J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Remembering the Newburgh Address

On Saturday, 15 March 2008, the Massachusetts Historical Society will host an open house celebrating the 225th anniversary of Gen. George Washington’s “Newburgh Address.” The society is displaying its copy of that speech, in Washington’s own hand, which can also be viewed online along with a full transcription.

This address was Washington’s response to what’s become known as the “Newburgh Conspiracy,” after the location of the Continental Army’s headquarters in Newburgh, New York. At the time, the Congress under the Articles of Confederation was having difficulty with raising revenue, and thus with paying or supplying the army as promised. Some politicians and officers supported the idea of a “national impost,” or tariff. Some states resisted this idea, however, and the different levels of government were at an impasse.

An anonymous letter to army officers at Newburgh, composed by Maj. John Armstrong, urged them to be more forceful with Congress:

I would advise you, therefore, to come to some final opinion, upon what you can bear, and what you will suffer. If your determination be in any proportion to your wrongs, carry your appeal from the justice to the fears of government—change the milk and water style of your last memorial; assume a bolder tone—decent, but lively—spirited and determined; and suspect the man who would advise to more moderation and longer forbearance.

Let two or three men, who can feel as well as write, be appointed to draw up your last remonstrance; for I would no longer give it the sueing, soft, unsuccessful epithet of memorial. Let it be represented (in language that will neither dishonour you by its rudeness, nor betray you by its fears) what has been promised by Congress, and what has been performed; how long and how patiently you have suffered; how little you have asked, and how much of that little has been denied.

Tell them that though you were the first, and would wish to be the last, to encounter danger; though despair itself can never drive you into dishonour, it may drive you from the field; that the wound often irritated, and never healed, may at length become incurable; and that the slightest mark of indignity from Congress now, must operate like the grave, and part you for ever; that in any political event, the army has its alternative.

If peace, that nothing shall separate you from your arms but death; if war, that courting the auspices and inviting the directions of your illustrious leader, you will retire to some unsettled country, smile in your turn, and “mock when their fear cometh on.”
Washington’s address responded to this letter, characterizing its message in part like this: “If Peace takes place, never sheath your Swords says he untill you have obtained full and ample Justice.” Nothing like those words appears in the letter to officers, at least in the versions that have survived. That letter seems more like a threat to resign en masse and leave the Congress undefended rather than a threat to overthrow that Congress. But Washington reacted as if he saw the threat of a military coup, and most historians have taken up that interpretation.

The M.H.S.’s open house runs from 1:00 to 4:00 P.M. Former director William M. Fowler, Jr., will speak about the address at 2:00 P.M. There will also be tours of the building and of the exhibition of original documents tied to “John Adams: A Life in Letters,” the H.B.O. miniseries that begins airing the following evening. The society is at 1154 Boylston Street in Boston’s Back Bay.

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