The worst Secretary of Defense in American history let Washington DC get burned

John Armstrong Jr

Post-9/11 veterans might have a lot to say about Donald Rumsfeld. Vietnam Veterans probably have some four letter words for Robert McNamara. But even if films were invented while John Armstrong, Jr. was alive, there isn’t a filmmaker who would want to make a documentary to try and redeem him.

Armstrong’s service to the United States started out very strong, even before the United States became a country. As a Continental Army officer in the Revolutionary War, Armstrong served as an aide to Generals Hugh Mercer and Horatio Gates. Though he served in the Army, the cracks in his dedication to military service began to show early.

In March 1783, a number of Continental Army officers nearly pulled defeat from the jaws of victory. Unhappy about not getting paid, a number of officers circulated a letter in camp at Newburgh, New York. The author of the letter remains officially anonymous today, but the letter was enough to incite a near mutiny in the fledgling U.S. Army. 

It cited a lack of support for the officer of the Continental Army, decried the condition of the force, and called upon the Army to send an ultimatum to the Continental Congress. A meeting for the conspirators was called. Another letter before the planned meeting erroneously claimed that General George Washington supported the conspiracy. When Washington heard about the planned mutiny, he did attend the meeting – but not to join it. Instead he quelled the disgruntled officers. 

There, before an angry audience, Washington delivered the Newburgh Address, the famous speech in which he produced a letter to read, then put on glasses before saying: “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.”

John Armstrong Jr worst Secretary of Defense
John Armstrong Jr., by Rembrandt Peale, ca. 1808. Courtesy National Parks Service.

Only George Washington could have pulled off a speech where a group of mutineers walked in planning to overthrow their leadership only to walk out sobbing and forgetting the whole thing. That mutiny was engineered by then-Maj. John Armstrong. Though many knew he was the author of the letters, somehow, Armstrong was able to continue serving. 

After the Revolution, Armstrong nearly started a civil war between Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Connecticut while serving as adjutant of the Pennsylvania militia. Washington’s Secretary of State Timothy Pickering had to be called in to settle the dispute. Armstrong was still able to serve the public as a Senator and later an Ambassador. His reputation remained so untarnished somehow he was made a brigadier general when the U.S. declared war on Britain in 1812. 

Fortunately for anyone who might have had to serve under his direct command, he never really got the chance to command anyone. President James Madison appointed Armstrong Secretary of War (today Secretary of Defense) one year into the War of 1812. Unfortunately for America, and especially the citizens of Washington, DC, Armstrong was so convinced that the British wouldn’t attack the capital that he made no move to actually defend it. 

Two things: First, in April 1813, American forces attacked, looted, and burned the capital of British Canada, York (modern-day Toronto). The second point is that American troops were absolutely trounced in the Battle of Bladensburg in nearby Maryland. 1,500 British regulars defeated a force of nearly 7,000 Americans less than nine miles northeast of the American capital. The President was almost captured during the fighting and retreating militia ran through the streets of the capital. 

What he actually thought the British might do is anyone’s guess. What happened in the aftermath of the burning of Washington was President Madison demanding his resignation within a month. Armstrong finally left public life and spent the next 24 years on his Brooklyn farm, where he died in 1838.