Thursday, June 13 at 7:30 PM – Mark Lender: “The Usual Suspects: General Washington, His Critics, and the Conway Cabal Reconsidered.” Over late 1777 and early 1778, senior patriot military officers—most notably major generals Thomas Mifflin, Thomas Conway, and Horatio Gates, ostensibly launched an effort to limit Washington’s control of the Continental Army, if not to actually replace him with Gates. The episode has come down to us as the “Conway Cabal.” Since the 1941 publication of Bernhard Knollenberg’s Washington and the Revolution, however, most modern scholarship has discounted the existence of any serious “cabal,” writing off the matter as unfounded fears of conspiracy. The author of the new book Cabal! The Plot Against General Washington differs sharply from this view, however, arguing that the cabal was not only real, but that it posed a genuine threat to Washington’s command. In the spring of 1778, General George Washington wrote to his friend Landon Carter about a rumored “disposition in the Northern Officers to see me superceded in my Command.” This was as candid a statement as the general ever made about the so-called “Conway Cabal” of patriot officers and politicians critical of his leadership. Most early historians of the Revolution took the threat to Washington seriously, but by the mid-twentieth century interpretations had reversed, with the plot—if one existed—posing no real danger to the commander-in-chief. Yet, as historian Mark Edward Lender reveals in his compelling Cabal! The Plot Against General Washington, clues found in original new research provide a more comprehensive understanding of the personalities and political maneuverings of those involved in the Cabal, and the real nature of the challenge to Washington.
Rather than the “classic Cabal” of Generals Horatio Gates, Thomas Mifflin, and Thomas Conway in a plot to remove Washington quickly, the threat to Washington’s command was a gradual administrative attempt by the Board of War and political allies to take over the war effort. Reorganized in late 1777 under the leadership of Mifflin, with Gates assuming the board presidency in January 1778, the Board of War sought authority to determine military policy and strategic goals, all training, organizational, personnel, and logistical functions, and even the assignment of theater commanders. Had they succeeded, Washington’s title of commander-in-chief would have been utterly hollow. The Cabal tested Washington as few other things did during the war and perhaps tempered him into the man we remember today. Washington adroitly navigated the challenges to his leadership, meeting and defeating every attempt to curtail his authority. His response revealed a leadership style that saw him safely through the war, and gave him overwhelming support from his countrymen to become their first president.