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    Spectacles saved our republic

    Threat of military takeover disarmed by a pair of glasses

    Sometimes, we ophthalmologists—accustomed as we are to high-success rates with our therapeutic interventions—become inured to the impact our efforts can have on patients’ lives.

    I was reminded of this while reading, “Washington: A Life,” by Ron Chernow. Chernow achieved fame more recently when his biography of Alexander Hamilton was turned into a rap music-filled, eponymous Broadway show whose tickets sell for a modest $1 million apiece.

    The history of our founding fathers is a remarkable and complicated one. If anyone thinks today’s politics are uniquely partisan or vitriolic, they have not read Chernow’s two books.

    Rebellion and mutiny

    An exciting vignette in the biography of President George Washington relates to a series of mutinies that took place toward the end of the Revolutionary War. Unpaid and underfed militia members from the various rebellious states decided to challenge the Continental Congress and turn their arms on the founding fathers assembled in Philadelphia.

    They were allegedly egged on by citizens who were owed large debts in the form of bonds issued by the underfunded Congress. Congress had been unresponsive to many entreaties to address the soldiers’ pay that was many months in arrears, and the debt holders would support the mutineers so that both could get paid.

    By many accounts, there was a real risk of a military overthrow of the civilian government and either devolution into chaos or the emergence of a military ruler.

    While this was going on, the 51-year-old Washington was under tremendous stress trying to keep the army together and bring the war with England to a successful conclusion.

    He was having difficulty reading his papers and maps, and asked David Rittenhouse, an astronomer and optical expert, to create for him a pair of reading glasses.

    “Little did Rittenhouse know, as he fashioned these spectacles,” says Chernow, “that they would soon serve as a key prop in one of the most emotionally charged scenes in American history.”

    Secret meeting

    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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