Here’s a shocking historical “what if” — an American president on trial for treason.
No, it’s not what you think.
As richly imagined by Charles Rosenberg in “The Trial and Execution of the Traitor George Washington” (Hanover Square Press), the president is none other than the father of our country, and the country that regards him as a traitor is Great Britain under King George III. Starting with a kernel of historical fact — the British sought to assassinate Washington when he was a general during the War of Independence — Rosenberg plays out a great game of historical speculation.
Rosenberg, a Los Angeles lawyer himself, brought verisimilitude as a technical consultant for “L.A. Law” and other television shows set in the legal world. He has demonstrated his own chops as a storyteller in a series of legal thrillers that started with “Death on a High Floor.” His latest book is a legal thriller, too, although it is firmly rooted in the Colonial era.
The unlikely hero of the tale, set in1780, is a British special agent named Jeremiah Black, who is assigned to carry out the surreptitious extradition of Washington, the commander in chief of the Continental Army and the man whom King George regards as the “supreme traitor.” Black is a soldier with a steely sense of duty, and when a Loyalist in America insists that “[a] trial in London of Washington will do us no good here,” Black stands up for due process of law: “[The] King wants to see him tried — and watch him suffer a traitor’s death.”
Then, too, Rosenberg gives us a mirror image of American history as seen through the eyes of Americans who remain loyal to the British crown. “[While] this Revolution was once about liberty, and garnered my support, it no longer is,” says another supporter of the British cause. “It has become instead a Revolution for merchants, bankers and planters. Not to mention France. We who love liberty will in the long run be better off staying with our king.”
Rosenberg shows us that Americans were hardly of one mind when it came to the American Revolution. “There are spies everywhere in this war,” says Mary Stevens, an activist among the Loyalists. “On both sides, and sometimes on both sides at the same time.”
The moment when Black finally comes face to face with Washington is a shocker, if only because Washington is so rarely depicted as a flesh-and-blood human being rather than a bronze statue. “I am sent by your king, with a warrant for your arrest on a charge of high treason,” declares Black. “He is not my king,” retorts Washington. “Sir, if I must die in the defence of my country, my life will be forfeit in a noble cause, for this great nation will be independent of England, with or without me.” And then the kidnappers put an end to his speech by gagging George Washington and marching “the most famous man in the world out the back door and into the night.”
Black and his prisoner embark on the voyage back to England, which is the occasion for danger and derring-do, but also an opportunity for Washington and his British captors to take the measure of one another. The captain of the ship boldly proposes a toast “To the King!” Washington demurs with a humorous toast of his own: “To our wives and sweethearts, may they never meet!” But Rosenberg is quick to acquit Washington of moral failings: “I have a most loyal and wonderful wife,” Washington is made to say, “and no sweetheart at all.”
When Washington finally arrives in London and finds himself a prisoner in the Tower of London, Rosenberg’s novel is transformed into a legal thriller. The king wants to know only “how long it will take before we can watch him swing.” Or, the king proposes, shall we send him to the block and display his severed head on a spike on London Bridge? But Lord North, the First Minister, shares Black’s preference for the workings of justice. “Sire, it will take some time,” he says to the king. “It is important to make the process look fair. All the world will be watching.” And North goes so far as to point out that Washington might be acquitted.
Then, too, the trial of George Washington is seen by some of the characters as a mere ploy, one designed to compel the American rebels to surrender in exchange for the life of the Founding Father. But if the ploy fails and Washington is convicted of treason, the mandatory sentence is death by hanging. As Rosenberg points out, the prisoner is “cut down and disemboweled before [he] is actually dead. And then the body is quartered, and the head removed.” These body parts, we are told, are distributed at the king’s whim.
“He will likely give one to the French king,” says Edmund Burke, another historical figure who shows up in the book as Washington’s defense counsel, “[and] save one each for Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams.”
The inevitable issue in any historical novel is the fact that we already know how things really turned out. Still, Rosenberg succeeds in rewriting the history of the American Revolution with great flair, conviction and plausibility. For exactly that reason, I cannot reveal how the imaginary trial ends and what fate befalls the alternate version of Washington and the country he serves. That is the greatest praise I can bestow on “The Trial and Execution of the Traitor George Washington” — it’s a work of historical speculation so ingenious and so surprising that it requires a spoiler alert.
Jonathan Kirsch, attorney and author, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.