Leaders need passion to unite, words to calm
Today, as Americans remain partisan and divided, it’s hard to envision the possibility that words from a leader could actually unite us.
Sadly, these days, even inspirational words can serve to divide Americans. Undoubtedly, many might have been inspired by the words spoken Feb. 28 by former President Donald Trump before the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Others may have been moved by the words spoken Thursday evening by President Joe Biden when he addressed America on national TV.
Yep, I can already sense eyes rolling and teeth grinding with the mention of each of those speeches.
Imagine, though, that many, many years ago, there was a man who delivered a speech that, against all odds, served to inspire and raise up divided and exhausted men fighting for the creation of this nation. Specifically, 238 years ago this week, George Washington — not yet our new nation’s first president — delivered one of the most important speeches in his military career.
He was facing a potential military uprising now known as the Newburgh Conspiracy that, had it been handled incorrectly, had potential to derail the formation of this fledgling nation.
I knew little about the Newburgh Conspiracy. I stumbled recently across these details written by Ugonna Eze at the National Constitution Center.
It was March 15, 1783, in Newburgh, New York, when Gen. George Washington spoke to a corps of bloodied, hungry soldiers who were on the verge of mutiny. Cold, tired of fighting and far from home, these men were also angry because they had not been paid.
Petitions circulated among the soldiers criticizing the Continental Congress and considering two options: If the British started turning the tide of the war, soldiers were urged to abandon the colonies and move west. Or if the Americans won the war, soldiers were urged to turn against the newly liberated colonies and overthrow the Continental Congress.
Certainly, either option could have ended America.
Washington learned of the plot and was horrified. Either move would destroy the public’s confidence in the military and embarrass the U.S. on the world stage. It also would vindicate the British king’s skepticism of American self-government by transferring government rule from the British to a military dictator.
Washington delivered his Newburgh Address to the senior officers of the Continental Army.
He learned of a gathering and slipped in a side door to address the men, who were surprised by his presence.
In a passionate nine-page speech, Washington spoke of national duty, the submission of military to civil authority and the importance of dispassionate and good-faith debate. He reminded the men of their duty to the American Republic and of his own personal sacrifices for the nation.
“A grateful sense of the confidence you have ever placed in me — a recollection of the cheerful assistance, prompt obedience I have experienced from you … and the sincere affection I feel for an army I have so long had the honor to command, will oblige me to declare … the great duty I owe my Country, and those powers we are bound to respect.”
According to later accounts, many of the soldiers were moved to tears.
The Continental Congress in Philadelphia was shocked when they received news of the averted rebellion. Alexander Hamilton immediately sprang into action, proposing a five-year commutation of the soldiers’ pensions that Congress immediately approved.
The Newburgh Address reminded the soldiers and the nation of the value of liberty and why these soldiers gave so much for their new nation. Indeed, Washington proved that liberty is preserved through patience, sacrifice and conscience of those we trust with power.
Today, as we see ridiculous name calling, finger-pointing and frustrations boil over in our nation’s capital, as both major political parties try to one-up the other, I can’t help but hope and wonder when we will again experience leadership with passion like this to unite and words like this to calm.