Did George Washington Turn Down An Offer To Be A King?

The Story Behind the Myth

Grover Furr
Montclair State University
March 2007

Did anyone ever offer to make George Washington "king"?

The answer is: No. There is no evidence that this ever happened. But the story, in various forms, has been around for a long time.

What is the origin of this story?

The best account of the origins and development of this myth is by Robert F. Haggard, "The Nicola Affair: Lewis Nicola, George Washington, and American Military Discontent during the Revolutionary War," Proceedings of The American Philosophical Society Vol. 146, No. 2, June 2002, pp. 139-169, on line at the APS site here:

http://www.aps-pub.com/proceedings/1462/201.pdf

Haggard first summarizes how the myth grew by reviewing accounts of it in historical works. The earliest of them, published in 1823, states ""a letter was handed to Washington containing the demand of some for a monarchy, and himself the king." From there the story grew. As recently as 1984 a prominent American historian wrote that "Washington’s refusal to countenance Nicola’s scheme ‘signifies the death of the monarchical idea in the United States and the total triumph of representative government.’" (Haggard p. 142).

Haggard’s essay is the fullest answer to the question posed in my title. This short essay simply attempts to amplify and clarify it, and to present the relevant evidentiary documents in an authoritative and accessible format.

Haggard writes:

…[H]istorians have not always been wary enough of stories that appear tailor-made for their subjects, particularly when the source of that story is another secondary account. The thought of George Washington selflessly refusing the offer of a "crown" at the close of the Revolutionary War is so appealing, both to readers and writers of history, that its exclusion from the record would seem almost criminal. Third, biographers have not always treated fairly figures of secondary importance to the life of their primary subject.

That historians have not done so is attributable to one simple fact: they have not read the letters that Nicola wrote to Washington on 22, 23, 24, and 28 May 1782. If they had, they would have known that Nicola was only speaking for himself; that he was not advocating the overthrow of the government of the United States, but the establishment of a new state on its western border; and that he did not offer Washington a crown directly.

(pp. 168-9)

This is not quite right. Nicola did not "offer" Washington a "crown" at all, for Nicola had no crown to give.

At most, Nicola was floating an idea of his own, but one he was utterly incapable of bringing into being, and gently suggesting that Washington might consider the desirability of establishing a new state, headed by a king. It’s inaccurate, therefore, to say that Washington turned down a chance to be king.

Here is my transcription from the handwritten original of the whole text of Nicola’s letter. I believe this is the first time a completely transcript has been published. Links to the images of the original, at the Library of Congress website, are included.

Col Nicola’s letter to Washington of May 22, 1782

The "Edsitement" page on the end of the Revolutionary War contains this statement:

The first test of Washington's resolve came in a letter (and a series of observations appended to the letter) from one of his officers, Lewis Nicola, dated May 22, 1782. (NOTE: The letter is available in the George Washington Papers collection on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory, but unfortunately has not been transcribed. Interested students might want to try to do some transcribing, but this would be an extension, not part of this lesson.

I have transcribed the entire letter from the American Memory site here, and have also included links to the scanned pages of the original letter at the Library of Congress’ American Memory site.

http://chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/gbi/docs/nicolatowashington.html

The "Newburgh Addresses" of March 1782

Sometimes Col. Nicola’s letter is confused with the "Newburgh Addresses" of two months earlier. Or it is said that the "Newburgh Addresses" contain an offer to make Washington king.

But this is not true either, as a study of these documents shows.

The two anonymous "Newburgh Addresses" are on-line in the Journals of the Continental Congress, volume 24, whose Home Page is

http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwjc.html

They are identified by Kohn, notes 65 and 73. for the Kohn article, see p. 165, note 102 of the Haggard article I cited.

Neither of the "Newburgh Addresses" mentions anything remotely resembling an offer, suggestion, etc. about calling for Washington to be king.

I've downloaded the pages as TIF files and converted the TIFs to PDFs. You can read them here:

1. Washington's letter of introduction to the two "Newburgh Addresses" –

http://chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/gbi/docs/newburghaddintro.pdf

2. The First "Newburgh Address" –

http://chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/gbi/docs/newburghadd1.pdf

The same text is posted at another site:

http://www.earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/milestones/newburgh/text.html

3. The Second "Newburgh Address" –

http://chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/gbi/docs/newburghadd2.pdf


http://chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/gbi/docs/kingmyth.html | Email me: furrgATmailDOTmontclairDOTedu | Last revised 07 Mar 2007