Sunday, April 07, 2019

Book Review: The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington

In the spring of 1776, a secret plot by British Loyalists was uncovered by American rebel patriots. The primary target was the leader of the Continental Army and the personal embodiment of the uprising against the British: General George Washington.

Among the accused were several of Washington's personal bodyguards called the Life Guards, an early version of today's Secret Service. The plot, as we know, was thwarted before anyone could harm Washington, but what may be surprising is how many were involved and how easily the soldiers and civilians of the day could be swayed by bribery and drinks. Hardly anyone at that time could be trusted and practically everyone was under suspicion. Even his housekeeper, a middle-aged woman, was apparently a spy of the conspiracy!

Author Brad Meltzer is a best-selling thriller novelist and he uses many techniques associated with fiction in this work of historical nonfiction. In theory I have no problem with fictional techniques in nonfiction for the sake of a good read. I think Meltzer's method works. The chapters are short, and Meltzer takes pains to dramatize every step of the plot, perhaps overdoing it a bit. Virtually every chapter ends with a cliffhanger, and while this worked well for the most part, I feel it was overdone and those cliffhangers should have been doled out a bit more judiciously.

Others have mentioned the plot. Ron Chernow, for example, in his biography, Washington: A Life, but only in passing.

The weight of evidence and conjecture, as presented by Meltzer, indicates to me that the plot against the physical person of Washington was real and was intended to cause his untimely demise, whether by an initial kidnapping or quick murder intended to deflate the morale of the Colonial troops. History as we know it would be unimaginable if the plot had succeeded.

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