Posted by: Democratic Thinker | January 9, 2010

Newburgh Crisis: VII—Washington Appeals to Congress

Washington Secures the Republic

Following the Battle of Yorktown, the Continental Army encamped at Newburgh, New York. Under-provisioned, unpaid, and in dire straits, the soldier tried various courses of action to obtain the funding promised them by the states and the Continental Congress. Some of their plans were as desperate as their situation and threatened to destroy the republic.

… I am pleading the cause of an army which have done and suffered more than any other army ever did in the defence of the rights and liberties of human nature …

Letter to the President of the Congress

Head-quarters, Newburgh March 18, 1783.


THE result of the proceedings of the grand convention of the officers, which I have the honor of enclosing to your Excellency for the inspection of Congress, will, I flatter myself, be considered as the last glorious proof of patriotism which could have been given by men who aspired to the distinction of a patriot army; and will not only confirm their claim to the justice, but will encrease their title to the gratitude of their country.

Having seen the proceedings on the part of the army terminate with perfect unanimity, and in a manner entirely consonant to my wishes; being impressed with the liveliest sentiments of affection for those who have so long, so patiently, and so cheerfully suffered and fought under my immediate direction; having from motives of justice, duty and gratitude, spontaneously offered myself as an advocate for their rights; and having been requested to write to your Excellency, earnestly entreating the most speedy decision of Congress upon the subjects of the late address from the army to that honorable body; it now only remains for me to perform the task I have assumed, and to intercede in their behalf, as I now do, that the sovereign power will be pleased to verify the predictions I have pronounced of, and the confidence the army have reposed in the justice of their country.

And here I humbly conceive it is altogether unnecessary (while I am pleading the cause of an army which have done and suffered more than any other army ever did in the defence of the rights and liberties of human nature) to expatiate on their claims to the most ample compensation for their meritorious services, because they are perfectly known to the whole world, and because, (although the topics are inexhaustible) enough has already been said on the subject. To prove these assertions, to evince that my sentiments have ever been uniform, and to shew what my ideas of the rewards in question have always been, I appeal to the archives of Congress, and call on those sacred deposits to witness for me. And in order that my observations and arguments in favour of a future adequate provision for the officers of the army may be brought to remembrance again, and considered in a single point of view without giving Congress the trouble of having recourse to their files, I will beg leave to transmit herewith an extract from a representation made by me to a committee of Congress, so long ago as the 29th of January, 1778, and also the transcript of a letter to the President of Congress, dated near Passaic Falls, October 11, 1780.

That in the critical and perilous moment when the last mentioned communication was made, there was the utmost danger a dissolution of the army would have taken place, unless measures similar to those recommended had been adopted, will not admit a doubt. That the adoption of the resolution, granting half-pay for life, has been attended with all the happy consequences I had foretold, so far as respected the good of the service, let the astonishing contrast between the state of the army at this instant, and at the former period, determine. And that the establishment of fluids, and security of the payment of all the just demands of the army, will be the most certain means of preserving the national faith and future tranquillity of this extensive continent, is my decided opinion.

By the preceding remarks, it will readily be imagined, that instead of retracting and reprehending (from farther experience and reflection) the mode of compensation so strenuously urged in the enclosures, I am more and more confirmed in the sentiment, and if in the wrong, suffer me to please myself with the grateful delusion.

For if, besides the simple payment of their wages, a farther compensation is not due to the sufferings and sacrifices of the officers, then have I been mistaken indeed. If the whole army have not merited whatever a grateful people can bestow, then have I been beguiled by prejudice, and built opinion on the basis of error. If this country should not, in the event, perform every thing which has been requested in the late memorial to Congress, then will my belief become vain, and the hope that has been excited, void of foundation. And “if,” (as has been suggested for the purpose of inflaming their passions) “the officers of the army are to be the only sufferers by this revolution; if retiring from the field they are to grow old in poverty, wretchedness and contempt; if they are to wade through the vile mire of dependency, and owe the miserable remnant of that life to charity, which has hitherto been spent in honor,” then shall I have learned what ingratitude is, then shall I have realized a tale which will embitter every moment of my future life.

But I am under no such apprehensions; a country rescued by their arms from impending ruin, will never leave unpaid the debt of gratitude.

Should any intemperate or improper warmth have mingled itself amongst the foregoing observations, I must entreat your Excellency and Congress, it may be attributed to the effusion of an honest zeal in the best of causes, and that my peculiar situation may be my apology; and I hope I need not, on this momentous occasion, make any new protestations of personal disinterestedness, having ever renounced for myself the idea of pecuniary reward. The consciousness of having attempted faithfully to discharge my duty, and the approbation of my country, will be a sufficient recompense for my services.

I have the honor to be
With perfect respect
Yr. Excellency’s
Most Obed. Servt
Go. Washington

His Excelly, The Presidnt in Congress.

Extract from a representation made by the Commander in Chief to a Committee of Congress at the army, 29th January, 1778.


THE numerous defects in our present military establishment, rendering many reformations and many new arrangements absolutely necessary, and Congress having been pleased to appoint you a committee, in concert with me, to make and recommend such as shall appear eligible, in pursuance of the various objects expressed in their resolution for that purpose,—I have in the following sheets briefly delivered my sentiments upon such of them as seemed to me most essential, so far as observation has suggested and leisure permitted. These are submitted to consideration, and I shall be happy if they are found conducive to remedying the evils and inconveniences we are now subject to, and putting the army upon a more respectable footing. Something must be done; important alterations must be made; necessity requires that our resources should be enlarged and our system improved; for without it, if the dissolution of the army should not be the consequence, at least, its operation must infallibly be feeble, languid and ineffectual.

As I consider a proper and satisfactory provision for officers, in a manner as the basis of every other regulation and arrangement necessary to be made; since without officers no army can exist, and unless some measures be devised to place those of ours in a more desirable situation, few of them would be able, if willing to continue in it;—I shall begin with a few reflections tending to prove the necessity of a half-pay and pensionary establishment.

A small knowledge of human nature will convince us that with far the greatest part of mankind, interest is the governing principle, and that almost every man is more or less under its influence. Motives of public virtue may for a time, or in particular instances, actuate men to the observance of a conduct purely disinterested, but they are not of themselves sufficient to produce a persevering conformity to the refined dictates and obligations of social duty; few men are capable of making a continual sacrifice of all views of private interest or advantage, to the common good: it is in vain to exclaim against the depravity of human nature on this account—the fact is so, the experience of every age and nation has proved it, and we must in a great measure change the constitution of man, before we can make it otherwise; no institution not built on the presumptive truths of these maxims, can succeed.

We find them exemplified in the American officers, as well as in all other men. At the commencement of the dispute in the first effusions of their zeal, and looking upon the service to be only temporary, they entered into it without paying any regard to pecuniary or selfish considerations; but finding its duration to be much longer than they at first suspected, and that instead of deriving any advantage from the hardships and dangers to which they were exposed, they, on the contrary, were losers by their patriotism, and fell far short even of a competency to supply their wants; they have gradually abated in their ardor; and with many an entire disinclination to the service, under ite present circumstances, has taken place. To this, in an eminent degree, must be ascribed the frequent resignations daily happening, and the more frequent importunities for permission to resign, and from some officers of the greatest merit; to this also may be ascribed the apathy, inattention and neglect of duty, which pervade all ranks, and which will necessarily continue and increase, while an officer, instead of gaining any thing is impoverished by his commission, and conceives he is conferring, not receiving a favor in holding it. There can be no sufficient tie upon men possessing such sentiments; nor can any method be adopted to oblige those to a punctual discharge of duty, who are indifferent about their continuance in the service, and are often seeking a pretext to disengage themselves from it. Punishment, in this case, will be unavailing; but when an officer’s commission is made valuable to him, and he fears to lose it, you may then exact obedience from him.

It is not indeed consistent with reason or justice, to expect that one set of men should make a sacrifice of property, domestic ease and happiness, encounter the rigors of the field, the perils and vicissitudes of war, to obtain those blessings which every citizen will enjoy in common with them, without some adequate compensation. It must also be a comfortless reflection to any man, that after he may have contributed to securing the rights of his country, at the risk of his life and the ruin of his fortune, there would be no provision made to prevent himself and family from sinking into indigence and wretchedness. Besides adopting some methods to make the provision for officers equal to their present exigencies, a due regard should be paid to futurity. Nothing, in my opinion, would serve more powerfully to reanimate their languishing zeal, and interest them thoroughly in the service, than a half pay and pensionary establishment. This would not only dispel the apprehension of personal distress at the termination of the war, from having thrown themselves out of professions and employments they might not have it in their power to resume, but would in a great degree relieve the painful anticipation of leaving their widows and orphans a burthen on the charity of their country, should it be their lot to fall in its defence.

I am earnest in recommending this measure, because I know it is the general wish and expectation, and that many officers, whom, upon every principle we should wish to retain in the service, are only waiting to see whether something of the kind will, or will not take place, to be determined in their resolution, either of staying in or quitting it immediately; and I urge my sentiments with the greater freedom, because I cannot and shall not receive the smallest benefit from the establishment, and can have no other inducement for proposing it, than a full conviction of its utility and propriety.

I am sensible, the expence will be a capital objection to it, but to this I oppose the necessity. The officers are now discontented with their situation: if some generous expedient is not embraced to remove their discontent, so extensive a desertion from the service will ensue, and so much discouragement be cast upon those who remain, as must wound it in a very essential manner. Every thing that has this effect, has a tendency at least, to protract the war, and though dictated by a well intended frugality, will, I fear, in the end, prove erroneous economy.

Extract of a letter from General Washington to Congress, dated Passaick Falls, llth October, 1780.

THAT there are the most conclusive reasons for reducing the number of regiments, no person acquainted with the situation of our affairs, and the state of the army, will deny. A want of officers, independent of other considerations, were sufficient to compel us; but that the temper of the army, produced by its sufferings, requires great caution in any reforms that are attempted, is a position not less evident than the former. In services the best established, where the hands of government are strengthened by the. strongest interests of the army to submission, the reducing of its regiments, and dismissing a great part of its officers is always a measure of difficulty and delicacy. In ours, where the officers are held by the feeblest ties, and are mouldering away by daily resignations, it is peculiarly so. The last reduction occasioned many to quit the service besides those who were reformed, and left durable seeds of discontent among those who remained. The general topic of declamation was, that it was as hard as dishonorable for men, who had made every sacrifice to the sendee to be turned out of it at the pleasure of those in power, without an adequate compensation. In the maturity to which their uneasinesses have now arisen, from a continuance in misery, they will be still more impatient under an attempt of a similar nature. How far these dispositions may be reasonable, I pretend not to decide, but in the extremity to which we are arrived, policy forbids us to add new irritations; too many of the officers wish to get rid of their commissions, but they are unwilling to be forced into it.

It is not the intention of these remarks to discourage a reform, but to shew the necessity of guarding against the ill effects by an ample provision, both for the officers who stay, and for those who are reduced. This should be the basis of the plan, and without it I apprehend the most mischievous consequences; this would obviate many scruples that will otherwise be found prejudicial in the extreme. I am convinced Congress are not a little straitened in the means of a present provision, so ample as to give satisfaction, but this proves the expediency of a future one, and brings me to that which I have so frequently recommended as the most eoonomical, the most politic and the most effectual that could be devised, a half-pay for life: supported by a prospect of a permanent dependence, the officers would be tied to the service, and would submit to many momentary privations, and to the inconveniences which the situation of public affairs makes unavoidable. This is exemplified in the Pennsylvania officers, who, being upon this establishment, are so much interested in the service, that in the course of months there has been only one resignation in that line.

If the objection drawn from the principle of this measure, being incompatible with the genius of our government, is thought insurmountable, I would propose a substitute less eligible, in my opinion, but which may answer the purpose—It is, to make the present half-pay for seven years whole pay for the same period, to be advanced in two different payments; one half in a year after the conclusion of peace, the other half in two years subsequent to the first.

“No objection to this measure occurs to me, except it be thought too great an expence; but in my judgment, whatever can give consistency to our military establishment, will be ultimately favourable to ceconomy. It is not easy to be conceived, except by those who are witnesses to it, what an additional waste and consumption of every thing, and consequently what an increase of expence, results from the laxness of discipline in the army, and where the officers think they are doing the public a favour by holding their commissions, and the men are continually fluctuating, it is impossible to maintain discipline. Nothing can to me be more obvious than that a sound military establishment and the interests of oeconomy are the same: how much more the purposes of the war will be promoted by it in other respects, will not admit of an argument.

In reasoning upon the measure of a future provision, I have heard gentlemen object the want of it in some foreign armies, without adverting to the difference of circumstances. The military state holds the first rank in most of the countries of Europe, and is the road to honor and emolument. The establishment is permanent, and whatever be an officer’s provision, it is for life, and he has a profession for life, he has future as well as present motives of military honor and preferment; he is attached to the service by the spirit of the government, by education, and in most cases by early habit; his present condition, if not splendid, is comfortable; pensions, distinctions and particular privileges, are commonly his rewards in retirement. In the case of the American officers, the military character has been suddenly taken up, and is to end with the war.

Congress will herewith receive a list of the officers in the New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland lines, previous to its marching to the southward: also in Crane’s and Lamb’s artillery, Sheldon’s horse; and in Hazen’s, Sherburn’s, Spencer’s and Livingston’s regiments, who have actually had their resignations entered at head-quarters in the course of this year; and who, in general, urged their necessities when they applied on the subject, and insisted, notwithstanding every persuasion to induce their continuance, that their circumstances would not admit of their remaining in service longer. Besides those resignations, there are a great many of which I have no certain account, as the officers being permitted to go home on furlough in the course of the last winter, have never rejoined the army, and have only sent messages, or written to their regimental officers, that their own distresses and those of their families, would not permit their return. As to the resignations which have taken place in the Virginia line and the other troops at the southward, since they were acting in that quarter, I have no account of them, but I make no doubt that many have happened. All these serve to shew the necessity of some more competent establishment than the present one; and I hold it my duty to mention, from the accounts I daily receive, unless this is the case, that I have strong reasons to believe we shall not be able to retain, after the end of the campaign, as many officers, especially in some lines, as will be even sufficient for the common duties when in quarters. If matters fortunately should not proceed to the lengths my fears forebode, yet Congress will be sensible at the first view, of the injuries and great inconveniences which must attend such a continual change of officers and consequent promotions, which are and will be inevitable.

After having exhibited this view of the present state of the army, it is almost needless to add that, excepting in the rank of field officers, and a very few captains, we shall have new officers to provide, rather than old ones to disband, at the reduction of regiments; and how they are to be had I know not, no disposition having been discovered of late to enter the service. Congress have little to apprehend on account of the expence of supernumerary officers when this event takes place.