THE FIRST CONSPIRACY: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington, by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch. Flatiron Books, 413 pp., $29.99.
New York City has seen dark times, but in the spring and early summer of 1776 the outlook was especially grim. The Revolutionary War was in its early, chaotic days, the British fleet sailed en masse toward the city, and in a desperate defensive measure, General George Washington ordered thousands of his Continental troops into lower Manhattan. Almost a third of the city’s citizens fled, and Washington’s filthy, untrained and undisciplined soldiers quartered themselves in the elegant houses left behind. They were hungry, cold and scared, and they numbed their fear with drink, gambling and prostitutes. They were about to face the greatest military force in the world, outgunned and outmanned, fighting for a country that hadn’t been created yet.
In hindsight, America’s victory against the British seems like one of history’s inevitabilities, but in the beginning it was anything but. And had a small group of pro-British conspirators had their way, the Glorious Cause might have lost its essential leader — George Washington — to imprisonment, execution or assassination.
That’s the piece of New York’s revolutionary story told by Brad Meltzer and co-author Josh Mensch in their new book, “The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot Against George Washington.” Meltzer and Mensch have taken an obscure chapter of U.S. history and retold it as a thriller, with a dark-and-stormy-night beginning, short chapters, staccato one-sentence paragraphs, ominous foreshadowings and cliffhanger chapter endings. They aim to make the past come alive for a modern audience, but readers who enter this literary wayback machine are in for a bumpy ride.
There’s a great story in this material. The authors vividly portray Washington’s multiple challenges as he tries to forge undisciplined recruits into a coordinated army, in a matter of weeks creating what for most countries took many years: the "Herculean task of organizing, feeding, supplying, transporting, paying and training the thousands of men who have arrived from every direction with only the clothes on their backs.” Washington carries an immense burden on his shoulders, and to many he seems the only person who can shoulder it. For the colonists, he is the embodiment of the Revolution and the leader they hang their fragile hopes on, but for “[l]oyalists and other opponents of the revolution, George Washington is now enemy number one.”
Enter the villain in this piece, the British governor of New York, William Tryon. Tryon, an experienced military leader who made his fearsome reputation by hanging rebels in North Carolina, has fled from the Colonial army but remains close by, taking refuge on a British ship in New York Harbor and serving as a sort of “floating spymaster.” He understands that many colonists are dubious about America’s chances in this war, and he grasps Washington’s strategic importance. He sets in motion a plot to bribe Continental soldiers with money and land to defect to the British side. Some of the targeted soldiers serve in the ranks of Washington’s Life Guards, soldiers charged with keeping Washington safe, an early-days version of the Secret Service.
It’s a dramatic story, and the authors try to make the most of it, but they are working with a limited palette. While there’s abundant material on Colonial New York to draw on, proof of the extent of the actual conspiracy is patchy — as the plot unfolded, much of the investigation, discussion and response to it (the “counterintelligence”) remained unrecorded. This shortage of facts may have impelled the authors to gin up the narrative using methods that Meltzer, a best-selling political thriller author, has mastered. The steady drumbeat of doom begins to feel strained, and the cliffhanger endings, frequent repetitions and constant reminders that George Washington is a very great man and William Tryon is a very, very bad man indeed begin to grate. It’s as if the authors can’t trust the reader to enjoy a complicated story with an ambiguous ending (Washington eventually withdrew from the city, and the British controlled it for seven years).
It’s too bad. Americans need the lessons of our past as we navigate through our own tumultuous times, and we need versatile writer-historians to hold our attention. Perhaps Meltzer, an accomplished writer across many platforms (among other things, he’s a producer for the History Channel), hoped to draw his huge audience further in to America’s story. But history is a messy and ambivalent business. Maybe next time he will give his readers more credit for grasping that reality — we learn it anew, every day.