Jack Hitt is the co-host of the history podcast “Uncivil” and the author, most recently, of “Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character.”
Picture Gen. George Washington. Do you see him looking into the middle distance with a firm Rushmore stare? Or is he cutting that slightly judgmental side-eye on the one dollar bill? Is he standing? In a boat? Seated before a parchment? Now picture one of his most trusted soldiers stepping up behind him and shooting him in the head.
According to Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch’s book, “The First Conspiracy,” new historical evidence reveals that an assassination plot organized by British officials very nearly succeeded in eliminating Washington and, in all likelihood, ending the independence movement in its earliest days. The story unfolds in late 1775 and the first half of 1776, and one of the unexpected pleasures of digging into this story is learning just how conditional and feeble the early revolution was. Mistakes were made. A lot of them. Some by Washington himself.
Much of recent founding father scholarship has revealed the flaws and faults in the men who conjured this new idea of constitutional democracy. We know now that Washington was far from perfect. As a British officer in his youth, he tricked his own men out of the land awarded them after a victory. And although we know that he finally freed all the men and women whom he’d enslaved at Mount Vernon, he’d also sometimes carry out his threat to put them in his “pocket,” i.e. sell them off. And, from Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s book “Never Caught,” we know he pursued one young woman who’d escaped — Ona Judge — in a furious rage that consumed the last four years of his life. Still, it’s hard to think of Washington as a man who was vulnerable or in peril.
But the story of the conspiracy Meltzer and Mensch tell here begins when both Washington and the idea of a new nation were in remarkable danger. In fact, from the jump, America was a hot mess. There was no military leader for the emerging rebellion. So when George Washington sauntered into the Second Continental Congress in a homemade general’s uniform, everyone noticed.
Washington had been a captain in the British forces but that was decades before and so it was odd when he walked in, essentially in DIY military drag. But John Adams took note and thought, Ah, yes, you can play the commander. A vote was taken and Washington didn’t find out he was a general until a passing delegate on the street greeted him with a snappy salute.
Washington had a thing about appearances, and the presidential tradition of caring so deeply about public relations probably began during Washington’s military leadership. As the fighting started, he’d travel in a wagon with his troops but when they got to town, he’d hop on his steed and canter to the front of the line. He’d publish his orders sometimes in the local papers so that they nearly served as news releases.
Some of his early PR was just fabulous luck. After the colonial army encamped near modern day Wall Street to defend New York, some men were sidelined by disease, including the pox. But Washington stood tall while others retched. He’d already had the pox decades earlier and his immunity led to that early thinking that something out of the ordinary was going on with him. “A rumor will circulate among the soldiers that their Commander is physically invincible — whether in battle or from disease,” the authors write.
But even as he constructed a revolutionary leadership based on his stateliness and public presentation, the cold reality of the coming war quickly grew dire. Washington had control of Manhattan for now, but a massive contingent of the fearsome British navy was in Nova Scotia, destined to sail south. William Tryon, the exiled British governor of New York, was in a war ship anchored off Brooklyn. The authors practically take us on board as we watch Tryon manage numerous plots with double agents in the city who’d sneak out in boats at night.
From the British perspective, the possibility of quickly crushing this rebellion looked pretty good. The colonial army was mostly a bunch of untrained farmers’ kids who had come to New York like teenagers arriving at college. They hit the taverns and brothels often. And street brawls broke out constantly. The regional and political differences among these soldiers were incredibly divisive. An earlier mustering of Virginians and Massachusetts fighters at Harvard Yard in Cambridge turned into a thousand-man riot that required Washington to gallop into the melee to shut it down. Meanwhile, if the pox wasn’t felling the men, syphilis and the bloody flux (dysentery) were. Most sick soldiers were boated off to Randalls Island in the East River and quarantined — at times as many as one in five soldiers were stricken. The burden of getting everybody on the same page seemed impossible, as he wrote his friend Richard Henry Lee: “There [have] been so many great, and capital errors, & abuses to rectify . . . that my life has been nothing else (since I came here) but one continued round of annoyance and fatigue.”
Amid illness, debauchery and chaos, Tryon in his warship easily dispatched agents to sound out the local soldiers in the taverns and offer good money and land for anyone who’d flip sides. And the deal was excellent — a lump of cash up front and 100 acres of land later. Because the Britons were widely favored at this point, men were flipping everywhere.
Washington was protected in those early days by what was quietly called the Life Guards, a few dozen men selected by his most trusted generals. Still, the men assigned by Tryon to lure colonial soldiers found a few members of this elite unit who agreed to turn on Washington and set him up.
The thing about a conspiracy story like this, of course, is that we know the ending. We know they don’t kill Washington. (Spoiler alert: There aren’t any.) So, this book is not a whodunit. It’s not even a howtheydunit. It’s a howtheydidn’tdoit — a less common genre, but think of the story of Apollo 13 not getting to the moon. It’s still a breathless tale.
And the pages do fly by as we learn that three of Washington’s closest advisers form something called the Secret Committee: John Jay, Philip Livingston and Gouverneur Morris (not a title, by the way, just the WASPiest first name ever). “This committee is a small early prototype of an intelligence agency,” the authors write, “a team dedicated entirely to gathering information, identifying dangerous parties, and uncovering hostile plots.” They quickly get wind of a vague conspiracy. One jail snitch tells them that he barely overheard some traitors talking about a key figure in all this named Horbush. Other suspects emerge and another important player, a gunsmith named Forbes.
All of this work is happening as a kind of ticking clock carries the reader forward. The conspiracy begins to seriously unravel in mid-June 1776, with the most famous day in American history only weeks away, so there is a “Mission Impossible” sense that everything will be coming together in some unlikely way. And even though you know what you know, the suspense keeps ratcheting. Washington learns that hundreds of ships have set sail from Halifax and the simple plan is to crush the entire colonial army in New York after the conspirators take out its general.
And then, with all this happening, our colonial soldiers pull together after an unexpected arrival, from Philadelphia, of the Declaration of Independence. Washington orders his troops to gather on a single field in Manhattan. It is a remarkable moment when our mob of brawling hung-over farmers’ kids listens to a single soldier declare their purpose out loud. All the vague stirrings in these men found a common language and they began thinking of themselves as a single people, now bound by their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.
The facts alone make for an action-movie story that doesn’t really need any of the cheesy narrative tricks the authors use to propel the reader to the next turn of the plot. “First Conspiracy” has 84 chapters, and almost every one ends with a knife-chord sentence right out of old soap opera: “ . . . it may already be too late.” “ . . . and they need it fast.” “ . . . in a way none of them could ever expect.” “ . . . is just getting started.” “ . . . could never imagine.” “ . . . and time is running out.”
The authors, Meltzer and Mensch, worked together on a cable TV show called “Lost History” and their TV signposting techniques just do not translate to the solitude of print. These chapter endings come with such gong-like regularity, one begins to fear their arrival in the quiet space of one’s head. Or, as later happened, I just found myself pausing afterward, as if awaiting a commercial for bamboo steamers or Mayochup.
Cheap mechanics aside, it doesn’t really matter. You will turn the pages because this is a page-turner of a story. The American Revolution is too often told as a glorious pageant of inevitable victories. But early on, the whole thing was so contingent and uncertain — built upon a general with a greater gift for PR than military maneuvering, an army moved to coherence upon hearing the most famous phrases in American English, and a few moments of incandescent good luck, such as when a member of the Secret Committee wondered whether Horbush was maybe just a slight linguistic mishearing of Forbes and they should step up the search for that guy.
By Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch
Flatiron. 413 pp. $29.99