It’s Wonderful Words Wednesday at the River Houses. Tomorrow is George Washington’s birthday, so take a few homeschool minutes this week and read (aloud if you can) a few lines from one of Washington’s most famous — and most critical and consequential — addresses.
The scene was the army encampment in Newburgh, New York, on 15 March 1783. The Revolution had ended — Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown almost a year and a half before — but the army had not yet been disbanded because the final peace treaty with Britain had not yet been signed, and most significantly, the army had not yet been paid.
Armies are by nature dangerous, and armies that have fought and sacrificed and then haven’t been paid for their service are especially dangerous. At Newburgh in March 1783, Washington faced an incipient mutiny, with thinly veiled anonymous threats circulating among the officer corps suggesting that a military takeover of the Congress might be necessary.
George Washington put down the uprising, not with force, but with words. His “Newburgh Address” of 15 March 1783 is a critical document of the Revolutionary period, and it may well have saved the young republic from descending into military dictatorship.
If you have a homeschool history student, or a student interested in rhetoric and public speaking, spend some time this Washington’s Birthday week reading the full text of the Newburgh Address:
- ➢ BACKGROUND ON THE NEWBURGH MUTINY, March 1783 (mountvernon.org)
- ➢ TEXT OF THE NEWBURGH ADDRESS delivered by George Washington, 15 March 1783 (mountvernon.org)
- ➢ MANUSCRIPT OF THE NEWBURGH ADDRESS in Washington’s Hand (masshist.org)
Here are some brief excerpts from the opening and the conclusion:
By an anonymous summons, an attempt has been made to convene you together — how inconsistent with the rules of propriety! how unmilitary! and how subversive of all order and discipline — let the good sense of the Army decide.
In the moment of this summons, another anonymous production was sent into circulation, addressed more to the feelings & passions, than to the reason & judgment of the Army…. That the Address is drawn with great art, and is designed to answer the most insidious purposes; That it is calculated to impress the Mind, with an idea of premeditated injustice in the Sovereign power of the United States, and rouse all those resentments which must unavoidably flow from such a belief; That the secret Mover of this Scheme (whoever he may be) intended to take advantage of the passions, while they were warmed by the recollection of past distresses, without giving time for cool, deliberative thinking, & that composure of Mind which is so necessary to give dignity & stability to measures, is rendered too obvious, by the mode of conducting the business….
For myself … [I will] declare, in this public & solemn manner, that, in the attainment of compleat justice for all your toils & dangers, and in the gratification of every wish, so far as may be done consistently with the great duty I owe my Country, and those powers we are bound to respect, you may freely command my services to the utmost of my abilities.
While I give you these assurances, and pledge my self in the most unequivocal manner, to exert whatever ability I am possesed of, in your favor — let me entreat you, Gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures, which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, & sully the glory you have hitherto maintained….
By thus determining — & thus acting, you will pursue the plain & direct Road to the attainment of your wishes. You will defeat the insidious designs of our Enemies, who are compelled to resort from open force to secret Artifice. You will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism & patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings; And you will, by the dignity of your Conduct, afford occasion for Posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to man kind, “had this day been wanting, the World had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.”
What wonderful words have you found and what literary discoveries have you made in your homeschool lately?