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Potus Geeks Book Review: A Crisis of Peace by David Head

Before the Constitution was signed in 1787, the 13 colonies that had fought the American Revolution against the British had formed a confederation of states. They operated under the Articles of Confederation, a loose association that gave almost all the power to the states and very little to the central government. This presented a number of problems, perhaps the greatest of which was paying the bills to fight the Revolution. After the British were defeated at Yorktown in October 1781, the Revolution had ground to a halt as peace talks began between British and American diplomats took place. The American Continental Army was based at Newburgh, New York, from where they monitored British-occupied New York City. With the end of the war and dissolution of the Continental Army approaching, soldiers who had not been paid feared became anxious about whether the Confederation Congress would keep previous promises concerning back pay and pensions, and for good reason.

Professor David Head's 2019 book A Crisis of Peace: George Washington, the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the Fate of the American Revolution tells the story of this often overlooked crisis, and how the future of the nation was threatened with the potential loss of the crucial element of civilian control of the army. The book details how a second American revolution almost occurred, this one by soldiers against their government. The author describes how the steady leadership of the army's Commander-in-Chief, General George Washington, averted a crisis in what was perhaps the greatest post-war challenge confronting the new nation.

In 1782 Congress had promised Continental officers a lifetime pension of half their pay when they were discharged. In Philadelphia, where Congress met, financier Robert Morris had stopped army pay in 1782 as a cost-saving measure, promising that when the war finally ended the arrears would be made up. Professor Head tells the story of how this issue was a prominent topic of debate in Congress and in the army camp at Newburgh, and how numerous memos and petitions from soldiers had failed to bring about any significant action to address soldiers' needs.

In late 1782, a number of officers under the leadership of General Henry Knox, drafted a memorandum to Congress. Backed by enough general officers that it could not be ignored, the letter was delivered to Congress by a delegation consisting of General Alexander McDougall and Colonels John Brooks and Matthias Ogden in late December 1782. The soldiers offered to accept a lump sum payment instead of the lifetime half pay pension. It also contained the vague threat that "any further experiments on [the army's] patience may have fatal effects."

The author tells the story of the Newburgh Conspiracy, a possible planned military coup instigated by members in the Congress and officers, who circulated an anonymous letter in the army camp at Newburgh, New York, on March 10, 1783. The letter suggested that they should take unspecified action against Congress to resolve the issue. He also describes the efforts of George Washington to head off any rebellion, and his famous emotional address to his officers calling for cooler heads to prevail. This was a time when what should have been a transition from war to peace turned into a tense situation that severely tested the bond that held the colonies together and demonstrated the need for the strong central government that Washington would come to advocate for.

This book is superbly researched. The author carefully delves into the correspondence of the major actors in the drama. These include Washington and his fellow soldiers Henry Know, Horatio Gates, Alexander McDougall, John Brooks, and the trouble-making John Armstrong and Walter Steward. The letters and motives of leading members of Congress are also scrutinized, including Robert Morris, Gouveneur Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Their frustrations and machinations in dealing with those states refusing to approve efforts to reward the soldiers and to finance the cost of the war by tariffs and taxation are palpable to the reader from the author's thoughtful descriptions.

Professor Head succeeds in bringing to life the story of a little-known but important piece of American history, at a time when the union of the newly independent nation was fragile. He educates the reader about the important contribution of those who held it together at this pivotal time in its history.
Tags: alexander hamilton, book review, george washington, james madison
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