On President’s Day, school children often hear about George Washington’s wooden teeth, but his eyeglasses probably played a bigger role in the founding of America.
In the winter of 1783, the Continental Army was on the brink of collapse. Though the revolutionaries had effectively nullified the British forces several years ago, a peace treaty had not yet been signed, and the British Army still controlled New York City. After several years without pay, another rebellion was forming; this one led by a several officers eager to march on Congress for money owed them. The young nation had no federal funds to pay its army. If the British sensed any discord in the Continental Army, gathered sixty miles north in Newburgh, New York, it might encourage them to wage attacks again to regain control over their former colonies.
On March 15th 1783, the officers met to debate next steps in Newburgh. George Washington entered the meeting hall suddenly, to the surprise of everyone. The floor was yielded to him to speak, but the crowd was combative. Officers whom he had known for years glared back at him in anger. He made a short speech, the Newburgh Address, giving a list of reasons that asked for patience and cooperation. The conspiring officers were unmoved.
George Washington had planned next to a read letter on behalf of a member of the Continental Congress to the rebellious officers, but sensing the crowd’s hostility, he then did something different. Accounts tell us that he fidgeted with the congressman’s letter for several seconds, and reached for his eyeglasses, which most of the men had not seen him wear before. Washington then said,
“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.”
In that moment, hearing these unguarded words and feeling Washington’s raw emotions, the officers again began to listen to their commander as an ally, not an adversary. They saw that Washington, too, had suffered deeply in his years of military service. Recalling long campaigns together under Washington’s unwavering leadership, men began to weep openly.
Major Samuel Shaw wrote in his journal about the experience that day, “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. The General, having finished, took leave of the assembly, and the business of the day was conducted in the manner which is related in the account of the proceedings.”
By the time Washington had finished reading the congressman’s letter (to which nobody was listening, anyway), the Newburgh Conspiracy was finished. The story of George Washington’s spectacles shows us the power of emotion over logic in the language of leadership. Facts don’t move people; but feelings can.
*Thanks to Jenny Redix Jordan for suggesting this story on President’s Day.
Washington Mt. Rushmore photo courtesy of ConspiracyofHappiness.