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1.
Freeman  DS I have grown gray in your service. George Washington: A Biography. l5 New York, NY Scribner1952;428- 437
2.
Marshall  GL  Jr The rise and fall of the Newburgh Conspiracy [Early America Review Web site]. 1997;21- 4Available at: http://earlyamerica.com/review/fall97/wshngton.htmlMarch 28, 2001
3.
Wensyel  JW The Newburgh Conspiracy. Am Herit. 1981;3240- 47
4.
Fitzpatrick  JCed The Writings of George Washington From the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. 26 Westport, Conn Greenwood Press1976;
5.
Gillispie  CCed Dictionary of Scientific Biography.  New York, NY Scribner1970;
6.
Barton  W Memoirs of the Life of David Rittenhouse, LLD, FRS.  Philadelphia, Pa Edward Parker1813;
Citations 0
Special Article
January 2002

Presbyopia's Finest Hour

Author Affiliations

From Johns Hopkins University, Institute of the History of Medicine, Baltimore, Md.

Arch Ophthalmol. 2002;120(1):65-66. doi:10.1001/archopht.120.1.65

In March 1783, with the last peace negotiations all but final, an incident occurred that might have defeated the American Revolution at the last minute. The officers of the Continental Army had not been paid for almost 5 years. A conspiracy arose among the officers to coerce the Continental Congress to provide them benefits it had previously promised. George Washington recognized that if the army could intimidate Congress, this precedent would be fatal for the prospects of the new republic. He met with the agitated, hostile officers and tried to reason with them without success. Then, in a piece of high political theater involving his spectacles, he broke up the conspiracy within a few minutes.

Counterfactual history is a game one can play that underlines the importance of contingency in events. What if Abraham Lincoln had not been reelected in 1864? Would the secession of the Confederate states have been allowed to take place, and what would our country be like today if it had? This approach shows how seemingly small events can have great consequences. It can make us view these events in a new light and realize that nothing in the present is preordained or inevitable.

And so we come to the tale of George Washington and his spectacles.

Washington's greatest accomplishment as a general—keeping an army that was always small and undersupplied from simply disintegrating—was achieved largely through force of character. Strangely enough, this leadership style was severely tested toward the very end of the war.

After accepting the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown, Va, 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. The first Purple Heart medals were awarded there that winter.

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 5 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.13

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, 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 or whether they should pry open the nation's coffers with bayonets.

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. A democratic republic had not seen the light of day since classical Greek and Roman times. How viable would it be if these officers had their way? Washington had every intention of ceding his military power to civil authority as soon as peace was official. This mutiny threatened not only the fragile unity of the former colonies but raised the specter of military dictatorship.

Washington decided to allow the meeting to take place but to delay it for 4 days. Then he unexpectedly showed up at the assembly in the Public Building, an event that one historian has called the most important meeting ever held in the United States.

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 51 years, 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 2 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:

[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, "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 had not been annoyed but had been overcome with pity and affection. This strong and charismatic man was admitting to physical infirmity, right there in front of them. In all the years they had served with Washington, the officers 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.

And so there was no military coup. Congress eventually did provide benefits for the army. The United States survived and, some may say, even flourished.

"I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind." The line is such pure theater that one wonders, Was it scripted? No, Washington was far too proud, and the dismay of the new presbyope 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—a date which does not live in infamy because of George Washington and his spectacles.

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Article Information

Accepted for publication July 10, 2001.

Presented at the 14th Annual Meeting of the Cogan Ophthalmic History Society, Stanford, Calif, March 24, 2001.

I thank Jay M. Galst, MD, who provided a useful reference on David Rittenhouse.

Corresponding author: Ronald S. Fishman, MD, 47880 Cross Manor Rd, St Inigoes, MD 20684 (e-mail: rsfishman@mac.com).

References
1.
Freeman  DS I have grown gray in your service. George Washington: A Biography. l5 New York, NY Scribner1952;428- 437
2.
Marshall  GL  Jr The rise and fall of the Newburgh Conspiracy [Early America Review Web site]. 1997;21- 4Available at: http://earlyamerica.com/review/fall97/wshngton.htmlMarch 28, 2001
3.
Wensyel  JW The Newburgh Conspiracy. Am Herit. 1981;3240- 47
4.
Fitzpatrick  JCed The Writings of George Washington From the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. 26 Westport, Conn Greenwood Press1976;
5.
Gillispie  CCed Dictionary of Scientific Biography.  New York, NY Scribner1970;
6.
Barton  W Memoirs of the Life of David Rittenhouse, LLD, FRS.  Philadelphia, Pa Edward Parker1813;
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