The year was 1786, and America was in trouble. During the precarious months preceding the Constitutional Convention, Nathaniel Gorham, the former President of the Continental Congress, secretly concocted his own plan to save the fragile, new nation: He invited Prince Henry of Prussia to rule the United States as its king.
A Troubled Start
In the three years after the end of the American Revolution, a monetary crisis had paralyzed the country. With very little currency in circulation, the crisis had left many—including the unpaid veterans of the war—struggling to repay the enormous debts they owed to merchants who had sold them goods on credit.
The trouble came to a head when former army captain Daniel Shays led a violent revolt against the collection of those debts. Though the revolt was dispersed, it exposed the frailty of the then-current government and prompted George Washington to remark that if the government were “unable to enforce its laws ... anarchy and confusion must prevail.”
The young country’s leaders took a hard look at the system they had devised under the Articles of Confederation. Some questioned whether the government should even be a republic at all. After discussing the matter, it was decided that Gorham would extend an unusual offer to Prince Henry of Prussia. Henry was the younger brother of Frederick the Great, then the King of Prussia, and the prince had proven himself an able and enlightened leader.
As Richard Hurowitz’s writes in Time, the idea to offer a kingship to the prince would have likely come from General Friedrich von Steuben (of Valley Forge fame), who during this period had been a friend of both the Founders and the prince. He had also played a significant role in organizing the Continental Army during the Revolution, and as such was familiar with the malleable workings—and shortcomings—of the new republic. It’s not unlikely that the Founders would have listened to his advice and trusted him to negotiate such a delicate appeal.
The plot never transpired; Prince Henry of Prussia never became King Henry of America. And had it not been for 19th-century Massachusetts politician Rufus King, the plan may have been forgotten entirely.
The Plot, Revealed
The idea of inviting a king to rule a country that had recently gained independence from a monarchy would not have sat well with those who fought for the republic. As Rufus King wrote, "the Americans had shown so much determination [against] their old King, that they [would] not readily submit to a new one."
King related the shocking allegation in 1824, though rumors of the plot had circulated for years prior. However, a later biography of General von Steuben appeared to back up the claim. It alleged that because the national crises at the time were so distressing, several of the Founders had indeed floated the idea of inviting Prince Henry to the United States to serve as the country’s monarch.
Yet despite the claims made by King and von Steuben, details of the plot existed as dubious hearsay. That is, until the early twentieth century, when Prince Henry’s supposed response to the invitation was discovered in Germany, lending credence to the extraordinary charge.
The Republic Prevails
In the letter addressed to General von Steuben, the prince expressed shock at a "proposed fundamental change" to the government of the United States. Though Henry’s language is vague—lest the letter be intercepted—the mention of a cipher to continue the conversation reveals a matter of unusually extreme confidentiality.
The clandestine nature of the correspondence persists today. Much of the plot remains shrouded in mystery, including its extent. Writing in Time, Richard Hurowitz speculates that beyond Nathaniel Gorham and General von Steuben, the Founders who were warm to the idea of a strong leader appointed for life, such as Alexander Hamilton, could very well have been involved.
Gorham’s actual invitation to the prince, thought to have been in the possession of General William Hull of Massachusetts, is for now lost to history. What we can take away from this episode, however, is not that some Founders were inherently anti-democratic, but that when they embarked on “The Great Experiment,” it was exactly that: an experiment, with all its suggestions and proposals—some made out of an understandable desperation.