In 1783, 500 officers of the Continental Army of the United States met at Newburgh, New York to decide whether to abandon the fight against the British, now nearly won, and either move out West and "mock" the Continental Congress for its refusal to provide back pay and pensions it had promised or to march on Philadelphia.
Newburgh Conspiracy by Eric LippsThe meeting had been called for by two anonymous letters which had appeared on March 10. Originally intended for the following day, it had been delayed four days at the urging of George Washington, ostensibly to allow time for "mature deliberation" on the issues. It would later be suggested that Washington had intended to make a personal appeal to the officers not to go through with either option.
He never did so. On the morning of March 13, the fifty-one-year-old Washington was fund to have died in his sleep sometime during the night, from what is now believed to have been an aortic aneurysm.
The revered general's unexpected death was a body blow to military morale.
Gen. Horatio Gates (pictured) assumed supreme command pending confirmation by Congress, but the officers assembled at Newburgh proved unwilling to listen to his pleas for patience. On March 17, they voted to march against Congress and compel that body to pay at gunpoint what they considered themselves owed, "or take authority unto ourselves to better provide for the needs of the country".
It would prove to be a fateful decision. Although the war with Britain was all but over, offering the foreign foe little opportunity to use the rebellion to salvage victory from defeat, the march on Philadelphia would mark the infant nation from then on. Congress fled to Princeton, New Jersey in mid-April ahead of the advancing rebels, who by this time had gathered the support not only of their own troops but of the Pennsylvania militia. Arriving in the capital, the troops established a provisional government under General Gates's unwilling leadership. Gates had agreed to take the position only in hopes of restoring order and returning authority to Congress; however, he quickly found himself riding a whirlwind of military and civil unrest, to which he responded with steadily harsher measures.
No one, of course, was more pleased with these developments than the British, who exploited the turmoil to extract concessions at the peace negotiations in Paris. The eventual peace treaty would leave Britain with a military presence along the Mississippi River which it would use to promote trouble between frontier settlers and the Native American tribes, force the infant United States to pay crippling indemnities to the tens of thousands of Loyalists who presented claims for wartime property losses, and impose restrictions on U.S. trade and foreign relations "in the interests of maintaining the peace," a veiled threat of renewed military hostilities.
The bitterest legacy of the Newburgh insurrection, however, would be domestic. The revolt established the superiority of military authority over its civilian counterpart--ironically, one of the things listed as grievances against the Crown in the Declaration of Independence. That the military in question was American rather than British did little to soften the blow against the democratic ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. Indeed, the Articles would assist the military in retaining control, for the civilian regime created under their provisions was all but powerless. That powerlessness, in fact, had helped set the stage for Newburgh: Congress had had few means of raising the revenue it would have needed to pay the army, a fact the rebels discovered for themselves upon taking control.
By 1790, the once bright promise of American democracy was fading, never to be fully regained. Between domestic unrest, the continued threat of British attacks, and the depredations of pirates and privateers upon U.S. Shipping, the military government had plenty of excuses for crushing political
dissent and for squeezing the populace for taxes to pay for national defense. Shortly before his death, Benjamin Franklin, who had been forced to flee to France after being charged with "sedition" for criticizing military rule, observed bitterly: "Better we had remained under a king who at least could claim the authority of tradition, than to submit to men whose power erupts from the muzzle of a gun".