The Newburgh Mutiny, Spring 1783 (Hamilton 44)

As I read about the 1782-1783 session of the Continental Congress, I started to wonder whether New York State’s legislature sent Alexander Hamilton as a delegate to Congress because they were so impressed with him … or because no one else wanted to go.  Hamilton himself admitted to good intentions, but not high expectations. “I do not hope to reform the State,” he told Richard Kidder Meade in August, “although I shall endeavour to do all the good I can.”

In November 1782, Hamilton resigned his position as tax receiver for the State of New York (see this post) and rode off to Philadelphia. En route, he dashed off a letter to Eliza (11/18/1782):

I am perfectly well, and as happy as I can be when absent from you. Remember your promise; don’t fail to write me by every post. I shall be miserable if I do not hear once a week from you and my precious infant. You both grow dearer to me every day. I would give the world for a kiss from either of you.

Adieu My precious charmer    Yr tender A H (more here)

A month later (12/18/1782), he was desperate for her company:

I begin to be insupportably anxious to see you again. I hope this pleasure may not be long delayed. I wish you to take advantage of the first good snow that promises to carry you through, to get as far as Mr. Cortland’s at Persepenni [Parsippany?]. …

When you are in the Jerseys write me of your arrival and I will come for you. Write me indeed when you will set out. I do not know whom you will get to travel with you. I am loth that you should make so long a journey alone.

For God’s sake take care of my child on the journey. I am very apprehensive on his account. … (More here)

Lovesick he might be, but Hamilton was soon making his presence felt in Congress. In early December, he successfully  moved that Robert Morris, superintendent of Finance, tell the state legislatures that they must ante up payments on the war debt. A few days later, Hamilton was chairman of the committee that tried to persuade tiny, recalcitrant Rhode Island to agree to an import duty, so that the United States could begin to pay off its vociferous creditors. (See Kent’s Memoirspp. 283-88 in the printed version).

Meanwhile …

Peace negotiations with Great Britain, late 1782

John Adams wrote to Abigail from Paris on 11/8/1782:

G.B. has Shifted Suddenly about, and from persecuting Us with unrelenting Bowells [Say WHAT, John?], has unconditionally and unequivocally acknowledged Us a Sovereign State and independant Nation. (More here)

By November 30, 1782, the British had hashed out a preliminary treaty with Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and Henry Laurens. The draft acknowledged “the Said United States … to be free, Sovereign, and independent States … [and Great Britain] relinquishes all claims to the Government, Propriety and territorial Rights of the Same, and every Part thereof.” It set boundaries with Canada and in the west (at the Mississippi River) and granted Americans fishing rights off Newfoundland. The draft treaty also promised that creditors on both sides would be allowed to collect money owed to them (Article 4) and that Congress would “earnestly recommend” to the states that they restore property confiscated from British loyalists (Article 5). No confiscations or prosecutions were to be commenced against those who took part in the war (Article 6). King George would withdraw his armies, garrisons, and fleets from “every Port, Place and Harbour” of the United States (Article 7). (More here)

The army demands its pay

Independence Hall in the 1770s. Image: Wikipedia

Pennsylvania State House (later known as Independence Hall) in the 1770s. Image: Wikipedia

With the prospect of peace, many of the states felt there was no further need for a national government or a standing army. Hence the states were even less willing to provide the funds they had promised to Congress.

But the members of the Continental Army had not been paid for years. Knowing from bitter experience how difficult it was to pry funds out of Congress, some of them were inclined not to go home until they had received their pay. In November 1782, officers from Massachusetts began collecting a list of grievances. The officers of the Sixth Regiment wrote:

We believe that we engaged to serve the public, not as slaves at discretion for life, but as freemen upon contract for a definite period; that in order to make any contract binding on one party, the stipulations must be fulfilled by the other, or at least endeavors manifested by the other for their fulfillment. We flatter ourselves that no endeavors, or actual exertions have been wanting on our part to fulfil the contract with the public, or even to answer their most sanguine expectations. But at the close of the sixth year of the contract we have not received more than one-sixth part of our pay. (Quoted in Hatch, Administration of the Revolutionary Army, p. 149)

The Massachusetts officers soon invited the officers of New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey (all in winter quarters with Washington in Newburgh, N.Y.) to join them in writing a memorial to Congress. The finished document included an oblique threat:

Our distresses are now brought to a point. We have borne all that men can bear—our property is expended—our private resources are at an end, and our friends are wearied out and disgusted with our incessant applications. We therefore most seriously and earnestly beg, that a supply of money may be forwarded to the army as soon as possible. The uneasiness of the soldiers, for want of pay, is great and dangerous; any further experiments on their patience may have fatal effects. (Hatch, p. 150)

Major-General McDougall, Lt.-Col. Brooks, and Col. Ogden rode off to Philadelphia with this memorial. After some private discussions with members of Congress, they formally presented it on January 6, 1783. Robert Morris, superintendent of Finances, told them that payment at present was impossible: Congress had no money. McDougall and Brooks both responded that the officers were ready to resort to extreme measures, in part because they were irritated that civil officers (Congress, for example) were never  left unpaid.

A Congressional committee report written by Hamilton ordered that the superintendent of Finances would, “as soon as the condition of the treasury permitted, furnish pay in such amounts as he thought proper; and that the States should be recommended immediately to settle accounts with their respective lines [soldiers] up to August 1, 1780.” (Quoted in Hatch,  p. 155.)

But of course the national treasury had no prospects of income, and Congress had no power to force the states to provide it.

Hamilton in Congress

Hamilton had a unique perspective on this situation. He had served in the army for six years: he sympathized with his fellow soldiers. He had been a tax receiver in New York State for four months: he knew how difficult it was to raise funds for the federal government. As a new member of Congress, he had observed first-hand the sort of ineffectual wrangling that went on there. In six issues of his Continentalist series (1781-1782),  he had argued in favor of a more powerful national government.

On January 12, 1783 – within a week of when McDougall, Brooks and Ogden presented their memorial – Hamilton sent one of his regular updates to George Clinton, governor of New York State.

We have now here a deputation from the army, and feel a mortification of a total disability to comply with their just expectations. If, however, the matter is taken up in a proper manner, I think their application may be turned to a good account. Every day proves more & more the insufficiency of the confederation. (More here)

According to the notes of James Madison (who was Hamilton’s ally at this point), Hamilton made the same point to Congress

As the energy of the fœderal Govt. was evidently short of the degree necessary for pervading & uniting the States it was expedient to introduce the influence of officers deriving their emoluments from & consequently interested in supporting the power of Congress. (More here)

Notice that he’s explicitly saying the army’s demands might support Congress – that is, support a stronger national government.

Hamilton corresponds with Washington

Washington's headquarters at Newburgh, N.Y. Image: Wikipedia

Washington’s headquarters at Newburgh, N.Y. Image: Wikipedia

Hamilton made the same points to Washington, too.  He had not been in touch with Washington for over a year, but from February through April 1783, the two exchanged a spate of letters. They agree, again and again, that the soldiers should be paid and that the national government should be stronger.

Before we get to those letters: Since 1970 or so, there has been a move to place Hamilton at the center of a 1783 conspiracy (the “Newburgh Conspiracy”) to use military force to overthrow the government. As it happens, I read one such interpretation just before I started to draft this post, and it skewed my first perusal of the letters. After reading Michael Newton’s very persuasive post on the Newburgh Conspiracy (more on that at the end of this post), the Hamilton-Washington correspondence looked quite different.

So while as a rule I try to cut the length of the excerpts in these posts, I’m giving long excerpts here – it’s more difficult to twist long passages than snippets – and stating my interpretation of each. If you don’t know about the modern interpretation of Newburgh Conspiracy, this may seem like overkill; but I think it’s necessary, and it’s my blog, dammit.

Below is most of Hamilton’s letter to Washington of 2/13/1783. As we know from the Vindication, from the Continentalist essays, and from his correspondence with Robert Morris, the Vicomte de Noailles, and others, Hamilton was extremely adept at gathering facts, looking for principles, and giving a big-picture summary. Doubtless it was one of the skills that made Washington value him so highly as an aide-de-camp. Here is Hamilton doing that again, from his new perspective in Congress.

Flattering myself that your knowlege of me will induce you to receive the observations I make as dictated by a regard to the public good, I take the liberty to suggest to you my ideas on some matters of delicacy and importance. I view the present juncture as a very interesting one. I need not observe how far the temper and situation of the army make it so. The state of our finances was perhaps never more critical. I am under injunctions which will not permit me to disclose some facts that would at once demonstrate this position, but I think it probable you will be possessed of them through another channel. It is however certain that there has scarcely been a period of the revolution which called more for wisdom and decision in Congress. Unfortunately for us we are a body not governed by reason or foresight but by circumstances. It is probable we shall not take the proper measures, and if we do not a few months may open an embarrassing scene. This will be the case whether we have peace or a continuance of the war.

If the war continues it would seem that the army must in June subsist [= support] itself to defend the country; if peace should take place it will subsist itself to procure justice to itself. It appears to be a prevailing opinion in the army that the disposition to recompence their services will cease with the necessity for them, and that if they once lay down their arms, they will part with the means of obtaining justice. It is to be lamented that appearances afford too much ground for their distrust.

It becomes a serious inquiry what will be the true line of policy. The claims of the army urged with moderation, but with firmness, may operate on those weak minds which are influenced by their apprehensions more than their judgments; so as to produce a concurrence in the measures which the exigencies of affairs demand. They may add weight to the applications of Congress to the several states. So far an useful turn may be given to them. But the difficulty will be to keep a complaining and suffering army within the bounds of moderation.

This Your Excellency’s influence must effect. In order to [do] it, it will be adviseable not to discountenance their endeavours to procure redress, but rather by the intervention of confidential and prudent persons, to take the direction of them. This however must not appear: it is of moment to the public tranquillity that Your Excellency should preserve the confidence of the army without losing that of the people. This will enable you in case of extremity to guide the torrent, and bring order perhaps even good, out of confusion. ’Tis a part that requires address; but ’tis one which your own situation as well as the welfare of the community points out.

So: Congress is a mess. It probably won’t pay the army. Maybe the army’s claims “urged with moderation and fairness” will help push Congress into action, but it’s crucial that the commander-in-chief keep the army from getting out of control.

And now we get to the reason Hamilton is writing: the matter of “delicacy and importance.” He’s giving Washington a warning. Hamilton has heard talk in Philadelphia that the army considers Washington to be only a lukewarm advocate of the army’s rights. Watch your back, sir.

I will not conceal from Your Excellency a truth which it is necessary you should know. An idea is propagated in the army that delicacy carried to an extreme prevents your espousing its interests with sufficient warmth. The falsehood of this opinion no one can be better acquainted with than myself; but it is not the less mischievous for being false. Its tendency is to impair that influence, which you may exert with advantage, should any commotions unhappily ensue, to moderate the pretensions of the army and make their conduct correspond with their duty. (More here)

In the next paragraph, Hamilton reminds Washington that his long-term goal is to get the finances of the United States in order, so that the nation can survive:

The great desideratum at present is the establishment of general funds, which alone can do justice to the Creditors of the United States (of whom the army forms the most meritorious class), restore public credit and supply the future wants of government. This is the object of all men of sense; in this the influence of the army, properly directed, may cooperate. (More here)

A few days after he wrote this letter, Hamilton said at an evening get-together (with James Madison taking notes, as usual):

Mr. Hamilton & Mr. Peters who had the best knowledge of the temper, transactions & views of the army, informed the company that it was certain that the army had secretly determined not to lay down their arms until due provision & a satisfactory prospect should be afforded on the subject of their pay; that there was reason to expect that a public declaration to this effect would soon be made; that plans had been agitated if not formed for subsisting themselves after such declaration; that as a proof of their earnestness on this subject the Comander was already become extremely unpopular among almost all ranks from his known dislike to every unlawful proceeding, that this unpopularity was daily increasing & industriously promoted by many leading characters; that his choice of unfit & indiscreet persons into his family  [= military staff] was the pretext and with some a real motive; but the substantial one a desire to displace him from the respect & confidence of the army in order to substitute Genl. ___ [name heavily scored in manuscript] as the conductor of their efforts to obtain justice. Mr. Hamilton said that he knew Genl. Washington intimately and perfectly, that his extreme reserve, mixed sometimes with a degree of asperity of temper both of which were said to have increased of late, had contributed to the decline of his popularity; but that his virtue his patriotism & his firmness would it might be depended upon never yield to any dishonorable or disloyal plans into which he might be called; that he would sooner suffer himself to be cut into pieces; that he, (Mr. Hamilton) knowing this to be his true character wished him to be the conductor of the army in their plans for redress, in order that they might be moderated & directed to proper objects, & exclude some other leader who might foment and misguide their councils; that with this view he had taken the liberty to write to the Genl. on this subject and to recommend such a policy to him. (More here)

Hamilton is telling the members of Congress the same facts he told Washington: the army should be paid, the army is disgruntled, and Washington will keep them in check. And a bit more: there is “some other leader,” a general whose name is crossed out in Madison’s notes, who may lead the army astray if Washington is pushed out.

Washington thanked Hamilton for the head’s-up on 3/4/1783:

I have received your favor of February—& thank you for the information & observations it has conveyed to me … [W]here there is a want of information there must be chance medley and a man may be upon the brink of a precipice before he is aware of his danger, when a little fore knowledge might enable him to avoid it.

The predicament in which I stand as Citizen & Soldier, is as critical and delicate as can well be conceived—It has been the Subject of many contemplative hours. The Sufferings of a complaining Army on one hand,— & the inability of Congress & tardiness of the States on the other are the forebodings of evil and may be productive of events which are more to be depricated than prevented. …

The Contents of your letter is known only to my self—Your prudence will be at no less to know what use to make of these Sentiments— I am Dr Sir Yrs &c . GW (More here)

The anonymous letter at Newburgh and Washington’s response

A few days later (3/10/1783), an anonymous letter was circulated among the army at Newburgh, urging the officers to meet and draft an ultimatum to Congress. The “Address to the Officers” or “Newburgh Address” is a remarkable piece of rhetoric: even from the excerpt below, you can see how it must have inflamed emotions among the soldiers. (As with most rhetoric, it’s better read aloud, and surely would have been at Newburgh.)

After a pursuit of seven long years, the object for which we set out is at length brought within our reach! – Yes, my friends, that suffering courage of yours, was active once – it has conducted the United States of America through a doubtful and a bloody war! It has placed her in the chair of independency, and peace returns again to bless – whom? A country willing to redress your wrongs, cherish your worth, and reward your services; a country courting your return to private life, with tears of gratitude, and smiles of admiration; longing to divide with you that independency which your gallantry has given, and those riches which your wounds have preserved? Is this the case? or is it rather, a country that tramples upon your rights, disdains your cries, and insults your distresses? Have you not, more than once, suggested your wishes, and made known your wants to Congress? Wants and wishes which gratitude and policy should have anticipated, rather than evaded. And have you not lately, in the meek language of entreating memorial, begged from their justice, what you would no longer expect from their favour? …

[C]arry your appeal from the justice to the fears of government – change the milk and water style of your last [December 1782] memorial; assume a bolder tone – decent, but lively – spirited and determined; and suspect the man who would advise to more moderation and longer forbearance.

[Tell Congress] that in any political event, the army has its alternative. If peace, that nothing shall separate you from your arms but death [i.e., tell them that you will not go home without your pay]; if war, that courting the auspices and inviting the directions of your illustrious leader, you will retire to some unsettled country, smile in your turn, and “mock when their fear cometh on” [i.e., tell them that you won’t protect them from their enemies any more]. (More here)

The anonymous writer never says, “Let’s overthrow the government” – but he does suggest that the soldiers should remain armed in peacetime if they are not paid. One of the first lessons in handling a gun is that you don’t pick it up unless you’re willing to use it. This is a threat of civil war, of the army vs. the civilian government, and Washington and Hamilton assumed that. (See GW’s 3/12/1783 letter below, “civil horror,” and Hamilton on 3/17/1783 below, “the horrors of a civil war.”)

Washington was suspicious of this sudden explosion of anger among his troops: he thought someone in Philadelphia had lit the fuse. On 3/12/1783, two days after the anonymous letter began circulating, he wrote to Hamilton:

When I wrote to you last we were in a state of tranquility, but after the arrival of a certain Gentleman, who shall be nameless at present, from Philadelphia, a storm very suddenly arose with unfavourable prognostics; which tho’ diverted for a moment is not yet blown over, nor is it in my power to point to the issue. …

There is something very misterious in this business. It appears, reports have been propagated in Philadelphia, that dangerous combinations were forming in the Army; and this at a time when there was not a syllable of the kind in agitation in Camp. It also appears, that upon the arrival in Camp of the Gentleman above alluded to such sentiments as these were immediately circulated: That it was universally expected the army would not disband untill they had obtained justice; That the public creditors looked up to them for Redress of their own grievances, wd afford them every aid, and even join them in the Field if necessary; That some members of Congress wished the measure might take effect, in order to compel the public, particularly the delinquent States, to do justice; with many other suggestions of a similar nature.

From this, and a variety of other considerations, it is firmly believed, by some, the scheme was not only planned but also digested and matured in Philadelphia; but in my opinion shall be suspended till I have a better ground to found one on. The matter was managed with great art; for as soon as the Minds of the Officers were thought to be prepared for the transaction, the anonymous invitations and address to the Officers were put in circulation, through every state line in the army. I was obliged therefore, in order to arrest on the spot, the foot that stood wavering on a tremendous precipice; to prevent the Officers from being taken by surprize while the passions were all inflamed, and to rescue them from plunging themselves into a gulph of Civil horror from which there might be no receding, to issue the order of the 11th. This was done upon the principle that it is easier to divert from a wrong, and point to a right path, than it is to recall the hasty and fatal steps which have been already taken. …

Let me beseech you therefore, my good Sir, to urge this matter earnestly, and without further delay. The situation of these Gentlemen I do verily believe, is distressing beyond description. It is affirmed to me, that a large part of them have no better prospect before them than a Goal [jail], if they are turned loose without liquidation of accts. and an assurance of that justice to which they are so worthily entitled. To prevail on the Delegates of those States through whose means these difficulties occur, it may, in my opinion, with propriety be suggested to them, if any disastrous consequences should follow, by reason of their delinquency, that they must be answerable to God & their Country for the ineffable horrors which may be occasioned thereby. (More here)

So: someone came to Newburgh from Philadelphia, told the officers and men that no one expected them to disband, and called for them to issue an ultimatum. The officers, at fever pitch, scheduled the meeting. Washington ordered the meeting postponed for a few days to give them time to cool down. Hamilton should tell “the Delegates of those States” that have been preventing the army from being paid that if the army does get out of control, it’ll be on their heads.

Not only is Washington corresponding with Hamilton: he’s treating Hamilton as his inside man in Congress, the guy who can pass on to fellow delegates what’s really happening at Newburgh and what Washington thinks of the situation. (I wonder if there were any other former members of Washington’s staff in Congress at this point? No time to check that.)

At the officers’ meeting on March 15, Washington did indeed talk his men back from the precipice. He’s not appealing to emotions the way the anonymous author of the Newburgh Address did, but he ain’t too shabby at getting the audience on his side.

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 and witness of your distresses, and not among the last to feel and 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. But how are they to be promoted? …

With respect to the advice given by the author, to suspect the man who shall recommend moderate measures and longer forbearance, I spurn it, as every man who regards that liberty and reveres that justice for which we contend, undoubtedly must; for, if men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences that can invite the consideration of mankind, reason is of no use to us. The freedom of speech may be taken away, and, dumb and silent, we may be led, like sheep, to the slaughter. I cannot, in justice to my own belief, and what I have great reason to conceive is the intention of Congress, conclude this address, without giving it as my decided opinion, that that honorable body entertain exalted sentiments of the services of the army, and from a full conviction of its merits and sufferings, will do it compleat justice: that their endeavours to discover and establish funds for this purpose have been unwearied, and will not cease till they have succeeded, I have not a doubt. …

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, and as you regard the military and national character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man, who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our country; and who wickedly attempts to open the flood-gates of civil discord, and deluge our rising empire in blood. (More here)

An eyewitness account of the speech proves (did we need proof?) that Washington was as savvy in a meeting as on a battlefield.

After he had concluded his address, he said, that, as a corroborating testimony of the good disposition in Congress towards the army, he would communicate to them a letter received from a worthy member of that body, and one who on all occasions had ever approved himself their fast friend [Hamilton, perhaps? See Washington’s letter of 4/16/1783, below]. This was an exceedingly sensible letter; and, while it pointed out the difficulties and embarrassments of Congress, it held up very forcibly the idea that the army should, at all events, be generously dealt with. …

His Excellency, after reading the first paragraph, made a short pause, took out his spectacles, and begged the indulgence of his audience while he put them on, observing at the same time, that he had grown gray in their service, and now found himself growing blind. There was something so natural, so unaffected, in this appeal, as rendered it superior to the most studied oratory ; it forced its way to the heart, and you might see sensibility moisten every eye. (Journals of Major Samuel Shaw; more here)

Hamilton wrote to Washington on 3/17/1783, still sharing his concerns about the army and the nation, commending Washington for his ability to keep the army under control, and stating again that the army’s demands might do some good, if they’re temperate (i.e., if they don’t overthrow the government!).

I am happy to find You coincide in opinion with me on the conduct proper to be observed by yourself. I am persuaded more and more it is that which is most consistent with your own reputation and the public safety. …

I cannot forbear adding that if no excesses take place I shall not be sorry that ill-humours have appeared. I shall not regret importunity, if temperate, from the army.

There are good intentions in the Majority of Congress; but there is not sufficient wisdom or decision. There are dangerous prejudices in the particular states opposed to those measures which alone can give stability & prosperity to the Union. There is a fatal opposition to Continental views. Necessity alone can work a reform. But how apply it and how keep it within salutary bounds?

As to any combination of Force it would only be productive of the horrors of a civil war, might end in the ruin of the Country & would certainly end in the ruin of the army. (More here)

On 3/25/1783, Hamilton wrote to Washington on behalf of Congress, reminding him that Congress had no ability to demand funds from the states, and that once the peace treaty was signed, the army would have to be disbanded, since a standing army during peacetime was illegal.

For Washington’s eyes only, Hamilton sent another letter on 3/25/1783. He urges the army to moderation, but he has to admit, privately and with mortification, that he doesn’t think Congress will pay them.

The inclosed [=the letter on behalf of Congress] I write more in a public than in a private capacity. Here I write as a citizen zealous for the true happiness of this country – as a soldier who feels what is due to an army which has suffered everything and done much for the safety of America.

I sincerely wish ingratitude was not so natural to the human heart as it is. I sincerely wish there were no seeds of it in those who direct the councils of the United States. But while I urge the army to moderation and advise your Excellency to take the direction of their discontents and endeavor to confine them within the bounds of duty I cannot as an honest man conceal from you that I am afraid their distrusts have too much foundation. Republican jealousy has in it a principle of hostility to an army whatever be their merits, whatever be their claims to the gratitude of the community. It acknowledges their services with unwillingness and rewards them with reluctance. I see this temper though smothered with great care involuntarily breaking out upon too many occasions. I often feel a mortification which it would be impolitic to express that sets my passions at variance with my reason. Too many I perceive if they could do it with safety or color would be glad to elude the just pretensions of the army. (More here)

Washington replied to Hamilton on 3/31/1783, agreeing that the weakness of the government under the Articles of Confederation has been the cause of innumerable problems.

No Man in the United States is, or can be more deeply impressed with the necessity of a reform in our present Confederation than myself—No Man perhaps has felt the bad efects of it more sensibly; for to the defects thereof, & want of Powers in Congress may justly be ascribed the prolongation of the War, & consequently the Expences occasioned by it. More than half the perplexities I have experienced in the course of My command, and almost the whole of the difficulties & distress of, the Army, have there origin here. (More here)

But, Washington told Hamilton a few days later (4/4/1783), there are rumors that some in Congress want to use the army’s grievances as a political weapon; and the army is a dangerous toy to play with.

I read your private letter of the 25th with pain, & contemplated the picture it had drawn with a astonishment & honor [horror?]—but I will yet hope for the best. The idea of redress by force is too chimerical to have had a place in the imagination of any serious Mind in this Army

I will now, in strict confidence, mention a matter which may be useful for you to be informed of. It is that some Men (& leading ones too) in this Army, are beginning to entertain suspicions that Congress, or some Members of it, regardless of the past sufferings & present distress—maugre the justice which is due to them—& the returns which a grateful people should make to Men who certainly have contributed more than any other class to the establishment of Independency, are to be made use of as mere Puppits to establish Continental funds—& that rather than not succeed in this measure, or weaken their ground, they would make a sacrafice of the Army and all its interests.

I have two reasons for mentioning this matter to you—the one is, that the Army (considering the irritable state it is in—its sufferings—& composition) is a dangerous instrument to play with. the other, that every possible means consistant with their own views (which certainly are moderate) should be essayed to get it disbanded without delay. (More here)

Hamilton to Washington, 4/8/1783:

The idea of not attempting to separate the army before the settlement of accounts corresponds with my proposition. That of endeavouring to let them have some pay had also appaeared to me indispensable. …

There are two classes of men Sir in Congress of very Different views – one attached to state, the other to Continental politics … (More here)

Washington agrees about the dangers of local prejudices and tells Hamilton that the army considers him a friend (4/16/1783):

That no Man can be more opposed to state funds & local prejudices than myself, the whole tenor of my conduct has been one continual evidence of—No Man perhaps has had better opportunities to see & to feel the pernicious tendency of the latter than I have. and I endeavor (I hope not altogether ineffectually) to inculcate them upon the officers of the Army upon all proper occasions; but their feelings are to be attended to & soothed; and they assured that if Continental funds cannot be established, they will be recommended to their respective states for payment. Justice must be done them.

I should do injustice to Report & what I believe to be the opinion of the Army were I not to inform you, that they consider you as a friend, zealous to serve them, and one who has espoused their interests in Congress upon every proper occasion. (More here)

The Treaty of Paris, 1783

The Treaty of Paris was signed on January 20, 1783. Word of it reached America on March 12, and Congress ratified the treaty on April 15. Washington delayed his official announcement to the army at Newburgh until April 19, the eighth anniversary of the the Battles of Lexington and Concord, which began the Revolutionary War.

Congress ordered Washington to disband the army, giving each soldier three months’ pay. However, Congress’s funds were so short that in order to pay the soldiers, wealthy Robert Morris, superintendent of Finances, issued $800,000 in personal notes.

Washington wrote to Hamilton again on 4/22/1783, after he had released the British prisoners in accordance with the draft peace treaty. The army still had not been paid and was still resentful.

[C]ircumstances as things now are, I wish most fervently that all the Troops which are not retained for a Peace Establishment were to be discharged immediately—or such of them at least as do not incline to await the Settlement of their Accts. If they continue here, their claims, I can plainly perceive, will encrease; & our perplexities multiply. …

And here, my dear Colo. Hamilton, let me assure you, that it would not be more difficult to still the raging Billows in a tempestuous Gale, than to convince the Officers of this Army of the justice or policy of paying men in Civil Offices full wages, when they cannot obtain a Sixtieth part of their dues. I am not unapprised of the arguments which are made use of upon this occasion, to discriminate the cases; but they really are futile … (More here)

The soldiers under Washington’s leadership at Newburgh disbanded peacefully. The soldiers in Philadelphia … well, that’s another story, and Hamilton’s in the thick of it again.

“A sordid role”?

Last week I quoted Knott and Williams’s statement that “Hamilton played a sordid role in the Newburgh conspiracy. … The unpaid Continental army, led by a small group of conspirators, posed what was potentially the greatest threat to the fledgling American republic. The plotters comprised a group of nationalists who used the army to menace the civilian government to achieve a stronger political and economic union.” (Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America, location 1937 in the Kindle version).

Since I’ve been focusing on primary sources rather than secondary scholarship, I had no context for that statement. Thanks yet again to Rand Scholet (a.k.a. the Hamilton Hub), who mentioned Michael Newton‘s research on the Newburgh Conspiracy, and to Michael, who was kind enough to let me read his unpublished talk on the subject, and then kind enough to work the talk into a blog post so I could cite it.

Michael argues persuasively that the “sordid” interpretation – Hamilton as part of a cabal manipulating the army – came from a suspicious source decades after the fact. It didn’t begin to appear in the scholarly works until 1970, and the article that spurred it was highly speculative. I won’t steal Michael’s thunder: go read his blog post.

When reading the Hamilton-Washington letters of this period, the point I kept stumbling over was Hamilton’s repeated statements (to Clinton, to fellow Congressmen, to Washington) that the army’s demands might be used to strengthen the ineffectual national government. The best analogy for what he’s proposing is, I think, a politician who uses a rising crime rate to argue for more cops on city streets. That’s is quite legitimate, as opposed to a name-your-supervillain who sees a rising crime rate as an opportunity to gather a gang of thugs and take over the city.

The tone of the letters between Hamilton and Washington suggests to me that they’re using each other for moral and political support and for tactical advice – not manipulating the hell out of each other. If you can justify a different interpretation after reading their letters, publish your findings and send me a link! (


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About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, From Portraits to Puddles, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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