George Washington's journals, letters, and official correspondence as Commander in Chief of the American Army during the Revolution are ripe with his firsthand accounts of the brutality of war, the human cost of battle, the twin enemies of death and desertion, the dissention in the ranks that often threatened unity of purpose, and the suffering of soldiers faithful to the cause of Liberty lacking even basic supplies and necessities. Every American is familiar with the terrible winter at Valley Forge to which Washington referred in a letter to Landon Carter the following spring:
"To paint the distresses and perilous situation of this army in the course of last winter, for want of cloaths, provisions, and almost every other necessity, essential to well-being, (I may say to existence) of an army would require more time and an abler pen than mine. . . ."1
Yet we know also from his writings that no reality of the conflict pained the General more than the ultimate affront to the "prize we contended for”—a Republic assuming rank among the Nations—than the suggestion of Colonel Lewis Nicola, a fellow officer, compatriot in arms, and representative of similar sentiments among some soldiers, that republics are flawed and that a constitutional monarchy would better suit this land. Nicola's letter contained a hint that Washington, "the same which have lead us, through difficulties apparently insurmountable by human power, to victory and glory, those 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,”2 was the best candidate to assume the role of monarch (though it is true that no one, including Nicola, had the title to bestow). Washington responded to what is now known as the Newburgh letter:
May 22, 1782
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 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 severety. 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 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; at the same time in justice to my own feelings I must add, that no Man possesses a more sincere wish to see ample justice done to the Army than I do, and as far as my powers and influence, in a constitutional way extend, 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 yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like Nature. With esteem I am.
It is this quality of character and conviction that has placed Washington among the heroes of history. It is this story that inspired American illustrator and author Howard Pyle to capture Washington's quiet response as an American moment (see the illustration, Washington Refusing a Dictatorship attached; it is also featured on page 26 of Rudiments). Flawed as any man, there was much to commend Washington to his contemporaries and to continue to commend him to his posterity. It is evident that he was a powerful tool in the Hand of Providence on Christ's Chain of Christianity and its blessing of Liberty.
Let us set ourselves to develop this same depth of character and conviction that would respond to such a temptation in like manner. Let us hold our leaders responsible to their positions as representatives with the consent of the governed. Let us allow no man to act as king, but "bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution" (Thomas Jefferson). Let us keep and hold dear the prize so bravely won—a Republic among the Nations.
1 George Washington, Letter to Landon Carter, May 30, 1778. Excerpt printed in George Washington: The Character and Influence of One Man (FACE), p. 195.
2 Colonel Lewis Nicola, Letter to George Washington, Newburgh, NY, May 22, 1782.