Many Americans believe that at the end of the Revolutionary War, while headquartered in Newburgh, George Washington received an offer to become king of the United States.
According to this legend, Washington rejected the overture and said that “I did not defeat King George III to become King George I.”
But did this really happen? Did George Washington turn down the crown? Although there is a grain of truth to the story, it has largely been exaggerated.
The roots of this story date to May 1782. Although Franco-American forces had defeated the British at Yorktown seven months earlier, it remained unclear if the war would end. Peace negotiations were underway in Europe, but British troops continued to occupy port cities, most notably New York.
Meanwhile, the young United States faced major financial and political problems. Congress had no power to tax and was dependent on requisitions from the states, who generally failed to meet Congress’s requests. Without a steady source of revenue, Congress was unable to pay the Continental Army.
At the same time, the country suffered severe hyperinflation. Congress had printed paper currency to fund the war, and in January 1777, $1.25 in Continental currency equated to $1 in specie (hard currency). By April 1781, $167.50 in Continental currency was required to purchase $1 in specie. Given these problems, some politicians, often called “nationalists,” sought to restructure the government to increase federal power, including giving Congress the capacity to tax.
Colonel Lewis Nicola was one of many officers in the Continental Army who watched this government dysfunction with unease, fearing that Congress would never be able to fulfill its financial promises to the army. Nicola was born in Ireland in 1717 but moved to Philadelphia in the 1760s, where he worked as a dry goods merchant. In 1777, he established the Invalid Corps, which comprised men unfit for combat but who could still perform other tasks, such as guard duty. In 1781, Congress sent the Invalid Corps to West Point, with Nicola taking residence across the Hudson River in Fishkill.
While in Fishkill on May 22nd, 1782, Nicola penned the “Newburgh Letter” to George Washington, who was then headquartered at the Hasbrouck House in Newburgh. Nicola began by blaming state legislatures and politicians for the “injuries the troops have received in their pecuniary rights.”
In camp, Nicola claimed that some soldiers and officers had discussed refusing to disband the army until their concerns about pay were addressed, even if the war ended. If this happened, Nicola feared that the country might be thrown “into a new scene of blood & confusion.” More generally, Nicola saw these national ills as stemming from the weakness of republics. Identifying the Dutch Republic specifically, Nicola noted that the Netherlands was a weak nation, unable to defend itself from Great Britain.
Given the similarities between the American and Dutch governments, Nicola feared that the United States might share the same fate. Conversely, absolute monarchies were often strong nations, and kings could surround themselves with wise advisors. Nicola believed that Great Britain’s constitutional monarchy was the best form of government, and with a few adjustments to their system, “the constitution would approach much nearer to that degree of perfection.” The war, Nicola added, had shown everyone “the weakness of republicks [sic]” and the necessity of a strong leader.
Having given his objections to republics, Nicola proposed that Congress should meet its debts to the army by granting the soldiers western land. The soldiers would then create their own state with their own constitution, governed by a strong executive. Although admitting that many people connected monarchy with tyranny, Nicola argued that using the title of “king” for the executive was preferable. With the state populated by armed veterans and governed by a king, it could effectively protect the United States from hostile Indigenous nations. Nicola told Washington that this was the first time he had discussed his idea with anyone, saying that “Republican bigots will certainly consider my opinions as heterodox.”
Washington replied to Nicola’s proposal later that day. His response was harsh and completely condemned the scheme. Washington wrote that he read the letter with “a mixture of great surprise & astonishment” and that “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.”
Washington said he did not understand why Nicola believed he would be open to this proposal. Although Washington wanted to see justice done to the army, he told Nicola that “if you have any regard for your Country, concern for your self or posterity — or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your Mind, & never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like nature.” As a safety precaution, Washington’s aides de camp certified that the copy of the letter Washington kept for his records was an exact copy of what he had sent to Nicola.
To Washington’s stern condemnation, Nicola gave a conciliatory reply the following day, saying that “nothing has ever affected me so much as your reproof” and that he would “consider myself as having been under a strong delusion.”
On May 24th, Nicola wrote to Washington again, attempting to justify his proposal. He insisted that he had never suggested that the army not disband, but rather that he had overheard others advocating this plan. Regarding his proposal for a monarchy, Nicola said it was due to “a defect in judgment” on his part.
Nicola wrote Washington once more on May 28th, again saying that their misunderstanding stemmed from Nicola’s “inability to express my sentiments with sufficient perspecuity.” Nicola said that he only sought to avoid future unrest in the army. He also defended his proposal for a monarchy, saying that the states had gone too far in choosing a form of government entirely the opposite of Britain, and that a better idea was to copy to British system “purged of its defects.” Washington never replied to any of Nicola’s letters.
So, did Washington really turn down the crown in Newburgh? Not really. Although Nicola was sympathetic to monarchy and proposed a monarchical western state, he never directly offered Washington the crown, nor could he have done so if he desired.
Within the army, Nicola was not a particularly influential officer, and he even admitted that widespread hostility to monarchy had prevented him from expressing his ideas in the past. Even as the young nation experienced tumult and factionalism in the 1780s and 1790s, there was never a serious movement to establish an American king. Nicola was clearly not part of a large monarchical faction. In short, Washington never received a formal offer to be king.
But even if the story of Washington refusing the kingship is exaggerated, there is some truth to it.
Given the nation’s political and financial trouble, it is not difficult to imagine someone with different principles and less committed to republicanism exploiting the social and political unrest to establish an authoritarian government. History is full of victorious military leaders who used wartime turmoil to seize power.
In that sense, Washington was unique because he willingly resigned his commission at the end of the war. And as his response to Nicola’s letter shows, he had no appetite for monarchy. Thus, even if the story of him refusing to be king is exaggerated, it speaks to some truths. Washington never wanted to be king and was committed to republican ideals.
Photos, from above: Lewis Nicola letter to George Washington, May 22nd, 1782 courtesy Library of Congress; Hasbrouck House in Newburgh courtesy Wikimedia user Daniel Case; and map done by Simeon De Witt in 1783 of the Newburgh/New Windsor area, courtesy Boston Public Library.