Few Americans are aware, however, that as commander-in-chief, Washington also halted a budding army insurrection, a potential coup that likely would have strangled the new democracy.
It’s referred to as the Newburgh Conspiracy, named for an anonymous letter originated in Newburgh, N.Y., that was circulating through the Continental Army.
In the autumn of 1782, many Revolutionary War officers in the Hudson Highlands were angry and frustrated that they had not been paid in months — years, for some. With victory over the British within sight, they began to fear that they would never get their back pay and the postwar pensions they’d been promised because the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, meeting under the Articles of Confederation of 1777, had no power to raise funds to pay them.
Luckily, our greatest president nipped the potential coup in the bud with an impassioned speech to his officers to respect the supremacy of Congress.
Why is this bit of history so important to us today? It’s because some contemporary problems and passions closely resemble the Revolutionary War zeitgeist that spawned the Newburgh Conspiracy.
It could happen today. Consider these developments:
1. Then and now, ample talk of state secession. Texas, the largest state in the lower 48, has made plenty of noise about leaving the union in recent years. In 2012, more than 125,000 people signed a petition asking the president’s administration to, “Peacefully grant the State of Texas to withdraw from the United States of America and create its own NEW government.” Three years earlier, Texas Gov. Rick Perry had threatened to secede. The Alaskan Independence Party has been very proactive in advocating for that state’s secession, although that is not the party’s current stance.
2. Many counties want to secede from their state. North Colorado, South Florida, Upper Peninsula (Michigan), Baja Arizona, State of Jefferson (northern California and southern Oregon), South California, Cook County (Illinois), Northwest Angle (Minnesota), Independent Long Island, Northern Virginia, Killington (Vermont) and Western Maryland all have expressed interest in becoming the next state.
It’s a similar problem to states that want to leave the union — the legacy of separation itself could prove tumultuous and, of course, a secession could create a domino effect and weaken the country.
3. We’re failing on our commitment to our veterans. The U.S. military force today is beyond comparison to Washington’s Continental Army. Today, homelessness, unemployment, rampant PTSD, depression, divorce and disabling war injuries plague our military, and the government is slow in responding with health care. In 2013, it took more than a month, on average, for veterans to begin seeing a psychiatrist for therapy; and in 2012, at least two veterans died while waiting to see a doctor.
Provided the status quo remains stable enough, without suffering another catastrophic economic depression, the balkanization of the United States should remain a preference only for a fringe portion of the population.
But, then again, many are primed to secede should our fortunes sour.
(About the writer: Dave Richards served seven years in the U.S. Army, primarily in military intelligence. He earned a bachelor’s in Russian language and literature from George Washington University and a master’s in Slavic and East European languages and literatures from Ohio State. He joined the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., where he taught Russian to members of the armed forces. An avid student of American history, he writes regularly for historical quarterlies.)