Could George Washington have been a good king of the thirteen liberated colonies? Overturning colonialism then and now.
By Henry H. Bucher, Jr., Faculty in Humanities, Austin College
Aug 5, 2018
Print this page
Email this article

Some sources say that George Washington may be the only man in history who refused to be a king. The jubilation of victory over the British empire, some suggest, created a cult-like adoration of the victorious leader, and a few urged him to accept being king. At least two problems resisted the idea. First, President Washington saw this as inconsistent with democracy and may have feared a disastrous re-creation of the very tyrannies that so many contemporaries had fled in their old country. Second,  the founding documents and principles of the new republic were carefully and specifically drawn up to prevent the many temptations to centralize power. The key would be “checks and balances” to prevent any person or group from surrendering to that historic pre-existing condition in humanity: greed for money, power and fame, which usually has led to wanting more of the same.

Our Declaration of Independence (1776) preceded President Washington’s resignation as Commander-in-Chief in 1783, but he presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1789, and called for neutrality in the French Revolution (1789). The Bill of Rights (1791) was initiated only eight years before his death.

In the 1960s, many other nations began celebrating their independence from modern colonial powers: chiefly from Britain, France, Belgium, and Spain. The British Gold Coast became Ghana and the first president was called Osagyefo (“He who is responsible for the victory”-- in this case, without armed conflict). New African nations followed the same path, but we hear more about the failures than the successes, possibly based on the old dictum about the media that “If it bleeds, it leads.” At the moment of this writing, two nations in what we call the “Global South” are experiencing the results of successful revolutions against tyrannies whose heroic leaders morphed into new tyrannies that are being challenged.

Zimbabwe (formerly Britain’s Southern Rhodesia) had been a demographic microcosm of South Africa (a white ruling minority and black majority) that underwent a fifteen-year guerrilla war led by Robert Mugabe. His victory was one of many reasons why South Africa chose compromise with Nelson Mandela rather than armed warfare. Zimbabwe’s elections (contested by some) were held in 1980 and Mugabe became the “George Washington/Osagyefo” who won against Ndabaningi Sithole (whose later US tour included Austin College). This history is complex including ethnic rivalries and intervention by western interests, by North Korea and by others. The point is that President Mugabe centralized his power and maintained control for thirty-seven years. He was ousted by the military in late 2017. Although not a candidate, his presence is considerable in the elections now under way in late July/early August, 2018.

The first time a US president acted on his own to depose a foreign leader (Jose Santos Zelaya) was in Nicaragua in 1909. More recently, Nicaragua had been tightly controlled by Anastasio Somoza Garcia (1896-1956), a wealthy coffee farmer who formed a dictating oligarchy, supported by many interests, especially in the USA. The Somosa family power was overthrown by the Sandinistas under the leadership of Daniel Ortega in the late 1970s, President Ortega then was a “Washington/Osagyefo” figure  admired by his followers, but not by the USA. Nicaragua became another proxy battlefield in the “Cold War” and, as in most wars, the women and children suffered the most. Many fled to the USA for survival. At the time of this op-ed, the country is in turmoil with those who once supported Mr. Ortega, now opposing him in what is becoming almost as violent as previous struggles. The Roman Catholic Church, which was once seen as cautiously tolerating conservatives, is now showing compassion and support for the newly oppressed.

What may have saved George Washington from becoming a king was fidelity to our founding documents that were based on the presumption that without legally recognized restraints and balances of power, even democracies can be taken over by those who want power and the means to increase it. Smaller/weaker nations with the best of constitutions still have to deal with outside rivalries and interventions. Frederick Nietzsche (1844-1900) warned more than a century ago: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process, he does not become a monster…if you gaze into an abyss, the abyss gazes back at you.”

Henry H. Bucher, Jr., Ph.D.
Associate Professor Emeritus of Humanities
Austin College | Humanities