The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington

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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.

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5 Comments

  • Good review. I thought it was well researched and well written. I agree the breathless tone of the conspiracy was a bit jarring, as were the short chapters, but that the detail of the ordinary conspirators was very good, and I enjoyed the detail on William Tryon too. It is an interesting collaboration. The respected historian Barnet Schechter (author of Battle of New York) and Josh Mensch did excellent research, while it appears Josh wrote the first draft and Brad Meltzer put his novelist’s flair on it. I think it works. However, as with many Rev War books these days about narrow topics, the narrative covers a lot of ground–in this case from June 1775 to June 1776. Given the amazing marketing machine Brad has (Bill Clinton put in a squib on the back of the book!), it will be interesting to see how well it does in sales.

    I attended a book lecture by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch at the great Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, DC. It was taped by C-SPAN and I asked the first question. Here is how my exchange went with him (not word-for-word).

    Me: How do you know that the plot was to kill Washington and not to kidnap him? Full disclosure: In your footnotes, you cite my book, Abductions in the American Revolution, for the proposition that some authors believe the plot was probably a kidnapping one. I myself admit it is not clear one way or another. But I do note that the title of your book says “to kill” and that it is marketed as such.

    Brad: It is a good question. We considered the matter closely. We concede in the book that it is not certain whether the plot was to assassinate or to kidnap. The original manuscript title was “The Plot Against Washington”, but our publisher said, “can’t we say to kill?” In our view, the two were not that different. If he had been kidnapped, he would no longer have been the commander of the Continental Army. And, as we say in the book, if he had been captured, as the highest ranking “rebel,” he likely would have been hanged. So based on that, we were comfortable using “to kill” in the book’s title.

    Me: I will say that in my quick review of the book I found the discussion of the particular issue in the text very balanced. And I think it is a good point that he may have been hanged, and wish I would have thought of it myself.

    [End of questions]

    I would add that my book covers more than 30 abductions plots. The Manhattan 1776 plot was the only one that some said intended an assassination. So given those odds, I concluded kidnapping was more likely. But who knows?

    Another interesting point. My favorite kidnapping attempt in my Abductions book (and which was a cover article in a MHQ magazine edition) was the attempt to kidnap Washington when he was at Morristown in 1780. Lieutenant John Graves Simcoe thought of the idea (he is the same guy on the TURN cable TV show that is shown to be a nut case, but he was anything but). I wrote “Simcoe decided he would not kill Washington, but he worried how he could prevent the death of the American commander-in-chief should he ‘personally resist.”’ The point here is that during a kidnapping attempt, anything could have happened—maybe Washington would have resisted and he would have been killed. Anyway, more food for thought.

    • Christian,

      I enjoyed reading your review of Melzer’s work, as well as noting that both of you were nice enough to cite my 2014 JAR article as a source: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/07/plotting-the-sacricide-of-george-washington/

      I did not do near the amount of research that you and Melzer did (logistics interfered), but am glad to see that my effort did not differ much from what was in the two books.

      While I am not sure that capturing Washington would have necessarily meant his execution, it is interesting to consider.

      • Yes, Gary, you did a nice job on your article and I felt compelled to cite it. (Sorry for the late reply). I am always amazed at the number of times that after I have chosen a topic to write about, it is covered in the Journal of the American Revolution! Thanks for the tidbit on Wethersfield. I have a good spy story with Webb as the lead in my Spies in Revolutionary Rhode Island book. Let’s just say he beat the Culper Spy Ring in Long Island to the punch.

  • I too have written about this period in “Black Sam” Fraunces. I found in my research that there was a plot involving poisoned peas that occurred at Fraunces Tavern on 21 June.
    The petitions of Mary Smith, Washington’s Loyalist housekeeper at Mortier House, and her niece, Lorenda, to the UK Loyalist Reperations committee, specify that Mary was accused of providing the arsenic put into the peas. Both fled to England. Mary Smith’s petitions to the crown were supported by letters from Gov. Tryon, Mayor Dave Mathews, and other prominent military men, not the civilian support letters normally provided.
    According to Lorenda’s testimony, there was a plot with arsenic in peas. Mary, her son, Lorenda and 3 slaves were expelled from Mortier House after midnight, following severe questioning by Washington himself. Both were known spies for the British.
    Hickey could not have put poison in the peas as he was in jail at the time. Drummer Green was accused by several contemporary letter writers on Washington’s staff of being the person who was to have stabbed the General, so I think it is safe to say the plot had murderous intent. All this is backed up by original sources from American and British archives.

  • In an amazing coincidence, Sgt. Thomas Hickey and Colonel Samuel Webb (who had just become aide to GW) were both from Wethersfield, CT, so was Maj. Tallmadge at the time ( he lived there when not in the field between 1773-1782). Webb was wounded three times during the Revolution, and he would, in another amazing coincidence, hold the Bible for Washington in the very city where Washington almost lost his life.
    Great review, Kelly, and a fine reply, Christian!

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