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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
The Army and Country After the War
by Bancroft, Hubert H.

[The close of the Revolutionary War found America in anything but an enviable state. Financially there was a complete collapse. The army, unpaid, and with no prospect of being paid, was in a desperate and dangerous mood. The only man who possessed any controlling influence over it was its illustrious commander; and had he been ambitious of power the newly-formed government might have been overturned, and a monarchy erected upon its ruins. Happily, Washington was a patriot in the fullest sense. His one controlling thought was the good of his country, and all his great influence was used to abate the discontent of the soldiers, and to remove the perils which threatened the infant republic.

The country had become virtually bankrupt. The year 1782 opened without a dollar in the public treasury. Congress had required the payment of two millions on the 1st of April, yet not a cent had been received by the 23d of that month. Rigid reforms in expenditure had been introduced, yet the absolutely necessary 'expenses could not be met, and on the 1st of June only twenty thousand dollars, little more than was required for the use of one day, had reached the treasury. Robert Morris, the minister of finance, made every possible exertion to sustain the public credit. The bank he had established at Philadelphia, and the system of credit he had inaugurated, were of the utmost utility; but they could not accomplish miracles, and miracles were needed to pay money out of an empty purse.

Fortunately for America, the British public was thoroughly tired of the war, and the sentiment in Parliament soon became overpoweringly in favor of peace. Yet it was not certain that peace would be declared, while it was evident that Great Britain was seeking 'to make terms with the European allies of America. No important warlike operations took place, however. The British army lay quietly in New York, and its commander took measures to restrain those incursions of' hostile Indians upon the frontier settlements which had formed a terrible part of the British policy during the war. That the commissioners at Paris would succeed in making a treaty of peace became evident as time went on. Yet the army was still under arms, and still unpaid. The States grew more and more lax in forwarding their contributions to the minister of finance, and Congress was without power to lay a tax, or to enforce payment from the States. A state of affairs had been reached in which the fatal weakness of the established form of union became evident, and the necessity of a stronger central government vitally apparent. By the month of August only eighty thousand dollars had been received from all the States, a sum barely sufficient for the subsistence of the army. To pay the troops was impossible, and nearly every other debt remained unpaid. The events which succeeded this distressing state of affairs may be given in a selection from Chief-Justice Marshall's "Life of 'George Washington," in which they are detailed at length.]

It was then in contemplation to reduce the army, by which many of the officers would be discharged. While the general declared, in a confidential letter to the Secretary of War, his conviction of the alacrity with which they would retire into private life, could they be placed in a situation as eligible as that they had left to enter into the service, he added, "Yet I cannot help fearing the result of the measure, when I see such a number of men goaded by a thousand stings of reflection on the past, and of anticipation on the future, about to be turned into the world, soured by penury, and what they call the ingratitude of the public; involved in debts, without one farthing of money to carry them home, after having spent the flower of their days, and, many of them, their patrimonies, in establishing the freedom and independence of their country, and having suffered everything which human nature is capable of enduring on this side of death. I repeat it, when I reflect on these irritable circumstances, unattended by one thing to soothe their feelings or brighten the gloomy prospect, I cannot avoid apprehending that a train of evils will follow of a very serious and distressing nature.. You may rely upon it, the patience and long-suffering of this army are almost exhausted, and there never was so great a spirit of discontent as at this instant. While in the field, I think it may be kept from breaking out into acts of outrage; but when we retire into winter quarters (unless the storm be previously dissipated) I cannot be at ease respecting the consequences. It is high time for a peace."

[A resolution had been passed in 1780, granting half-pay for life to the officers. Yet not only was there no prospect of money to meet this requirement, but a spirit unfriendly to the law had arisen in Congress. This legislative hostility increased the irritation of the officers. In October the army went into winter-quarters. Washington remained in camp, not through fear of military operations, but from dread of some outbreak of violence in the army.]

In America the approach of peace, combined with other causes, produced a state of things highly interesting and critical. There was much reason to fear that Congress possessed neither the power nor the inclination to comply with its engagements to the army; and the officers who had wasted their fortunes and their prime of life in unrewarded service could not look with unconcern at the prospect which was opening to them. In December, soon after going into winter- quarters, they presented a petition to Congress, respecting the money actually due them, and the commutation of the half-pay stipulated by the resolution of October, 1780, for a sum in gross, which they flattered themselves would be less objectionable than the half-pay establishment.

[There was a strong party in Congress jealous of an hostile to the demands of the army. The question of funding the public debt, whether in State or Continental securities, was also a subject of slow debate.]

In consequence of these divisions on the most interesting points, the business of the army advanced slowly; and the important question regarding the commutation of their half-pay remained undecided in March, when intelligence was received of the signature of the preliminary and eventual articles of peace between the United States and Great Britain.

Soured by their past sufferings, their present wants, and their gloomy prospects, and exasperated by the neglect with which they believed themselves to be treated, and by the injustice supposed to be meditated against them, the ill- temper of the army was almost universal, and seemed to require only a slight impulse to give it activity. To render this temper the more dangerous, an opinion had been insinuated that the commander-in-chief was restrained by extreme delicacy from advocating their interests with that zeal which his feelings and knowledge of their situation had inspired. Early in March a letter was received from their committee in Philadelphia, showing that the objects they solicited had not been obtained. On the 10th of that month an anonymous paper was circulated, requiring a meeting of the general and field officers at the public building on the succeeding day at eleven in the morning..

On the same day was privately circulated an address to the army, admirably well prepared to work on the passions of the moment and to conduct them to the most desperate resolutions..

Persuaded as the officers in general were of the indisposition of government to remunerate their services, this eloquent and passionate address, dictated by genius and by feeling, found in almost every bosom a kindred though latent sentiment, prepared to receive its impression. Like a train to which a torch is applied, the passions quickly caught its flame, and nothing seemed to be required but the assemblage invited on the succeeding day to communicate the conflagration to the combustible mass, and to produce an explosion alike tremendous and ruinous.

Fortunately, the commander-in-chief was in camp. His characteristic firmness and decision did not fail him in this crisis. The occasion required that his measures should be firm, yet prudent and conciliatory; evincive of his firm determination to oppose any rash proceedings, but calculated to assuage the irritation which was excited and to restore a confidence in government. This course he at once adopted. Knowing well that it was much easier to avoid intemperate measures than to correct them, he thought it of essential importance to prevent the immediate meeting of the officers; but, knowing also that a sense of injury and fear of injustice had made a deep impression on them, and that their sensibilities were all alive to the proceedings of Congress on their memorial, he thought it more advisable to guide than to discountenance their deliberations on that interesting subject.

[Washington's efforts in this direction proved successful. Though the anonymous writer circulated another insidious document on the succeeding day, the admirable address made them by the commander-in-chief powerfully impressed the officers, and drew from them a series of resolutions expressive of confidence in Congress and the country and strongly condemning the sentiments of the unknown writer. Washington then wrote to Congress, and induced that body to pass the communication resolution.]

The treaty between the United States and Great Britain being eventual, it furnished no security against a continuance of the calamities of war; and the most serious fears were entertained that the difficulties opposed to a general pacification would not be removed. These fears were entirely dispelled by a letter from the Marquis de La Fayette announcing a general peace. This intelligence, though not official, was certain; and orders were immediately issued recalling all armed vessels cruising under the authority of the United States. Early in April the copy of a declaration published in Paris, and signed by the American commissioners, notifying the exchange of ratifications of the preliminary articles between Great Britain and France, was received; and the cessation of hostilities was proclaimed.

The attention of Congress might now safely be turned to the reduction of the Continental army. This was a critical operation, and, in the present state of the funds, by no means exempt from danger. Independent of the anxieties which the officers would naturally feel respecting their future provision, which of necessity remained unsecured, large arrears of pay were due to them, the immediate receipt of part of which was necessary to supply the most urgent wants. To disband an army to which the government was greatly indebted, without furnishing the means of conveying the individuals who composed it to their respective homes, could scarcely be undertaken; and Congress was unable to advance the pay of a single month.

Although for the year 1782 eight million had been required, the payments made into the public treasury under that requisition had amounted to only four hundred and twenty thousand and thirty-one dollars and twenty-nine ninetieths, and the foreign loans had not been sufficient to defray expenses it was impossible to avoid. At the close of that year the expenditures of the superintendent of the finances had exceeded his receipts four hundred and four thousand seven hundred and thirteen dollars and nine ninetieths, and the excess continued to increase.

[Congress, in this dilemma, instructed the commander-in-chief to grant furloughs freely to the officers and men, hoping thus quietly to reduce the army. This order produced serious alarm. It was supposed that the authorities were seeking to get rid of them without paying them, and Washington's persuasions and influence were again necessary to quiet the murmurs. He succeeded in this troublesome task.]

The utmost good temper was universally manifested, and the arrangements for retiring on furlough were made without a murmur. In the course of the summer a considerable proportion of the troops enlisted for three years were also permitted to return to their homes; and in October a proclamation was issued by Congress declaring all those who had engaged for the war to be discharged on the third of December.

While these excellent dispositions were manifested by the veterans serving under the immediate eye of their patriot chief, the government was exposed to insult and outrage from the mutinous spirit of a small party of new levies. About eighty of this description of troops belonging to the State of Pennsylvania were stationed at Lancaster. Revolting against the authority of their officers, they marched in a body to Philadelphia, with the avowed purpose of obtaining a redress of their grievances from the Executive Council of the State. The march of these insolent mutineers was unobstructed, and after arriving in Philadelphia they were joined by some other troops quartered in the barracks, so as to amount to about three hundred men. They then marched in military parade, with fixed bayonets, to the State-House, where Congress and the Executive Council of the State were sitting. After placing sentinels at all the doors, they sent in a written message, threatening the President and Council of the State to let loose an enraged soldiery upon them if their demands were not gratified in twenty minutes. Although the resentments of this banditti were not directed particularly against Congress, the government of the Union was grossly insulted, and those who administered it were blockaded for several hours by an insolent and licentious soldiery. After remaining in this situation about three hours, Congress separated, having fixed on Princeton as the place at which they should reassemble.

On receiving information of this outrage, the commander-in-chief instantly detached fifteen hundred men under the command of Major-General Howe to suppress the mutiny. The indignation which this insult to the civil authority had occasioned, and the mortification with which he viewed the misconduct of any portion of the American troops, were strongly marked in his letter written on that occasion to the President of Congress..

Before the detachment from the army could reach Philadelphia, the disturbances were in a great degree quieted without bloodshed; but Major-General Howe was ordered by Congress to continue his march into Pennsylvania, "in order that immediate measures might be taken to confine and bring to trial all such persons belonging to the army as have been principally active in the late mutiny; to disarm the remainder; and to examine fully into all the circumstances relating thereto."..

At length, on the 25th of November, the British troops evacuated New York, and a detachment from the American army took possession of that town.

The guards being posted for the security of the citizens, General Washington, accompanied by Governor Clinton, and attended by many civil and military officers and a large number of respectable inhabitants on horseback, made his public entry into the city, where he was received with every mark of respect and attention. His military course was now on the point of terminating; and previous to divesting himself of the supreme command he was about to bid adieu to his comrades in arms.

This affecting interview took place on the fourth of December. At noon, the principal officers of the army assembled at Frances' tavern; soon after which their beloved commander entered the room. His emotions were too strong to be concealed. Filling a glass, he turned to them and said, "With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you; I most devoutly wish that your later days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable." Having drunk, he added, "I cannot come to each of you to take my leave, but shall be obliged to you if each of you will come and take me by the hand." General Knox, being nearest, turned to him. Incapable of utterance, Washington grasped his hand, and embraced him. In the same affectionate manner he took leave of each succeeding officer. In every eye was the tear of dignified sensibility; and not a word was articulated to interrupt the majestic silence and the tenderness of the scene. Leaving the room, he passed through the corps of light infantry, and walked to Whitehall, where a barge waited to carry him to Powles' Hook. The whole company followed in mute and solemn procession, with dejected countenances, testifying feelings of delicious melancholy, which no language can describe. Having entered the barge, he turned to the company, and, waving his hat, bade them a silent adieu. They paid him the same affectionate compliment, and, after the barge had left them, returned in the same solemn manner to the place where they had assembled.

[Washington proceeded to Annapolis, where Congress was then in session, in order to resign his commission into their hands. He reached there on December 19. It was determined that the ceremony should take place on Tuesday, December 23.]

When the hour arrived for performing a ceremony so well calculated to recall to the mind the various interesting scenes which had passed since the commission now to be returned was granted, the gallery was crowded with spectators; and many respectable persons, among whom were the legislative and executive characters of the State, several general officers, and the consul-general of France, were admitted on the floor of Congress.

The representatives of the sovereignty of the Union remained seated and covered. The spectators were standing and uncovered. The general was introduced by the secretary, and conducted to a chair. After a decent interval, silence was commanded, and a short pause ensued. The President then informed him that "The United States in Congress assembled were prepared to receive his communications." With a native dignity improved by the solemnity of the occasion, the general rose and delivered the following address:


"The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place, I have now the honor of offering my sincere congratulations to Congress, and of presenting myself before them, to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me, and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the service of my country.

"Happy in the confirmation of our independence and sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable nation, I resign with satisfaction the appointment I accepted with diffidence,--a diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task, which, however, was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our cause, the support of the supreme power of the Union, and the patronage of heaven.

"The successful termination of the war has verified the most sanguine expectations; and my gratitude for the interposition of Providence, and the assistance I have received from my countrymen, increases with every review of the momentous contest.

"While I repeat my obligations to the army in general, I should do injustice to my own feelings not to acknowledge in this place the peculiar services and distinguished merits of the gentlemen who have been attached to my person during the war. It was impossible the choice of confidential officers to compose my family should have been more fortunate. Permit me, sir, to recommend in particular those who have continued in the service to the present moment, as worthy of the favorable notice and patronage of Congress.

"I consider it as an indispensable duty to close this last act of my official life by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them to his holy keeping.

"Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of action, and, bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body, under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life."

[This patriotic renunciation of power by Washington, so different from the example of Caesar, Cromwell, and other military heroes, who have ended wars at the head of victorious armies and with a country at their mercy, has deservedly excited the admiration of the world, and stamps George Washington as one of the greatest men that ever led an army to battle. His address to Congress was eloquently replied to by General Mifflin, the President of that body, after which he retired to Mount Vernon, exchanging the labors of the camp for the industries of a farm, and bearing with him the esteem not only of his own countrymen, but of all civilized mankind.

The financial result of the war was a foreign debt of eight millions and a domestic debt of more than thirty millions of dollars. The paper money of the Confederacy had become worthless, while the States were very slow in supplying money to pay the arrears due the soldiers and the other pressing debts. They had their own local debts to provide for, and their governments to support. The country was impoverished, and taxes could not be collected. Some of the States endeavored, by heavy taxation, to raise money to satisfy their creditors. In consequence of the disorganized condition of affairs, and the general distress, a serious insurrection, known as "Shays' Rebellion," broke out in Massachusetts, which it took a military force of several thousand men to suppress. It was becoming increasingly evident that the hands of the central government must be strengthened and new methods of administration adopted, or the confederacy of the States would ere long fall to pieces of its own weight.]

John Marshall


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