On this Memorial Day weekend we do well to reflect on those near perfect displays of patriotic love that evidence the American soldier’s responsibility to defending our constitutional republican government. To be sure, failures recent and ancient abound in the imprudent use of martial force that does not consider its capabilities and limitations, nor its larger connection with the protection of American constitutionalism. American foundations, however, in this regard, provide resources for nobility in the service of the constitutional ideal of the American republic.
Present at the creation, Amy Kass, Leon Kass, and Diana Schaub remind us in their wonderful volume of American civic education What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song, was General George Washington and his prudential and decisive scuttling of the little-discussed Newburgh Conspiracy of 1783. Justly angered over the failure of the Congress to provide full pay and pensions, soldiers in the Continental Army circulated a petition and even presented before Congress in late 1782 their grievances for back pay. Their demands were not acted upon by Congress and their officers circulated an anonymous letter that stated if their demands were not met that they would not fight nor would they disband. Their threat was that of a coup, or of letting their country be returned to British control as they retreated into the hinterland. To this moment, potentially rife with the undoing of the republic before it even began to walk, Washington responded with initial conciliation and then a decisive rebuttal.
His task was complicated by the weakness of the Congress and the relative justice of the officers’ demands. Washington replied that he would speak to their provocations on the 15th of March, 1783. Many of the officers proclaimed that Washington was already capitulating to their demands. The greater need, however, was to dispel tension and appear amenable while also delivering a condemnation to those who were apparently planning such action. Washington’s speech to the assembled representatives of the army whom he had asked to meet him bears repeating almost in full:
Thus much, gentlemen, I have thought it incumbent on me to observe to you, to shew upon what principles I opposed the irregular and hasty meeting which was proposed to have been held on Tuesday last: — and not because I wanted a disposition to give you every opportunity, consistent with your own honor, and the dignity of the army, to make known your grievances. If my conduct heretofore, has not evinced to you, that I have been a faithful friend to the army, my declaration of it at this time would be equally unavailing & improper. But as I was among the first who embarked in the cause of our common country As I have never left your side one moment, but when called from you, on public duty As I have been the constant companion & witness of your distresses, and not among the last to feel, & acknowledge your merits As I have ever considered my own military reputation as inseparably connected with that of the army As my Heart has ever expanded with joy, when I have heard its praises and my indignation has arisen, when the mouth of detraction has been opened against it it can scarcely be supposed, at this late stage of the war, that I am indifferent to its interests.
After listing what he understands to be the course of the planned revolt, Washington appeals to their wisdom and concludes his speech with words stating their achievements over the course of the war, and the hope that they will not lightly forego the future that awaits them:
For myself (and I take no merit in giving the assurance, being induced to it from principles of gratitude, veracity & Justice) — a grateful sense of the confidence you have ever placed in me a recollection of the cheerful assistance, & prompt obedience I have experienced from you, under every vicisitude of fortune, — and the sincere I feel for an army I have so long had the honor to command, will oblige me to declare, in this public & solemn manner, that, in the attainment of compleat justice for all your toils & dangers, and in the gratification of every wish, so far as may be done consistently with the great duty I owe my country, and those powers we are bound to respect, you may freely command my services to the utmost of my abilities.
While I give you these assurances, and pledge my self in the most unequivocal manner, to exert whatever ability I am possessed of, in your favor let me entreat you, gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures, which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, & sully the glory you have hitherto maintained let me request you to rely on the plighted faith of your country, and place a full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress; that, previous to your dissolution as an Army they will cause all your accounts to be fairly liquidated, as directed in their resolutions, which were published to you two days ago and that they will adopt the most effectual measures in their power, to render ample justice to you, for your faithful and meritorious Services. And let me conjure you, in the name of our common country as you value your own sacred honor as you respect the rights of humanity; as you regard the military & national character of America, to express your utmost horror & detestation of the man who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our country, & who wickedly attempts to open the flood gates of civil discord, & deluge our rising empire in blood.
By thus determining — & thus acting, you will pursue the plain & direct road to the attainment of your wishes. You will defeat the insidious designs of our enemies, who are compelled to resort from open force to secret artifice. You will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism & patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings; — And you will, by the dignity of your conduct, afford occasion for posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to mankind, had this day been wanting, the world has never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.
Washington’s Newburgh Address ended with the following words delivered as he unfolded a letter from the Congress: “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.” The Newburgh Conspiracy was no more.