March 15, 1783 A Pair of Spectacles

The politician who alienates a battle hardened army in the field walks on dangerous ground.  Don’t pay for their services, that’s a good way to do it.

The great rebellion effectively came to an end in October 1781 with Lord Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, though no one knew it at that time.  Eight years after the “shot heard round the world“, the American Revolution had slowed to a standoff.

King George III remained personally in favor of prosecuting the war even after the Patriot victory at Yorktown, while opinion in Parliament, was split.  Across the water, some 26,000 British troops remained in occupation in Charleston, Savannah and New York, backed up be a mighty fleet.


The Americans’ greatest ally departed in 1782, never to return.  With state finances already prostrate with debt, l’Ancien régime (French: “the old order”) would be overthrown by its own revolution inside the next ten years, the French King Louis XVI and Queen Consort Marie Antoinette executed, by guillotine.

Negotiations carried on for nearly three years in Paris while, an hour’s drive north by modern highway from the British occupation of New York, the Continental Army waited at Newburgh.

France wasn’t the only one, ruined by this war.  The American Revolution debilitated the finances of all three principle belligerents, none more so than the new-born American Republic, itself.  In fact, the fledgling United States nearly died on this day in 1783, by the very hands which had given them birth.

The Articles of Confederation, ratified by the states in March 1781, provided for a loose alliance of sovereign states. In theory, Congress possessed the authority to govern foreign affairs, conduct war and regulate currency.  In practice, these powers were limited to a national body with no authority to enforce its will on the states.


In 1780, Congress promised Continental officers a lifetime pension, equal to half-pay upon discharge.  The government in Philadelphia attempted to amend the Articles, to allow a new import duty or “impost”.  States were divided against the measure.  Two years later, the cupboard was bare.  Continental soldiers weren’t being paid at all.   

It wasn’t even possible to borrow.  That required evidence, of an income stream.

The politician who alienates a battle hardened army in the field walks on dangerous ground.  Don’t pay for their services, that’s a good way to do it.  At the outset of war, these guys left homes and fields and families, to risk their lives on behalf of the dream of Liberty.  Many among their number, had given all in service to that dream.

There was little to do during those long winter months of 1782-’83, but wait.  Each with his own financial hardship waiting at home, every man worried that his promised compensation, would not come.  The rumor mill worked overtime:  The Army would be disbanded.  The promised pensions would remain, unfunded.


The vague unease of rumor turned to a fury of near certainty through the late winter months, as one overture after another met with defeat, in Congress.  On March 10, an unsigned letter believed to have been written by Major John Armstrong, aide to General Horatio Gates, urged unspecified action against the Continental Congress.  Another called for a meeting on the morning of March 11.  Events were building toward armed insurrection.  A coup d’état.

General George Washington reacted quickly, objecting in his General Orders of March 11 to the “disorderly” and “irregular” nature of such a meeting.  Washington specified the morning of March 15 for an officer’s meeting and requested a report, implying that he himself, would not be present.

The mood was one of surprise and anger when the Commander-in-Chief himself walked into the room, hard men pushed past the point of patience, and now determined to take action.  The General urged patience in a brief and impassioned speech remembered as the Newburgh address.

Washington’s words may as well have fallen on deaf ears.  There was little of the usual deference, in this room.

Reconstructed Temple at the New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site, where the critical meeting took place on March 15, 1783

The future President of the United States then produced a letter from a member of Congress, to read to his officers. The content is unimportant. George Washington gazed on the letter in his hands without speaking and, fumbling in his pocket, came up with a pair of reading glasses. These were new.  Few men in the room even knew the man required glasses.

Washington spoke:

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 words were as a physical blow, on the men assembled in that room.  Obstinate and unheeding mere moments before, the realization dawned on all at once.  This man had been at their head and by their sides.  Washington had personally endured every bit of the hardship, as these men bent on mutiny.


There was hardly a dry eye in the place.  The moment was broken for all time.  Bent on mutiny a mere moment before, the cream of the continental army now determined, to wait.  This Republic to which we owe so much may have died before it was born, two hundred thirty-six years ago on this day.  All but for one magnificent man with an actor’s sense of timing.  And a new pair of spectacles.


A Trivial Matter
At age twenty-six, George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow with two children: Jacky and Patsy. The Father of the Nation never had any children of his own. At 6 feet, 3½ inches and 200-pounds, George Washington towered above his fellow Continental soldier, with an average height of 5-feet, 8-inches in height.



July 23, 1796 Royal Gift

Today, we think of George Washington as the father of the country.  Revolutionary era General. first President of the United States.  It may surprise some to learn, that he’d have described himself as a farmer.

Today, we think of George Washington as the father of the country.  Revolution-era General, first President of the United States.  It may surprise some to learn, that he’d have described himself as a farmer.

The Pioneer Farm and 16-Sided Barn at Mount Vernon

Washington’s early work in agriculture was driven by the need to make a living.  He would constantly study and experiment, always on the lookout for new and innovative methods and materials.  From his 16-sided treading barn at Dogue run to innovations in crop rotation, fertilization methods and animal husbandry, Washington’s innovations benefited not only the five farms of Mount Vernon, but much of American agriculture.

132 horses worked the Mount Vernon estate in 1785, when Washington became interested in mules.  A working mule has a productive life expectancy of 30 years, while a horse is generally played out in 20.  A mule is capable of more work with less feed than either horses or donkeys, and more intelligent than a horse.  A mule is capable of seeing its own back feet, making it less likely to “spook” at unseen hazards, and far more sure footed than a horse.

During the age of westward expansion, mules would stop along wagon trails, pointing their ears toward an approaching buffalo herd or Indian band, long before humans or other animals were aware of the threat.  This tendency to stop and assess leads to the perception that mules are stubborn, but the experienced mule handler understands.  There is a cognitive process at work in these animals.  It’s best to work with it.

Mules vs Donkeys vs HorsesMules are hybrid animals, the offspring of a male Equus Africanus Asinus, and a female Equus Caballus.  A jackass and a mare.  From the sire, the mule inherits intelligence, toughness and endurance, while the dam passes down her speed, conformation and agility.

Charles Darwin once wrote: “The mule always appears to me a most surprising animal. That a hybrid should possess more reason, memory, obstinacy, social affection, powers of muscular endurance, and length of life, than either of its parents, seems to indicate that art has here outdone nature.”

A “Hinny” results from crossing a female donkey and a male horse.  The result is a far less desirable animal, possessed of the lesser traits of both parent species.

Mules and hinnies have 63 chromosomes, resulting from the horse’s 64 and the donkey’s 62.  For this reason, there is no historical record of even a single fertile mule stallion.  Only a miniscule number of mule mares have bred successfully with purebred horses or donkeys.

Such an event is so rare that it was considered an ill omen in ancient days.  Herodotus describes such an event as an ill omen during Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480 BC, culminating in the Battle at Thermopylae.  “There happened also a portent of another kind while he (Xerxes the Great, 4th “King of Kings” of the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia), was still at Sardis, a mule brought forth young and gave birth to a mule”.Royal Gift

The English isles are for the most part blessed with flat farmlands, rarely having need of mules.  France and Spain possessed some of the finest breeding stock in the world in the Andalusian and Catalonian Jacks, though it was illegal to export them to the new world for fear of advantaging historic rivals.

Desiring a breeding Jack of his own, Washington reached out to Spanish King Charles III in 1780, through the Cuban merchant Don Juan de Miralles.  Miralles died unexpectedly and the transaction never took place, and Washington tried again in 1784. This time, American chargé d’affaires at the Spanish court William Carmichael reached out to the Spanish King, who was more than happy to provide two Spanish Jacks.  One died in transit, while the other arrived with its handler in Gloucester, Massachusetts, on October 7, 1785.  He was gray in color with a strong, stocky, build, standing just short of fifteen hands.

This original donkey stallion would come to be called “Royal Gift”.

John Fairfax, Washington’s overseer at Mount Vernon, was dispatched to Boston to meet Royal Gift and his handler, and escort them back to Virginia.  So solicitous was he of the animal’s health, that the donkey was provided with blankets, and never required to walk more than 15 miles in a day.  Royal Gift arrived at Mount Vernon on the evening of December 5.

The Marquis de Lafayette sent Washington a black Maltese Jack called “Knight of Malta” the following year, probably illegally, along with several “Jennies”. An ad ran in the Maryland Journal in March 23, 1787, advertising Mount Vernon’s Jacks for stud at five Guineas for the season.

Royal Gift came up lame in 1793, after being driven far too hard by an ignorant handler.  He would live another three years, but his stud career was all but over.  On July 23, 1796, William Washington wrote to the President informing him of the passing of his prized Spanish Jackass.  Royal Gift had succumbed to “farcy”, a form of Cutaneous Glanders nearly always fatal in horses, donkeys and mules.


By the time of George Washington’s death in 1799, there were 63 working mules at Mount Vernon, and an untold number working the farms of the young nation.  By 1808, there were 855,000 mules throughout the south, west of the Appalachian frontier, and at work in countless American farms.  Even today, many American donkeys and mules can trace their lineage back to Royal Gift.  And to George Washington.  The Father of the American Mule.

July 3, 1775, Washington’s Sword

General Washington rode out in front of the troops gathered at Cambridge Common on July 3, 1775.  Washington drew his sword under the branches of an ancient elm, by that act formally taking command of the Continental Army.

The American Revolution began with the battles of Lexington and Concord on the 19th of April, 1775. Thousands of armed colonial militia followed the British columns as they withdrew, and there they remained, hemming the British occupiers up in the city of Boston.

Within days, more than 20,000 armed men from all over New England had gathered from Cambridge to Roxbury. Tories’ vacant homes, empty Churches, even the brick buildings of Harvard College served as barracks, officers’ quarters, and hospitals. Soldiers camped in tents and other makeshift shelters, while Harvard canceled classes on May 1. Classes would not resume at the Cambridge campus until June of the following year.

The Continental Congress created the Army on June 14, 1775, appointing George Washington to lead it. General Washington rode out in front of the troops gathered at Cambridge Common on July 3, 1775.  Washington drew his sword under the branches of an ancient elm, by that act formally taking command of the Continental Army.

Washington Elm marker

Interestingly, 150 years of de facto independence from Great Britain seems to have suited the American colonist.  If inheritance records are any indication, the average American enjoyed a better standard of living, than the average Brit.  Average heights of the time bear that out.

The average American colonist had a full three inches on his British counterpart. At a time when the average male stood 5’8′, Washington towered over the crowd at 6’2″.   George Washington was a hard man to miss.

For Washington to draw his sword against King George III, was itself an act of magnificent courage.  According to British law of the time, one of four definitions of High Treason was “If a man do levy war against our lord the King in his realm”.  By drawing that sword against the crown, Washington was clearly committing High Treason.  He surely understood that such a prominent person as himself would be dealt with harshly, if caught.

At that time, the centuries-old penalty for High Treason was as savage as it was gruesome. Even now the language of the death sentence is difficult to read.  You may consider that to be my warning if you don’t care to read what follows.

The full sentence as read to the condemned was: “That you be drawn on a hurdle (a sledge) to the place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck and being alive cut down, your privy members shall be cut off and your bowels taken out and burned before you, your head severed from your body and your body divided into four quarters to be disposed of at the King’s pleasure”.

These were the terms of employment under which George Washington accepted his assignment.  He even declined to accept payment, beyond reimbursement for his personal expenses.

The 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence would show the same brand of courage, by signing that document a year later. It must have been a supreme in-your-face moment when John Hancock put his pen to that parchment, which ended: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor”.


At the signing, Ben Franklin famously said “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately”.  This was no empty philosophical statement they were signing.  Should circumstances turn against them, the founding fathers well understood. Each was signing his death warrant.