An enthusiastic John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, “The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”
Of course, because the Declaration of Independence was not officially made public until July 4th, Adams was off by a couple of days. But his vision of a day of national celebration proved prophetic as each year we celebrate Independence Day with a great anniversary festival. This day of celebration almost did not come to be, and not because of actions by the British that threatened our independence, but because of a threat by our own Continental Army.
During the War for Independence, the Continental Congress enacted a resolution to give veteran officers a pension of half pay for life. However, by the winter of 1782-83, it was evident that Congress did not have the revenues to fund their promise nor did they have any real prospects for raising the money.
These actions resulted in a petition being circulated among Washington’s officers that included implied threats against Congress if the officer’s pensions and pay were not assured. The threats ranged from a coup by members of Congress sympathetic to the plight of the officers and supported by a more moderate group of Washington’s officers to an outright army takeover of the government which had the support of more radical officers.
The leaders of the two groups scheduled a meeting for March 11th, but Washington cancelled the meeting and scheduled another meeting for all officers on March 15th. Knowing his great concern for his army, many of the officers involved hoped that this was an indication that Washington would lead their effort. At the center of this growing mutiny was Gen. Horatio Gates, the hero of the American victory at Saratoga, and a rival of Gen. Washington’s.
This was perhaps the greatest test of Washington’s character. Joseph Ellis, in his biography entitled “His Excellency George Washington,” called this the “The Last Temptation of Washington.” Unlike other military leaders who used their power and influence to make themselves dictators, Washington did not take advantage of the opportunity to overthrow Congress and take control of the government.
As Ellis wrote, though sympathetic to the plight of his officers, Washington “established a link between his own honor and reputation and the abiding goals of the American Revolution.” Washington’s speech declared his convictions that the entire war had been about a fundamental principle… that all legitimate governmental power was derived from the consent of the people. To overthrow the government of the people would be to destroy all they had fought for. Every man in the room understood that an assault on Congress would be an assault on Washington’s own honor and integrity.
Washington changed the disposition of every man present before he uttered one word of his speech. Just prior to reading it, Washington reached inside his waistcoat to pull out a pair of spectacles. None of the assembled officers had ever seen him in need of them before. As he looked out over the assembled officers, he 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.” Those words were a sobering reminder of how much Washington had given for his country. At that point, several officers began to weep. The entire mood among the assembled men changed. Without uttering a word of his speech, the Newburgh Conspiracy was ended and the fledgling American Republic was saved.
Following his speech, Washington read a letter from Virginia Congressman Joseph Jones and then left the room. After he left, the officers, including Gates, vote unanimously for a resolution stating their unshaken confidence in Gen. Washington and the Congress.
Without a doubt, Washington was the indispensable man among America’s Founding Fathers. And the other Founding Fathers realized that in terms of respect and trust, Washington was without peer among the American people. Four years after the Newburgh incident, he was chosen to preside over the Constitutional Convention.
I wonder how often during the Constitutional Convention Washington thought back to that day in March when the nation was almost lost. Had he been a man of lesser character and weaker will, it is very likely we would not be the “United States of America” and we would not be celebrating Independence Day.
About the author: Gary Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.