It’s really not all that difficult to come up with the answer to the question “Who was the greatest American?” In this rare case, the man is even more impressive than the myth (cherry trees aside).
On March 15th, 1783 the officers who had served Washington during the Revolution held a meeting where they were planning to discuss an open rebellion. The officers were furious with Congress, which had not yet paid them what they were owed for their service. The country was broke, and what Washington’s officers were contemplating was nothing short of either a complete abdication of their military responsibilities or an outright military coup, either of which would have changed the entire future of the young nation, perhaps killing it before it had drawn its first breath of free air.
To their surprise, Washington himself showed up at the meeting and asked to address the officers. Since the General was held in such high regard, he was permitted to do so. Washington spoke, reminding the assembled officers of his own service and reminding them of their duty and all that was at stake, but the speech fell on deaf ears.
When his speech was over, Washington pulled out a letter from Congress explaining the financial difficulties they faced. At that point Washington reached into his pocket and withdrew a pair of reading glasses, shocking the crowd of officers who had never seen the General wear glasses.
“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.”
This single moment of the great General displaying his humanity, his vulnerability, and the level of his own sacrifice caused some of the assembled officers to weep, and others to retreat into shame. When he finished reading the letter from Congress, Washington left without saying another word.
The assembled officers voted unanimously to abide by the will of Congress, and the young nation was saved.