Critical Intel

Critical Intel
King Washington the Wicked

Robert Rath | 25 Oct 2012 12:00
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Federalists like Washington, largely elites that didn't take well to populist politics, worried that the Societies resembled the Sons of Liberty, and might grow into a wider revolutionary movement. Worse, that year saw an armed rebellion by distillers who refused to pay Hamilton's sin tax on whiskey production, some gathering in town commons around mock guillotines to show solidarity with France. "The largest rebellions, which involved mostly the destruction of property, took place around Pittsburgh in the summer of 1794," notes Dr. Brunsman. "In September, Washington ordered 12,000 federalized militiamen to quell the Rebellion, which they did. Washington briefly led the troops himself-the first and only time a sitting President has led troops in the field." The federal militia put down the Whiskey Rebellion quickly with minimal violence, but it was the first time in Washington's career that he met sustained public criticism, and the first time a President had turned troops on the American people.

The next year, 1795, marked the height of attacks on Washington's supposed monarchism. A year before, Washington had dispatched Chief Justice John Jay to Britain in order to negotiate a treaty that would prevent a costly war. The Jay treaty accomplished that goal, as well as the removal of the last British garrisons from American soil, but otherwise it was a disappointment. While a long-term victory, it looked like Jay capitulated to British interests. The treaty had barely been discussed in Congress before someone leaked it to the Aurora and, to paraphrase a hundred pages of primary-source documents: People. Went. Apeshit. Riots broke out in New York and Boston. Protestors surrounded the Presidential mansion in Philadelphia chanting pro-French and anti-Washington slogans, some demanding war with Britain. So many mobs burned effigies of John Jay that the Chief Justice said he could walk across the country by their illumination. The press attacks on Washington were vicious -- he was arrogant, dishonest, an "usurper with dark schemes of ambition," and a "tyrannical monster." One writer wished him a speedy death. Papers compared him unfavorably to absolutist monarchs, though even that wasn't enough for some, who compared him to period visions of foreign despots. Washington presided over the country like the "grand lama," a harem keeper, or Nebuchadnezzar. In the Aurora, Benjamin Franklin Bache suggested the treaty recognized merchants "as a privileged class," and caused America to be "realigned with a despotic rather than a republican state."

These attacks were, of course, unfounded. A year later, public support swung behind the Jay Treaty, and at the end of his second term, Washington's retirement cleared his name of the hyperbolic accusations of monarchism. It was a move that once again reasserted his belief that the American Presidency should be an office of political service, rather than a power grab. "He was aware that his actions as President would establish important precedents for the republic," says Dr. Brunsman, "What distinguished Washington from the Cromwells and Napoleons of history is that rather than become a dictator, he expressly rejected power -- not once, but twice. Washington's rejection of power ultimately did more than anything to secure the early American republic. Still, his elite governing style lends just enough credibility to make this videogame's premise work as historical fantasy."

So what can this tell us about Assassin's Creed III? Well, first of all it's likely that Washington is somehow corrupted by the Apple of Eden shown on his scepter in the press art. It's also likely that the turning point comes either during the Newburgh Conspiracy of 1783, or during the Whiskey Rebellion. Assuming that's the case, we can expect to see Conner allied with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, opposing Washington and a Federalist-turned-monarchist administration -- a narrative that would play into the series' theme of populist power rising against corrupt, centralized authority. Perhaps, if we're lucky, Benjamin Franklin Bache might show up (Bache was later arrested by the Adams administration under the Alien and Sedition Acts, and died in prison). How Ubisoft will address slavery while allying Conner with the pro-slavery faction is an open question that will be interesting to see.

Grounded in proper history or not, I like The Tyranny of King Washington, even in my callous, overly-picky, history major's heart. To many Americans, George Washington is a face carved out of marble, a man we've raised up so high we can no longer reach him. We often talk of him in terms of destiny and fate, when in reality he was just a man who made good choices, and perhaps the best way to understand that is to think about what might've happened if he made bad ones.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp. Have questions about this topic? Tweet them to: @Crit_Int

This column drew upon the following books: His Excellency by Joseph J. Ellis; John Adams by David McCullough; The Ascent of George Washington by John Ferling.

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