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The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington

Review

The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington

Bestselling thriller author Brad Meltzer and documentary television producer Josh Mensch have undertaken an ambitious project: to tell the story of an insider plot against the Continental army and George Washington on the eve of the Battle of New York in 1776.

The narrative, written in the “you are there” immediacy of the present tense, begins several months before the climactic focus of this engrossing history. After routing the British in Boston, Washington has just arrived in Manhattan with an elite group of soldiers, the Life Guards, to serve as his protectors. New York is teeming with Loyalists, including its Governor, William Tryon, so Washington creates a Secret Committee whose role is to gather intelligence about their plans --- just as the Loyalists are doing on behalf of the British. Through a series of lucky breaks, a plot comes to light, and soon three senior members of the intelligence committee --- John Jay, Philip Livingston and Gouverneur Morris --- begin interviewing the informants and weighing the evidence.

"The authors are meticulous in their descriptions of every twist and turn of the story...even as they take care to keep up the dramatic pace."

Shockingly, several Life Guards are central to this treason, which ultimately results in 40 arrests. The denouement comes on June 28th, when a member of the Life Guard is publicly executed as a warning to others that disloyalty has a high price. Meltzer and Mensch note that the execution takes place at almost the exact time that Thomas Jefferson delivers his first draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

The authors are meticulous in their descriptions of every twist and turn of the story --- they credit historian Barnet Schecter for the prodigious research exhibited here --- even as they take care to keep up the dramatic pace. Most chapters end with a sentence that propels the reader on. Of one prisoner turned informant, they write: “Now he’s about to start to play another role entirely: spy.” When Washington finds out who is implicated in the plot, they surmise: “…let’s face it, this has to hurt. Unfortunately, in the next days, the pain will only get worse.”

While the focus of THE FIRST CONSPIRACY is on how the plot is foiled, the descriptions of how the citizens and military in New York conducted themselves on the eve of war are also engrossing. With the outcome of the war uncertain, everyone, especially the soldiers, seemed intent on living in the moment: drinking, thieving, counterfeiting and whoring were rampant. Some history buffs might object to the colloquial and sometimes anachronistic language, as well as the numerous cliffhangers that pepper the book. But these choices achieve their goal: to make this fast-paced, nonfiction thriller relentlessly absorbing. This is no small feat, given a subject that many would consider best left high on a library shelf.

Reviewed by Lorraine W. Shanley on January 18, 2019

The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington
by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch

  • Publication Date: January 8, 2019
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250130336
  • ISBN-13: 9781250130334