On April 21, 2006
Many students of American history are aware that George Washington put down a nascent officer’s revolt during the Revolution – the officers had sacrificed a great deal for the country’s benefit, and a dilatory Congress had for far too long delayed in making good their compensation promises.
On March 10, 1783, an anonymous letter was circulated among the officers of General Washington’s main camp at Newburgh. It addressed those complaints and 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.
General Washington stopped that meeting from happening by forbidding the officers to meet at the unauthorized meeting. Instead, he suggested they meet a few days later, on March 15th, at the regular meeting of his officers.
Meanwhile, another anonymous letter was circulated, this time suggesting Washington himself was sympathetic to the claims of the malcontent officers.
He attempted to do so via force of rational argument, but what truly won the day – and the future of our Republic – was fortuitous, and ultimately charismatic demonstration of character and self-deprecation.
(The) 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.
One wonders what might have been the result if a more personally interested or political officer had led the Continental army, someone brilliant perhaps, but morally flawed – a McClellan perhaps – imperfect officers were as common then as they are perhaps today.
What brought all of this to mind was Charles Krauthammer’s Op-Ed in the Washington Post today:
We’ve always had discontented officers in every war and in every period of our history. But they rarely coalesce into factions. That happens in places such as Hussein’s Iraq, Pinochet’s Chile or your run-of-the-mill banana republic. And when it does, outsiders (including the United States) do their best to exploit it, seeking out the dissident factions to either stage a coup or force the government to change policy.
That kind of dissident party within the military is alien to America. Some other retired generals have found it necessary to rise to the defense of the administration. Will the rest of the generals, retired or serving, now have to declare which camp they belong to?
It is precisely this kind of division that our tradition of military deference to democratically elected civilian superiors was meant to prevent. Today it suits the antiwar left to applaud the rupture of that tradition. But it is a disturbing and very dangerous precedent that even the left will one day regret.