On Washington’s Birthday, A Lesson in Self-Government
Matt Grinney /
With the generic Presidents’ Day (the holiday is, legally, still officially Washington’s Birthday, not Presidents’ Day) behind us, it is time to celebrate the actual birthday of George Washington. But is there anything original left to say, 281 years after America’s first President was born?
Beyond the familiar tales of his heroic victories against Lord Cornwallis and the Hessians is a lesser-known episode of the Revolution—the “Newburgh Conspiracy”—that reveals more clearly than any battlefield triumphs the essence of Washington’s leadership.
The war was all but over in March of 1783. Yet the fate of the fledgling nation was uncertain. Never mind the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation; Washington faced an enemy that threatened the very core of the American experiment—armed rebellion from within the ranks of the Continental Army.
Having been repeatedly denied requests for proper rations and clothes, and having seen their former comrades become destitute after leaving the service, some rebellious soldiers feared above all for their rightfully earned pensions. Circulating through the regiments at Newburgh was an anonymous letter that outlined their grievances and rallied the men to action.
If the war with Britain continued, the missive urged, the troops ought to abandon the ungrateful country and settle in the west. If peace was reached, the soldiers should turn their arms from the British to their new enemy—their own country—vowing to obtain by force their just compensation.
The stakes could not have been higher for the Commander in Chief.
On the one hand, the measures proposed by the soldiers would subvert the rule of law and tarnish the American character and spirit before it was fully formed. The insurrection had to be stopped.
On the other hand, Washington couldn’t deny the legitimacy of his troops’ grievances. Left with a war-torn nation and an ineffectual Congress of the Confederacy, the morale and loyalty of the military were crucial to the success of the Revolution. The soldiers had to be appeased.
Washington acted swiftly. After learning of the seditious designs, Washington foiled the plans for a secret meeting and created a diversion: a separate meeting a few days later. Then he acted boldly. Recognizing the gravity of the moment, he unexpectedly attended the meeting and delivered an address.
The mere presence of “the illustrious man”—the soldiers’ “beloved General”—was enough to quiet the troops. But it was the content of his speech that subdued the brewing insurrection. By laying out a powerful vision of self-government, his brief yet powerful remarks deflated the rebellion.
Rather than pandering to the soldiers, offering a government solution to every problem, Washington challenged the soldiers to place “the name of our common Country” above their sufferings and act with “dignity” and “patient virtue.” He further urged the men to trust in “the purity of the intentions of Congress” and not lose faith when the deliberations of “that Honorable Body” are slow.
Washington’s address at Newburgh was a great success. Moved by their commander’s call for a patient respect for the rule of law and a dignified self-reliance, the soldiers abandoned the conspiracy.
As Heritage’s Matthew Spalding explains, Washington believed that the virtue and character of citizens, rather than laws or institutions, formed the surest foundation of a healthy society. Just as his “own moral sense was the compass of both his private life and his public life,” Washington saw morality as the cornerstone of republican government.
In our own age, as the expectations of government assistance grow larger by the day, our leaders ought to avoid calling for more government and preach a more Washingtonian message, one of self-government and restraint.
Matthew Grinney is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.