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“I did not fight to defeat Britain’s George III in order to become America’s George I.” – George Washington
The week of George Washington’s birthday (Feb. 22) I want to share the true story of how George refused to become America's first king, prevented a military coup that would have undermined the American Revolution, and saved the country from further bloodshed and eternal ignominy. As Tom Jefferson put it in retrospect, Washington’s brave and selfless action “prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”
It was a close call. At the end of the Revolutionary War, most officers in the army were so bitter at the Continental Congress's unwillingness (actually inability) to pay them their back salary that they planned a coup against the government.
The wild card was their leader, Washington himself, but the conspirators hoped that if they offered him the chance to be a real king he would join them. The plan was to persuade Washington that the country was in “turmoil” and needed a strong hand to “stabilize” the situation (a line of reasoning we have heard from dictators throughout history)
Washington was aghast when he heard of this plan, so upon learning the conspirators had planned a strategy meeting, he called his own meeting, believing — rightly — that his officers would at least hear him out.
In that meeting Washington began by reminding his officers that he too had served beyond the call of duty. He told them their coup would ruin their families. He promised to do all he could to get them their money.
Nothing worked. The soldiers sat sullenly as Washington, in desperation, decided to read aloud a letter he had received from a member of Congress stating that Congress had not forgotten its debt to the army. George thought it might help ...
The poet Robert Burns once wrote that the best laid plans of mice and men don’t always work the way we hope. Yet sometimes it is the unplanned action that turns the tide for us. So it was when Washington, realizing he could not read the letter without his spectacles, pulled them out, to the surprise of his soldiers who had never seen him with glasses. To this murmur of surprise, Washington added, "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only gone gray, but almost blind, in the service of my country."
That did it. The soldiers’ defiance was gone. Many wept openly, for they finally saw clearly the physical toll that the war had taken on their leader. They realized that his single sacrifice had matched theirs collectively. The coup was over and a country “conceived in liberty” was born.