Rhetorical Analysis of George Washington's Newburgh Conspiracy Speech

Rhetorical Analysis of George Washington's Newburgh Conspiracy Speech

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"His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order; his penetration strong . . . Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed." (Thomas Jefferson, as cited in "George Washington," 2006, para.19) George Washington is one of the most recognized and famous leaders in all history of the United States of America. He contributed greatly to the establishment of this prosperous country, from leading the Revolutionary armies into battle, to running the country as the first president, Washington has set precedence and example for all who have and are yet to follow. He was a noble man who demonstrated characteristics one would expect from a hero figure. He was not power-hungry, but did things and played his role for the good of the country, for patriotic purposes, to help America become the success it is today. In March of 1783, the soldiers of the American military were restless, bored and in a terrible state of doubt and distrust concerning the newly formed congress of the country. When these soldiers joined the army, they were promised a certain amount of money according to their service, but by the war's end, congress was nearly broke and not in a position to pay them all they had earned. The soldiers planned a rebellion against congress for their unjust treatment, and attempted to hold an unauthorized meeting of the officers on the matter. Washington forbade the meeting, but called for one a few days later, in which he gave his speech concerning the Newburgh Conspiracy ("The Rise and Fall," 2006, para.2). General Washington was a highly respected man among his peers, soldiers, and fellow men. His opinions, approval, and presence alone were enough to validate many plans, documents, and meetings throughout his life, so it is no wonder that even simple words or acts performed by General Washington were respected, and more often than not, taken to heart by his audience; perhaps this is why it may seem surprising that one of the most important speeches he ever gave fell on relatively deaf ears, leaving the audience hesitant, confused, seemingly unaffected by his powerful use of diction, and emotional appeal.
Throughout American history, important, credible individuals have given persuasive speeches on various issues to diverse audiences.

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George Washington was not only credible, admired and trusted throughout his life by those he lead, but is presently regarded as an important symbol of American patriotism and ideals. Within this speech, he spoke highly of himself, but truthfully in saying: "As I have been the constant companion and witness of your distresses, and not among the last to feel and acknowledge your merits. As I have ever considered my own military reputation as inseparably connected with that of the army." (Washington, para.2) The men of the American army were in a severe state of uncertainty, and many were even beginning to question the motives and character of Washington himself at this time. Therefore, he found it necessary to reestablish a state of trust among the men by helping them to recall previous experiences and struggles through which he accompanied them; times in which he exuded the essential characteristics, attitudes and qualities that earned him respect, and distinguished him as a trustworthy, sympathetic leader. He reminds them of his loyalty to them through all their trials, and in doing so, he not only witnessed, but experienced their sufferings as they did, and rather than just sympathize, Washington was able to empathize with them. By suggesting that his reputation is intertwined with that of the army, he evokes a sense of unity between himself and every man in the room, hopefully enough of a sense that they will feel inspired and justified in aligning their opinions and actions with his. He wants them to feel like he is proud of them, he not only understands, but respects them, and at the same time, he wants them to feel that he is one of them. He emphasizes and reinforces these strong emotional ties by going on to say that he has taken pride in them when they have been complimented, and has become annoyed, upset, in fact righteously angry when people have spoken poorly of or criticized them. Then he drives his point home in suggesting the absurdity in anyone assuming that he would be unconcerned with the nature of the problem at hand; in doing so, Washington solidified his position as a caring and justifiable leader of these men, suggesting that he has their best interests at the forefront of his mind, especially in times of particularly grueling and, or frustrating trials.
One of Washington's many strengths as far as speaking skills are concerned was his choice and usage of diction. He was a powerful speaker who employed influential and authoritative words in his cause as a means of persuasion. When a speaker can intelligently convey his message to others, it surely validates his argument, but Washington spoke with much more than intelligence. Washington was respected, admired, and distinguished, qualities which provided his appeals to the men with legitimacy and conviction. His words were elegant, flowing and emotionally effective, striking particularly areas of sensitivity in the hearts of each of his men, as is apparent in the following quote from his speech:
And let me conjure you, in the name of our common country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the military and national character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man who wishes, under any specious pretenses, to overturn the liberties of our country, and who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood. (Washington, para.6), emphasis added.
One may find it interesting that in the first line of this quote, Washington refers to a gathering together of the army as an invitation, "let me conjure you" as he puts it, or in other words, he is summoning them to unify against a common antagonist, when the reason he called the meeting he spoke at together was because the officers were attempting to summon the army together in an equal, yet opposite motivation. Being that, their original conspiracy was to begin with the summoning of the men to a common cause, Washington turned the tables on his rebellious comrades by summoning the men to a more noble and ultimately more favorable cause. He validates this unification by calling them together "in the name of our common country", and by referring to America as common among them all, he reiterates his appeal for unification, this time by introducing a sense of loyalty to country. By using the phrase "common country", Washington efficiently emphasizes the importance of the common man, and the equality that these men championed and fought for. Further, he inflicts a penetrating sense of guilt, while at the same time instilling a sense of pride in these men. In saying, " as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the military and national character of America," he challenges their core beliefs and values, essentially their moral fiber. The word "sacred" carries firm religious connotations, it implies holiness, and in using it to emphasize the importance of their honor, Washington implies that this honor is God-given, divine, and significant to their character. Honor, rights, and patriotism are not ideals only deeply rooted in the hearts of these men, but in the cause of the war in which they had dedicated the past seven years of their lives, and consequently, a central conviction within each of the men's hearts. Finally, he builds up to the common goal he hopes to persuade them to embrace, that they may express their "utmost horror and detestation" for those who wish to crumble the newly formed government by deceitful means, for those who take the easy way out, rather than sticking to their values and resolves. The word horror evokes a sense of absolute dread, while detestation has an equally negative effect, inducing hatred and disgust for the subject at hand. Passionate language such as this arouses and kindles intense and deep feelings within a receptive audience, especially when they are already emotionally involved and enthusiastic toward the promoted cause. They had, after-all, sacrificed nearly a decade of their lives fighting for an existence free from oppression and unnecessary restriction, and Washington attempted to use this fact as a means of reawakening their patriotism and zeal. As he goes on to persuade them, he indicates that their current feelings and ideas are contrary to their beliefs and by entertaining these passing impulses, they are turning their backs on their country, their families, essentially everyone and everything that they have fought for and held dear throughout this trying ordeal. He seals this plead with a final blow, revealing that continuing in their rebellious attitudes they will, "open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood". His chief purpose in his harshness to convince them that by rebelling they will not only betray, but destroy the foundations of American government and organization. In handling the matter with such severity, he helped the men to understand the true and unrefined dangerous nature of their potential rebellion at such a crucial hour in the establishment of their newly freed and vulnerable government.
At the close of Washington's entreaty, the army was unconvinced, and irresolute concerning their stance on the matter. In a final attempt to break through to the hardened men, he pulled out a letter from congress to read aloud. As he did so, he paused and pulled out a pair of recently required reading glasses, saying, "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". In a time when glasses were poorly made, expensive and uncommon, a person's eyesight was one of their most valued physical assets. The men of the military realized that Washington had sacrificed much of his life, and health for the sake of freedom, exhibiting a prime example of unfailing pride and patriotism. The men were moved upon to remember his example and how much they had all been through together. In doing so, they began to heed his appeals. As the words of his speech began to really sink in, the men, overcome with compassion, respect, a rekindled spirit of patriotism and a desire to uphold their honor, tearfully joined together in support of Washington's words and his cause. With the authority, respect and compelling nature of Washington's words and presence, one may find it interesting that this speech, in which he took the very fate of the United States of America into his hands, therefore making it arguably the most important speech he ever gave, left his audience hesitant. Fortunately, he seemed to have stirred up their emotions enough however, that in the end, simply revealing an unknown handicap of his attained through his lifetime of dedication to his ideals and beliefs was enough to convince them to return to their previous state of loyalty to America.


The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. (2006). George Washington. Retrieved February 23, 2006, from http://www.history.org/Almanack/people/bios/biowash2.cfm

The Rise and Fall of the Newburgh Conspiracy: How General Washington and his Spectacles Saved the Republic. (n.d.) Retrieved February 23, 2006, from http://www.earlyamerica.com/review/fall97/wshngton.html

Washington, G. (1783). Washington Newburgh Conspiracy Speech. Retrieved February 22, 2006, from http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/washington.htm
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