May 22 could have become an important day in American history. Colonel Lewis Nicola could have become a famous – or infamous – figure. But neither of those things did happen, and we have George Washington to thank. Instead we have what I call the Nicola test (I already discussed my Madison test, and will soon present my Washington test) on Presidential fitness.
The Irish born immigrant Nicola is by all accounts an ordinary man. Mostly good, with a few unenviable missteps, Nicola led a useful and active life. On May 22, 1782 he presented to General Washington a letter that could have changed history. Nicola suggested that Washington become King of America.
“This war must have shown to all, but to military men in particular the weakness of republicks…it will, I believe, be uncontroverted that the same abilities 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.
Some people have so connected the ideas of tyranny and monarchy as to find it very difficult to separate them, it may therefore be requisite to give the head of such a constitution as I propose, some title apparently more moderate, but if all other things were once adjusted I believe strong argument might be produced for admitting the title of king, which I conceive would be attended with some material advantages.”
America was not quite yet America in 1782. Victory at Yorktown behind us, independence had been essentially won and the Treaty of Paris would soon take shape. The bad news was that our nation was still a few years away from its Constitution, mired in debt, squabbling, and exhausted.
Washington was a proud man, but did not nibble at the bait. Washington scolded Nicola, “if you have any regard for your Country, concern for yourself or posterity or respect for me, banish these thoughts from your Mind.”
In that moment – for neither the first nor last time – Washington secured for America a free republic. Hold no illusions, many other men would have succumb to the temptation. If I were given the same opportunity, I can only hope I would have acted as Washington. It is a test few men pass.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I suspect, would have failed the Nicola test. The four term, Supreme Court packing, Constitutionally “flexible” man can easily be imagined to adopt the mantle of king. Because of the Nicola test, I refuse to accept the notion that FDR was a great President, for I believe he saw himself as bigger than the office and the nation he lead.
In September of 2011, President Obama remarked that he would like to “work his way around Congress saying, “wish I had a magic wand and could make this all happen on my own.” Given his penchant for executive orders, and willingness to bend procedural rules, I take Obama at his word. For this, and other reasons cataloged across the internet, I believe Barack Obama would also fail the Nicola test.
Lest you think I am picking on Democrats, I am too convinced that Republicans from Teddy Roosevelt to Newt Gingrich would similarly fail the Nicola test.
In the course of political campaigns I encourage all to consider whether or not a candidate would respond to Nicola as forthrightly as Washington. America is not likely to become a monarchy regardless of any foreseeable election, but leaders set us on paths toward one point or another. Which path trends closer to the powerful seat envisioned by Nicola? Choose the other one.