Sometimes history turns on great events, such as the miracle at Dunkirk at the beginning of World War Two. Other times, history turns on simple things — like George Washington putting on his spectacles. That very act in the early afternoon hours of March 15, 1783 may well have saved the nascent American republic. It happened like this.
The American Revolutionary war had been a desperate, bloody struggle with England. It was eight years on when the Newburg Conspiracy arose. The Continental Congress had authorized payment for the American military, but payment had been slow. Some of the soldiers had served for years without pay. Many served without good equipment, with little ammunition, and inconsistent food and shelter.
Mutinous tensions arose in the Army. Finally an anonymous letter was circulated among the officers calling for a meeting on March 11th. Hoping to cool tempers, General Washington declared the meeting improper. He called a meeting for March 15th instead.
The officers were considering mutiny. Some wanted to disband, and leave the nation defenseless. Others wanted to refuse to disband at the end of the war. This could have led to a government controlled by the army. Surely some hoped Washington himself might lead it.
Not expecting him to address them, the officers began the meeting. The were surprised when Washington himself strode into the room. He had written a nine-page address He sympathized with what they wanted, but forcefully spoke out against their methods. He spoke of “sacred honor,” “glory,” “liberty,” and “reputation.”
These were noble themes but not surprising from the lips and pen of their noble leader. Still, surely the heartfelt words of their beloved commander began to soften their hearts. Even so, what happened next likely saved the new nation’s future from military dictatorship.
Wanting to read aloud a letter of support from a Virginia congressman, Washington pulled it from his pocket. The script must have been small. After reading the first part with great trouble, he took his spectacles from his pocket. In words that broke through hard hearts and ring still in American history, Washington said, “Gentleman, you must pardon me, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in service to my country.”
They had never seen him wear spectacles. History records this stunning vulnerability from their stoic leader deeply moved the officers. Some wept. The mutiny was over. The republic was saved.
Thanks to Eric Metaxes who through his insightful book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty reminded me of this powerful story of Washington’s finest hour.