My visit to "The Temple of Virtue"
Newburgh, New York

Peaked by my interest of several notable documentaries and continuing the consistent fascination I have had with the “Founding Fathers,” I moved on from John Adams some time ago and have been spending much more time with Washington. George is the ultimate in my estimation, perhaps as King George III said, “He’s the greatest character of the age.” And so my thirst for knowledge of him continues.

While staying outside of New York City, a friend and I had the great privilege of visiting a little known, yet greatly significant historical site: The New Windsor Cantonment. Located at Newburgh, New York, it was the final location of George Washington’s Continental Army. It was from this location that General Washington made an incredibly moving speech in a building known as the “Temple of Virtue”, which effectively saved the American Revolution. Unpaid by congress for winning the Revolutionary War, Washington’s troops considered overthrowing the General and marching on Philadelphia to demand their money from congress at gunpoint. Washington’s speech prevented this act, which would have certainly resulted in military dictatorship. Washington’s speech was the key.

I originally learned of the speech and site through the excellent PBS Documentary “Rediscovering George Washington” (the website on the subject is equally impressive). As noted by Richard Brookhiser there are also notable parallels between George’s dilemma and that of Cato. I found the comparison interesting and worthy of investigation; yet I am finding a performance of Cato to be elusive, but I will continue to search.

Anyway, I arrived late in the day, which I thought would be catastrophic. However, this turned out to play to my advantage. When I visited the “Temple of Virtue” there was almost no one there, since the day was winding down. After a few minutes, there was no one there at all and my friend and I had free reign of the place. So, I slowly walked up to the podium thinking that I would stand where Washington stood and perhaps even say a few of his words. I had brought along a copy of his speech and since no one was around, I unfolded the paper and began to read aloud. I managed to read the entire speech without interruption. It was quite emotional for me to be proclaiming the same words that Washington proclaimed on the very spot where he stated them. It was challenging . . . and very special.


 

Two prominent websites on the topic describe it this way:

"At the close of the Revolutionary War in America, a perilous moment in the life of the fledgling American democracy occurred as officers of the Continental Army met in Newburgh, New York, to discuss grievances and consider a possible insurrection against the rule of Congress. They were angry over the failure of Congress to honor its promises to the army regarding salary, bounties and life pensions.

There was a failed attempt in 1782 to amend the Articles of Confederation to allow Congress to levy taxes rather than petitioning the state governments for the necessary funds to discharge its duties. A key consequence of this failure was that Congress remained unable to pay the nation's debts, including its debts to the army. This did not sit well with those who had risked their lives and sacrificed their livelihoods to defend American independence. The officers had heard from Philadelphia that the American government was going broke and that they might not be compensated at all. Thus early in 1783 General Washington, headquartered in Newburgh, New York, heard of rumblings among his troops about the possibility of armed intervention in the civil affairs of the states.

On March 10, 1783, an anonymous letter was circulated among the officers of General Washington's main camp at Newburgh. It called for an unauthorized meeting of officers to be held the next day to consider possible military solutions to the problems of the civilian government and its financial woes. On March 11th, learning that his officers had arranged the meeting to discuss their grievances against Congress, Washington issued a memorandum condemning such "disorderly proceedings." Meanwhile, another anonymous letter was circulated, this time suggesting Washington himself was sympathetic to the claims of the malcontent officers. Canceling the planned meeting, he scheduled another at his own designated time and charged the senior officer present at this meeting to report to him on its results.

And so, Washington's officers gathered in a church building (called the Temple of Virtue) in Newburgh, effectively holding the fate of democracy in America in their hands. But when the meeting commenced on Saturday, March 15, Washington himself made a dramatic entrance and gave a momentous speech.

Thomas Jefferson would note, with reference to Washington, that "The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish." And in 1838 a young Abraham Lincoln, in a speech warning against ambitious men who would appeal to the passions of the people to subvert America's laws and political institutions, concluded by evoking Washington's memory. Jefferson and Lincoln understood well that free government is rare and destructible, that its survival depends on the good character of its elected representatives and of the people who elect them, and that Washington stands as an exemplary model for both.

 

Speech to the Officers of the Army
Head Quarters, Newburgh, NY
March 15, 1783

Gentlemen: By an anonymous summons, an attempt has been made to convene you together; how inconsistent with the rules of propriety! how unmilitary! and how subversive of all order and discipline, let the good sense of the Army decide.

In the moment of this Summons, another anonymous production was sent into circulation, addressed more to the feelings and passions, than to the reason and judgment of the Army. The author of the piece, is entitled to much credit for the goodness of his Pen and I could wish he had as much credit for the rectitude of his Heart, for, as Men see thro’ different Optics, and are induced by the reflecting faculties of the Mind, to use different means, to attain the same end, the Author of the Address, should have had more charity, than to mark for Suspicion, the Man who should recommend moderation and longer forbearance, or, in other words, who should not think as he thinks, and act as he advises. But he had another plan in view, in which candor and liberality of Sentiment, regard to justice, and love of Country, have no part; and he was right, to insinuate the darkest suspicion, to effect the blackest designs.

That the Address is drawn with great Art, and is designed to answer the most insidious purposes. That it is calculated to impress the Mind, with an idea of premeditated injustice in the Sovereign power of the United States, and rouse all those resentments which must unavoidably flow from such a belief. That the secret mover of this Scheme (whoever he may be) intended to take advantage of the passions, while they were warmed by the recollection of past distresses, without giving time for cool, deliberative thinking, and that composure of Mind which is so necessary to give dignity and stability to measures is rendered too obvious, by the mode of conducting the business, to need other proof than a reference to the proceeding.

Thus much, Gentlemen, I have thought it incumbent on me to observe to you, to show upon what principles I opposed the irregular and hasty meeting which was proposed to have been held on Tuesday last: and not because I wanted a disposition to give you every opportunity consistent with your own honor, and the dignity of the army, to make known your grievances. If my conduct heretofore, has not evinced to you, that I have been a faithful friend to the Army, my declaration of it at this moment wd. be equally unavailing and improper. But as I was among the first who embarked in the cause of our common Country. As I have never left your side one moment, but when called from you on public duty. As I have been the constant companion and witness of your Distresses, and not among the last to feel, and acknowledge your Merits. As I have ever considered my own Military reputation as inseparably connected with that of the Army. As my Heart has ever expanded with joy, when I have heard its praises, and my indignation has arisen, when the mouth of detraction has been opened against it, it can scarcely be supposed, at this late stage of the War, that I am indifferent to its interests. But, hoe are they to be promoted? The way is plain, says the anonymous Addresser. If War continues, remove into the unsettled Country; there establish yourselves, and leave an ungrateful Country to defend itself. But how are they to defend? Our Wives, our Children, our Farms, and other property which we leave behind us. Or, in this state of hostile separation, are we to take the two first (the latter cannot be removed), to perish in a Wilderness, with hunger, cold and nakedness? If Peace takes place, never sheath your Swords Says he until you have obtained full and ample justice; this dreadful alternative, of either deserting our Country in the extremist hour of her distress, or turning our Arms against it, (which is the apparent object, unless Congress can be compelled into instant compliance) has something so shocking in it, that humanity revolts at the idea. 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? And what a Compliment does he pay to our understandings, when he recommends measures in either alternative, impracticable in their Nature?

But here, Gentlemen, I will drop the curtain, because it wd. be as imprudent in me to assign my reasons for this opinion, as it would be insulting to your conception, to suppose you stood in need of them. A moment’s reflection will convince every dispassionate Mind of the physical impossibility of carrying either proposal into execution.

There might, Gentlemen, be an impropriety in my taking notice, in this Address to you, of an anonymous production, but the manner in which that performance has been introduced to the army, the effect it was intended to have, together with some other circumstances, will amply justify my observations on the tendency of that Writing. With respect to the advice given by the Author, to suspect the Man, who shall recommend moderate measures and longer forbearance, I spurn it, as every Man, who regards liberty, and reveres that justice for which we contend, undoubtedly must; for if Men are to be precluded from offering their Sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences, that can invite the consideration of Mankind, reason is of no use to us; the freedom of Speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter.

I cannot, in justice to my own belief, and what I have great reason to conceive is the intention of Congress, conclude this Address, without giving it as my decided opinion, that that Honble Body, entertain exalted sentiments of the Services of the Army; and, from a full conviction of its merits and sufferings, will do it complete justice. That their endeavors, to discover and establish funds for this purpose, have been unwearied, and will not cease, till they have succeed, I have not a doubt. But, like all other large Bodies, where there is a variety of different Interests to reconcile, their deliberations are slow. Why then should we distrust them? and, in consequence of that distrust, adopt measures, which may cast a shade over that glory which, has been so justly acquired; and tarnish the reputation of an Army which is celebrated thro’ all Europe, for its fortitude and Patriotism? and for what is this done? to bring the object we seek nearer? No! most certainly, in my opinion, it will cast it at a greater distance.

For myself (and I take no merit in giving the assurance, being induced to it from principles of gratitude, veracity and justice), a grateful sense of the confidence you have ever placed in me, a recollection of the cheerful assistance, and prompt obedience I have experienced from you, under every vicissitude of Fortune, and the sincere affection I feel for an Army, I have so long had the honor to Command, will oblige me to declare, in this public and solemn manner, that, in the attainment of complete justice for all your toils and dangers, and in the gratification of every wish, so far as may be done consistently with the great duty I owe my Country, and those powers we are bound to respect, you may freely command my Services to the utmost of my abilities.

While I give you these assurances, and pledge myself in the most unequivocal manner, to exert whatever ability I am possessed of, in your favor, let me entreat you, Gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures, which viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained; let me request you to rely on the plighted faith of your Country, and place a full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress; that, previous to your dissolution as an Army they will cause all your Accts. to be fairly liquidated, as directed in their resolutions, which were published to you two days ago, and that they will adopt the most effectual measures in their power, to render ample justice to you, for your faithful and meritorious Services. And let me conjure you, in the name of our common Country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the Military and National character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our Country, and who wickedly attempts to open the flood Gates of Civil discord, and deluge our rising Empire in Blood. By thus determining, and thus acting, you will pursue the plain and direct road to the attainment of your wishes. You will defeat the insidious designs of our Enemies, who are compelled to resort from open force to secret Artifice. You will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings; And you will, by the dignity of your Conduct, afford occasion of Posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to Mankind, “had this day been wanting, the World had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.”

This speech was not very well received by his men. Washington then took out a letter from a member of Congress explaining the financial difficulties of the government.

After reading a portion of the letter with his eyes squinting at the small writing, Washington suddenly stopped. His officers stared at him, wondering. Washington then reached into his coat pocket and took out a pair of reading glasses. Few of them knew he wore glasses, and were surprised.

"Gentlemen," said Washington, "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."

In that moment of utter vulnerability, Washington's men were deeply moved, even shamed, and many were quickly in tears, now looking with great affection at this aging man who had led them through so much. Washington read the remainder of the letter, then left without saying another word, realizing their sentiments.

His officers then cast a unanimous vote, essentially agreeing to the rule of Congress. Thus, the civilian government was preserved and the young experiment of democracy in America continued."

-----------------------
Sources:
http://www.pbs.org/georgewashington/milestones/newburgh_read.html
http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/washington.htm

 

Sign the Guestbook View The Guestbook The Highrock Cafe E-mail the Highrock