American Founding Fathers

How Washington put an end to a coup. The Newburgh conspiracy

By late winter 1783, the young United States were financially exhausted. A revolt within the officer corps of the US Army was about to break out. The reason was that the well-deserved payment for their service was denied by the Congress. The first coup in American history was planned: the Newburgh Conspiracy.

March 15, 1783 – Newburgh, New York

George Washington asked to address the officers. He stood before them. He then produced a letter from a member of the Congress that he was tasked to read. Washington’s audience was angry. You could feel the tension in the air. He gazed upon the letter and fumbled with it without speaking, hesitating for a moment. He retrieved a pair of reading glasses from his pocket. Very few of the men had seen him wear glasses… He then said:

‘Gentlemen, I beg you to pardon me and permit me to put on my spectacles, for not only my hair has grown gray but also my eyes have grown dim in the service of my country.’

Those officers that Washington was addressing were not just his fellow countrymen. They were his brothers in arms. Many of those present were moved to tears. And so it went: what was to be a military coup, by the time Washington pulled an envelope out of his pocket, and had finished reading a letter, a coup was no more…

Washington entering New York on Evacuation Day (November 1783)