Between the great military victory at Yorktown in 1781 and the surrender of
the British in 1783, the American Revolution almost unraveled. It's little
mentioned in schoolbooks, so it will help to set the mood.
The crisis came in February-March 1783:
- The officers of the Continental Army were on the brink of revolt, and
were ready to take the law into their own hands. They were not being paid,
and would not be paid in the future -- Congress was
bankrupt. By June, the Army would have to take what it needed at bayonet
- Members of the business community were sympathetic with the Army. They, too, were
owed large sums of money by the bankrupt government.
- State political leaders were also sympathetic. Their power would
shrink if a single, united nation emerged from the Revolution, instead of
13 separate nations.
- General Washington's command was in danger. A Congressman wrote
him, saying that elements in the Army were using "sinister practices"
to tear down Washington's reputation, so that
"the weight of your reputation will prove no obstacle to their ambitious designs."
- Recognizing the impending chaos, other forces saw only one hope, and urged
Washington to become King of the United States.
Washington realized he had to act.
On Saturday, March 15, 1783, he assembled his officers in Newburgh, NY.
It has been called "probably the most important single gathering ever held in
the United States."
Washington saw anger and resentment on the faces of the officers. After
his prepared remarks, the faces had changed little. He had clearly failed to
sway them. Flexner describes what happened next:
[Washington] remembered he had brought with him a reassuring letter from a
congressman. He would read it. He pulled the paper from his pocket,
and then something seemed to go wrong. The General seemed confused;
he stared at the paper helplessly. The officers leaned forward, their hearts
contracting with anxiety. Washington pulled from his pocket something only
his intimates had ever seen him wear: a pair of eyeglasses.
"Gentlemen," he said, "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 homely act and simple statement did what all Washington's [prepared] arguments
had failed to do. The hardened soldiers wept. Washington had saved the
United States from tyranny and civil discord.