The Mean Streets of a
More Hostile America

I was in high school, I think, when I first heard of the Newburgh Conspiracy.

By 1783, the American Revolution had pretty much been victorious. Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown two years before.

But official peace negotiations had only just begun. The government of Britain had not surrendered the colonies. New York was still occupied by the British. And soldiers fighting in the American army had not been paid, in some cases for months: in many cases for as long as six years. Some officers were digging into their own finances to pay troops just enough to survive.

Congress had promised to pay soldiers back wages plus a pension. But now, the prevailing attitude in Congress was to do nothing. The war was about to end formally. Victory was already in hand. Why keep expensive promises when independence had already been won?

Besides, there was no way to raise the money to keep old promises to retiring soldiers. The Articles of Confederation were little more than a trade agreement that dealt with former colonies as independent, sovereign nations. Taxing and finance were state matters. And some states had already passed laws that told soldiers to kiss off. No pensions for you.

Efforts to give the national government the ability to impose tariffs had been defeated. Opposition to a stronger government was decisive. There was nothing in the national treasury to pay out, and no way to get it.

Pay soldiers what had been promised? Couldn’t be done.

In Newburgh, New York, letters were written by officers to each other forming a plot. There would be a sort of coup.

There is some controversy about whether the coup was a ruse. At least some officers and enlisted men believed it and supported the move. Stories circulated that the objective would be to install George Washington as a King. A king would have the power to pay a standing army what was owed.

Installing a monarchy would not have been an outlandish goal. Royalty was an almost universally accepted form of government throughout the world. And George Washington was the logical King.

A democratic republic was almost unheard of. A system of Cantons in Switzerland was reputed to be democratic. But only the very wealthy had any part in that system. Real democracy in Switzerland was still a few years away. A primitive sort of proto-Republic had been tried in England under Oliver Cromwell in the mid-1600s. It had not gone well and King Charles II had been installed by popular demand.

Washington wanted promises to be kept. He wanted his soldiers to be paid. So he allowed news of the Newburgh conspiracy to reach Congress. And Congress got scared. They formed a committee to figure out how to amend the Articles of Confederation in order to pay soldiers. The committee became a convention. The Convention went off in a different direction. They hatched an unauthorized proposal for an entirely new, strong central government in order to form a more perfect union.

Yay, American Constitution!

Before all that happened, Washington only knew that he wanted an untried democratic republic to be given a run in America. He did not want a monarchy. He did not want a king. He most emphatically did not want to be a king.

While Congress was tied up in fear and committees, he held a meeting with the most rebellious of his officers. They were angry, in no mood to be talked out of simple justice. Once they realized General Washington would not support a move against Congress, a sort of respectful hostility was turned on him.

Washington talked briefly about his efforts to get payment. The legend is that he tried to read to the group a letter of support from a member of Congress. He stared at the paper for a time, then fumbled for a new pair of eyeglasses. None of the group had ever seen him with reading glasses. He apologized, “Gentlemen, 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.” The flagrant appeal to emotion worked. He won most of them over.

The Newburgh conspiracy, if it was an actual conspiracy, collapsed. And America went on without a king.

I thought a little about American royalty a few years ago on the one hundredth anniversary of the Presidential pitch in baseball. Barack Obama threw the opening ball. It was his second year as a major league pitcher.

High and outside. Not really great, but better than his first year, where the ball barely bounced to the catcher. I remarked at that first effort that, as a baseball player, Barack Obama would be better off seeking a career in politics. He must have practiced through the following year.

That 100th anniversary marked a tradition begun in 1910. The umpire at Washington’s Griffith Stadium, Billy Evans, had a sudden thought. He asked the President if he would like to open the game by throwing the ball over the plate. William Howard Taft threw that first pitch and started an unbroken streak. President Obama threw the 100th, and a few more in the years following.

Mr. Taft is often credited with another baseball tradition.

Late in a game one April day in 1910, President Taft, a truly massive man (my kind of guy), got really uncomfortable in his small stadium chair. So he stood and stretched. The respectful crowd stood as well. That began the tradition we see in every game of major league baseball, the seventh inning stretch.

George Washington ended the Newburgh conspiracy. American monarchy did not get as far as being stillborn. It was not even really conceived. But Americans have developed, in place of royalty, a reflexive reverence for the Presidency.

Presidents in our country establish a cultural tone.

This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.

John F. Kennedy, June 11, 1963

John F. Kennedy moved racism in American consciousness from individually eccentric to reprehensibly evil.

We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.

George Bush promoted a sort of every-man plain style, that many of us take for a deliberate embrace of willful ignorance. For a while, “nuculer” became part of the lexicon.

What cultural impact are we to expect as Donald Trump becomes President Trump?

We might find family gatherings, workplace discussions, even conversations in whatever equivalents of Fellowship Hall are found in Houses of Worship becoming more lively each year. Will expressions of white supremacy become more common and less self-conscious, as a decent regard for the opinions of others is dismissed as mere “political correctness?” Will politics follow suit as national discourse is cheapened?

Repressive policies may descend, as has been promised. The vulnerable will likely suffer from a new official harshness. Governmental discrimination by religion and ethnicity may not be the end. We may also find ourselves further separated as familiar vows are reversed in application as wealth, and even health become borders in a divided land.

We have to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Donald Trump, October 19, 2016

On which side of the wide divide do you live? Are you richer or poorer? Do you find yourself in sickness or in health?

Even if policy does not become all that has been promised, will brown skinned immigrants be targeted on the street?

They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

Donald Trump, June 16, 2015

Will those wearing the clothing of different religions be targets? Will houses of worship be attacked? Will inhabitants as well, even as they worship?

Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.

Read by Donald Trump, December 7, 2015

Hate crimes have already spiked, with only the most tepid, milquetoast denial of support for the hatred.

Intervention from passersby, people of good will, has sometimes countered the new popularity of hatred. We must resolve to help wherever we can. But the kindness of strangers is not a dependable resource.

Leadership matters.

Official action from new, hostile authority will come. But coherent policy takes time to formulate, then to apply. The more immediate impact generated by a new President is not likely to come through government. The first fear does not flow directly from white buildings that will soon house unfriendly power.

Our brothers and sisters, children of God, are already taking care, walking the mean streets of a new America.

Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or RSS
to get episodes automatically downloaded.