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Speech to Officers at Newburgh

Speech to the Officers at Newburgh 1783

There was a failed attempt in 1782 to amend the Articles of Confederation to allow Congress to levy taxes rather than petitioning the state governments for the necessary funds to discharge its duties. A key consequence of this failure was that Congress remained unable to pay the nation's debts, including its debts to the army. This did not sit well with those who had risked their lives and sacrificed their livelihoods to defend American independence. Thus early in 1783 General Washington, headquartered in Newburgh, New York, heard of rumblings among his troops about the possibility of armed intervention in the civil affairs of the states.

On March 11, 1783, learning that his officers had arranged a meeting to discuss their grievances against Congress, Washington issued a memorandum condemning such "disorderly proceedings." Canceling the planned meeting, he scheduled another at his own designated time and charged the senior officer present at this meeting to report to him on its results. But when the meeting commenced on Saturday, March 15, Washington himself made a dramatic entrance and gave a momentous speech.

Washington began this speech by distinguishing the "feelings and passion" from the "reason and judgement" of the army, insisting that the latter should hold sway. He expressed common cause with the army, predicted that Congress would eventually pay its war debts, and pledged his full effort to make this happen. He responded strongly against an anonymous pamphleteer who had argued that the army, in response to its unjust treatment, should either retire and leave the country undefended or move against the civil authorities. Either measure, Washington argued, would be ruinous to the country's and the army's common cause of self-government. He urged them to express their "utmost horror and detestation of the man who wishes...to overturn the liberties of our country, and who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord," thereby giving "one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings." Upon concluding his speech, unable to read a message from Congress, Washington reached in his pocket for a pair of eyeglasses, remarking that he had nearly gone blind in addition to growing old in the service of his country. It is reported that many of his officers wept. In any case, out of love and respect for their commander-in-chief, they acceded to his pleadings.

Thomas Jefferson would note, with reference to Washington, that "The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish." And in 1838 a young Abraham Lincoln, in a speech warning against ambitious men who would appeal to the passions of the people to subvert America's laws and political institutions, concluded by evoking Washington's memory. Jefferson and Lincoln understood well that free government is rare and destructible, that its survival depends on the good character of its elected representatives and of the people who elect them, and that Washington stands as an exemplary model for both.