On this day in 1782, George Washington receives an effusive apology from one of his soldiers. That man had seemingly implied that George Washington should assume the title of King.
Washington was appalled! He squashed the idea immediately.
“[N]o occurrence in the course of the War,” Washington wrote, “has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the Army as you have expressed, & I must view with abhorrence, and reprehend with severity.”
The idea came from a guy you’ve (almost certainly) never heard of: Lewis Nicola, an Irish-born soldier who’d come to America and settled in Philadelphia. Despite his transgression with Washington, Nicola was one of those early Americans who did many things that our history books have forgotten about.
He was responsible for Philadelphia’s first general circulating library. With more than 1,000 books, it was huge for its time. Nicola also played an important role in establishing defenses around Philadelphia during the American Revolution. He translated French military manuals and prepared a new 91-page manual specifically aimed at the Continental Army. He began an Invalid Regiment composed of wounded soldiers who were able to perform less physical tasks, thus freeing up healthier soldiers for other duties.
Nevertheless, all these good deeds have been overshadowed by his one gross error in judgment.
During the spring of 1782, he could see that some soldiers were becoming increasingly discontent with their irregular pay and other factors. His assessment was correct, but what he did with this information wasn’t great. He wrote Washington, urging the creation of a new state on the frontier.
“Congress has promised all those that continue in the service certain tracts of land,” Nicola began. “Congress should take on itself the discharging all such engagements . . . for lands & discharge them by procuring a sufficient tract in some of the best of those fruitful & extensive countries to the west of our frontiers . . . . This tract to be formed into a distinct State under such mode of government as those military who choose to remove to it may agree on.”
In other words, let’s form a new state, to the west of the existing colonies. We’ll have our own constitution and decide how to govern ourselves. Whether fairly or not, some historians later accused Nicola of trying to make Washington a King of this new state because of his comment about an executive holding “some title apparently more moderate, but . . . [maybe] admitting the title of king”?
Washington was angry, rebuffing the idea as soon as it was made. He urged Nicola to “banish these thoughts from your Mind, & never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like nature.”
You can imagine that Nicola was very apologetic. He sent not one, but three, effusive apologies! “[N]othing has ever affected me so much as your reproof,” Nicola wrote on May 23.
Washington was forgiving, even if the history books have not been. Yet another episode that makes one wonder: What would America have been with anyone but Washington at the helm?
Douglas R. Cubbison, Colonel Lewis Nicola: Soldier, Scientist and Man of Letters (Journal of the American Revolution; July 25, 2013)
Letter from George Washington to Lewis Nicola (May 22, 1782)
Letter to George Washington from Lewis Nicola (May 22, 1782)
Letter to George Washington from Lewis Nicola (May 23, 1782)
Letter to George Washington from Lewis Nicola (May 24, 1782)
Letter to George Washington from Lewis Nicola (May 28, 1782)
Lewis Nicola (George Washington's Mount Vernon)
Robert F. Haggard, The Nicola Affair: Lewis Nicola, George Washington, and American Military Discontent during the Revolutionary War (Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society; June 2002)