American Portraits

George Washington’s Finest Hour: The Newburgh Conspiracy and Identity

In this lesson, students will evaluate George Washington’s actions to understand his approach to the principle of identity.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.


In late 1782, Americans awaited news on whether or not a preliminary peace treaty had been signed in France. General George Washington was with his troops encamped at Newburgh, N.Y., watching the remaining British troops that had occupied New York since 1776. Although his army had won the war with the victory at Yorktown, Washington would soon face a crisis that would test his character and dedication to the cause for liberty. He would have to choose whether he was a Caesar who would overthrow the republic or a Cincinnatus who would defend the republic and surrender power….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

To what extent are you cultivating the identity necessary to achieve worthy goals such as enhancing freedom in the lives of yourself and others? Would you have given up the opportunity to be king?

Virtue Defined

Identity answers the question, “Who am I?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will evaluate George Washington’s actions to understand his approach to the principle of identity.


  • Students will understand how George Washington’s identity resulted in lasting benefits for the nation he helped create.
  • Students will analyze their own goals and ambitions to determine how identity contributes to achievement of worthy goals.
  • Students identify a situation in which a flawed sense of identity resulted in failure to meet some personal or group goal.


In 1781, the Continental Army won the Battle of Yorktown, the last major battle against the British. The Americans had won the Revolutionary War, despite the fact that the Congress could rarely supply the army adequately, the states often looked out for their own interests rather than the common good, and civilians frequently failed to support the war effort. By late 1782, military operations had largely ended, but the army remained mobilized at its main garrison in New York in case of a major British attack.

Officers and soldiers went unpaid for long stretches because the Articles of Confederation had created a weak national congress that could not collect taxes from the states. The United States, with no formal independence, risked collapse into military rule as many republics such as ancient Rome had done.


  • Articles of Confederation
  • Caesar
  • Cincinnatus
  • Scathing
  • Banish
  • Disgruntled
  • Incessant
  • Sully
  • Conspiracy
  • Concurrence
  • Exigencies
  • Avert
  • Deference

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the “Compelling Question” in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What was the likelihood of the soldiers in the American Continental Army being paid regularly and how did they feel about that? Why did the Continental Congress have insufficient funds to pay the soldiers?
  • When Lewis Nicola encouraged Washington to overthrow Congress and become king, Washington replied, “You could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable.” What did this response reveal about Washington’s opinion of the kind of leader the country needed at that time in order to preserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
  • In what ways did George Washington have unique opportunities to contribute to liberty for others?
  • How did George Washington prove his commitment to use his liberty to ensure the rights of others?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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