Best-selling author Brad Meltzer almost couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw it in a footnote – had there actually been a secret plot to assassinate one of our Founding Fathers and the first President of the United States, George Washington?
The answer was yes, and it led Meltzer on an exciting journey with researcher Josh Mensch that uncovered the plot to kill Washington, which is detailed in Meltzer’s latest book, “The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington.”
“I was doing research on one of my books and I saw a footnote – where all the great secrets hide,” Meltzer recently told American Military News. “I remember seeing something about a secret plot. My first reaction was, is it real? It was a online footnote to an online article.”
Turns out there really was a secret plot to try and kill Washington in 1776 – and Washington discovered it, Meltzer said.
“He gathered those responsible, built a gallows and hanged one of the conspirators in front of 20,000 people – the largest public execution in North America at that time. I became obsessed with the story,” Meltzer said.
When he initially uncovered the little-known conspiracy, Meltzer contacted Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Joseph Ellis, who has written about Washington.
“He said it was real, but he warned me that it’s a story about Washington’s spies,” Meltzer explained, which led to even more intrigue.
“You can find the exact number of slaves [Washington] owned, but you’ll never find all of his spies. [Ellis told me that] by its nature, what you’re searching for will always be illusive,” he said. “If you find it, you’ll have a great book.”
He did find much of it, and it wasn’t necessarily that hard to find. All the research was done online.
“We have in our phones access to more information than in the entire library of Alexandria. But oddly, the hardest thing to find today is the truth. That’s what’s so incredible to me,” Meltzer pointed out.
“I love to envision myself as Indiana Jones. I go find arcane information and crawl through cobwebs, and then present it to you in the books,” he explained. “But the truth is, most of the research is online.”
The information was all there, but no one had uncovered it yet.
“Most people just don’t want to read it. We just took the time to read it,” Meltzer explained. “No one knew to go look for it and read it.”
Once they discovered transcripts from a secret tribunal that took place for one of the men who was eventually hanged for the crime, “That’s when the whole thing cracked open,” Meltzer said.
When Washington discovered the plot, which involved some of the people who had been closest to him, he created a secret committee called the Committee on Conspiracies. This was led by John Jay, a fellow Founding Father who would later become the first Supreme Court Justice.
“At the time, [Jay] was going around, knocking on doors and pulling out witnesses. But what he really was doing was building America’s first counterintelligence agency,” Meltzer pointed out. “People will tell you today that the precursor to the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] is the OSS [Office of Strategic Services formed during World War II]. But it’s not, it’s this moment in the Revolutionary War where it comes to life.”
In fact, today at CIA headquarters is a room dedicated to Jay, who is considered the father of counterintelligence.
While the book is a thrilling read about history, it’s actually a book about leadership, Meltzer stressed.
“This book is a book about leadership. It has always been a book about leadership, and about George Washington as a person,” he explained. “We always tell the story of the Revolutionary War and what he [Washington] does. It wasn’t like that at all.”
“You think we’re deeply divided now? Imagine then, when there were as many British Loyalists as there were Patriots. And the military was no different,” Meltzer explained.
There are several scenes in the book that show Washington’s true character, and his sheer level of humility might surprise many readers, he added.
“When they choose [Washington] as the leader of the military, he leaves the room. … His first reaction is, ‘I fear I’m not up to the task,'” which displays humility and modesty, Meltzer said. “We’ve gone away from that today. Americans are the best at getting attention and being loud. I far prefer when modesty and humility are American virtues.”
Additionally, it’s a snapshot into Washington as a human being, even though he is easily one of the most recognized and revered figures in all of history, very often put on an untouchable, unrelatable pedestal.
“What we do with our heroes today is, we dip them in granite and we make statues of them. But we do them a disservice, because we forget they were human beings just like us,” Meltzer pointed out. “Whoever you look up to, every single one of them have moments where they were scared and terrified and didn’t know if they could pull it off. They didn’t let it stop them.”
“We treat Washington as greatest general who ever lived, but at the beginning of the war, one of the first things he does is go buy books on how to be a better general. He acknowledges how much he doesn’t know and how much he needs to learn. That’s a sign of strength,” Meltzer added. “And when we have those first battles, Washington doesn’t win the day. He gets his butt kicked. He gets out-generaled. He doesn’t have the experience of the British generals. He does the best thing he always does – he adapts.”
In a key moment that Meltzer says truly shows Washington’s character, the general and his men are pinned down by the British in New York.
“They’ve commandeered every boat along the East River they can find. … George Washington won’t get on any of the boats until his men get on first and are safely away,” he said. “In that moment, the men see George Washington risking his life for them. Not that that’s the magic moment of the war, but it’s one of those moments where we become the United States. He helped build them.”
“I love that you get to the secret plot against him, but that you also get to see his character,” Meltzer added.