George Washington and the Newburgh Conspiracy

It was shortly before the 238th anniversary of American independence that I received a copy of Swords in Their Hands.  Within five minutes, I had invited its author to the club.

Published earlier this year by Pisgah Press, Dave Richards’ book draws attention to a now-obscure event that he describes as one of the most important events in the early days of the United States.  I was certain a conversation with him would be a fascinating experience, and he didn’t disappoint.

“I feel foolish saying this because I consider myself a history buff, but until I saw your book, I was not aware of the story of the Newburgh Conspiracy,” I told him as we settled into chairs in the library.

“Very few people are,” he replied.   “I think the best way to describe it is that it’s probably the closest thing to a military coup that we’ve ever experienced in America.”

A Connecticut native who now resides in North Carolina, Richards spent more than eight years researching and writing the book, which is the first full-length account of the Newburgh Conspiracy.  Copies are available through his website, www.swordsintheirhands.com.

Author and historian Dave Richards. (Portrait by Paul Vincent.)

“What prompted you to write the book?”

“I was reading a book about the writing of the constitution,” Richards said.  “The authors talked about how important George Washington’s presence was at the Constitutional Convention, because he was so respected by all the delegates.  They also mentioned his efforts to snuff out the Newburgh Conspiracy, which I came to learn was one of the most important but least-known events in American history.”

“And from what I’ve read in your book so far, it happened not long after the American victory at Yorktown in 1781, right?”

“Right.  George Washington’s officers and the soldiers in his army were not being paid by Congress.  Congress couldn’t pay.  It was broke, and it had no real taxation authority.  That rested with state legislatures, and they did not want to give Congress that power.  Imagine that you’re fighting for your country’s independence and not being paid for it.  That did not sit too well with George Washington’s officers.”

So a group of politicians – referred to as nationalists in Richards’ book – who sought a more powerful federal government and congressional taxation power attempted to take advantage of the situation by “using an angry army to terrify state legislatures into giving them what they wanted.”

Swords in Their Hands tells the story of how Washington diffused what its author describes as “a very bad situation,” leading to the first president’s observation to nationalist Alexander Hamilton that “‘the army is a dangerous instrument to play with.’”

“I love that quote,” Richards said.

“Will your readers notice any similarities between the current political climate and the Revolutionary War-era events you recount in the book?” I asked.

“Very likely, but I don’t emphasize them.  I don’t want readers to interpret the book as agenda-driven, although there are a lot of parallels, such as how during the Revolutionary War, Congress ran up a huge public debt.  Today, we have a huge national debt.  Near the end of the war, Congress was divided between nationalists and those who advocated states’ rights.  Today, we again have a divided Congress.”

Richards is currently researching the Yellow Fever Plot, a failed attempt to assassinate President Lincoln by infecting the populations of Northern cities with a deadly virus during the last year of the Civil War.

“Any others?”

“Federal neglect of the Continental Army,” Richards said as he accepted a cup of coffee from Emsworth.  “Today, our military personnel are being paid, but in some cases it’s so little that they have to go on food stamps to support their families.  After the Revolutionary War, veterans were not treated well.  Today, we have the Veterans’ Administration scandal.”

Holding two degrees in Russian, Slavic, and East European languages and literature, Richards is a veteran himself, having served in the Army “a long time ago, back in the days of the Cold War.”

As an example of mistreatment of Revolutionary War veterans, Richards describes how they were promised post-war pensions.  “They were instead provided with certificates, which Congress could not start redeeming until 1791, long after the war was over.  By then, the certificates had dropped in value, to the point that many veterans sold them to speculators for just pennies on the dollar.”

“Washington seems to be the pivotal figure in your book,” I observed, leading Richards to explain how his research has caused him to admire the statesman’s sense of public virtue.

“What public virtue meant in the 1700s was that people were willing to make sacrifices for the best interests of the new nation.  Washington did that.  James Madison did too.  Now, of course, when we watch members of Congress, it seems we only see them doing things in the interests of big cash groups.  I don’t see a lot of public virtue these days.”

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