The Reading Room
Washington’s Address to the Officers of the Army
Legal norms and processes are not mere tools for achieving one’s preferred conception of a good society but are themselves part of a good society. Law is not some third wheel to liberty and justice. It’s a necessary companion to them. Washington’s great “Address to the Officers of the Army” of March 15, 1783 illustrates this well.
In a polarized and heated time when some on both left and right call into question the legitimacy of our political institutions, elections, and norms, we would do well to make Washington’s Address a common feature of our post-secondary curricula. The context of the speech as well as the main themes of the speech merit careful study.
The setting was a tense meeting at a building called “The Temple of Virtue” in Newburgh, New York. The General was cool and collected, but the officers of the Continental Army were not, their pent-up frustration with the Continental Congress nearly at the boiling point. Washington’s staff had intercepted a disturbing missive not long before. This anonymous letter demanded action – perhaps it was time to make Washington their king and to “retire to some unsettled country,” leaving an ungrateful America to fend for itself. Perhaps it was time for threat of violence against the Continental Congress to demand that states be taxed to provide long overdue pay to the soldiers of the army. It was March 1783 – after Yorktown (1781) but still before the Treaty of Paris, and while the fighting was over, the officers were ready to turn their gaze to a Continental Congress which, they believed, had spent the entire war delaying payment to those who had sacrificed life and limb for the sacred cause of liberty.
Known to history as the Newburgh Conspiracy, the officers planned to meet to discuss their options, but Washington had his own plans. Cancelling the meeting, he called another to occur a few days later. Washington’s sudden attendance at the rescheduled meeting “heightened the solemnity of the scene,” recalled Major Samuel Shaw. “Every eye,” Shaw recalled, “was fixed upon the illustrious man” as he entered. The officers were silent. If he were to oppose the consensus of the officers, observed Shaw, then he would stand “single and alone.” “There was no saying where the passions of an army, which were not a little inflamed, might lead.”
But in one of Washington’s greatest moments, he chose the path of opposition. In his “Address to the Officers of the Army,” he convinced the hardened soldiers to a better course – one consistent with law and order and therefore consistent with liberty. A careful reading of Washington’s Address reveals four themes woven throughout this important speech.
1. True Patriotism
Washington corrected the officers. They should have known that he was on their side, that he had long been asking Congress for support, and that extra-legal means were unnecessary: “If my conduct heretofore, has not evinced to you, that I have been a faithful friend to the Army,” then nothing he said here would persuade them (§4). Washington was a patriot, and his men should have realized this rather than considering such actions without his direction. So, too, were the officers to whom he spoke true patriots. Indeed, their reputation was “celebrated thro’ all Europe, for its fortitude and Patriotism” (§8). By contrast, the anonymous author of a circulated letter was no true patriot. (The author turns out to have been the veteran John Armstrong of Pennsylvania.) Here was a man who possessed no “regard to justice” or “love of Country” (§2).
2. Time and Patience
In the speech, Washington described the distinguishing features of a republican patriot. Chief among them was patience. While he could have emphasized courage in battle or commitment to the ideals of liberty, instead Washington returned again and again in the speech to patience, coupling “patriotism and patient virtue” at the conclusion of the Address to describe the soldiers’ long ordeal under “the pressure of the most complicated sufferings” (§10).
Just as they showed patience by enduring the crucible of war, he again called them to patience - this time patience to await the Continental Congress to keep their word to pay the army as promised (§8). In effect, he asked them to follow his example; Washington remained patient in not exceeding the authority granted to him by Congress, that representative body of the people whence came congressional authority. While swift efficiency may be an advantage of monarchy, a republican must understand that Congress, “like all other large Bodies, where there is a variety of different interests to reconcile,” is slow, and therefore sometimes requires the virtue of patience.
Patience allows for another feature of patriotism. Whereas Armstrong had called for “Suspicion” of “the Man who should recommend moderation and longer forbearance,” the patriot is one who understands that it is moderation born of reason that will guide the country to good ends.
With just a bit of time – just a “moment’s reflection” – Washington believed that every “dispassionate Mind” would see the disastrous consequences of following the advice of the unnamed author (§6). While the author proposed that they flee into the unsettled territory, leaving the ungrateful country to defend itself, what would become of property or family which they left behind? Rather than secure what they wanted, the opposite would occur. Moreover, by abandoning the “calm light of reason,” they would lose their “sacred honor." All other Americans would find that they had lost “the liberties of our Country,” those having been washed away by “the flood Gates of Civil discord” that would “deluge our rising Empire in Blood” (§10). Abandoning legal and constitutional means to achieve one’s aims, in the end, means not achieving one’s aims.
Washington was not arguing for a stoic abandonment of emotion. Instead, his Address shows that an authentic “love of Country” rationally guides patriotic affection to good ends, provided that people take the time to think.
4. Law and Authority
At the conclusion of the Address, Washington illustrated how reason can steer patriotic affections to good ends. Reading a letter of goodwill from a member of the Congress, he concluded his remarks with a famous act of political theater: before reading his speech, he put on spectacles, something that shocked his audience, who hadn’t previously seen the General wear them. “You will permit me to put on my spectacles,” he said, “for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” The soldiers were disarmed, as it were, many of them in tears at what they saw. The “tide of patriotism,” Shaw recalled, “rolled again in its wonted course.”
What was that course? It was partly the course of lawful authority. American patriots said that they were fighting for self-government. “We had always governed ourselves and we always meant to,” one revolutionary veteran famously said. But to do so, it would be necessary to honor the authority of the people as represented in the Congress. To follow the advice of the anonymous writer would defeat the whole point of what they had been doing these last several years.