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Earlier this month, Ubisoft announced that the first DLC for Assassin's Creed III will be a provocative alternate-history campaign called The Tyranny of King Washington. The press release includes art of George doing a Joffrey Baratheon impression, and promises to pit ACIII protagonist Conner against his former, presumably corrupted, compatriot. Executive Producer Sebastien Puel summed it up: "While Assassin's Creed III concentrates on history as it happens, we wanted to take some liberties with this DLC and tell you how things, 'could have happened.'"
That's a strange left turn in a series where you fail missions for violating the historical timeline, but it's also an intriguing idea that could help us think about the Revolution a new way.
You see, Washington wanted to be king. He was a royalist and a monarchist. He lusted for power and set himself up as an aristocrat--if you believe the newspapers, anyway. But you shouldn't. Washington's presidency saw the birth of America's partisan press, a place that took as many liberties with the truth as Ubisoft's DLC.
"In truth, there was never widespread fear that Washington would declare himself a king," says Dr. Denver Brunsman. Dr. Brunsman is a history professor at George Washington University, where he teaches a class at Mount Vernon called "Washington and His World." He points out that Washington was a widely trusted individual who had walked away from power twice: once when he voluntarily resigned his commission as General of the Continental Army and again when he refused to run for a third term of office. Rather than money and power, what motivated Washington was a desire for an honorable reputation and esteem from his countrymen, a goal better accomplished by showing he could walk away from executive power rather than by dominating it.
The "King Washington" image Ubisoft plays off of is part of a smear campaign, an invention of Washington's political rivals and the product of America's first foray into the partisan press. When newspapers accused Washington of harboring royal ambitions, it was an intentional distortion of his belief that America needed a strong federal government in order to survive. To use a modern parallel, Washington was a monarchist in the same way Obama is a socialist. "The political rhetoric was even more hyperbolic in Washington's day," adds Dr. Brunsman. "And in that time, the charge of being a "monarchist" or "royalist" carried the same negative connotations as "socialist" does today."
Which isn't to say people didn't believe it might happen. In 1782 and 1783, immediately following the Battle of Yorktown, Washington kept the Continental Army together in case of a British return, leading some in Congress to voice that a standing army in peacetime was a major enemy to freedom. These concerns were understandable, first because every republican government in history had been crushed by a military dictator, and second because the Continental Army was growing increasingly disillusioned and frustrated with the Confederation Congress, who owed them years of back pay. The issue of pay and pensions grew poisonous. Rumors circulated that Alexander Hamilton, probably drunk, suggested marching on Philadelphia and disbursing Congress. A young officer wrote to Washington saying that Congress had proved unequal to the task of government and Washington should declare himself king -- possibly under a title more palatable to the public. Washington told the officer to banish these thoughts, saying the idea was "big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country." The pot finally boiled over on March 16th, 1783, during what history has come to call the Newburgh Conspiracy. On that date, five hundred Continental officers gathered in the New Building at Newburgh, New York to discuss staging, or threatening to stage, a coup in order to force Congress to address their grievances. Washington interrupted the meeting, and lectured the conspirators on the importance of civilians presiding over the military. But the real turning point came, Dr. Brunsman says, when Washington donned his spectacles to read a letter. The officers had never seen their general wear them before: "Washington fumbled for his glasses and remarked, 'I have grown old in the service of my country, and now find that I am going blind.' The sight of the great man appearing so vulnerable led the men to break into tears, and the threat of a coup dissipated." Later, after the Treaty of Paris officially ended the war, Washington resigned and retired to Mount Vernon.