Washington’s Glasses

The following story titled “Washington’s Glasses” is from The Moral Compass, compiled by William J. Bennett. It is one of his favorite stories from American history. The moment of greatness of George Washington, without whose wisdom and courage our Republic might have died even before it began.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, the new United States came close to disaster. The government owed back pay to many officers in the army, men who had fought long and hard for the nation’s freedom. But Congress had no money, and rumors abounded that it intended to disband the armed forces and send them home without pay.

As the weeks passed, the army’s cry for pay grew louder. The soldiers insisted that they had performed their duty faithfully, and now the government should do the same. They sent appeals to Congress, with no effect. Patience began to wear thin. Tempers smoldered. At last some of the officers, encamped at Newburgh, New York, issued what amounted to a threat. The army would not disband until paid; if necessary, it would march on Congress. Mutiny was close at hand.

“There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that one man alone could persuade the army to give the government more time.

On March 15, 1783, George Washington strode into the Temple of Virtue, a large wooden hall built by the soldiers as a chapel and dance hall. A hush fell over the gathered officers as the tall figure took to the lectern at the front of the room. These men had come to love their commander-in-chief during the lean, hard years of fighting; now, for the first time, they glared at him with restless and resentful eyes. A deathlike stillness filled the room.

Washington began to speak. He talked of his own dedicated service, and reminded the group that he himself had served without pay. He spoke of his love for his soldiers. He urged them to have patience, and pointed out that congress in the past had acted slowly, but in the end would act justly. He promised he would do everything in his power to see that the men received what they deserved.

He asked them to consider the safety and security of their new country, begging them not to ‘open the flood gates of civil discord, and deluge our rising empire in blood.’ He appealed to their honor. ‘Let me entreat you, gentlemen, on your part,’ he said, ‘not to take any measures which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained.’

He paused. A restlessness pervaded the air. His audience did not seem moved. The men stared at him tensely.

Washington produced a letter from a congressman explaining the difficulties the government now faced. He would read it to them. It would help them comprehend the new government’s difficulties. He unfolded the paper. He started to read, slowly. He stumbled over some of the words, then stopped. Something was wrong. The general seemed lost, slightly confused. The officers leaned forward.

Then Washington pulled from his pocket something the men had never seen their commander-in-chief use before—spectacles.

Gentlemen, you must pardon me,’ he said quietly. ‘I have grown gray in your service, and now find myself growing blind.’

It was not merely what the beloved general said, but the way he spoke the few, simple words. The humble act of this majestic man touched the soldiers in a way his arguments had failed to do. There were lumps in many throats, tears in every eye. The general quietly left the hall, and the officers voted to give the Congress more time.

George Washington had saved his new country from armed rebellion. As Thomas Jefferson later said, ‘The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.

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