Book Club: The plot to as­sas­si­nate Wash­ing­ton

Smithsonian Magazine - - Features - In­ter­view by Anna Di­a­mond

IN THE FIRST CON­SPIR­ACY, THRILLER WRITER BRAD MELTZER UN­COV­ERS A REAL-LIFE STORY TOO GOOD TO TURN INTO FIC­TION

Who was try­ing to kill Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton?

At the start of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, the gover­nor and the mayor of New York, both British loy­al­ists, suc­cess­fully turned some of Wash­ing­ton’s per­sonal guards against him. They were ready to strike, but Wash­ing­ton found out. The con­spir­a­tors were ar­rested and in­ter­ro­gated in se­cret. Then Wash­ing­ton gath­ered 20,000 troops and cit­i­zens in an open field and had one ring­leader hanged for all to see. That sent a clear mes­sage to the Loy­al­ists, without re­veal­ing the plot.

How was the plot dis­cov­ered?

The New York Provin­cial Congress had es­tab­lished the Com­mit­tee on Con­spir­a­cies, a top-se­cret team of civil­ians with a mis­sion to gather in­for­ma­tion about the en­emy and de­tect and thwart the en­emy’s in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tions. As the plot against Wash­ing­ton got big­ger, peo­ple started to talk, and this lit­tle com­mit­tee—led by John Jay— wound up bring­ing the whole thing down. It was the be­gin­ning of Amer­ica’s coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence ef­forts.

This isn’t the Revo­lu­tion we get in high school.

When we think about the Revo­lu­tion, we think about the colonists here who are fight­ing the British com­ing from over there. In re­al­ity, there were lots of peo­ple in the Colonies who took the side of the British, and lots of peo­ple from Eng­land who joined the colo­nial side. Some peo­ple changed al­le­giances back and forth. This cre­ated an en­vi­ron­ment of dis­trust and fear. It also led to lots of dou­ble-cross­ing and es­pi­onage.

Why don’t we know this story?

The as­sas­si­na­tion plot is hid­den his­tory. When the British were com­ing, the last thing Wash­ing­ton wanted to say was, “Hey, ev­ery­one, my own men just turned on me.” That is not the pic­ture of lead­er­ship you want when you are in charge of the mil­i­tary. It’s clear to me that he didn’t want any­one to know this story.

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