In the summer of 1783, a rowdy, slightly tipsy band of unpaid soldiers chased the Continental Congress from Philadelphia, its home for much of the Revolutionary War.
At Pennsylvania’s state house (now known as Independence Hall) Congress appointed Virginia delegate George Washington as the commander of the Continental Army in 1775, declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, and drafted the Articles of Confederation, which set the architecture for the new national government, in 1777. There, Congress also learned in 1781 that the British army had surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, ending combat. Despite these magnificent achievements, as Congress awaited word from the peace negotiations in Paris, France, it fled in fright, not from a foreign army, but from a domestic one.
During the two years between the Yorktown victory and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in September 1783, the Continental Army and associated state militias remained on duty far from their homes. Many troops awaited back-pay. Finance Superintendent Robert Morris had advised the Continental Congress that it might take years to sort through the accounts of the national and state governments to settle all the claims and payments. Congress passed legislation allowing soldiers to resume civilian life to make a living while the government put its ledgers in order. To allay suspicion that Congress wanted to just forget the army, General Washington announced that all furloughs would be voluntary.
Pennsylvania state militias based in Lancaster and Philadelphia were among the unhappiest. They complained that Pennsylvania’s state government, headed by an executive council and its president, John Dickinson, were not paying them. News of the furlough spurred a protest for back pay and discharge dates. On June 20, 1783, about 80 Lancaster officers and militia mutinied and marched toward Philadelphia where they planned to join fellow soldiers. Dickinson and his Council expected their arrival the next day, a Saturday, and prepared to negotiate with them. Dickinson did not worry about the Congress’s safety since it was not meeting that weekend. He planned to meet with the mutiny leaders in his chambers on the floor above the hall of the Continental Congress.
But the specter of a mutiny alarmed the Congress, and rumors flew among the delegates, who were still in town, including one that the soldiers might rob the Bank of North America if they were not paid. A hastily assembled committee, led by Alexander Hamilton of New York, demanded that Dickinson mobilize loyal militia to quash the insurrection. Dickinson demurred, noting that the protestors thus far had remained nonviolent. When the Lancaster soldiers arrived at the Philadelphia barracks that night, Hamilton urged the mutineers to return home. But his over-brimming arrogance and condescension only fortified their resolve to confront Dickinson.
The next morning as many as 400 disgruntled Pennsylvania militiamen milled around the state house as their leaders met inside with Dickinson. Amid this tense situation Hamilton convinced the president of the Continental Congress, Elias Boudinot, to call for an emergency meeting. Some delegates wended their way past the soldiers, but too few braved the crowd to achieve a quorum to conduct business. The delegates who made it assembled inside the hall nervously eyed the crowd outside as Dickinson and the state council met with the delegation upstairs.
Soldiers shook their fists and jeered when delegates peered out the windows. In the afternoon local tavern keepers, in an effort to calm and cheer the soldiers, gave away drinks—a tactic that unnerved Virginia Delegate James Madison inside. After three hours the delegates left, making their way through a jostling and noisy crowd of rowdy soldiers. That evening a quorum of Congressmen met at Boudinot’s residence. They directed General Washington to send loyal troops to Philadelphia and demanded that Pennsylvania’s government ensure the safety of Congress. Otherwise, having been “grossly insulted by the disorderly and menacing appearance of a body of armed soldiers,” Congress would leave Philadelphia.
The next day, June 22, Hamilton’s committee met with Dickinson and the Executive Council. Again, Dickinson resisted mobilizing the militia against the mutineers. He had been making progress convincing the mutineers to return peacefully to their units. Boudinot, shocked at Dickinson’s lax attitude, announced that Congress would abandon Philadelphia and meet in Princeton, New Jersey, on June 26.
The congressional delegates proceeded to the new capital in Princeton as best they could, but latecomers discovered that all of the town's lodgings were full. And in Philadelphia officials restored order swiftly. Mutiny leaders fled, and the remaining soldiers apologized to the Executive Council. On the day the soldiers finally reported back to their units, President Dickinson scolded the repentant rabble while standing on a table outside his home.
Sources: Kenneth R. Bowling, “New Light on the Philadelphia Mutiny of 1783: Federal-State Confrontation at the Close of the War for Independence,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 101 (October 1977): 419–450; Edmund Cody Burnett, The Continental Congress (New York: Macmillan, 1941); Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Books, 2004); Milton E. Flower, John Dickinson: Conservative Revolutionary (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983); Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990); Calvin Jillson and Rick K. Wilson, Congressional Dynamics: Structure, Coordination, and Choice in the First American Congress, 1774–1789 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994); Richard B. Morris, The Forging of the Union, 1781–1789 (New York: Harper & Row, 1987); Charles J. Stillé, The Life and Times of John Dickinson, 1732–1808 (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1891).Follow @USHouseHistory