The Newburgh Addresses
The coming of peace brought to a head the failure of Congress to adequately compensate the soldiers of the Continental army. Washington allowed many men to simply go home; they would officially be on furlough until the peace ended their service. The soldiers were allowed to keep their muskets. They were also given certificates supposedly worth three months' pay that in practice proved to be worthless. For many soldiers, this paper was all they saw of the wages they were owed for their wartime service. The officers of the Continental army proved to be a more potent lobbying force than the enlisted men. Some launched a protest that intersected with politics and almost caused a constitutional crisis.Taxes and Benefits
The Articles of Confederation had deliberately denied the central government of the United States the ability to tax. In the years immediately following Lexington and Concord, Americans were wary of creating an echo of the British Parliament, which had taxed without representation. Such liberty had its price. The finances of the United States quickly fell into disorder. The federal government was unable to meet its obligations, including those due the army.
In 1781, Congress attempted to address the situation by proposing an amendment to the Articles of Confederation that would have enabled it to impose a 5 percent tariff on imports. Only Rhode Island opposed the amendment, but that was enough. Early in 1783, some members of Congress, including Robert Morris and Alexander Hamilton, hoped to revive the measure, using military discontent as a justification.
In 1780, Congress had promised the Continental officers a pension of half-pay for life. By 1782, many officers doubted that they would ever see the promised money. Aside from the fact that Congress had no way of paying the officers, the pension was unpopular with many across the country because they believed that such a benefit would create a special aristocracy of ex-officers. Others thought the states should assume the financial burden. A delegation of officers from Massachusetts traveled to Boston to see if the state would take responsibility for the pensions. They were told to take up the matter with Congress. The officers' mood that winter was so unsettled that George Washington put off a visit home.A Crisis in Civil-Military Relations
Members of Congress who wanted a stronger national government played upon the officers' anger. They encouraged the officers to embark on a program of vigorous protest. These Congressmen believed that the threat of military unrest would frighten the opponents of the tariff amendment into submission. Hamilton kept Washington informed of some of these machinations. Washington made it clear that while he sympathized both with the nationalists in Congress and the aggrieved officers, he would not countenance the army being used for political purposes.
On March 10, two unsigned addresses circulated in the army's encampment at Newburgh, New York. The first called a meeting of the officers to discuss their grievances. The second argued in impassioned terms that the army should disband if the war continued without congressional action on military benefits. If the war ended, the army should stay in arms until Congress fulfilled its promises. The Newburgh Addresses raised the frightening specter of a military challenge to the civil authorities. The political recklessness of some Congressmen and officers had created a situation fraught with the threat of violence.
Washington's opposition to the Newburgh Addresses was strengthened by the fact that much of the discontent was fomented by officers close to his old rival Horatio Gates. The addresses may have been written by one of Gates's aides.
George Washington defused the crisis. He made his displeasure with the addresses known and called a meeting of his officers for March 15. At the meeting, Washington read a statement urging the officers to trust to the official avenues of redress. He promised to support their just demands. Washington won over the crowd with a timely touch of the dramatic. In order to better read a letter to the men, he pulled a pair of spectacles from his coat. He asked the indulgence of the officers as he put them on, saying, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” Tears came to the eyes of many of the men in the room. Washington had shifted the mood of the meeting. When he left, the officers rejected the Newburgh Addresses. In a later set of resolutions, they expressed their confidence in Congress.
Congress reacted by adopting a proposal from the officers to convert their half-pay pensions for life into full pay for five years. The army was demobilized without incident. Hamilton and his associates had failed to strengthen their position in Congress. The drive to increase the powers of the federal government was postponed for several years.