After years of fighting, the War of Independence for the United States was coming to a close. The Battle of Yorktown in 1781 saw the last major British expeditionary force surrender, leaving only strong garrisons in New York, Charleston, and Savannah. Smaller-scale fights continued in some areas, but the war had become a costly stalemate with American victory in sight, and the Peace Party in Parliament wanted to end it before more colonies fell to the Americans’ allies overseas. The bulk of the American Army settled in Newburgh, New York, under the command of George Washington, where they held in check the British forces in New York City.
Just weeks away from a formal ceasefire in 1783, the American officers began to fidget with unrest. During the Revolution, many sacrifices had been made, especially by soldiers who often accepted postponement of their pay. Congress had no legal means to raise taxes, meaning that it operated on voluntary contributions from the states. As the states rarely offered to contribute, Congress could not pay the soldiers their due and instead made promises. With the war waning and the promises of pay seeming thinner every day, the disgruntled officers began to look for ways to gain what they felt was rightfully theirs.
An anonymous letter to the general army was written and distributed by Major John Armstrong, aide-de-camp to General Horatio Gates, the highest commander behind Commander-in-Chief George Washington. The letter voiced the opinions of the officers, who felt that their service during the war had been largely unappreciated and that hopes of “future fortune may be… desperate” when the threat of the British was gone. They felt they had reached “points beyond which neither can be stretched, without sinking into cowardice, or plunging into credulity” in “a country that tramples upon your rights, disdains your cries, and insults your distresses.” The letter ended with a call for petitions to Congress to pay out what it had promised and a meeting of officers to discuss action on March 11, which might have very well been following up on the rumor among enlisted men to march on Congress itself.
Congress, meanwhile, was divided between those who were wary of centralized government and those who wanted a stronger, clearer rule in America, such as Gouverneur Morris and Washington’s former aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton. A commission from General Henry Knox lobbying for pay for soldiers and officers had already been largely ignored. Hamilton wrote to Washington hoping for leverage in his push for a more centralized government, but Washington replied that he trusted in republicanism and would never use the military to threaten civilian Congress. Washington himself sent a general order cancelling the March 11 meeting and calling his own on March 15 after tempers had cooled.
Armstrong and his fellow officers were worried that Washington would hinder their efforts to stir the men to action and even considered overthrowing his command and making Horatio Gates the Commander-in-Chief. As a direct coup would have failed due to Washington’s overwhelming political popularity, they decided to take action using a rank Gates already held higher than Washington: president of the Board of War. Created in 1776 and expanded in 1777, the Board handled Army ordinance in a civilian manner, and Gates served there until the end of his career despite it being a severe conflict of interest.
The evening before Washington’s meeting, Armstrong managed to persuade Gates to invite (rather than militarily order) officers to a civilian meeting outside of camp, twenty miles away in Poughkeepsie, NY, where the New York State Assembly was meeting. Many of the supporters came to the meeting, which became an Army demonstration and stirred support in the Assembly to dispatch funds earmarked for their pay. Washington held his meeting and gave an impassioned reading of a letter from Congress explaining its lack of funds, but actions spoke more loudly than words. Gates followed Washington’s address with an appeal for more lobbying, and General Knox agreed.
Nonviolent demonstrations (which many felt were thinly veiled threats) began occurring wherever the Army was stationed. Orders for furlough were extended, which saved on pay but gave soldiers time to organize more protests. From Massachusetts to North Carolina, legislators were harangued for pay. That June, a mob of soldiers from Lancaster, PA, marched on Congress itself, blocking the door and refusing to allow the congressmen to leave the building until Alexander Hamilton (himself a former soldier awaiting his pension) persuaded them that they would meet again the next day. Using the rabble to his favor, Hamilton managed to push through a bill, to be ratified for the states, for taxation on luxury imports to repay the military. Many of the states balked at the idea of federal taxation, but the pressure of the soldiers suppressed any counterargument. The tax came into effect and easily paid the $800,000 owed to soldiers as well as supplying a national Revenue Cutter Service to ensure the safety of American waters and payment.
The power of the veterans was clear, and Hamilton began correspondence with Armstrong and Gates, the latter of whom became president of the Society of the Cincinnati, a brotherhood of officers founded to preserve the Revolution’s ideals. When Shays’ Rebellion began in 1786 amid a post-war recession due to a credit crisis, Hamilton used the Society to show the power of his army, which marched under the still-popular Horatio Gates at request of Massachusetts Governor James Bowdoin. This proved that the Articles of Confederation could work, thanks to Hamilton’s modifications. Hamilton gained greater political clout, founding the National Bank and creating a sitting executive branch.
As also France itself became a republic baptized in blood, relations fell apart between the nations. After a bribery scandal, Hamilton pushed through the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 and 1799. Jeffersonians reacted with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which were widely unpopular and became grounds for treason. Hamilton installed federal courts and rigged them to his favor, eliminating many of his enemies. The US gradually became a militarized state as Hamilton prepared to invade Florida and Louisiana. Taxes increased to fund the army, spurring unrest that Hamilton attempted to cure by establishing dictatorial powers for himself. In 1807, Hamilton declared war on France and Spain as they attacked Portugal, and the United States itself fell into civil war as Southern states rebelled. Eventually Hamilton’s rule would be overthrown by a popular colonel, Andrew Jackson, who himself would establish a dictatorship that would lead to civil war and dissolution of the United States.
In reality, Gates planned to make his case at the meeting on March 15, which George Washington interrupted and pulled out his glasses to read, stating, “Gentlemen, 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.” Many officers were reduced to tears, and Washington’s moderation proved a solid foundation for the new republic.