The Mutiny That Created Washington, D.C.
Revolutionary War Soldiers Reenactment. Source: (gettyimages.com)
At the end of the Revolutionary War, veterans from the Continental Army wanted to get paid and wouldn't take no for an answer. The result was one of the first major confrontations between a state and the national government and ultimately resulted in the creation of the United State's capital.
At the end of the American War of Independence, the United States faced a crisis. It needed to demobilize its army and pay its soldiers either at the federal or state level. However, the new nation was precarious financially and had entered into an economic depression that lasted from 1782 to 1789. The national government and the individual states paid $25 billion in 2019 currency to finance the war. Payments were deferred, delayed, or paid in over-inflated, worthless currencies. Soldiers were put on unpaid furloughs. Meanwhile, the country operated under the Articles of Confederation which provided for a weak, decentralized government. As a result, this national problem could not be handled effectively.
While the treaty that would officially end the Revolutionary War was being negotiated, many soldiers were furloughed home without pay while others remained on duty, again without pay. The situation grew explosive.
In early June, as word the unpaid furloughs spread, soldiers began to protest to the Congress of the Confederation. This culminated on June 16, 1783, when a mob of 400 Pennsylvania militia mutinied and marched from Lancaster to Philadelphia which was acting as the seat of Congress. They arrived on June 20 with the message that the state of Pennsylvania needed to pay them.
Pennsylvania’s President (the title of the Governor), John Dickinson, heard of the incoming protestors and prepared to meet them. His strategy was one of moderation in the hopes that he could disburse the protestors peacefully. This was because he was in a delicate local political situation with an upcoming election. He did not wish to damage his public image, which had already been damaged. Even though he was a founding father, he had refused to sign the Declaration of Independence because he felt the United States government needed to be established first, and he wished to avoid the violence of a long war. This had tarnished his reputation by the war’s end.
Meanwhile, the famous 27-year old Alexander Hamilton, who was a freshman representative of the Congress from New York, headed a committee to work with the Pennsylvania governor. By this stage, Congress was panicking. Even though the soldiers’ issue was ostensible with the state government, there had already been several similar mutinies. There was fear of a larger plot and they feared for their personal safety. There were even rumors that the mutineers were plotting to rob the Bank of North America. Hamilton also saw an opportunity to demonstrate the need for a stronger federal government, something of which he was not the major proponent.
Alexander Hamilton demanded that the Pennsylvania government mobilize the militia and crush the protesters. Dickinson refused, noting that the protesters were peaceful. Also, the reliability of the state militia was in question, and Dickinson could not be sure if they would actually disperse the mutineers. After deliberation, the Pennsylvania government made its decision to try to work out a peaceful solution. Congress had no say in the matter since it had no jurisdiction in the state of Pennsylvania – or any state for that matter. To Hamilton, it was a humiliating affront to the national government.
Hamilton with a small delegation harangued the soldiers to return home promising that they would be paid at a later date. His condescending tone had the opposite intended effect. The soldiers were insulted that they would be treated so disrespectfully for their service to the country.
Hamilton convinced the president of Congress, Elias Boudinot, to call an emergency meeting. But because of the protesters, Congressmen stayed away and quorum could not be met. Meanwhile, the simmering soldiers were given free drinks by a local tavern, in an effort to calm the situation. The prospect of angry, drunken soldiers made Congressmen more alarmed. James Madison noted that the drinking might lead “to hasty excess.”
The crowd of jeering and booing soldiers was certainly menacing to the well-heeled members of Congress. But so far there had been no violence.
That evening, June 21, Congress reached a quorum and demanded that the State of Pennsylvania protect Congress or they would leave Philadelphia. But the Pennsylvania Executive Council, which had been making progress in their negotiations and did not wish to take orders from Congress, refused. Congress then left Philadelphia and set up the capital in Princeton, New Jersey on June 26, 1783. Meanwhile, Boudinot sent a message to George Washington, asking him to send military support. He wrote, “...this wound to the dignity of the Federal Government should not go unpunished.” The issue of the federal government versus a state had become more important than the cause of the mutineers. Hamilton was incensed that a state government could force the country to move its capital. It was another humiliation for those who wanted a strong central government.
After Congress left, the mutiny quickly quieted. Washington’s troops when they arrived, were unneeded although there were several court-martials and death sentences, which were pardoned.
Congress did not meet in Philadelphia again until the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The Pennsylvania (or Philadelphia) Mutiny of 1783 is the main reason why the Framers of the Constitution created a Federal District -- eventually Washington, D.C. (Article 1, Section 8) where Congress had jurisdiction and provide for its own security.