The Room Where America Was Born Is Reborn

This 1883 engraving by Henry Alexander Ogden depicts (100 years after the fact) Washington's farewell address to his troops in 1783, in the Long Room at Fraunces Tavern.

This 1883 engraving by Henry Alexander Ogden depicts (100 years after the fact) Washington’s farewell address to his troops in 1783, in the Long Room at Fraunces Tavern.

If America has a birthing room, the most common claim to that title would be asserted by Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were adopted. But a more interesting plea for recognition could be made on behalf of a large, upstairs parlor in a building at Pearl and Broad Streets, in Lower Manhattan. Because in that chamber, known as the Long Room, a gathering held in 1783 averted a turn of events that would have made the Declaration irrelevant and the Constitution impossible.

It was in this salon, part of Fraunces Tavern, that George Washingtondashed the last hopes of those who longed for him to consent to be made king of America. Eight months earlier, the Newburgh Conspiracy had sought to organize a coup against the elected Continental Congress, and place the Army, which was in the last stages of winning the Revolutionary War, in control of the newly independent nation’s government. The plan was for its officer corps to be transformed into a new, hereditary nobility, complete with land grants and aristocratic titles. But a nobility is pointless without a monarch at its apex.

So a Brigadier General named Lewis Nicola wrote to Washington, arguing that, “some people have so connected the ideas of tyranny & monarchy as to find it very difficult to seperate 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 arguments might be produced for admitting the title of king, which I conceive would be attended with some material advantages.” It was clear that Nicola and his supporters intended for Washington to be that king.

The Fraunces Tavern Museum, at Pearl and Broad Streets

He went on to urge Washington to keep this offer a secret: “Republican bigots will certainly consider my opinions as heterodox, and the maintainer thereof as meriting fire & faggots,” in a reference to the piles of kindling used to burn traitors at the stake. “I have therefore hitherto kept them within my own breast. By freely communicating them to your Excellency, I am persuaded I run no risk, & that, tho disapproved of, I need not apprehend their ever being disclosed to my prejudice.”

Washington wrote back to Nicola, “no occurrence in the course of the War has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the Army as you have expressed, and I must view with abhorrence, and reprehend with severety,” adding that, “you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable.” He concluded, “if you have any regard for your Country, concern for yourself or posterity, or respect for me… banish these thoughts from your Mind, and never communicate… a sentiment of the like Nature.”

Even after the Newburgh Conspiracy withered, some officers still hoped that Washington would agree to become king. This longing came to a head on December 4, when the commander met with his senior officers over a “turtle feast,” to bid them farewell before retiring to his Virginia farm. More than a few among the dozens gathered in the Long Room at Fraunces Tavern that night continued to harbor the lingering wish that he would yet acquiescence to something resembling the Newburgh Conspiracy.

Instead, Washington told them, “with a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.” He was indeed returning to his farm, and the United States would never have a king, or a class of hereditary nobility. This poignance of the moment is underscored by the fact that Washington wept as he spoke, marking one of the few times in a notoriously reserved officer’s life that he was known to have displayed any emotion whatsoever in public.

The Long Room today, newly restored and enhanced by the staff of the Fraunces Tavern Museum

The gallery where this took place is an unacknowledged shrine of American liberty. But the Long Room at Fraunces Tavern may finally be ready for its closeup. Last Friday, the Fraunces Tavern Museum reopened the space, after completing a months-long renovation and enhancement project.

Visitors are now guided around the chamber by a new “reader rail,” designed to blend harmoniously with the architecture of the existing room. The rail also features updated labels that recount the Tavern’s extraordinary history, and interactive components that bring to life the sounds and smells of an 18th century tavern. Spice jars mounted on the rail allow visitors to smell condiments such as nutmeg and cardamom, commonly used in 18th century cooking and baking, and visitors can even “hear” Washington bid his officers farewell by pressing a button and listening to a voice recording that excerpts his farewell address through a concealed speaker.

Fraunces Tavern is located at 54 Pearl Street (near the corner of Pearl Street), in the Financial District. For more information, please call 212-425-1778, or browse: www.frauncestavernmuseum.org.

Matthew Fenton

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *