David Head is an historian, author, and lecturer of history at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Originally from Western New York, he received his B.A. in history from Niagara University and his Ph.D. from the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.
A Crisis of Peace is David's fourth book. He previously published Privateers of the Americas: Spanish American Privateering from the United States in the Early Republic (University of Georgia Press, 2015), which won the 2016 John Gardner Maritime Research Award presented by the Fellows of the G.W. Blunt White Library at Mystic Seaport Museum.
He is also the editor of two works: Encyclopedia of the Atlantic World, 1400–1900: Europe, Africa, and the Americas in an Age of Exploration, Trade, and Empires (ABC-CLIO, 2017) and The Golden Age of Piracy: The Rise, Fall, and Enduring Popularity of Pirates (University of Georgia Press, 2018).
A conversation with David about his latest book, A Crisis of Peace
Q: What was the Newburgh Conspiracy?
A: The so-called Newburgh Conspiracy was a mysterious event at the end of the American Revolution when Continental Army officers, who were encamped in the Hudson Valley near Newburgh, New York, got restless and resentful as they waited to be discharged. They hadn’t been paid and although they’d been promised generous pensions, it was doubtful that Congress and the states would actually pay once the war ended and they were no longer needed. Supposedly, nationalist-minded politicians in Philadelphia, such as Alexander Hamilton, Robert Morris, and Gouverneur Morris intrigued with the officers to issue a statement threatening Congress to meet the army’s demands.
Q: Was it really a conspiracy?
A: You’ll have to read the book to find out! OK, a little more info: I’m doubtful. There’s a difference between a “conspiracy” and people with a common interest working together to achieve a shared policy goal. That’s called politics. In the eighteenth century, however, people perceived any “politics” they didn’t like as a “conspiracy.”
Q: Why was it a “Crisis of Peace”?
A: The book takes places during this strange limbo period after the British surrender at Yorktown in the fall of 1781 but before a formal peace treaty was reached, which happened in the fall of 1783. The title reveals the unexpected reality of life in those two years when many Americans feared that peace would be not a blessing but a curse. The nation’s finances were dire, with inflation soaring, and the states had little to keep them together in one country besides fighting Britain together. The officers in particular feared the war would end too soon. If they didn’t get their pensions paid before the war ended, they believed the nation would forget them. All those fears about what peace might bring came together in the Newburgh Conspiracy.
Q: Why another book about George Washington?
A: It’s true: Washington already has a lot of books written about him. Thousands! Two things recommend a book about Washington and the Newburgh Conspiracy. One, the existing literature is pretty scanty. Previously, the definitive work on the episode appeared in a series of articles published in the 1970s. When I read them, I felt more there was more to say. Two, the Newburgh Conspiracy and the larger story of demobilizing the Continental Army is really important to understanding the Revolution as a whole. It’s not like I’m writing about Washington’s pants or something (although, come to think of it, that does sound interesting….)
Q: What sources did you use to write the book?
A: I principally used the writings of the participants, such as Washington, Hamilton, Robert Morris, James Madison, and others. Many of the Founders’ papers are being published in monumental projects of staggering scholarship. The Washington Papers project, for example, has been working since 1968! Even better, the papers of guys like Washington, Madison, and Hamilton are fully digitized and available online via the National Archives at https://founders.archives.gov/. It’s an amazing resource.
Q: Why does the Newburgh Conspiracy matter today?
A: Today, our public discourse is awash in conspiracy theories. There’s nothing new about conspiracy thinking. It’s probably hard-wired into the way humans perceive the world and each other. But I hope that by looking at one conspiracy from long ago readers will see how implausible and how destructive conspiracy theories often are. The Newburgh Conspiracy happened in part because eighteenth-century people so loved conspiracy theories they couldn’t interpret events in any other way. So when it appeared army officers and political leaders might cooperate toward a common political objective, that couldn’t be anything other than a nefarious plot. Even George Washington, for all his calm sagacity, thought that way. By showing the misunderstandings that propelled events, I want readers to grow a little more skeptical of contemporary conspiracy thinking.
Q: How did you become interested in history?
A: I became an historian because of my mom. She suggested it might be a good career for me, but even more she set an example of how important it is to remember the past—not in some grand sense of famous people or events but in our own family. She kept detailed baby books for me and my brothers and sisters and each day she recorded what happened on a calendar. I’m one of six kids, so I have no idea how she had the time. It must have meant a lot to her. I know it means a lot to me and my siblings to have those memories recorded now.