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Letter to Lewis Nicola

Letter to Lewis Nicola 1782

After the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781, the end of the war was well in sight. But as military necessity receded, the thirteen state governments under the Articles of Confederation grew increasingly less willing to provide Congress the funding to conduct the nation's business. Washington had noted this trend in 1780: "I see one head gradually changing into thirteen... I see the powers of Congress declining too fast for the consequence and respect which is due to them as the grand representative body of America." Among the problems resulting from this situation were years of unpaid debts owed to the officers and men under Washington's command.

Against the backdrop of this absence of executive power, i.e., of the ability of the national government to act, one of Washington's officers, Colonel Lewis Nicola, wrote him a letter on May 22, 1782, arguing that the war had "shown to all, but especially to military men...the weakness of republics," and proposing that Washington become King of the United States. In Washington's reply to Nicola the same day, he wrote that no setback in the war had given him "more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the army" - ideas he "view[ed] with abhorrence and reprehend[ed] with severity." Washington assured Nicola that he would continue to work to obtain justice for the army, but admonished him "to banish these thoughts from your mind, and never communicate, as from yourself, or anyone else, a sentiment of the like nature." These stern words had their desired effect: Nicola addressed three apologies to Washington over the next several days.

It was not as unusual as it might seem to us today that pro-monarchical sentiments arose in the Continental Army during the waning months of the American Revolution. Kings were more common than republics at the time, and the kind of sturdy republic that would be hammered out at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 - a republic with a strong executive - was as yet unknown. At the same time, it was perhaps more unusual than it might seem to us today that upon hearing of these sentiments, Washington was not honored but repelled.

As far back as the Second Continental Congress, John Adams, while he supported Washington's appointment as commander-in-chief of the army, worried that Washington might one day act along the lines Nicola suggested. Adams' fears were perfectly sensible in terms of historical precedents. But unlike Caesar and other generals-turned-dictator, Washington was an unbending believer in the democratic principles of the Declaration of Independence. Years later, when he neared the end of his second presidential term, many urged him to seek a third. Taking his age into consideration, Washington declined, thinking it important to ensure that Americans elect their second president. Were he to die in office, he feared, the automatic succession of a vice president would too closely resemble the succession of an hereditary heir.

In 1843 Daniel Webster wrote that "America has furnished to the world the character of Washington," adding that even if this had been all that America accomplished, it would thereby have earned "the respect of mankind." Washington stood to his own country and to the wider world, as he continues to stand, a correct model of what a free citizen ought to be.