It is impossible to overstate the impact of George Washington. His willingness to give up power when he resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and his decision to step down after two terms as President set the standard for the peaceful transfer of power. His words and actions shaped American democracy in ways that are still felt today. Even something as seemingly-innocuous as his glasses shaped what would become the nation of the people, by the people, and for the people.
It was early in 1783. Washington and the Continental Army were bivouacked in Newburgh, New York, anticipating the end of the Revolutionary War. Despite difficult and heroic fighting for over 7 years, the men who made up the Continental Army enjoyed less than wholehearted support of their leaders in Congress. With victory in sight, Congress had yet to make good on promises for back pay and pensions for the soldiers. As negotiations dragged on among the political leaders, whispers of mutiny began to ripple through the troops.
On March 10, an anonymous letter called for a meeting of all officers the next day to discuss the grievances. Within hours came a second unsigned letter, later shown to be authored by Major John Armstrong Jr., an aide to top Gen. Horatio Gates, urging the troops, while still in arms, to either disengage from British troops, move out West and “mock” the Congress, or march on Philadelphia and seize the government. The letters met with the approval of many in the ranks, and soon men were openly discussing the possibility of a military coup, where they would install George Washington as their king — with or without his consent.
George Washington was alarmed when he learned of the letters. He ordered the meeting be delayed until March 15, allowing time for “mature deliberation” of the issues. He ordered General Gates to preside and asked for a report. Those who would attend were all left with the impression that a friend of the instigators would run the show and that Washington himself wouldn’t even attend.
Washington set to work planning for the meeting. He intended to show up and persuade the men through a carefully-worded speech, that their loyalties must remain with the national leadership. Just as the meeting of 500 men was getting underway, General Washington arrived and asked permission to speak. He laid out his carefully-prepared arguments, but much to his disappointment, his men were unswayed.
As murmurs of discontent spread through the crowd, Washington opened a letter from a congressman and began to read, hoping the words of the letter would change their thinking. No sooner did Washington start, however, than he appeared to grow distracted. The men fell into stunned silence, witnessing, for the first time, something other than unflinching decisiveness from their commander-in-chief. As his men wondered what was wrong, Washington pulled out a pair of glasses, which even his officers had never seen before. “Gentlemen,” he said, “you must pardon me, for I have grown not only gray but blind in the service of my country.”
The officers were stunned. Many openly wept. Their mutinous mood gave way immediately to affection for their commander, who, for the first time, appeared to be human and just like them.
After finishing the letter, Washington appealed to the officers’ “patient virtue” and praised the “glorious example you have exhibited to mankind.” He then strode from the hall. His appearance lasted less than 15 minutes.
An officer quickly made a motion to thank the commander for his words and appoint a committee — all trusted Washington aides — to prepare a resolution carrying out the general’s wishes. The motion passed, and the committee soon returned with a resolution condemning the letters and pledging faith in Congress. The resolution was adopted by roaring acclamation and the meeting adjourned.
At the end of the day, it wasn’t Washington’s heroics, carefully-prepared words, or his authority as commander-in-chief that prevailed. What saved democracy that day was the simple, honest humility of a man who did not think too highly of himself to show his weakness.
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