Revolutionary War Historical Article

Washington's Finest Moment

by Donald N. Moran

In this article you will read how Washington was offered the "crown" of a kingdom, the United States of America, which only required his acceptance. He could have been George I, King of the United States of America, if he was so inclined.

After the surrender of Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown on October 20th, 1781, the Continental Army, under George Washington’s command, settled down to a "wait and see" role. The British were still firmly entrenched on Manhattan Island in what was virtually an invincible stronghold. Washington positioned his army around the city preventing any British incursions into the surrounding countryside. The General did not trust the British and felt that with the support of their fleets, they would win their global war with France, Holland, and Spain, and then turn their undivided attention on the American colonies. This theory explained away the lengthy delays in the Paris peace negotiations. In Washington’s mind, the British were stalling.

Washington established his headquarters on the Hudson (or North) River in the home of Joseph Hasbrouck, at Newburgh, New York. It served as his headquarters from April 1st, 1782 until August 19th, 1783.

In March of 1782, a private soldier wrote home: "Times are very dubros [dubious?] at present for there is no news of Peace yet. But the armies are all well disciplined and in wonderful good spirits and draw good provisions."

The Continental Army’s general condition was good. The Yorktown victory had understandably raised morale to an all time high. The Hudson highlands area offered long established supply depots, well constructed encampments and for the private soldier things were relatively satisfactory. This was not so among the officers. Seven years of war had drained the private resources of most officers, and they desperately needed their back pay – not in Continental money, which was worthless, but in hard currency.

Congress itself was having an extremely difficult time. Without an "active war" it was unable to raise the monies needed to operate the makeshift government. It did not have the power to levy taxes, was completely unable to make payments on their loans, foreign and domestic, it already hand incurred, let alone raise the money to pay the Army.

Some of the officer, as the months passed, and the situation worsened, felt that there was only one man in the country that could salvage the situation, and that man was the Commander-in-Chief, George Washington. From surviving letters we learn that many of these unpaid officers were attempting to find an honorable solution to the problem. Those who knew General Washington well knew that he would remain subordinate to Congress and had no political ambition. Others viewed him as a great and courageous leader, capable of overcoming any obstacle.

In May 1782, Colonel Lewis Nicola wrote to Washington. The letter started with some general remarks regarding the deplorable situation the officers found themselves in and Congress’ apparent inability to properly compensate them.

Nicola then turned his attention to the political. He reviewed the different forms of government and arrived at the conclusion that republics were the least stable of governments, and the least capable of protecting the freedoms that they were fighting for. He went on to write that he had little hope that the United States would prosper under such a form of government and that the English Constitutional Monarchy was as near perfect a political system as could be created by mortal man. He continued by writing that the American people would be more comfortable with that familiar form of government and added:

"In this case it will, I believe, be uncontroverted, that the same abilities which led us through difficulties apparently insurmountable by human power to victory and glory – these qualities, that have merited and obtained the universal esteem and veneration of an army would be most likely to conduct and direct us in the smoother paths of peace. Some people have so connected the idea of tyranny and monarchy as to find it very difficult to separate them. It may, therefore, be required to give the head of such a constitution as I propose some title apparently more moderate; but, if all other things were once adjusted, I believe string [stringent?] arguments might be produced for admitting the title of King, which I conceive would be attended with some national advantage."

Colonel Nicola and his supporters, of which there were many, and no doubt, some of higher rank than the Colonel, were sincere. Washington could do no wrong in their eyes, and would be as good a leader in peace as he had proven to be in war.

It must have come as a surprise to the Colonel and his confederates when they received a prompt and severe rebuke for their efforts. Washington’s response was:

Sir,

With a mixture of great surprise and astonishment, I have read with attention the sentiments you have submitted to my perusal. Be assured sir, no occurrence in the course of this was has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the army as you have express, and which I must view with abhorrence and reprehend with severity.

For the present, the communication of them will rest in my own bosom, unless some further agitation of the matter shall make a disclosure necessary.

I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that could befall my country. If I am not deceived in the knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable. At the same time, in justices to my own feelings, I must add, that no man possesses a more serious wish to see amply justice done to the army than I do; and, as far as my power and influence will permit, in a constitutional way, they shall be employed to the utmost of my abilities to effect it, should there be any occasion.

Let me conjure you, then, if you have any regard for your country, concern for yourself or posterity, or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your mind, and never communicate, as from your self or anyone else, a sentiment of the like nature.

I am, Etc.

Geo. Washington

Colonel Nicola, spokesperson for his fellow officers, handed Washington the opportunity to become King! Yet, without hesitation it was turned down in no uncertain terms. A truly lasting tribute to his patriotic character.

Colonel Nicola was sixty years old when the war started, his age kept him from a combat command, however, his 26 years services as an officer in the British Army earned him the respect of his fellow officers.

True to General Washington’s word, the matter was laid to rest, as he did not make the letters public. On September 30th, 1783, Colonel Nicola was promoted to Brigadier General. This would never have happened had his proposal been made public.

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