In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a soothsayer famously approaches the Emperor, Caesar, with a warning: “Beward the Ides of March” — the Ides being the 15th day of that month. While the soothsayer is a work of fiction, that date over 2,000 years ago contained a tragic reality for Caesar. Caesar was assassinated — stabbed 23 times in the Roman Senate — by those he believed to be his closest allies. A conspiracy, plotting and carrying out a coup.
On March 15, 1783, George Washington avoided a potentially similar fate.
At the time, Washington was the Commander in Chief of the Contintental Army, waging a successful war of revolution against Great Britain. The British surrender at Yorktown in October of 1781 marked the last meaningful skirmish on the continent. Preliminary peace accords had been entered into by November of 1782. While a formal peace agreement would not be signed until September of 1783, the war was, effectively, won. Most of the Army was encamped in Newburgh, New York, sixty miles north of New York City, which was still held by a British garrison. There was no active fighting, but the Army’s continued existence — for the time being — was required.
But the war’s likely end spurred dissent. Many of the soldiers in the Continental Army were promised remuneration well beyond what they had been given to date, to say the least — some had gone without pay whatsoever for the better part of a decade. The soldiers were promised pensions as well, but it was increasingly clear that there was simply no money to be had. (This was, in part, a function of the Articles of Confederation, which established a central U.S. government that did not have the power to levy taxes.) So some soldiers looked toward taking matters into their own hands. Called the “Newburgh Conspiracy,” these soldiers, under the leadership of General Henry Knox, warned of military unrest if their demands for pay weren’t met — specifically, some of the malcontents had sought to forcibly replace him with Major General Horatio Gates as Commander in Chief. (While Gates’ aides were certainly involved in the Conspiracy, it is unclear if Gates himself was.)
While their ultimatum was toothless — historians agree that any attempts at a coup would have been incredibly and immediately unsuccessful — General Washington nevertheless stepped in. So on the Ides of March, 1783, Washington took fate into his own hands. He delivered what is now called the Newburgh Address, as Wikipedia summarizes:
He then took a letter from his pocket from a member of Congress to read to the officers. He gazed upon it and fumbled with it without speaking. He then took a pair of reading glasses from his pocket, which were new and few of the men had seen him wear them. He then 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.” This caused the men to realize that Washington had sacrificed a great deal for the Revolution, just as much as any of them. These, of course, were his fellow officers, most having worked closely with him for several years. Many of those present were moved to tears, and with this act, the conspiracy collapsed as he read the letter.
After Washington left the room, General Knox re-affirmed his loyalty to Congress, and the Conspiracy crumbled.
Bonus fact: While Gates’ role in the Conspiracy is unclear, it was not the first time that he stumped for the position of Commander in Chief. Before the Battle of Trenton, Gates advised Washington to employ a more defensive strategy; Washington disagreed. While Gates’ army fought in the the Battle of Trenton, Gates himself was not present. He feigned sickness and instead travelled to Baltimore, where Congress was gathering, to lobby for the Commander in Chief role. Washington’s decisive victory in Trenton squashed any hopes Gates had of obtaining the promotion.
From the Archives: Marooned on the Moon: About a speech that never had to be given.
Related: “His Excellency: George Washington” by Joseph J. Ellis. 4 stars on over 250 reviews.