Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
24 June 2019
Review by Anita Porterfield, Boerne, TX
The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington
By Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch
New York: Flatiron Books, 2018. Pp. xi, 413. 978–1–250–13033–4.
Descriptors: Volume 2019, 18th Century, Revolutionary War Print Version

On Friday, 28 June 1776, at exactly 10:00 a.m., four generals marched their shabbily dressed brigades through the streets, alleys, and pathways of Manhattan to an open field north of the city limits. These rag-tag commandos were joined by an equal number of civilian witnesses—almost the entire population of New York City—positioned on their periphery. A stiff silence hung in the air and an undercurrent of schadenfreude united the onlookers patiently awaiting the forthcoming spectacle. All eyes were laser-focused on a raised, empty platform where a noose dangled, foreshadowing the event to come: the adjudication of the crime of treason. The unlikely traitor was Thomas Hickey, one of General Washington's vaunted Life Guards.

In their new book, authors Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch unmask covert intelligence activities conducted by the British and their supporters against the Continental Army. Neither is a traditional academic historian; they are best known for their work in television. Meltzer wrote, produced, directed, and hosted the program Lost History (2014) and served as a history expert in Decoded (2005) on the History Channel. Mensch is a documentary television producer with a focus on American history and culture. Their backgrounds have well equipped them to write a thriller-like tale of The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington.

The authors capture the turbulent atmosphere of distrust, tension, and suspicion that grew out the mutable loyalties of American colonists. Benjamin Franklin's own son, a prominent New Jersey governor, was a loyalist and used his state troops to undermine the Continental Army. Father and son became estranged over their divergent political views and when William Franklin was arrested, Benjamin refused to help him. There were many cases of divided loyalties between spouses, within houses of worship, and among friends. Trust was a scarce commodity.

Intelligence-gathering was not a new concept to Washington. One of his first acts as commander of the colonial army was to hire a spy who posed as a loyalist for the British army in order to gather information about their planned operation against the patriots. Washington was horrified to discover that one of his most trusted and respected men, Dr. Benjamin Church, the Surgeon General of America's first army, was communicating to the British details of the colonial army's capacities. One of Washington's generals had intercepted a coded letter to British General Thomas Gage detailing the Continental Army's operational plans, munitions and supplies inventories, and troop numbers. Church was motivated by British money and his loyalties were determined by the size of the payoff. The episode with Church led Washington to assign about fifty of his most capable soldiers to safeguard sensitive documents and cash and, most importantly, to act as his personal bodyguards; the motto of these very aptly named Life Guards was "Conquer or Die."

Meanwhile, in New York City, colonists were gaining power and Gov. Thomas Tryon, a loyalist, had to retreat to the British merchant ship Duchess of Gordon. He then set up an intelligence operation and recruited colonists and soldiers away from the Continental Army. The authors, who favor present-tense narration, observe that

Much of Tryon's efforts become focused on what he sees as a critical goal: creating and overseeing a loyalist network in and around the city. He believes they need to fight back against the rise of rebel power in the region. He still believes that the majority of people are on his side—they just needed better organization. (104)

When the patriot army chased the loyalists out of Boston, Tryon plotted to assassinate Washington. The governor, bankrolled by the British, enlisted colonists to provide food and other supplies by boat and to run loyalist spy rings. He was still stuck on the Duchess of Gordon and it was treasonous for any colonist to communicate with him under any circumstance. Even so,

The offending boats have devised sophisticated schemes to trick, bribe, or evade the sentries on the docks to reach the Duchess of Gordon…. Many merchants in the city are still loyal to the Governor and want to continue to curry favor with him. Others may have no loyalty one way or the other, but won't turn down the chance to sell their goods at healthy prices to the Royal ships in the harbor. (135)

Describing a secret intelligence organization formed by Washington, the authors write that

To this day, the methods of the Culper Ring[1] … are still used by the modern CIA. In fact, Americans didn't even know there was a Culper Ring until the 1930's. That's how good its members were at keeping secrets. For George Washington and his officers, this spycraft takes the Continental Army's operations to a new level, adding more sophistication and nuance to their war planning. (352)

The First Conspiracy is a lively page-turner cast in the style of a thriller, with characters, places, and events deftly woven into a cohesive narrative. Its readers will experience all of the sights, smells, and tactile details of Gen. George Washington's Continental Army. Its troops were

most wretchedly clothed, and as dirty a set of mortals as ever disgraced the name of a soldier…. Every time it rains, the fields turn into mud and the open latrine ditches flow over into the muck…. Soldiers living in filth. Soldiers getting drunk. These are two of the difficulties the Continental Army is facing with so many men stationed in close quarters in a crowded urban setting. (43)

Throughout, Meltzer and Mensch assess George Washington's character, temperament, and intellect. We learn that his older brother, Lawrence, had a great influence on the young Washington. Born to a different mother, he grew up in a much more affluent family unit than George's. Toward the end of his life, Lawrence spent a great deal of time with George and represented a very positive force in his life. He instilled in him a lasting desire to serve his country and a sense of the value of civility, good character, and refinement. George was devastated when Lawrence died prematurely (of tuberculosis) at age thirty-three.

Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch have produced a fascinating account of the origins of America's counterintelligence movement, the progenitor of the modern CIA. If pre-publication endorsements by George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and noted historians Jon Meachum, James McPherson, and Joseph Ellis are any indication, The First Conspiracy will quickly become a classic.

[1] Meltzer's many NY Times bestselling thrillers include several featuring the Culper Ring.

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