The Revolutionary War had been long, hard, and costly, both in the lives of men and in money. With the surrender of the British in Yorktown in 1781, the war was technically over but it wouldn't officially end until England signed a peace treaty, setting out the terms of surrender. The Continental Congress had sent Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and John Adams overseas to negotiate the treaty but in the meantime, the Continental Army remained on alert in case the British decided to make a surprise attack.
The American army was made up of volunteers who were mostly ordinary farmers. Because of their patriotism, they had left their family and their farms to serve as soldiers and officers to protect their homeland and their freedom. For this service, the Continental Congress had promised to pay each soldier a salary as compensation for their loss of income from the farms they were no longer working.
However, even during the war, Congress struggled to raise the money needed to not only pay their soldiers but to pay for their weapons, food, clothing, and lodgings. As a result, many of the regular soldiers simply deserted and went back home to make a living while a number of the officers resigned their commissions and left the army. Knowing that they had to have a well staffed military if they were going to win the war, Congress offered the officers a lifetime pension of half-pay and promised to pay the soldiers all back pay plus a bonus of $80 if they would remain in the army. For this reason many stayed on even after the fighting had stopped.
After the battle of Yorktown the army moved to Newburg, New York where it waited for news that a formal peace treaty had been signed. But, in the meantime, with no fighting taking place, the soldiers remained in camp with nothing to do. But boredom was the least of their problems. Congress had not only failed so far to pay the men what they had promised but they weren't sending the army any money to provide food, clothing, and shelter for them. As a result, the men under General George Washington's command at Newburg were becoming more and more restless and bitter towards Congress.
There were several reasons why Congress didn't send the money they had promised. The first was that by the end of the war they only had $125,000 on hand but owed over $6 million. They couldn't send their troops any money because they didn't have any to send. The second reason was that, under the Articles of Confederation, Congress was merely a hodge-podge of delegates from the thirteen States with no leader. Furthermore, there was no agreement among them to abide by whatever the majority of delegates decided and without such an agreement, there was no way to make the States pay their share of the war's expenses.
Thirdly, money to fund the war came from only two sources. The first was from taxes that each State levied on its citizens. However, some of the States, such as Rhode Island and Connecticut, had a small population and couldn't raise very much money. Some of the Southern states who were not so directly involved in the war didn't see why they should pay for something they didn't participate in. Still other states were reluctant to tax their people fearing that it might cause an uprising. In some cases, the very States who clamored for freedom the most and had promised to support an army to protect their liberty, were the same ones who squawked the loudest about having to pay for the army they voted to create.
The second source of money came by borrowing it from other countries. However, no one lends money without expecting to receive it back with interest and such was the case with Congress who had managed to borrow several millions of dollars from France and Holland. But the Continental Congress was so short on money that it didn't have enough to pay even the interest on the debts they had contracted. What money they did have went towards the loans they had with foreign countries. This was important so as to prevent those countries from going to war with America for reneging on their debt. With so many pressing financial problems, paying the army was not high on the list of things Congress had to take care of.
Even so, General Washington wrote a letter to Congress, explaining the plight of his men and pleading with them to provide some relief but when his letter went unanswered some of Washington's officers urged him to lead his men on a march to the nation's capital where they would take control of Congress. What they were asking him to do was to take part in a military coup of the American government.
Washington strongly opposed such an idea, telling his officers that such a course of action would undo all they had fought for. Because of their great respect for him, Washington's words temporarily calmed the growing resentment of Congress and the officers postponed mutinous plan. But then word reached the soldiers at Newburg that many of the State legislatures were discussing the idea of abolishing the army all together, even before the peace treaty was completed. The soldiers clearly understood the dire implications of this legislation on them if it passed. Once the army was disbanded then the States would no longer be obligated to pay the soldiers any wages.
Just the thought that the government was thinking of doing this further angered the soldiers. In November of 1782 Washington and some of his officers sent another letter to Congress, insisting that the enlisted men at least receive the $80 bonus that had been promised them and any back pay that Congress could afford to give them. Although there were many in Congress who were sympathetic to Washington's request, there were many other delegates who had strict instructions from their State to resist paying any money to the military, using as their excuse that the army was exaggerating their problems. When the resolution was put to a vote, most of the delegates voted against paying the military.
When this effort failed, a group of officers, led by Major General Horatio Gates, began to make plans to lead the army in rebellion against the Continental Congress. Since they knew that General Washington would not support their cause, they made their plans in secret behind his back.
But General Gates had another motive for leaving Washington in the dark. During the Revolutionary war, Horatio Gates had wanted to become the Commander-in-Chief of the army and had worked secretly to undermine Washington's war effort in order to make him appear as an ineffective and inept military leader. Although his action did create problems for Washington, his effort eventually failed. Now he was planning to take control of the army without Washington's approval or knowledge.
However, Washington received a letter from someone in Congress warning him that there were "dangerous combinations" and "sinister practices" occurring within the army. Being a cautious man as well as someone who attended to detail, Washington undertook his own investigation to see if there was any merit to what his friend in Congress had told him. To his surprise, he discovered the mutinous plot of General Gates.
The problem Washington now faced was, how to handle the problem. He knew that his enlisted men and many of his officers were already talking about taking matters into their own hands. If he confronted the rebellious officers with what little evidence he had, it might enflame an already angry army and would only make matters worse. Yet, if he did nothing, the mutinous plan would go forward and he would be complicit in an act of treason.
To make matters worse, a group of influential creditors were supporting the military's rebellion. They had lent money to the government and, like the army, they were not getting paid what was due them. At this point, Washington knew that the nation was perilously close to becoming a dictatorship, with the military controlling the government. He also knew that such a condition was not favorable for ensuring the survival of freedom. He had to do something to stop this rebellion but he didn't know what he could do to prevent it.
Then General Washington came in possession of a secret memo calling on all officers to a meeting on March 10. Washington was not supposed to see that letter but now he knew there was open rebellion against his own authority, not just from the soldiers but from many of his own officers. Washington quickly sent out a notice cancelling the meeting. Even so, he knew that it was only a matter of a short time before the mutinous officers would reschedule the meeting and would make doubly sure that their Commander-in-Chief didn't know about it.
To prevent this from happening, Washington himself scheduled a meeting on March 15 for all of his officers. His plan was to speak to them with reason and calmness in an effort to persuade them to abandon their plans for mutiny against the American government. However, fearing that his officers would not express their true feelings in his presence, he let it be known that he himself would not be in attendance at this meeting. Instead, he would have one of his senior subordinates speak for him. In this way, he hoped it would allow the men to speak more freely, which would then give him the chance to more directly address their concerns.
The meeting was scheduled for the late morning and the high ranking subordinate Washington appointed to act in his place was General Horatio Gates. At the meeting, General Gates conducted it as an official representative of General Washington. Elated at his good fortune, General Gates proceeded to outline his plan for seizing control of Congress but no sooner had he begun than General Washington walked into the room.
At six feet, two inches tall, Washington was an imposing figure, even out of uniform but that day, as he walked past the men toward the front of the room, his sudden appearance had an electrifying effect on those assembled. He walked briskly up to General Gates and then asked if he could address the officers. Stunned by Washington's appearance, Gates had no choice but to obey his superior officer's request.
Washington had worked for days on the speech he planned to give that day. Using his best skilled voice to convey his message, Washington spoke passionately to his men, imploring them to reconsider what they were about to do and the harm it would do to the country they had fought to preserve. He appealed to their patriotism and their honor and pleaded with them to behave themselves as was befitting officers of the United States army.
As he spoke, the men sat quietly listening to his words but when he was through speaking he could tell from the look in their eyes that he had not changed their minds. Feeling as though he had failed in his mission to persuade them away from their course of action he stood there for a moment trying to figure out what else he could say that would turn their hearts.
Then he remembered a letter he had in his coat pocket, written by a member of Congress. Thinking that perhaps if he read the sentiments of this Congressman it might have a calming effect on his officers, Washington pulled out the letter and unfolded it. However, as he tried to read it, his eyes could not focus on the words. Hesitating again, Washington reach again into his jacket and pulled out a pair of eye glasses. As he put them on he said, "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."
George Washington was a physically strong man and the manner in which he carried himself instilled confidence in others. For this reason, he only used his eye glasses in private. Now, as he stood before his officers, they were stunned to see their beloved leader wearing the objects of old age. As Washington read the letter, no one really paid any attention to what he was saying because they were too busy staring at the spectacles on their Commanding officer.
When Washington was through reading the letter and not knowing what else to say, he quietly folded the letter, took off his glasses, then walked off the platform and quickly headed for the door at the back of the room. As he passed by his men, many of them had tears running down their cheeks.
General Gates tried to bring the meeting back to his original plan but by now he no longer had the overwhelming support he had enjoyed just moments before. When a vote was taken, the majority of officers chose not to follow the course of action Gates proposed but instead chose to follow the path of patience and non-violence that their Command-in-Chief had asked of them.
Although Washington had adverted a crisis, when Congress realized how close they came to being taken captive by the military, they quickly agreed to pay the soldiers the money that was due them. It was George Washington who led America's military to victory in the Revolutionary War thereby securing our independence. But it was the same George Washington who, almost singlehandedly, saved America from being overthrown by its own military and, in the process, preserved our freedom. It's no wonder that he is called "the father of our country."