“The Trial and Execution of the Traitor George Washington” by Charles Rosenberg is a great Fourth of July novel. Anyone who feels a sense of patriotism will want to read this gripping story about America’s General, George Washington. The suspense ratchets up as readers wonder what will happen to one of America’s greatest heroes.
This thought-provoking alternative history book takes place in the midst of the American Revolution. An English plot to kidnap Gen. George Washington brings him overseas to England and puts him on trial as a traitor. But some, like British Prime Minister Frederick North, want to use him as a bargaining chip to put an end to a very costly war.
British special agent Col. Jeremiah Black, an officer of the King’s Guard, is assigned the task of landing on a deserted beach in late November 1780. Aided by “Loyalist” Americans, he is able to sprint Washington aboard the HMS Peregrine. Upon their arrival, Washington is imprisoned in the Tower of London to await trial on charges of high treason.
Although Washington is more of a secondary character, throughout the novel his presence looms significantly. Key characters include the American ambassador, Ethan Abbott, sent to negotiate Washington’s release, the British Prime Minister Lord North, and the defense attorney chosen to defend Washington, Abraham Hobhouse, an American-born barrister with an English wife.
An added highlight has all the characters’ debating key issues of the time. Rosenberg does this with a great writing style where readers do not feel as if they are being hit over the head with a history lesson.
This alternative history is informative and interesting, within a gripping novel. Part adventure story, part spy novel, and part courtroom drama it has many twists. This what-if plot has an intriguing storyline.
Elise Cooper: Why write this alternative history?
Charles Rosenberg: Fifteen years ago, I read about a British attempt to kidnap George Washington, in 1776. I thought at the time that would make for an interesting novel. Several years later, I read about the Carlisle Commission that wanted to negotiate a peace settlement. I knew I had a premise where the British would kidnap Washington to use as a bargaining chip. I also read the diary of an American, Henry Laurens, a president of the Continental Congress, who was captured by the British and imprisoned in the Tower of London. To some extent, I drew from what he wrote.
EC: Washington was more of a secondary character?
CR: He is definitely not the protagonist of the novel, but is more of a topic in it. I realized that the first third of the book, where the planning and capture of the general happens, would have him not commenting at all. For the second part, where he is on the ship, he is a prisoner, who is basically helpless. This means that he would not have a lot to say.
EC: Was it also because you would have to be very careful to cross the t’s and dot the i’s?
CR: Yes. Various people would have objected and commented that Washington would not have thought that or done this. I tried to present him as his contemporaries described him.
There were not a lot of personal writings since Martha Washington burned his letters after he died. This made it hard to get a lot of material. However, I did read his speeches and hope that I came close to the way he would have said things when I did quote him.
EC: You have Washington drawing a red line in the sand, no agreement unless full independence?
CR: This was his position. This is why I put in the book quotes, “If it will secure the independence of my country, they may put my head where they please,” including on pikes, and “You may not apologize, say, suggest, or hint that I am sorry for my actions, or that I desire any compromise. It is either full independence or fight them in the swamps and forests for however long as it might take.”
I found in my research that Washington rejected all the overtures the British made. The 1778 Carlisle Commission that tried to negotiate reunification was sent away.
EC: Do you consider Washington a hero?
CR: I have a lot of respect for him. After finishing the research it became very clear he was the Father of our country. He led the military to victory and as our first president was in charge of how the government would be formulated. Many thought he would be like Napoleon. I put in the historical notes how the British King George III said if Washington returns to his farm, “he will be the greatest man in the world.” Think about it, Washington gave up power twice, as leader of the military and as leader of this country. He had tremendous accomplishments.
EC: You also include Benedict Arnold?
CR: His name still conjures up bad connotations. I ran with the feeling that he is a traitor who had very little loyalty to anyone. He did take a reduction in rank when he moved to the British side, which is mentioned during the scenes of the cross-examination.
I found a document called “The General Orders of The Army” and one particular one said the name of Benedict Arnold should be struck from the United States Army, basically writing him out of history. I also wanted to show Washington’s disdain for him, which is why I put in the book, his “face was red and his lips were compressed in a hard line. It was perhaps a good thing that the General was being guarded by soldiers. The look on his face suggested he might otherwise leap out of his dock and throttle the witness with his bare hands.”
EC: Washington seemed to straddle the fine line about the king. Consider these quotes, “My effort was and is to defeat the British Army. I have never thought the King was truly our personal enemy,” and “He is perhaps your sovereign, but he is no longer mine. He has forfeited the right.”
CR: This is in itself an interesting topic. If the colonists were going to achieve independence they have to undue the sovereignty to which they pledged. They attacked the King in the Declaration of Independence.
This really upset George III because he considered himself a Constitutional Monarch who had to support the laws passed by Parliament. The core of the colonists’ dispute was their feeling that they had no say in the English government’s policies. But that was also true of many Englishmen who did not have the right to vote unless they were landowners. Parliament kept responding that they always take everyone’s interest at heart when deciding laws, but the colonists did not have any representation regarding what was done to them.
Eventually, North was willing to acquiesce to independence, but not in writing. This was unacceptable to Washington and others because what Parliament gave could be taken away and then the colonists would have no recourse.
EC: You also examine how the “rules of war” impact the issue: Are the US colonies in rebellion and therefore subject to charges of treason, or are they a separate country; thus, Washington should be treated as a prisoner of war?
CR: These were actual arguments at the time. Washington would argue he was a prisoner of war, and that under the laws of war, he must be released at the end of hostilities or exchanged for another prisoner. The debate: were the colonists a legitimate authority or rebels, as the King proclaimed in 1775, in a state of rebellion? Although, there were actually exchanges of prisoners. In 1781 Henry Laurens was swapped for the British General Lord Cornwallis who was famous for losing the Battle of Yorktown. I think given the chance George III would have wanted Washington executed.
EC: How would you describe Ethan Abbott?
CR: A retired soldier who was a real Patriot. He answers the call of his country.
EC: What do you want the readers to get out of the story?
CR: An entertaining story. But also, to learn about the Revolution as an event that centered on real politics. I hope they get into the details on how America’s Independence became such a great triumph.
EC: Your next books?
CR: I am thinking of possibly writing a novella on what happened to Ethan Abbott or Mary Smith, the Loyalist who helped in the capture of Washington. My next novel, possibly out in 2019, has a working title, “The Day Lincoln Lost the Election,” about the election of 1860.