Historical work details plot to kill Washington

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Book Reviewer

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Set in the critical months before George Washington is given command of the Continental Army and before British troops arrived in the colonies to put down their rebellion, this fascinating true story was a long-overlooked footnote.

In “The First Conspiracy” (Flatiron Books; $29.99) author Brad Meltzer notes that this, his first non-fiction book, started with a footnote in a book about a plot to kill Washington. He started with skepticism, but he found small mentions in many scholarly works.

He reached out to Pulitzer-winning historian, Joseph J. Ellis, who warned him how difficult the project would be. This was a story about espionage — a secret plot — and the secret investigation to stop the scheme. For everyone involved, including Washington’s inner circle, the purpose was to insure that there was no record of their actions. With the help of his collaborator Josh Mensch, readers meet some complex characters and examine how they deal with political and social matters.

It is May 10,1775, and the occasion is the meeting of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia to debate the possibility of war with England. The future is uncertain: Is it time for the colonies to mobilize and raise arms? Organizing all the logistical effort to get the delegates to Philadelphia by horseback, the trip could take weeks for some, not counting delays for weather or being lost in swamps or dense vegetation. The delegates had to leave behind businesses, farms, offices and families — some for months — and some like Samuel Adams had to escape through enemy lines.

During the First Continental Congress, Washington was barely noticed in his civilian clothes. But now much had changed. Last time, the idea of independence from England had merely been a subject of political theory. Now Congress realized they had to find a way to form a national army — a Continental Army. And once you have an army, you need someone to lead it.

As the delegates in Philadelphia debate the political questions, they still need an immediate plan to coordinate the scattered militias into a fighting force to confront the British. John Adams calls a session to formalize the creation of a Continental Army, and when John Adams stands before the Congress and announces Washington was unanimously named, Washington doesn’t learn of his appoint until later that night when he runs into a few congressmen on the street.

When the action moved from Boston to New York, in Washington’s mind the greatest danger in the city is from the British army. But what he doesn’t realize is that his real danger may be aboard a ship in New York Harbor. For one thing, there is the governor, William Tryon, and that New York City was full of Loyalists secretly and not so secretly plotting against the Continental army. Loyalists destroyed 300 cannons and secretly stashed firearms with plans to start an uprising.

Washington sent Gen. Charles Lee on a mission to fortify the city militarily and to attempt to neutralize Tryon’s activities. That doesn’t happen. Across the board there were mishaps and gaffs that helped the enemy. British warships encircle Manhattan and Washington’s troops are forced to retreat as British troops capture New York City. They will occupy it for seven years. Luckily, Washington and his men escaped capture and will fight on.

Meanwhile in Philadelphia, after a few days of revisions the Declaration of Independence is put to a vote and the ayes have it. Now Washington’s is fighting a War of Independence — an American Revolution.

Brad Meltzer is the author of a dozen New York Times bestselling works of fiction. He is also host of PBS History Channel series Brad Meltzer’s Lost History. Josh Mensch is a writer and documentary TV producer who has written, directed and produced series for PBS, A&E, National Geographic and other networks. He is a graduate of Princeton and Columbia universities and lives in Brooklyn with his family.


An Excerpt

Although Washington carefully includes the names of his key enemies in the conspiracy — namely, Governor Tryon and Mayor Mathews — he declined to provide any details about the goals of the plot, and certainly avoids mention of the unspeakable detail that has begun to reach the public: that the plot may have included a plan to assassinate Washington himself.

He does, however, share with Hancock the most scandalous aspect of the plot, namely that some in his own ranks were party to it. This admission, of course, leads to the breaking news about the fate of his Life Guard, Thomas Hickey:

‘’The plot had been communicated to some of the army, and part of my Guard engaged in it — Thomas Hickey one of them, has been tried and by the unanimous opinion of a Court Martial is sentenced to die, having enlisted himself and engaged others — the sentence by the advice of the whole Council of General Officers will be put in execution today at Eleven O’Clock.”

Regarding the other conspirators currently in custody, Washington says only that “the others are not tried.”

Finally, he ends on a resolute note, explaining his swift administration of justice: “I am hopeful this example will produce many salutary consequences and deter others from entering into the like traitorous practices.”

The letter is written. Now comes the event itself.

By early morning , Generals Health, Stirling, Spencer, and Scott had called their brigades of soldiers to attention, at their respective encampments in Manhattan. At exactly ten o’clock, each general begins marching his brigade of soldiers northward, through the city streets, alleys, parks, and pathways, toward the agreed-upon location: an open field north of the city limits at the time, near present-day Grand and Chrystie Streets, east of the Bowery.

By roughly half past ten, the four brigades have reached the field and assembled under the morning’s overcast sky, a total of close to ten thousand soldiers, standing at attention, armed and in uniform. Not very often since the first formation of the Continental army one year ago have so many officers, soldiers, and army aides all gathered in one place.

But it’s not just soldiers who have gathered for this event. Starting the previous afternoon, once the time and place was set, word quickly spread about the unusual fate of one of George Washington’s soldiers. Whether from posted handbills or from the mouths of troops and officers, news of the scandal traveled through the entire region — and by morning every resident and citizen seemed to have learned about it.