As Americans we recognize the Fourth of July as the anniversary of our independence from the imperial British. The history of our Declaration and its resulting American Revolution is taught to every grammar-school student. What is not so well known is what came in the war’s last, unsettled months, when a country torn by the upheavals of a revolution had to put aside old differences to preside over the governance of an emerging country.
I have heard passed down through the ranks of my fellow servicemen and women the story of George Washington and his American officers.
In March 1783 General George Washington, and his young nation, faced the prospect of a coup from the ranks of some of its most decorated officers. Several of Washington’s men planned to meet on March 11 at the New Windsor Cantonment, including John Armstrong, Jr., an aide de camp to General Horatio Gates and the likely author of a polemic calling on these men to mutiny if not paid the back salary and pensions they believed owed to them. A divided military would mean that the Americans could be easy prey to a recharged British expeditionary force. Equally as important, Congress and the rule of law would be fatally undermined by a military coup, undoing every precept of liberty and justice for which the young country had just fought.
Sensing disaster, Washington acted quickly. He persuaded his men to assemble on March 15 for their meeting instead. On the fateful day, the officers gathered at the Cantonment’s Temple of Virtue, with Washington slipping inside unseen. What Washington produced next was the historic Newburgh Address, a piece of political rhetoric so powerful in its moral import that it arguably saved a nation from anarchy.
In the Address, Washington sympathized with the officers’ grievances but questioned the means they had chosen to realize their goals. In his nine-page document, Washington reminded them that he had admired their resilience as he fought alongside them, and even now was lobbying Congress to pay his men what they were owed. Their alternative embraced brigandage and would squander all that men of virtue, like themselves, held dear.
Washington was no great public speaker; not all leaders have to be in order to connect with their audience. As he approached the peroration of his Address, Washington attempted to read part of a letter from one of those in Congress whom he had lobbied for the funds, expressing sympathy but counseling patience as the people’s representatives did their work. Washington stumbled over a few words here, committed a malapropism there. Reaching for a pair of spectacles, he noted to his audience, "Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind." It was a poignant moment from one of the American Revolution’s towering figures. Many of the assembled wept. In a gentle aside, Washington had found the words to move men who moments ago had been committed to overthrowing the young government.
The next day the officers passed a unanimous resolution commending Washington for his commitment to them. The conspiracy against the United States was over. Washington would go on lobbying Congress, eventually winning these officers five years’ pay for their service in the Revolutionary War. History is full of ironies. Consider Washington, should find strength for his country in a moment of weakness. As we remember our American independence it’s equally important to recall an episode that is perhaps less well-known but just as instructive. That this moment occurred in Orange County should remind us how much our region affected the course of a nation, and to place the challenges we face today in their proper historical perspective.