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The plot to kill George Washington

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February 15th, 2019
George Washington gives his final orders at Yorktown (1781), the siege that largely settled the Revolutionary conflict. Had conspirators succeeded in killing Washington four years earlier, history might have been very different.

George Washington gives his final orders at Yorktown (1781), the siege that largely settled the Revolutionary conflict. Had conspirators succeeded in killing Washington four years earlier, history might have been very different.

We take it for granted today. From 1775 to 1783, the American colonists fought a war for independence against the mighty British empire and won; everyone knows that.

Yet, we often forget that, at the time, this was by no means an easy win. On the contrary, it was a massive gamble.

Think about it.

Anyone who signed the Declaration of Independence might as well have been signing his own death warrant if the colonists lost the war (which was distinctly possible). What’s more, the first several years’ worth of battlefield engagements were dramatically in favor of the Redcoats.

On top of that, the man leading the fledgling Continental Army that was doing the fighting—George Washington—possessed barely enough experience to amount to a staff officer in the British ranks.

And in spite of everything that stood against them, the Americans prevailed.

But what if somebody told you that the Revolution almost ended before it started because of a clandestine plan to murder George Washington? Amazingly, it’s not the stuff of fiction.

It’s the subject of Brad Meltzer’s latest book The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington (Flatiron Books, 2018). Meltzer, who has made his name as a New York Times best-selling novelist, in trying his hand at nonfiction, tells the story of how the whole scheme unfolded, who was involved, and what it could have meant to the fate of an entire continent.

“Nearly a decade ago, I found this story where so many good stories hide—in the footnotes,” Meltzer recalls. “I remember learning about this and thinking to myself: ‘A secret plot against George Washington? Is that real?’”

As history would have it, the British managed to infiltrate George Washington’s inner-most circle, a unit of handpicked, highly trained soldiers tasked with protecting the patriots’ highest commander.

Called the Life Guards, this group of roughly 50 men was with Washington at all times—when he traveled, when he worked at his headquarters, and when he slept.

Bribes and safe houses

However, through a network of willing British loyalists led by William Tryon, the royal governor of New York, bribes and safe houses transformed the island of Manhattan into a den of traitors bent on quashing the Revolution by eliminating Washington himself. Remarkably, no one had ever written a complete book on the subject, and probably with good reason.

As far as nonfiction projects are concerned, this one was a huge challenge.

Meltzer began by contacting Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis, author of His Excellency: George Washington (Vintage, 2005). Surely, he would know something about the plot.

And as it turned out, he did. There was a catch, though.

“I’ll never forget what he told me,” says Meltzer. “He pointed out that I was dealing with a story about spies, a plot to kidnap and maybe even kill the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, and the secret investigation to foil the plot.

“They would have gone out of their way to limit the paper trail, which is bad news for a writer.”

To put it another way, Ellis reminded Meltzer that it’s easier to find the number of slaves George Washington owned than it is the number of spies he or the British had working for them.

By its very nature, the story is materially elusive, but Meltzer pulled it off.

Putting the pieces together

Teaming up with fellow writer Josh Mensch, he tracked down a host of long-forgotten pension records, private correspondence, and the transcripts of secret trials, each of them pieces in an intricate puzzle. The final picture is sprawling and depicts the birth of American counterintelligence, the fragility of the Revolutionary War effort, and, most important, the humanity of otherwise stoic leaders like George Washington.

“Key members of this plot were men Washington had personally chosen to protect him, so to learn that they’d betrayed him was really devastating,” explains Meltzer. “It was psychologically jarring.

“It affected his ability to fully trust even those closest to him, which is an important detail because it shows us that a guy as larger-than-life as George Washington had fears and insecurities; he lost sleep at night too.”

In many ways, this is what makes truth more powerful than fiction.

Hundreds of years later, we tend to see characters such as Washington not for their flesh and blood or hearts and souls. Instead, we see pasty, stolid faces on paper money or figures rigidly posed in paintings.

This story of the little-known conspiracy against the very man who embodied the Revolutionary cause rams home the risk and sacrifice that almost always accompany greatness.

Fortunately, those loyal to Washington foiled the plan and hanged the guiltiest Life Guard as an example. In fact, it was the largest public execution in North American history, with some 20,000 people watching.

With this story, though, the end result is not the hook. It’s how the series of events unfolds.

“So much hinged on foiling this plot,” says Meltzer. “I hope, in reading this book, people will realize how close history came to taking a very different course.”

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