Washington’s Spectacles


“It’s no one’s business what anyone does behind closed doors.”

The occasion was a White House dinner, and Barbra Streisand was telling reporters what she thought of President Clinton’s alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky. According to Streisand, it doesn’t matter whether the President committed adultery or not.

If we can believe the polls, most Americans agree with her. As long as our leaders properly discharge their public duties, Americans seem to think, their private character doesn’t really matter.

But this is completely wrong-headed. In a democracy, character and leadership are inseparable. If you want to understand why, listen to this story about the Father of our Country: George Washington.

It was 1783, and the Revolutionary War had just ended. Many of the officers in the Continental Army had fought for years without pay. Rumor had it that the Continental Congress planned to disband the Army and renege on its debt to the veterans.

As the weeks passed the mood of the soldiers grew ugly. Finally, some of the officers issued an ultimatum: If they were not paid, they were prepared to march on Congress and seize control of the government.

To head off the crisis, General Washington addressed the soldiers in a makeshift chapel in Newburgh, New York. Washington counseled patience, and reminded the men that he, too, had served without pay. He urged them “not to take any measures which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will… sully the glory you have hitherto maintained.”

The men continued to glare angrily at the general. Washington then began reading a letter from a congressman. But as he read, he stumbled over the words and finally had to stop.

Washington reached into his pocket and pulled out something his men had never before seen: a pair of spectacles. He begged their indulgence saying, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself going blind.”

These words of humility instantly dissolved the hostile mood. The soldiers began to weep. After Washington left, they agreed to give Congress more time. Thomas Jefferson later remarked that “the moderation and virtue of a single [man] probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”

What the Founders understood is that character is the first requirement of leadership. It was Washington’s character that earned the admiration and trust of the mutinous officers. His humility, coupled with a reminder of the price he himself had paid for his service, drove his men on to greater sacrifice.

It’s a lesson we must relearn today, and we must relearn it quickly. A nation whose leaders do not lead through their own example of virtue and character cannot inspire sacrifice for the common good.

Read the rest of this special series about our Founding Fathers, based on a book by William Bennett called Our Sacred Honor.

For this great and noble experiment in ordered liberty known as America will succeed only if it rests on the great foundations laid by our Founding Fathers. We need to relearn these lessons of courage and wisdom that they teach us.

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