Westside lawyer Charles Rosenberg discusses his alternate American history novel at Diesel on Sunday
By Bliss Bowen
George Washington has endured as an inspirational American more than most past presidents, even when stripped of the myths that have shrouded him since his 1799 death. From a 21st-century vantage point, he seems as principled as he was pragmatic, particularly when compared to less self-disciplined Founding Fathers like Benjamin Franklin who were more attuned to the deal-making side of politics. Washington “did make money in land speculation from the placement of the Capitol,” lawyer and author Charles Rosenberg notes with a chuckle, but he says that practice was not unusual or considered corrupt at that time.
“Washington holds up as a fantastic figure,” says Rosenberg, an adjunct professor at Loyola who practices law on the Westside and studied history at Ohio’s Antioch College. “He not only won the American Revolution, he then presided over the Constitutional Convention; most people think had he not been there, that wouldn’t have succeeded. Then he was the first president of the United States and set the terms of the office, basically.”
Rosenberg’s amply researched novel, “The Trial and Execution of the Traitor George Washington,” which opens in late 1780, imagines an alternate history — one in which the British kidnap the Continental Army’s imposing leader, and the anticipated loss of rebel morale is considered a leveraging weapon.
Rosenberg started brainstorming after reading a (probably false) account claiming the British convinced a member of Washington’s personal guard to kidnap him. (Said guard was executed — for counterfeiting.) He says he was drawn to Washington’s character and leadership, and the amazing scale of what the Founding Fathers accomplished: “They defeated the greatest military power at the time — or at least one of two, the other being France — and they put in its place a constitution with a republic. There were no other large republics at the time.”
Within the framework of Rosenberg’s historical rewrite, Washington emerges as a self-aware leader whose emotional life is masked by his stoicism — an insistence on military bearing and propriety that stokes the twisty plot. It gives nothing away to say it considers what the legal, moral and political ramifications of such an act of guerilla warfare might have been, on both sides of the Atlantic, or that characters observe how people sharing language, customs, and even blood relations can be divided by a point of principle.
Many British citizens supported the colonial cause, a fact woven into the plot via “arguments and subarguments and sub-subarguments” that characterized the Revolutionary era’s “very intense politics,” which Rosenberg says generally go unheeded by people who pay only cursory attention to history.
“Colonists complained there was taxation without representation; that was also true of Englishmen and women,” Rosenberg explains. “Women of course didn’t have the vote, but men who weren’t landed also didn’t have the vote. …
“The American Revolution was England’s Vietnam. They were fighting a war 3,000 miles away, at the end of a very long supply line, it was costing them a fortune, it was bankrupting their treasury, and they had a lot of dead — more than 10,000 British soldiers died in North America in that war. There were lots of people in Parliament who would have easily granted Americans the right to independence in the sense of ‘make your own laws, pass your own taxes.’ But even they wanted Americans to acknowledge the sovereignty of Parliament.”
The mercurial King George III, keen to hang the “traitor” Washington, demands to know why Britain should recognize the Continental Army “as anything other than a band of rebels, who are not subject to the laws of war?” Lord North — a reluctant First Minister Rosenberg describes as a real-life “depressive” — delicately offers an answer recalling recent US debates: “We want our own soldiers treated fairly. If we ignore the laws of war, the rebels may have excuse to do so, too.”
Before publishing his first novel, 2014’s “Death on a High Floor,” Rosenberg worked as a TV script consultant in the 1980s and early ’90s for “Paper Chase,” “LA Law,” “The Practice” and “Boston Legal” — an experience that perhaps informed his grasp of story structure and dialogue. “The Trial and Execution of the Traitor George Washington,” his fifth novel, is a briskly paced, entertaining read, particularly if you don’t mind lesser characters introducing the story, and you do have a taste for historical fiction and an interest in the mechanics of democracy. (It is decidedly not a bodice-ripper, so anyone anticipating “Fifty Shades of Grey” in corsets and tricorns should look elsewhere.) Benedict Arnold and Continental Congress President Samuel Huntington make colorful appearances. Low-key humor’s mined from foppish men’s fashion of the day, and from coffee-drinking Americans refusing tea in London. The ever-present threat of spies and the lack of reliable information escalate tension, while reminding how little some political realities have changed. British newspapers committed to advocacy over objectivity require fictional peglegged lawyer Ethan Abbott to read several a day to stay abreast of current events — a situation modern readers who peruse, say, the Guardian as well as the Wall Street Journal may wryly recognize.
The alternate history conceit enables Rosenberg to mull over provocative questions. (He’s currently writing one set in 1860, “The Day Abraham Lincoln Lost the Election,” which finds parallels between the bitter, abolition-minded politics of the 1850s and contemporary times.) But unlike academic treatises, a novel needs a dramatic hook. He found one upon learning that, in 1778, the British sent a commission to the colonies to try to “settle the Revolution.” Colonial diplomats, on the verge of formalizing an alliance with France, sent them packing.
“That’s what makes the novel take off, because the British have a reason to kidnap Washington: to use him as a bargaining chip … to get a peaceful resolution of the revolution. That was the idea I really ran with.”
Charles Rosenberg discusses and signs “The Trial and Execution of the Traitor George Washington” at 3 p.m. Sunday (July 29) at Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood Country Mart, 225 26th St., Santa Monica. Free admission. Call (310) 576-9960 or visit dieselbookstore.com.