his words apparently brought the assembled men to tears. The officers' grievances appeared petty when compared to their beloved general's sacrifices. His ongoing commitment to Congress and civilian control of the military swayed the wayward men to their duty. Washington's speech defused...