Facing Bankruptcy and Mutiny

Title: Facing Bankruptcy and Mutiny
Author: John Fiske
Date: 1783
Source: America, Vol.4, pp.27-35

The fate of the Republic has never been more precarious than during the period that immediately followed the surrender of Cornwallis at York town. There was no money to pay off the army, and the soldiers were daily becoming more restive and irritated.
Newburgh, New York, was the headquarters of the army from March, 1782, until the latter part of 1783, and it was there that the Newburgh Addresses were circulated, that the army was disbanded, and that Washington received the famous Nicola letter proposing that he become King. There is no doubt, as the historian, Fiske, indicates, but that Washington could have formed a monarchy at this time and been almost unanimously supported by the army. Its mutinous temper is manifested in this review, taken from John Fiske’s “Critical Period of American History” and is reprinted here by special arrangement with the publishers, Houghton, Mifflin and Company.

IMPOSSIBLE as Congress found it to fill the quotas of the army, the task of raising a revenue by requisitions upon the States was even more discouraging. Every State had its own war debt, and several were applicants for foreign loans not easy to obtain, so that none could without the greatest difficulty raise a surplus to hand over to Congress. The Continental rag money had ceased to circulate by the end of 1780, and our foreign credit was nearly ruined. The French Government began to complain of the heavy demands which the Americans made upon its exchequer, and Vergennes, in sending over a new loan in the fall of 1782, warned Franklin that no more must be expected. To save American credit from destruction it was at least necessary that the interest on the public debt should be paid. For this purpose Congress in 1781 asked permission to levy a five per cent. duty on imports. The modest request was the signal for a year of angry discussion. Again and again it was asked, If taxes could thus be levied by any power outside the State, why had we ever opposed the Stamp Act or the tea duties? The question was indeed a serious one, and as an instance of reasoning from analogy seemed plausible enough. After more than a year Massachusetts consented, by a bare majority of two in the House and one in the Senate, reserving to herself the right of appointing the collectors. The bill was then vetoed by Governor Hancock, though one day too late, and so it was saved. But Rhode Island flatly refused her consent, and so did Virginia, though Madison earnestly pleaded the cause of the public credit. For the current expenses of the government in that same year $9,000,000 were needed. It was calculated that $4,000,000 might be raised by a loan, and the other $5,000,000 were demanded of the States. At the end of the year $422,000 had been collected, not a cent of which came from Georgia, the Carolinas, or Delaware. Rhode Island, which paid $38,000, did the best of all according to its resources. Of the Continental taxes assessed in 1783, only one-fifth part had been paid by the middle of 1785. And the worst of it was that no one could point to a remedy for this state of things, or assign any probable end to it.

Under such circumstances the public credit sank at home as well as abroad. Foreign creditors—even France, who had been nothing if not generous with her loans—might be made to wait; but there were creditors at home who, should they prove ugly, could not be so easily put off. The disbandment of the army in the summer of 1783, before the British troops had evacuated New York, was hastened by the impossibility of paying the soldiers and the dread of what they might do under such provocation. Though peace had been officially announced, Hamilton and Livingston urged that, for the sake of appearances if for no other reason, the army should be kept together so long as the British remained in New York, if not until they should have surrendered the western frontier posts. But Congress could not pay the army, and was afraid of it,—and not without some reason. Discouraged at the length of time which had passed since they had received any money, the soldiers had begun to fear lest, now that their services were no longer needed, their honest claims would be set aside…. At this critical moment Washington had earnestly appealed to Congress, and against the strenuous opposition of Samuel Adams had at length extorted the promise of half-pay for life. In the spring of 1782, seeing the utter inability of Congress to discharge its pecuniary obligations, many officers began to doubt whether the promise would ever be kept. It had been made before the Articles of Confederation, which required the assent of nine States to any such measure, had been finally ratified. It was well known that nine States had never been found to favor the measure, and it was now feared that it might be repealed or repudiated, so loud was the popular clamor against it.

All this comes of republican government, said some of the officers; too many cooks spoil the broth; a dozen heads are as bad as no head; you do not know whose promises to trust; a monarchy, with a good king whom all men can trust, would extricate us from these difficulties. In this mood, Colonel Louis Nicola, of the Pennsylvania line, a foreigner by birth, addressed a long and well-argued letter to Washington, setting forth the troubles of the time, and urging him to come forward as a savior of society, and accept the crown at the hands of his faithful soldiers. Nicola was an aged man, of excellent character, and in making this suggestion he seemed to be acting as spokesman of a certain clique or party among the officers—how numerous is not known. Washington instantly replied that Nicola could not have found a person to whom such a scheme could be more odious, and he was at a loss to conceive what he had ever done to have it supposed that he could for one moment listen to a suggestion so fraught with mischief to his country. Lest the affair, becoming known, should enhance the popular distrust of the army, Washington said nothing about it. But as the year went by, and the outcry against half-pay continued, and Congress showed symptoms of a willingness to compromise the matter, the discontent of the army increased. Officers and soldiers brooded alike over their wrongs. “The Army,” said General Macdougall, “is verging to that state which, we are told, will make a wise man mad.” The peril of the situation was increased by the well-meant but injudicious whisperings of other public creditors, who believed that if the army would only take a firm stand and insist upon a grant of permanent funds to Congress for liquidating all public debts, the States could probably be prevailed upon to make such a grant. Robert Morris, the able Secretary of Finance, held this opinion, and did not believe that the States could be brought to terms in any other way. His namesake and assistant, Gouverneur Morris, held similar views, and gave expression to them in February, 1783, in a letter to General Greene, who was still commanding in South Carolina. When Greene received the letter, he urged upon the legislature of that State, in most guarded and moderate language, the paramount need of granting a revenue to Congress, and hinted that the army would not be satisfied with anything less. The assembly straightway flew into a rage, and shouted, “No dictation by a Cromwell!” South Carolina had consented to the five percent. impost, but now she revoked it, to show her independence; and Greene’s eyes were opened at once to the danger of the slightest appearance of military intervention in civil affairs.

At the same time a violent outbreak in the army at Newburgh was barely prevented by the unfailing tact of Washington. A rumor went about the camp that it was generally expected the army would not disband until the question of pay should be settled, and that the public creditors looked to them to make some such demonstration as would overawe the delinquent States. General Gates had lately emerged from the retirement in which, he had been fain to hide himself after Camden, and had rejoined the army, where there was now such a field for intrigue. An odious aroma of impotent malice clings about his memory on this last occasion on which the historian needs to notice him. He plotted in secret with officers of the staff and others. One of his staff, Major Armstrong, wrote an anonymous appeal to the troops, and another, Colonel Barber, caused it to be circulated about the camp. It named the next day for a meeting to consider grievances. Its language was inflammatory. “My friends!” it said, “after seven long years your suffering courage has conducted the United States of America through a doubtful and bloody war; and peace returns to bless—whom? A country willing to redress your wrongs, cherish your worth, and reward your services? Or is it rather a country that tramples upon your rights, disdains your cries, and insults your distresses? . . . If such be your treatment while the swords you wear are necessary for the defence of America, what have you to expect when those very swords, the instruments and companions of your glory, shall be taken from your sides, and no mark of military distinction left but your wants, infirmities and scars? If you have sense enough to discover and spirit to oppose tyranny, whatever garb it may assume, awake to your situation. If the present moment be lost, your threats hereafter will be as empty as your entreaties now. Appeal from the justice to the fears of government, and suspect the man who would advise to longer forbearance.”

Better English has seldom been wasted in a worse cause. Washington, the man who was aimed at in the last sentence, got hold of the paper next day, just in time, as he said, “to arrest the feet that stood wavering on a precipice.” The memory of the revolt of the Pennsylvania line, which had so alarmed the people in 1781, was still fresh in men’s minds; and here was an invitation to more wholesale mutiny, which could hardly fail to end in bloodshed, and might precipitate the perplexed and embarrassed country into civil war.

Washington issued a general order, recognizing the existence of the manifesto, but overruling it so far as to appoint the meeting for a later day, with the senior major-general who happened to be Gates, to preside. This order, which neither discipline nor courtesy could disregard, in a measure tied Gates’s hands, while it gave Washington time to ascertain the extent of the disaffection. On the appointed day he suddenly came into the meeting, and amid profoundest silence broke forth in a most eloquent and touching speech. Sympathizing keenly with the sufferings of his hearers, and fully admitting their claims, he appealed to their better feelings, and reminded them of the terrible difficulties under which Congress labored, and of the folly of putting themselves in the wrong. He still counselled forbearance as the greatest of victories, and with consummate skill he characterized the anonymous appeal as undoubtedly the work of some crafty emissary of the British, eager to disgrace the army which they had not been able to vanquish. All were hushed by that majestic presence and those solemn tones. The knowledge that he had refused all pay, while enduring more than any other man in the room, gave added weight to every word. In proof of the good faith of Congress, he began reading a letter from one of the members, when, finding his sight dim, he paused and took from his pocket the new pair of spectacles which the astronomer David Rittenhouse had just sent him. He had never worn spectacles in public, and as he put them on he said, in his simple manner and with his pleasant smile, “I have grown gray in your service, and now find myself growing blind.” While all hearts were softened he went on reading the letter, and then withdrew, leaving the meeting to its deliberations.

There was a sudden and mighty revulsion of feeling. A motion was reported declaring “unshaken confidence in the justice of Congress”; and it was added that “the officers of the American army view with abhorrence and reject with disdain the infamous proposals contained in a late anonymous address to them.” The crestfallen Gates, as chairman, had nothing to do but put the question and report it carried unanimously; for if any still remained obdurate they no longer dared to show it. Washington immediately set forth the urgency of the case in an earnest letter to Congress and one week later the matter was settled by an act commuting half-pay for life into a gross sum equal to five years’ full pay, to be discharged at once by certificates bearing interest at six percent. Such poor paper was all that Congress had to pay with, but it was all ultimately redeemed; and while the commutation was advantageous to the government, it was at the same time greatly for the interest of the officers, while they were looking out for new means of livelihood, to have their claims adjusted at once, and to receive something which could do duty as a respectable sum of money. . .

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