During the Revolutionary War, Washington apparently gained a great deal of usable intelligence from a veritable army of private citizens – tradespeople and professional men and women of all walks of life who lived in New York where the British were headquartered. Because of their trades or other reasons, these people had daily contact with the British, often passing themselves off as Tories in order to obtain the British officers’ confidence and to have a better chance to listen to their conversations.
One of those many spies was Hercules Mulligan, a tailor who developed a large clientele of British officers. Because of his work for the British, Mulligan’s neighbors presumed he was indeed a Tory or British sympathizer. As a result they made life difficult for him during the period of British control, unknowing as they were that he was actually passing important information to General Washington.
After the conclusion of the war, the reputations, livelihoods and even the lives of many such people may have been threatened by Americans who did not take kindly to those believed to have been sympathizers and collaborators. But Mulligan was spared such unjust treatment.
On the first morning of Washington’s return to New York after the war was over, it is known that the General made a point of stopping at Mulligan’s house and, doubtless to the great surprise of Mulligan's neighbors, having breakfast with the tailor. Washington’s simple yet deeply thoughtful action probably saved the tailor a great deal of unpleasantness at the very least, as his neighbors now understood that rather than being a sympathizer, Mulligan was, in fact, a patriot.
Washington was by many accounts a God fearing and believing man, but whether his action toward Mulligan, and likely those toward others who had helped during the war, was based on Christian concern or simply what his age called “common decency” we do not know, and it is really immaterial. Whatever his motives, Washington’s action truly helped a man who had helped him and who might now so easily have been forgotten in the General’s return to New York. It’s really an anecdote with a moral, a story that can serve as a lesson.
Do we take the thought and time to properly thank and look out for those who have helped us? Perhaps the stakes are not so high in our everyday relations with others, but sometimes a little thought will make it clear to us how others have in fact sacrificed to help us. Taking the time to think that fact through and to act on it when we can is a form of gratitude that goes well beyond simply being appreciative of what others do in helping us.