THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, August 11, 1996 TAG: 9608090635 SECTION: COMMENTARY PAGE: J3 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: GEORGE TUCKER LENGTH: 69 lines
If an elitist element of the American people - including many Continental Army officers who had fought against Great Britain during the American Revolution - had had their way, George Washington would have been our first constitutional monarch. Fortunately, the Father of Our Country had too much sense to entertain the quixotic suggestion.
After the British Army under Cornwallis had surrendered to the American and French forces at Yorktown in October 1781, Washington and his troops removed to Newburgh on the Hudson in what is now the State of New York. The long fight was over, but until the Treaty of Paris was signed in September 1783, guaranteeing freedom to the 13 colonies, the Continental Army could not be disbanded.
This enforced idleness, augmented by food shortage, generally bad weather and a lack of funds to pay the long overdue salaries of the officers and men, brought the Continental Army perilously close to mutiny. This was only averted when Washington ordered a general assembly of his troops and began to address them thus: ``Men, I have gone gray, and am now almost blind, in the service of my country. . . '' At that point his voice broke and his men, touched by the saddened aspect of their great Commander, assured him there would be no further cause to question their loyalty.
But that was only a prelude to the blockbuster that followed. In May 1782, Col. Lewis Nicola, one of Washington's officers, wrote him a letter suggesting that he and other top ranking military men strongly urged ``that a change of government to monarchial institutions was in order and recommending that Washington become king, perhaps with a title modified to allay popular prejudice against monarchy.'' In commenting on Nicola's audacity, the Dictionary of National Biography, from which the above was quoted, says: ``Due to the breaking down of government under the Congress of the Confederation similar sentiments were held by numerous persons.''
Washington was horrified at Nicola's suggestion, and his reply, from which the following is taken, reveals his agitation.
``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 the war has given me more painful sensations, than your information of there being such ideas existing in the army, as you have expressed, and I must view with abhorrence and reprehend with severity.
``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 can 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. . . . 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 yourself or anyone else, a sentiment of the like nature.''
Washington's blast silenced Nicola and his royalist cronies for the time being. But a feeling among others who feared that the establishment of a democracy would be an invitation for the rag tag and bob tail to take over still caused them to toy with the possibility of establishing a monarchial government in this country.
Eventually the adoption of the Constitution put an end to these fantasies, but before then, any number of America's elite still hankered for a regal setup similar to the one they had recently cast off. This is evident from the following 1786 entry in The People's Almanac No.2 by David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace (1978):
``Having determined what the United States needed was a king, a powerful group of American political figures - James Monroe, Alexander Hamilton and Nathaniel Green, president of the Continental Congress, among others, wrote to 50-year-old Prince Henry of Prussia, younger brother of Frederick the Great, and invited him to become king of the United States (at the suggestion of Revolutionary War hero Baron von Steuben). Prince Henry vacillated, and by the time he gave his uncertain reply the Americans had decided to have an elected president rather than a constitutional monarch.'' by CNB