In a chapter in American history not widely known, officers within the Continental Army became so upset over a lack of pay they were actively meeting to discuss a military coup against the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
The Continental Congress depended solely on the states for revenue who paid in different amounts and at different times. Lack of funds created a major problem. The soldiers were not being paid. With news of a peace accord on the horizon, there was a belief among the officers that the army would be disbanded without payment being made.
A group of officers, led by John Armstrong, aide to second-in-command of the Continental Army Horatio Gates, circulated a letter that, among other items, would give the Continental Congress an ultimatum: Either pay the soldiers or the army would disband, leaving the brand new country of America unprotected, or the army would not disband but become its own force independent of Congress. This was a not-so-subtle threat of a military coup or dictatorship. The Armstrong letter further implied something almost sacrilegious in the Continental Army: George Washington had failed them and could not be trusted to deliver their pay.
As he did so many times in American history, George Washington becomes the hero of this story. The path to becoming a military dictator or a king was open to him. He not only had the support of his soldiers outside of this small group of officers but also that of the American people as well. He could have led the army against the Continental Congress and assumed dictatorial powers. Few were in a position to oppose him.
But George Washington did not take this course. Power was never something Washington desired. Just earlier, in May 1782, a colonel named Lewis Nicola had written to Washington and proposed to him that he declare himself king of the United States. Washington’s response was clear:
“Be assured sir, no occurrence in the course of the war has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the army as you have expressed, [which are] big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my country…Let me conjure you then, if you have any regard for your country – concern for yourself or posterity – or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your mind.”
Newburgh, New York
Washington faced a mutiny by a group of officers within the Continental Army. After he found out about a planned meeting between the officers on March 15, 1783, he asked them to speak among themselves and communicate their chosen course to him. When the meeting started, General Gates began to speak. Quickly, George Washington appeared in the back of the room, and the men went silent. Washington addressed them.
George Washington gave a speech he prepared the night before that talked about many issues, including the meaning of the revolution they had fought together and the fate of their new country. He did not hide his contempt for the proposals being considered but still promised to do all he could to secure their pay. He urged the men “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.”
Did eyeglasses help save our new nation?
His speech did not seem to have its intended effect. It was at this point when Washington began to read a letter from a member of Congress that he did something nobody had ever seen him do throughout the long struggle for independence these soldiers had endured together. He put on a pair of eyeglasses. He then uttered the following words:
“Gentleman, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in the service of my country, and now find myself growing blind.”
This one line changed the entire tenor of the meeting. It was said that some officers openly wept. They began to feel shame for what they were contemplating. Washington left the room and let the remaining officers ponder their next move. They unanimously voted to give the Continental Congress more time to get them paid. They eventually were.
One historian called this the “new nation’s most dangerous hour.”
George Washington’s character and devotion to his country above himself did not go unnoticed by history or his contemporaries. Thomas Jefferson observed, “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.”
Overseas in England, King George III observed that if Washington voluntarily gave up power, then he would truly be the greatest man on earth. Washington went on to voluntarily surrender his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army on December 23, 1783. When he was called back to serve as our nation’s first president under the Constitution, he refused a third term, establishing a precedent of serving only two terms that was followed until the Franklin Roosevelt presidency in the 20th century.
George Washington is an example that the best leaders are the ones who fear power, not those who crave it.