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    Spectacles saved our republic

    Threat of military takeover disarmed by a pair of glasses


    Washington learned that a group of his officers had called for a secret meeting to plan the coup details. While sympathetic to the soldiers who had not been paid, he considered mutiny to be the height of dishonor for a soldier. He therefore called his own meeting to upbraid the would-be conspirators.

    Their general pleaded with his officers to oppose any man “who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our empire in blood.” He asked them to entrust Congress with more time to address their concerns, and began reading to them a letter from a sympathetic congressman.

    Having difficulty reading the words, Washington shocked his younger fellow officers by pulling out his pair of reading glasses—something they had never witnessed before.
    “Gentlemen, you must pardon me,” he said. “I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.”

    According to Chernow, “the disarming gesture of putting on the glasses moved the officers to tears as they recalled the legendary sacrifices he had made for his country. The threat of a military takeover had been averted by Washington’s succinct, but brilliant, well-timed oratory.”

    Another item of interest to ophthalmologists is the mention that one of Washington’s portraits, by Joseph Wright, documents “an important quirk of Washington’s face: the lazy right eye that slid off into the corner while the left eye stared straight ahead.”

    Many artists who depicted our first president decided not to reveal his strabismus, as they presumably believed their art should depict the heroic figure without evidence of physical flaw.


    Chernow R. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2010. pp. 432, 435, 509.

    Peter J. McDonnell, MD
    He is director of The Wilmer Eye Institute, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of ...

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