Washington and his spectacles

Ronald S. Fishman
Chicago, IL, USA

 

Washington as General commanding Continental Army” by John Peale. Between circa 1781 and circa 1790. Credit: Independence National Historical Park Collection in Philadelphia. Public Domain.

After accepting the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, Washington took most of the Continental Army back up to the Northeast to cover the main British army based around New York City. In the winter of 1782-1783, with the peace negotiations going on in Paris, the encampment was located near the town of Newburgh in New York State, on the Hudson River not far from West Point. A large wooden structure called the Public Building was built to serve as a chapel on Sundays and a meeting hall on other days.

Washington stayed close to the camp that season because he was worried about the discontent and demoralization of his officers. Most of them had had no pay for five years. Some faced debtor’s prison if they returned home empty-handed. Congress had promised to provide pensions in lieu of pay but had not yet honored its commitment.1-3

The situation came to a head on March 10, 1783. Washington was handed a copy of an anonymous note being circulated in the camp, calling for a meeting of all officers. The note proposed that an ultimatum should be sent to Congress. If the response was inadequate, the army could refuse to disband or even desert the government, leave the coast defenseless, and set up a new state in the wilderness near the Ohio River. The meeting was to decide whether the officers should trust Congress to redeem the overdue pay and pension claims.

Washington was appalled. This was mutiny. If the army succeeded in this attempt to intimidate Congress, it would have particularly ominous implications for the future of the country. He decided to allow the meeting to take place but to delay it for four days. Then he unexpectedly showed up at the assembly in the Public Building. The room was packed with officers. The atmosphere was tense. Washington faced his men and took his prepared speech from his pocket.

His aides had copied his notes in large script because they knew that Washington, at age fifty-one, had recently been having difficulty reading. This had induced him to try other people’s spectacles. He had selected one pair and in January had asked that the lenses be duplicated: “I have sent Mr Rittenhouse the Glass of such Spectacles as Suit my Eyes, that he may know how to grind his Christals.”4 David Rittenhouse, an instrument maker and astronomer in Philadelphia, Pa, had built the first telescope in America and was to become a leader of the American Philosophical Society and the first director of the US Mint.5 Rittenhouse had sent two pairs of spectacles, and Washington had thanked him on February 16, 1783:

The Spectacles suit my eyes extremely well—as I am persuaded the Reading-Glasses also will, when I get more accustomed to the use of them. At present, I find some difficulty in coming at the proper focus; but when I do obtain it, they magnify perfectly, and shew those letters very distinctly, which at first appear as a mist—blended together and confused.6

Washington’s aides had seen their chief trying a pair of spectacles in the privacy of his office. But now, with the large script, Washington was able to read his notes without them. The speech was calm and reasonable and appealed to the officers’ better natures:

David Rittenhouse” by Charles Willson Peale.
1796. Credit: National Portrait Gallery.
Public Domain.

“[L]et me entreat you, gentlemen . . . 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; let me request you to rely on the plighted faith of your country, and place a full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress. . . .”4

There was more exhortation in the same vein with a rhetorical flourish at the end, but when he had finished, Washington looked up and knew that he had failed. The audience was as disgruntled and unconvinced as ever.

In desperation, Washington retrieved a letter he had previously received from a member of Congress. It might mollify the men even though his own speech had not. But this letter was written in small script. As Washington started to read it, he faltered. The letter was blurred, illegible to him. A low sound came from the audience. Washington fumbled in a pocket for his spectacles. As he put them on, the murmur increased. Were the men even more annoyed with him? While he adjusted the glasses he said something like: “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.”1

But few listened carefully as Washington read the congressman’s letter. He had already won them over. The transformation in the audience was sudden, unexpected, emotional. Washington’s officers were overcome with pity and affection. This strong and charismatic man, who had been their leader through years of adversity and near-defeat, was now admitting to physical infirmity, right there in front of them. They had never seen him wear spectacles. Spectacles meant aging, blindness, decrepitude. Suddenly their leader seemed tired, careworn, vulnerable. It was too much. They crowded around him and reassured him. Some men wept. Washington left the hall, and the officers quickly declared their “unshakable confidence” in Washington and the Congress.

So there was no military coup, and Congress eventually did provide benefits for the army.

“I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.” The line is so dramatic that one wonders whether it was scripted. No, almost certainly not. Washington was far too proud, and the dismay of the new presbyope, with its exaggeration of the handicap, is too palpable and all too familiar. Presbyopia may be the bane of middle age, but it had one great moment at Newburgh, NY, on March 15, 1783 — because of George Washington’s need for reading glasses.

 

Reference

  1. Freeman DS. I have grown gray in your service. In: George Washington: A Biography. Vol 5. New York, NY: Scribner; 1952:428-437.
  2. Marshall GL Jr. The rise and fall of the Newburgh Conspiracy [Early America Review Web site]. 1997;2:1-4. Available at: http://earlyamerica.com/review/fall97/wshngton.html. Accessed January 8, 2019
  3. Wensyel JW. The Newburgh Conspiracy. Am Herit. 1981;32:40-47.
  4. Fitzpatrick JC, ed. The Writings of George Washington From the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. Vol 26. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press; 1976.
  5.  Gillispie CC, ed. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. New York, NY: Scribner; 1970.
  6. Barton W. Memoirs of the Life of David Rittenhouse, LLD, FRS. Philadelphia, Pa: Edward Parker; 1813.

 


 

RONALD S. FISHMAN, Retired ophthalmologist, Washington, DC. Has 50+ publications, book chapters, articles, on history of medicine.

 

Winter 2019  |  Hektorama  |  Moments in History