Throughout the bulk of the Revolutionary War, Congress faced ongoing struggles to support pay and supplies for the Continental Army.
They had no power to tax under the Articles of Confederation. Instead, Congress as a “federal” body had to rely on each state to raise revenue in support of the common cause. They payments, called “requisitions”, were completely given voluntarily at the will of the state and often irregular in their coming. In 1780, a law passed by Congress to at least provide soldiers with half-pay, was still not being honored by the states at the end of the war in 1783.
Our army of volunteers had on many occasions during our struggle for independence been subjected to borrowing supplies instead from citizens. Even the immediate threat of British pressing upon some localities during the war did not always influence the speed of requisitions. With the war coming to a close, states were even less inclined to support any law of levy that gave power to a centralized government.
Having given of themselves to the cause of liberty, the lack of pay and support left veterans throughout the army frustrated. General George Washington notoriously wrote regularly to Congress as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, entreating them for the supplies and support his men needed. In 1782, the Continental Army was encamped at Newburgh. Among the ranks there, the discord grew that Congress would not be able to make good on its promises and obligations to those who fought for the new United States of America. Talk of mutiny arose, perhaps even spurred on by leaders within the army itself — notably General Horatio Gates — who had grown tired of waiting on Congress and Washington’s insistence on giving Congress the chance.
Gates’ aide-de-camp circulated an anonymous letter at Newburgh imploring the soldiers to take more drastic action to force Congress into an ultimatum. The hand they were prepared to play was to threaten the army would disband and leave the country unprotected or worse, a military takeover once the peace treaty with the British was signed. The letter further asked the officers to take part in an unauthorized meeting to set the mutiny in motion. General Washington got wind of the letter and issued a general order declaring such talk to be conduct unbecoming. He instead directed all to assemble a few days later at a regular meeting of his officers where they could discuss coolly and vent the matters at hand.
The day of the meeting arrived and General Gates was prepared to chair it. He stood to make remarks, but was interrupted when suddenly Washington himself walked in. Looking across the room at his weary soldiers, the Commander in Chief addressed them, defining himself foremost as devoted to them and their common country; as one of them, he himself had neither been ignorant of their sufferings or immune from the same.
He then staunchly dismissed the reckless call to mutiny.
My God! What can this writer have in view, by recommending such measures? Can he be a friend to the army? Can he be a friend to this country? Rather, is he not an insidious foe? Some emissary, perhaps, from New York, plotting the ruin of both, by sowing the seeds of discord and separation between the civil and military powers of the continent?