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of justice of impartial hi Popular rights
for life should seem fraught with serious danger, or that the men who entertained them should have opposed, as an invasion of popular rights, what in the light of impartial history seems a mere act of justice. It was not till the terrible winter of Valley Forge had been passed through, and when Washington saw himself upon the point of losing many of his best and most experienced officers, that a promise of half-pay for seven years to all who should serve through the war was wrung from a reluctant Congress. It took two years more of urgent exhortation and stern experience to overcome the last scruples and secure a vote of half-pay for life.
But the opponents of this measure were not disposed to submit tamely to their defeat. The question was soon revived, both in Congress and out of Congress, in the army and in the country. The letters of the time are filled with it, and the nearer the approach of peace, the more anxiously did the army watch the movements of their adversaries. The great underlying question of a strong central government, or virtually independent State governments, came out more and more clearly. Hamilton, now in Congress, and taught by his long experience as Washington's aid the weakness of relying for justice upon the action of individual States, was for funding the whole public debt and making just provisions for the payment of the army The advocates of State rights were for throwing the army upon their respective States.
A new idea was gaining ground; the commutation of half-pay for life for five years' full pay, which many of the officers preferred, as giving them something in hand to enter upon the world with anew. It was while all minds were agitated by these exciting questions, and thoughtful men were glancing anxiously towards the future, that that stirring appeal to the army appeared which is known in history as the “ Newburg Letters.” You all know the history of this grave event. You all know how adroitly and how wisely Washington parried the blow, and drew from men smarting under a sense of past and present wrongs a declaration of unshaken confidence in the justice of Congress.
And now Congress, resolving to be just, voted to commute the half-pay for life for five years' full pay, and secure it by certificates bearing interest at six per cent. When the sum was calculated it was found to amount to five millions of dollars. But of these five millions, “ the price,” as Washington called it, “ of their blood and your independence," the officers themselves, pressed by urgent need to part with their certificates for whatever they would bring, received in the end but a small part; the greater part going, as usual, to those who had been making money for themselves while these men had been fighting for their country.
And now, too, the army was to be disbanded; not indeed, solemnly, as became a grateful people, but stealthily and by degrees, as if the nation were
afraid to look their deliverers in the face. All through the spring and summer of 1783, furloughs were granted freely, and the ranks gradually thinned. Then, on the 18th of October, a final proclamation was issued, fixing the 3d of November "for their absolute discharge.” On the 2d of November, Washington issued his final orders to his troops from Rocky Hill, near Princeton. On the 3d they were disbanded. There was no formal leave-taking. Each regiment, each company, went as it chose. Men who had stood side by side in battle, who had shared the same tent in summer, the same hut in winter, parted never to meet again. Some still had homes, and therefore definite hopes. But hundreds knew not whither to go. Their four months' pay, the only part of their country's indebtedness which they had received, was not sufficient to buy them food or shelter long, even when it had not been necessarily pledged before it came into their hands. They had lost the habits of domestic life, as they had long foregone its comforts. Strong men were seen weeping like children; men who had borne cold and hunger in winter camps, and faced death on the battle-field, shrunk from this new form of trial. For a few days the streets and taverns were crowded. For weeks soldiers were to be seen on every road, or lingering bewildered about public places like men who were at a loss what to do with themselves. There were no ovations for them as they came back toil-worn before their time, to the places which had once known them; no ringing of bells, no eager opening of hospitable doors. The country was tired of the war, tired of the sound of fife and drum, anxious to get back to sowing and reaping, to buying and selling, to town meetings and general elections. Congress was no longer King, no longer the recognized expression of a common want, the venerated embodiment of a common hope. Political ambition looked for advancement nearer home. Professional ambition returned to its narrow circle. Everything that belonged to the State resumed its importance; everything that belonged to the general government lost its importance. The army shared the common fate, gradually melting into the mass of citizens, some going back to the plough, some to the workbench; all, but those whom disease and wounds had utterly disabled, resuming by degrees the habits and avocations of peace. But in many a town and country inn you would long have found men with scars and mutilated limbs seated around the winter fire, and telling stories of the war. In many a farm-house you might long have seen an old musket on the hooks over the mantel-piece, or an old sword hanging by its leathern belt from the wall. In many a field, and by many a wayside, there were mounds and crumbling ruins ; in many a churchyard there were little green hillocks with unsculptured stones at head and foot, to tell the new generation where their fathers had fought, had encamped, had buried their dead.
It was long before the country awoke to a consciousness of its ingratitude towards these brave men. The history of our pension bills is scarcely less humiliating than the history of the relations between the army and the Congress of the Revolution. Their claims were disputed inch by inch. Money which should have been given cheerfully as a righteous debt, was doled out with reluctant hand as a degrading charity. There was no possible form of objection that was not made by men who owed the opportunity of discussing the soldiers' claims to the freedom which these soldiers had won for them with their blood. Never did Daniel Webster display a higher sense of the responsibilities of legislation, than in his defence of the bill for the relief of the survivors of the army of the Revolution. Thank God that something was done for these men before they had all passed away! Thank God that some portion of the stain was effaced from our annals! Heaven grant that the feeling whence it sprang may be forever rooted out from our national character, and that, when the question of national gratitude which the present war is preparing for us shall be brought to the door of our national council, it may be met in a manner more worthy of a just and enlightened people!