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The Newburgh Conspiracy – Part 2

February 26, 2014

Under the Articles of Confederation the United States Congress could not raise money by direct taxation, and this made their promise of military pensions impossible.  Some officers had not even been paid for four or more years.  The army was ready to stage a military coup and install George Washington as head of the government, but this was not the kind of America the General had envisioned.

Washington’s reluctance did not deter the officer corps at Newburgh, New York.  If Washington would not go along with their plan, perhaps General Horatio Gates would lead them.  Alexander Hamilton asked Washington to reconsider.  Surely America would be better off with Washington in charge.  Why fight the inevitable?

Washington gave an eloquent speech to the officers at Newburgh, but some historians say it was not the speech that turned the tide from the threat of tyranny back to representative government.  Rather it was when Washington reached for his spectacles!

Some say he wore his spectacles from the start of the speech.  Others say he was able to read his own speech, but when he reached the end, the officer corps was still disgruntled.  Then, remembering he had a letter from a congressman, he reached into his pocket, opened the letter, and paused for a long time as he tried to read the congressman’s handwriting.  To his audience he appeared confused and momentarily helpless, and this made them anxious for him.  Until this time only his closest friends and aides had seen Washington wear eyeglasses, but in order to read the congressman’s letter, Washington would now have to reveal his weakness to one and all.

He reached again into a pocket – this time to retrieve his glasses – and 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.”  The officers were driven to tears as they finally understood Washington’s heart, for by this simple and inadvertent act Washington displayed his identification with those who had sacrificed so much to achieve American independence.  Liberty was now assured.

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