The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch (Flatiron Books, 2019).
On June 28, 1776—only days before the Continental Congress voted in favor of the Declaration of Independence—a soldier named Thomas Hickey hanged in what was at the time the largest public execution in North America. Although myths and stories abound concerning the events leading up to this execution, very little is known about what actually happened. This intriguing but mysterious event prompted Brad Meltzer to team up with Josh Mensch to write his first work of nonfiction. In The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington, Meltzer attempts to uncover the details of a conspiracy that turned some of Washington’s most depended upon persons against him—perhaps to the extent of threatening Washington’s life.
Over the years, the plot has generated myths and fanciful stories of assassination attempts on George Washington. This book seeks to supplant rumors and myths with facts and examines the origins of a plot orchestrated by the loyalist governor of New York, William Tryon, its development, and its eventual reveal by Thomas Hickey. Hickey, one of Washington’s Life Guards, disclosed his involvement in a larger conspiracy while imprisoned on charges of counterfeiting money. Hickey planned to defect to the enemy’s side—one of the goals of Tryon’s plan—once the British invaded New York. Meltzer and Mensch contend that in addition to recruiting soldiers for the British, Tryon’s plot posed immediate danger to Washington’s life. Most of the narrative is framed around this event and pieces together scant evidence in attempt to demonstrate a palpable threat to George Washington’s life.
The central challenge to such an undertaking is that few reliable sources exist for this plot and the ones that do exist are especially elusive in regards to direct claims about an assassination plan. The authors utilize personal correspondence and official trial records in an effort to string this theory together, but the lack of evidence in the form of direct statements often leads to speculation. The official records from the trial do not contain any statements to the effect of assassination plans and scarce references that are interpreted as evidence of a conspiracy to kill are mostly conjectured as such. The research does bring forth some enlightening points and tells an interesting story, but readers should proceed with an awareness that the available evidence sometimes does not allow for more than speculation. While the argument tends toward conjecture, the authors do debunk a number of the most popularly known stories born of the plot, including the famously relayed plan to poison Washington’s peas. While the authors rightfully refute stories that have no evidence, the main issue in the quest for the truth is that it remains somewhat elusive despite meticulous research. While the absence of direct evidence is acknowledged and explanations which likely hold some merit are offered for the concealment of facts in the records, it is difficult to present factual information in the absence of direct evidence.
Stylistically, The First Conspiracy mimics a thriller, which makes sense considering the bulk of Meltzer’s career as a novelist. The book is composed of very short chapters—many only two pages in length—and the chapters are filled with sentences that are short, choppy, and dramatic. In an effort to create suspense, reading flow is sacrificed; readers may find it difficult to get into the narrative when the reading process is consistently interrupted. Furthermore, readers accustomed to nonfiction historical narratives may find the juxtaposition of manufactured suspense and historical events distracting.
Beyond these stylistic points, when placed within the grander scheme of recent scholarship on the Revolution, The First Conspiracy presents a somewhat simplified view of the conflict. While recent studies have demonstrated that the Revolution is actually much more complex than what has traditionally been taught or believed, this book presents a picture of absolutes—people are either for George Washington or for the Crown. There are places where loyalty and motivation could have been explored more deeply, such as in the introduction of the individuals involved in what was initially a counterfeit money plot that turned into the conspiratorial plot the book seeks to uncover. Even in the absence of hard evidence for the plot, the narrative could be considerably strengthened through a deeper exploration of social and economic factors that pushed individuals out of the bounds of ordinary life to become involved in nefarious activity. Additionally, much of the narrative related to Washington hinges on his reverence for honor and places him on a pedestal that feels hagiographic at times.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the book and what makes it the most interesting is not directly related to the conspiracy but manifests itself in revealing tidbits of everyday life of soldiers and citizens alike during this time period. Beyond the sometimes unnecessarily dramatic prose, Meltzer paints a vivid picture of Revolutionary-era New York. Meltzer also provides some interesting insights into the earliest development of intelligence and counterintelligence networks. Overall, this book is a fairly quick read that is worth checking out for those who are interested in spies and intelligence networks and speculating on the “what ifs” of our country’s history.