The First Conspiracy by Brad Meltzer, Josh Mensch Book Summary

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Do you think you know much about the events that led up to the dawn of the American state? There is a high probability that you don’t know the full, complete narrative. Instead, you may have received parts and pieces of heroic events or stories such as the renowned Boston Tea party. However, for the first time, you will now find out the true story behind one of the most appalling chapters in this period of history. This includes the shocking plan to assassinate the then-general of the continental army and future first president of the United States of America, George Washington.

This heroic and grand war story is filled with a cast of similarly heroic freedom fighters, villains and treacherous traitors. It is definitely one story you wouldn’t want to miss out on hearing.

The reader is poised to go on a journey to find out the conditions under which George Washington was elected to lead the budding nation’s first-ever army, and to discover the difficulties he went through in his first year in command. The reader will get a sense of the risks, cruelty, and animosity of this vital period in American history through the stirring but true recitation of the real events. And, furthermore, a peek of the brutal actuality of life under the colonial British rule.

1775: Colonial leaders all over America assembled to talk about their relationship with Britain.

The narrative begins on May 10th, 1775, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As of the mentioned date, the United States of America did not exist as a nation. At that point, the would-be states were in fact known as colonies which were under the colonial rule of Great Britain.

However, the state of affairs under which the colonial subjects were subjected to were not satisfactory. The colonial subjects were not content with the state of affairs of the administration ruling over them. This is the reason why our story commences in Philadelphia.

The Second Continental Congress assembled here. Nevertheless, this Congress is not similar to the one we know from contemporary politics. By that time, 1775, this institution had no legitimacy in the eyes of the British administration. Therefore, its members holding a meeting together implied a revolution all by itself.

This Congress constituted of delegates from all 13 colonies. They had assembled to discuss one hot topic: the prospect of going against Britain in a war.

The British Crown, which was then manifested by George III, had had a strained relationship with its colonial subjects over the previous year. Disgruntled conflicts over taxes, trade, and tariffs imposed on the colonies had been on the rise. The emergence of ever-growing protests and rallies had been the retaliation of The Crown’s oppressive fiscal policies.

And how did England respond to the increasing protests from their subjects? The Crown responded with the strength of its military. England deployed its mighty armies to extinguish all protests and reimpose its complete control.

A year before 1775, a war with Britain would have been inconceivable. But in 1775, a tipping point was achieved.

Local men, in the northeastern colonies of New England, had been organizing and forming militias in preparation to go against the British authorities. British troops on April 19, 1775, retaliated by marching on Concord and Lexington, two towns near Boston, Massachusetts, as they attempted to arrest militia leaders.

Both the local militia and the British troops incurred heavy casualties as a result of the clash they had between each other. In the ensuing skirmish, at least eight townsmen lost their lives.

A month following up this event, the Second Continental Congress was debating on whether the time was suitable for each colony to organize and put up arms against the British regime.

Another reason why the colonists had a revolt in their plans was as a result of the new idea in Europe, which came up over the preceding years. The idea was presented by  Thomas Paine, an American Enlightenment philosopher. The idea was conceptualized as “the inherent right of a people to elect its own government and engage in self-rule”, and it had begun to be embraced in American minds and hearts.

Nowadays, it is easy to take the idea of self-rule for granted. As a matter of fact, many of us do. But as of 1775, the concept of liberty was considered extreme, radical and quite dangerous. Nevertheless, on May 10th in Philadelphia, it was on the lips of many delegates.

George Washington was elected as the leader of the colonies’ new army.

The delegates at the 1775 Second Continental Congress were still careful and wary in spite of the talk of liberty in the air. They were not yet confident and fully convinced of the necessity to embark on an all-out war with Britain. Nonetheless, they were sure of the need for a national American army that would be able to go on a war against England if required.

This army was the first of its kind in America and it was tasked with the role of coordinating the rebel militias that had come up across New England into one coherent army. It also had the task of enlisting more men from across the colonies to join the national military. The delegates were in accord with this plan, however, there was a missing piece. Who would be the leader of this newly founded national military?

The answer was George Washington, a delegate hailing from Virginia.

Washington was forty-three years old. By this age, he had participated in the French and Indian war, which was a dispute between the French and the British over their colonial territories in America. He was experienced in military combat and this was important to Congress who were looking to select someone who understood the dynamics of war and battle.

Washington was described as a man of few words who, nevertheless, imposed authority. He was not only over six feet tall, but he also presented himself in a respectable manner and had dressed up in his full army uniform to the conference. This was striking for two reasons; firstly being that the average height of an American man back then was only just five-foot-seven and secondly due to the fact that he wore his full military uniform while the other delegates had dressed up in simple civilian-style frock coats and waistcoats.

George Washington was part of the few delegates who had not attended college. This is in spite of him being a rich southern planter and landowner. This shockingly worked in Washington’s favor as he was a straight-talker in a conference where, on the other hand, the other delegates preferred to show off their knowledge with pompous and complex language to express themselves.

Not only was he a great listener, but he also expressed himself well, simply and directly as he was a straight-talker. When addressing Congress, he got straight to the point. He projected such a strong dignity, seriousness, and solemnity by talking little accompanied by his habit of frequently reserving his opinions. When he decided to speak, he did so wholeheartedly and struck such a great conviction in the hearts and minds of the listeners.

George Washington was seen as a man of action and his name was quickly enlisted to the list of prospects to lead the newly-founded army.

Washington was also a noble and humble man which was a key factor for his consideration. Whereas the other delegates were loudly competing for a position of authority, George Washington silently left the conference room, unwilling to impose his authority and superiority over his fellow candidates.

Nevertheless, the delegates were pretty much convinced of whom they wanted to take up this crucial leadership role. The voting process eventually ended up with a unanimous outcome – George Washington would be the general of the newly-named continental army.

George Washington’s main antagonist would shortly be New York’s governor, William Tryon.

Ten days following his appointment as the general of the new continental army, George Washington led a group of soldiers toward Boston. At Boston, the British had exerted a stern state of martial law and seized thousands of firearms from local citizens. Washington detoured through New York on his way to New England.

New York was the second most populated colony, only second to Philadelphia. He was greeted by crowds and waves of supporters as he marched through the city, but he had a close encounter with a dangerous enemy.

This nemesis was the governor of New York of that time, William Tryon. Tryon was a renowned, ferocious loyalist and supporter to the British administration. Tyron was born into an aristocratic family in England in 1729. Back in England, he was originally serving as an officer in the British army, this was before the traveled to America in pursuit of riches and opportunities.

Tryon was also the governor of North Carolina before he was appointed as governor of New York. This was in the period spanning between 1765 to 1771 where he swiftly unpopularized himself with the local group of farmers known as the Regulators.

The Regulators despised the rising high taxes that the British administration imposed on them. During Tryon’s rule, the tax rates became so inconceivably high that a good number of the Regulators were not able to feed their family and they were forced to give up their farms as they attempted to get by with the spiraling levels of debt. To add insult to injury, governor Tryon utilized the money he literally squeezed out of the pockets of the local farmers by building himself a massive mansion known as “Tryon’s place” in North Carolina.

The Regulators engaged themselves in protests following this cruel administration and unfairness. Tryon’s response, on the other hand, was hiring a diverse group of mercenaries who he took to the Regulators make-do encampment and imposed that the Regulators quit their activities.

Tryon and his mercenaries mercilessly started shooting the disadvantaged farmers when they refused to seize their activities. The leaders of the Regulators were captured and sentenced to death on charges of treason committed against the king. And the punishment was not just any normal death, the men were given a hanging sentence, disemboweled while still breathing, and beheaded – a cruel and brutal punishment known as drawing and quartering.

As these events clearly show, Governor William Tryon of New York was a brutal and savage man who was not hesitant to attack anyone who opposed the absolute power of the Crown savagely. Soon, his attention would be shifted to focus on one George Washington who had made a blatant and courageous show of independence by leading a military parade through New York City.

Allegiances were consistently switching in revolutionary America.

The month’s ensuring his appointment as the leader of the new continental army saw George Washington focusing on expanding the ranks of his troops. This was coupled with his motivation to force the British out of Boston, making them retreat where they had a grip over the city.

From the periphery of the city, Washington could easily see his British enemies, however, he couldn’t see a crucial enemy, one who as creeping within his military. Although he was a military and war veteran, Washington could not foresee the dangerous situation which he now faced. Previously, in his past experiences, he could easily tell who his enemies were and who his allies were.

But in this particular conflict, as the possibility of a war with the British emerged, it was much more difficult as allegiances were far less obvious. This situation differed from normal conflicts where a person’s allegiance was concrete and defined by their nationality, language or religion. But, in this case, one’s loyalty was defined simply by what he claimed to pledge allegiance to at the moment.

A quick look at Washington’s military shows this complex state of affairs. Charles Lee and Horatio Gates are good examples. They both were one of Washington’s most senior generals and they were both born in Britain. In addition to this, they had also both served in the British army before shifting allegiances to join the colonists. Just as much as this happened, it was not rare to find people from the colonies who pledged allegiance to the British for reasons related to their political education, commercial interests or something as deep as family ties. These type of people were known as “Loyalists”.

Depending on the particular circumstances people were faced with, they switched allegiances. This proved to, additionally, be a problem for George Washington as the switch of allegiances frequently happened depending on the changing conditions. A good example is Thomas Gage, England’s most senior commander in the colonies. He was married to Margaret Kemble, a woman whose family of origin were renowned advocators of America’s fight for independence. Until this day, it is rumored that Kemble shared secret English army information with her brothers – who were strong patriots.

1776: Governor Tryon’s allegiance encouraged him to attempt a kidnap on George Washington.

In March 1776, Washington’s military was victorious in forcing the British troops out of Boston. However, the consequences of this success were profound. To make a statement of their strength, Great Britain decided to send its troops to capture and secure New York. This meant that Washington and his military had to respond by doing the same. It was a battle of might which would lead to Washington and Tryon clashing for the first time.

By this time, March, Tryon was well informed of the threat that was imposed by the Continental army to the British Crown. Furthermore, the threat they imposed to the Crown’s choke-hold over New York. Knowing that the British army was still a number of weeks away from arriving in New York, Tryon contemplated how he could sabotage the Continental army until the British army’s arrival.

Tryon’s scheme was to assassinate George Washington. A move that would decapitate the body – that is the Continental army – from its head, Washington. To assist Tryon to achieve this difficult task, he started a larger scheme. His plan was to grease the hands of as many troops within Washington’s ranks as possible. He intended that they switch allegiances from Loyalists to the British side and that these traitors eventually turn their guns on the Loyalists once the British finally arrived.

It is important to note that scheming Loyalists had plenty of access to Washington’s troops. By March of the year 1776, the Continental military had its troops already stationed on the outskirts of New York. The city was filled with Loyalist troops, who visited the city to drink, fight and visit brothels.

Sadly for Tryon, he couldn’t be the man who would meet the prospective traitors and convince them to rade allegiances. This owed to the fact that he was stationed on a ship on the periphery of New York’s harbor as he was fearful that patriotic locals would kidnap him. Since he was camping there, he hard to use other means to make his plan a reality.

Step forward Gilbert Forbes, a gunsmith who was vital to the wicked scheme. In the dark of the night, he would make the journey to Tryon’s base where he would collect the money intended to bribe the troops who were ready to shift sides. Forbes convinced hundreds of Loyalist troops to trade allegiances in the case of a British attack. He achieved this task by using secretive networks with the Loyalist’s base.

Even more controversially, he was successful in persuading at least five of the soldiers who belonged to the special group “Life Guardsmen”. They were an elite group of soldiers who were tasked with the immense responsibility to protect George Washington and keep him safe and sound.

Talking loosely may have saved George Washington’s life.

After a well-orchestrated plan and execution that not only involved normal troops but also men from the Life Guardsmen, Tryon’s scheme failed mostly due to a chance encounter in a New York jail.

By June 15th, 1776, there was a man, Isaac Ketcham, who suffered in a city jail cell. His charge was counterfeiting money. On that night, two prisoners joined him – troops from the continental army who were locked up for the same reason he was. Incredibly, the two men were not just ordinary soldiers but members of the Life Guardsmen. To Ketcham’s surprise, they revealed the plot schemed by Tryon and revealed their part in it.

Ketchman was keen to leverage this information in exchange for his immediate release. He promptly wrote to the New York Provincial Congress, an institution which supported the fight for independence and begged to appear before them so that he might reveal the critical information he held.

On agreeing to this, Congress set up a meeting with Isaac Ketcham on June 17th which led to the representatives’ bewilderment of the shocking news. After his testimony, the two men were identified as Michael Lynch and Thomas Hickey. In the following interrogation, even though the plot of kidnapping George Washington remained was still not crystal clear, it was certain that the two Life Guardsmen were guilty and that someone had to pay the repercussions.

Thomas Hickey was the only one of the two traitors who was tried and convicted for treason, with reasons still not fully understood. The charge handed to Hickey was unstable owing to the reason that, for the first time in American history, the courts decided that treason involved a transgression against America, while, until that point, the charge of treason could only be charged against those who betrayed Britain.

Hickey was hanged, on June 28th, in New York City in front of 20,000 eyes. His execution immediately became the most watched execution in America until that point. This was to set an example to everyone else who had the slightest intention of betraying Washington, his men and the fight for independence.

Would America be the same state today had Tryon come out victorious? Perhaps more controversially, would the nation even exist? Fortunately enough, we don’t need to indulge ourselves too much with these questions as we are lucky enough to never find out the outcome of this dastardly situation.

The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington by Brad Meltzer, Josh Mensch Book Review

1775 and 1776 were crucial years in America’s struggle for independence. In 1775, George Washington was elected as the general of the New Continental Army. In the ensuing year, his archenemy, William Tryon, spent his time plotting on how to assassinate Washington and stop his forces. His main scheme was greasing the hands of the troops easy enough to persuade to switch allegiances. Nevertheless, Tyron’s plot failed which saw Hickey, one of the traitors, hanged publicly to impose a statement on any potential betrayers.

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