John Armstrong Jr.

November 25, 1758–April 1, 1843

John Armstrong Jr. was an officer in the Continental Army. He also served as Minister to France and Spain under Thomas Jefferson, and as the Secretary of War under James Madison. During the War for Independence, he may have played a key role in the Newburgh Conspiracy, when officers challenged the authority of Congress.

John Armstrong Jr, Illustration

John Armstrong Jr. served as Secretary of War during a portion of the War of 1812. He resigned after British forces burned Washington, D.C.

Biography of John Armstrong Jr.

John Armstrong was born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1758. He served in the Continental Army under General Hugh Mercer and General Horatio Gates. He most likely played a part in a conspiracy to undermine the authority of Congress in 1783.

After the American Revolutionary War, he was a politician in Pennsylvania and led militia forces against Connecticut settlers in the Third Pennamite War. He represented Pennsylvania for two terms in the Confederation Congress before the United States Constitution was passed.

In 1790, he married Alida Livingston, which allied him with the powerful Livingston family. They moved to New York where he lived on a farm. He served several stints in the United States Congress as a Senator from New York.

In 1804, he was chosen by President Thomas Jefferson as Minister to France. He served in that role until 1810, and negotiations on behalf of the United States with Napoleon. He also served as the Minister to Spain in 1806.

He returned to his farm in New York in 1810. In 1812 he accepted a position as Brigadier General and then in 1813 he was appointed as Secretary of War in the cabinet of President James Madison. Armstrong resigned from the position in 1814 after the British attacked and burned Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812.

Armstrong retired to his home where he lived for 30 years. He died on April 1, 1843. At the time of his death, he was the last living member who had served in the Confederation Congress.

Early Life of John Armstrong Jr.

John Armstrong, Jr. was born on November 25, 1758, in the town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

His father was General John Armstrong Sr., an Irish immigrant of Scottish descent who came to America in 1746. General Armstrong founded the town of Carlisle and fought in the French and Indian War. During the war, he met George Washington and the two became friends.

His mother was Rebecca Lyon. She came to America with her husband in 1746.


Armstrong Jr. received a good education and enrolled in the College of New Jersey (now Princeton). When the War for Independence broke out in 1775 with the Battle of Lexington, his father and brother took up arms to fight the British. Armstrong Jr. left school and joined them. He never returned to college to finish his education.

Family Tree

Marriage to Alida Livingston

On January 19, 1789, Armstrong Jr. married Alida Livingston.

Alida Livingston, Painting

This painting by Rembrandt Peale depicts Alida Livingston Armstrong and one of her daughters, circa 1810. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Alida was from the Livingston Family of New York, one of the most prominent families, not just in New York, but also in all of the American Colonies.

Armstrong Jr. and Alida had seven children together.

Horatio Gates Armstrong

Their first child, a son, was named Horatio Gates Armstrong. He was named after General Horatio Gates, who Armstrong served under during the War for Independence. Horatio Armstrong would go on to participate in the War of 1812.

Connection to John Jacob Astor

Their daughter, Margaret, married William Backhouse Astor, Sr. Astor was a real estate businessman and a member of the family of wealthy merchant John Jacob Astor, who died when the RMS Titanic sank in 1917.

James Armstrong

John Armstrong Jr.’s older brother, James, studied at the Philadelphia Academy and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). He studied medicine at Dr. John Morgan’s School in Philadelphia and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1769. He served as a medical officer in the War for Independence. Later, he served as a judge in local courts and as a representative to the Third Congress.

American Revolution

Potter’s Pennsylvania Regiment

Armstrong Jr. left Princeton and joined a regiment of Pennsylvania Militia under the command of General James Potter. Armstrong joined as a volunteer, achieved the rank of Captain, and served on Potter’s staff.

Joins the Staff of Hugh Mercer

Armstrong Jr. joined the staff of General Hugh Mercer. Mercer made him an aide on his staff and promoted him to Major.

Battle of Trenton

In December 1776, Armstrong was with Mercer in New Jersey. On December 26, he participated in the Battle of Trenton, where American forces surprised Hessian troops and won a stunning victory.

Battle of Princeton

A few days later, on January 3, Armstrong fought in the Battle of Princeton. Prior to the battle, General George Washington sent Mercer and his men to destroy the bridge at Stony Creek, which would keep the British from sending reinforcements into Princeton. British forces, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood, spotted Mercer and his men. Mawhood sent troops to confront Mercer and fighting broke out in an orchard on the farm of Thomas and William Clarke. Mawhood ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge the Americans. Mercer’s men panicked and scattered. Mercer tried to rally his men but fell from his horse and was stabbed multiple times by British troops with their bayonets. Armstrong was also wounded in the fighting but was able to carry Mercer from the field. Mercer was placed under the care of Doctor Benjamin Rush and died from his wounds on January 12.

Death of Hugh Mercer, Painting

This painting by John Trumbull depicts General Hugh Mercer being attacked by British troops during the Battle of Princeton. Image Source: Wikipedia.

With Horatio Gates at Saratoga

After Mercer’s death, his men, including Armstrong Jr., were placed under the command of General Arthur St. Clair.

General Horatio Gates offered Armstrong a position on his staff as a Major and Aide-de-Camp. Armstrong accepted the position and served with Gates through the end of the Saratoga Campaign, where American forces defeated the British under the command of General John Burgoyne.

Armstrong was with Gates and participated in the Battle of Freeman’s Farm on September 19, 1777, and the Battle of Bemis Heights on October 7, 1777.

Gates and the Southern Department

In 1780, Gates was placed in command of the Southern Department. Armstrong Jr. stayed with him and remained as an assistant on his staff. However, Gates suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Camden on August 16, 1780. In December, Gates was replaced by Nathanael Greene.

Armstrong Visits Congress

Gates and Armstrong Jr. returned to the North. In April 1781, Congress called Gates to Philadelphia for an inquiry into his failure at Camden and the campaign in the South. Armstrong went with Gates and observed the conduct and state of Congress, which may have influenced his conduct two years later during the Newburgh Conspiracy. In a letter to his father, Armstrong criticized Congress and said the members were “bankrupt in credit, sense, honesty and spirit.”

New Windsor Cantonment

After the Americans defeated General Charles Cornwallis and the British at the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781, Washington moved the army North to New Windsor, New York, and Newburgh, New York. Washington kept the army there through the winter of 1782–1783, while he waited for the last of the British forces to evacuate New York City.

Washington made his headquarters in Newburgh. Gates was in charge of the encampment at New Windsor, New York. Armstrong was on the staff of Gates as an aide, with the rank of Major.

While Armstrong was at the camp, officers complained to him about various issues, including lack of payment for their service time and lack of promotions and commissions. There was a growing sentiment among the officers the army would be disbanded when the war ended and they would not receive payment for their service. Unfortunately, Congress did not have any authority to levy taxes on the states, and it had no plan in place to resolve the complaints of the officers.

John Armstrong Jr. and Newburgh Conspiracy

With the end of the war in sight, high-ranking members of the Army began to fear that if the Army disbanded the soldiers would never receive their pay. A faction, which included Gates, accused Congress of trampling on the rights which the soldiers were told — and believed — they were fighting for.

On March 10, 1783, a letter circulated the encampment. It stated the concerns of the faction and called for a meeting to be held on March 11. Armstrong Jr. is suspected of being the author of the letter, called “An Address to the Officers,” which said:

“After a pursuit of seven long years, the object for which we set out is at length brought within our reach! — Yes, my friends, that suffering courage of yours, was active once — it has conducted the United States of America through a doubtful and a bloody war! It has placed her in the chair of independency, and peace again returns to bless — whom? A country willing to redress your wrongs, cherish your worth, and reward your services; a country courting your return to private life, with tears of gratitude, and smiles of admiration; longing to divide with you that independency which your gallantry has given, and those riches which your wounds have preserved? Is this the case? Or is it rather, a country that tramples upon your rights, disdains your cries, and insults your distresses? Have you not, more than once, suggested your wishes, and made known your wants to Congress? Wants and wishes which gratitude and policy should have anticipated, rather than evaded. And have you not lately, in the meek language of entreating memorial, begged from their justice, what you would no longer expect from their favour? How have you been answered? Let the letter which you are called to consider to-morrow, make reply.”

The letter called for a meeting to discuss payment and their grievances and to develop a plan of action for dealing with Congress. It even suggested the army could disband, which would open the country up to an attack, or stay together and potentially threaten to take military action against Congress.

March 11 — Washington Responds

On March 11, Washington issued his General Orders for the day. He acknowledged the letter and the meeting that had been proposed. He requested the meeting to be postponed to March 15, where he said representatives from his staff would listen to their grievances. Washington gave the impression he would not be in attendance.

The delay gave Washington time to send word to Congress about the situation. He also used the time to prepare remarks, which he intended to deliver, in person, to the conspirators.

March 15 — Officers Meet

A second letter circulated through the encampment that suggested Washington supported the actions of the conspirators.

General Horatio Gates opened the meeting on the morning of March 15. In Washington’s absence, he was the ranking officer, and in charge of the proceedings. Within moments, Washington entered the room, to everyone’s surprise. He asked to speak to the assembly. Gates granted permission, and Washington proceeded to deliver one of  — if not the most — crucial speeches of his career.

He began by scolding the author of the letter (and a follow-up letter), and its supporters, “By an anonymous summons, an attempt has been made to convene you together? How inconsistent with the rules of propriety! — how unmilitary! — and how subversive of all order and discipline, let the good sense of the army decide.”

He made his astonishment at such a proposal clear, saying, “My God! What can this writer have in view, by recommending such measures? ? Can he be a friend to the army? — Can he be a friend to this country? — Rather is he not an insidious foe? — Some emissary, perhaps, from New York, plotting the ruin of both, by sowing the seeds of discord & seperation between the civil & military powers of the continent? — And what compliment does he pay to our understandings, when he recommends measures in either alternative, impracticable in their nature?”

Further, he clarified his own stance, saying “With respect to the advice given by the author to suspect the man, who shall recommend moderate measures and longer forbearance. I spurn it as every man, who regards that liberty, & reveres that justice for which we contend, undoubtedly must.”

He asked the men in the room to trust his judgment, and to trust that Congress would come through for them, saying “While I give you these assurances, and pledge my self in the most unequivocal manner, to exert whatever ability I am possessed of, in your favor let me entreat you, gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures, which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, & sully the glory you have hitherto maintained let me request you to rely on the plighted faith of your country, and place a full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress.”

Finally, he called on them to put aside further thoughts of conspiracy and action towards the Congress, asking them to “pursue the plain & direct road to the attainment of your wishes. You will defeat the insidious designs of our enemies, who are compelled to resort from open force to secret artifice. You will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism & patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings; — And you will, by the dignity of your conduct, afford occasion for posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to mankind, had this day been wanting, the world has never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.”

Then, he proceeded to read a letter to the room, which he had received from Joseph Jones, a Congressman from Virginia. In order to read the letter, Washington was forced to put on his new reading glasses. He told the men, “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.”

Newburgh Conspiracy, Washington Speech, Painting

This painting by Jane Sutherland depicts Washington, with his glasses on, addressing the officers. Image Source: George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

As he read the letter, some men in the room began to openly cry. Major Samuel Shaw remembered the moment in his journal, where he wrote, “There was something so natural, so unaffected in this appeal as rendered it superior to the most studied oratory. It forced its way to the heart, and you might see sensibility moisten every eye.”

When he finished reading the letter, he folded it up, took off his glasses, and left the room. General Henry Knox and others who were faithful to Washington offered resolutions confirming their support for the General and the Congress.

The conspiracy to revolt against the Congress was quelled right then and there, as the officers voted against the measures. Instead, they asked Washington to negotiate with Congress on their behalf.

Political Service in Pennsylvania

After the incident in Newburgh, Armstrong returned home to his home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Secretary of Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council

In 1783, he was appointed as Secretary of the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council. In that role, he served until 1787, under two Presidents of the Council, Benjamin Franklin, and John Dickinson.

Third Pennamite War in the Wyoming Valley

Armstrong Jr. was also a Colonel in the Pennsylvania Militia. In 1784, fighting broke out between settlers in the Wyoming Valley, a region that was claimed by both Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania was able to claim ownership and wanted to remove the Connecticut settlers.

Armstrong Jr. and another representative, Alexander Patterson, were sent to the Valley to help restore peace. However, Armstrong found himself involved in yet another political controversy.

Armstrong Jr. and Patterson gave the settlers six months to leave, but their homes were wiped out by a flood. When the settlers started to move back onto the land they believed was rightfully theirs, Patterson had some of them whipped, and Armstrong gathered militia forces in Lancaster and marched them into the Valley to keep more settlers from returning.

The Pennsylvania Assembly was embarrassed by the conduct of Patterson and Armstrong and recalled both of them. In 1788, Pennsylvania ended the controversy and recognized the titles of the Connecticut settlers. In return, the Wyoming Valley became part of Pennsylvania.

After the incident in the Wyoming Valley, Armstrong showed a lackluster attitude toward serving the state.

Annapolis Convention of 1786

In 1786, a meeting was held in Annapolis, Maryland to discuss ways to resolve trade issues between the states. Delegates from five states attended, and it was a precursor to the Constitutional Convention. Armstrong was selected to attend the Annapolis Convention on behalf of Pennsylvania, but he did not attend.

Northwest Territory

In 1787, Armstrong was chosen as one of three judges to oversee the Northwest Territory. Congress offered him the position of Chief Justice, but he turned it down.

Constitutional Convention

Pennsylvania considered him as a candidate for the Constitutional Convention in 1787, but he was not selected.

Delegate to the Confederation Congress

Despite his seeming indifference toward politics, the Pennsylvania Assembly appointed him as a delegate to the Confederation Congress on March 24, 1787. He was appointed again in 1788. During his time in the Confederation Congress, he served Pennsylvania with his father, who was also a representative.

Political Service in New York

After Armstrong Jr. married Alida Livingston, they moved to New York. They bought a farm in Dutchess County from her family and moved there in 1789. Armstrong began life as a gentleman farmer, allied to one of the most wealthy and powerful families in New York.

Senator from New York

In 1800, Senator John Laurance resigned. Although Armstong had been out of public life for nearly a decade, he was known to be a Jeffersonian Republican, and he was elected to serve the remainder of the term. Armstrong would serve several times in the Senate over the next few years.

Ambassador to France and Spain

In 1804, President Jefferson selected Armstrong to replace Robert R. Livingston (the Chancellor) as Ambassador to France. Livingston had decided to retire and recommended Armstrong to succeed him. Armstrong resigned from his Senate seat in order to take the position.

He served as Ambassador to France until 1810. During his time in that role, he represented the United States in negotiations with Napolean over the Berlin Decree in 1806 and the Milan Decree in 1807.

In 1806, he also served as Ambassador to Spain. He worked with James Bowdoin to represent the interests of the United States in negotiations with Spain over Florida, Spanish disruption of American trade, and the boundaries of the Louisana Territory.

The Berlin Decree and Milan Decree enacted blockades and embargoes against Britain, which helped set in motion of chain of events that contributed to the War of 1812.

Return to New York

Armstrong was replaced as Minister to France by Johnathan Russell in 1810, which allowed him to return to New York.

In July 1812, he accepted a commission as a Brigadier General and was given command of the American defenses in New York.

War of 1812 and Secretary of War

In 1813, President James Madison appointed Armstrong as his cabinet as Secretary of War. His time in the cabinet was difficult, and he clashed with President Madison and James Monroe.

In 1814, he failed to stop the British from attacking Washington, D.C., and he was blamed for the city being burned. Armstrong resigned in September 1814 and was replaced by Monroe. The war ended a few months later, on February 18, 1815.

British Burn Washington DC, 1814, Illustration

This illustration depicts British troops burning Washington, D.C. in 1814. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Later Years and Legacy

Armstrong retired to his farm, when he lived for another 30 years, writing books and conducting himself as a gentleman farmer. He spent time working on his memoirs of the War of 1812, “Notices on the War of 1812,” and a history of the American Revolution.

Armstrong died at his home at Red Hook, Dutchess County, New York, on April 1, 1843. He is buried at Rhinebeck Cemetery in Rhinebeck, New York.

At the time of his death, he was the last living member of the Continental Congress.

Significance of John Armstrong Jr.

John Armstrong Jr. played an important role during the War of 1812, serving as James Madison’s Secretary of War. He is most remembered as being held responsible for the British troops burning Washington, D.C. in 1814. Although Armstrong oftentimes seemed to be on the wrong side of things, as in the Newburgh Conspiracy, he participated in and lived through many of the key events that led to the founding of the United States and the early years of the republic.