Book Reviews

Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch

Flatiron Books

 

Washington may be one of the most seasoned military veterans in the colonies, but that isn’t saying much. Colonial officers like Washington were given inferior positions compared to their British counterparts. As a colonel, Washington was a midlevel officer who had never led more than a hundred men in actual battle…(His) enduring reputation as a great military leader is not based on his technical skill as a tactician. He would win a few impressive battles, but overall he lost more than he won. What made him great—at least in the particular circumstances of the Revolutionary War—was his sheer staying power, his total devotion to his army, his relentless sense of duty, and a stubborn refusal to ever give up.

                  from The First Conspiracy

 


If history were written like a thriller

It’s April 1776, and the British Governor of New York, William Tryon, has hatched a daring plot: to kidnap or kill George Washington, the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental army. And the most daring aspect of the plot: This is to be undertaken by members of Washington’s own Life Guards. (Spoiler alert: They don’t succeed.)

Bestselling thriller author Brad Meltzer (The Inner Circle, The Escape Artist) and history documentary film producer Josh Mensch have partnered to write about a little-known incident that reads, well, like a thriller.

Told in the present tense (“It’s a hot summer day in Virginia, and this young man is full of sorrow.”) it maintains a breathless pace with short chapters often ending in an ominous cliffhanging sentence (“But that trust is about to be tested, in ways that Washington could never imagine.”)

The First Conspiracy may read like a slick thriller, but it is also fascinating history, bringing the reader into the gritty day-to-day reality of the earliest months of what became the American revolution. This is far from the glorified, simplified and romantic versions we have often been given.

If the American Civil War (1861-1865) is sometimes referred to as the second American Revolution, because of how it came to redefine this nation, providing what Lincoln called a “new birth of freedom,” Meltzer and Mensch’s book shows why the Revolution could be considered America’s first civil war. There was bitter strife between those colonists loyal to the Crown, and those committed to breaking from England and creating a new nation. “Traitors” depended upon where you stood. Even the families of the Founding Fathers were not immune: Benjamin Franklin’s son, New Jersey Governor William Franklin, supported the Loyalists; his father did not intervene when William was arrested and imprisoned.

Many Americans were caught in the middle, just trying to earn a living for their families. Governor Tryon developed a vast spy network and through this network, he actively recruited citizens, including Continental soldiers, to remain loyal to their British heritage through offers of land and money. Tryon was even successful in planting a mole in the Continental Congress, who sent regular reports of the members’ in-fighting.

Many in Washington’s army were young men who had left their farms and were in a big city for the first time, and now introduced to all its temptations: “Even back in the 1770s, New York has established a well-earned reputation for one exceptional quality: vice. As the Continental officer William Tudor puts it in his diary, ‘Every brutal gratification can be so easily indulged in this place that the army will be debauched here in a month…’” The authors translate: “To put it another way, this place knows how to party.”

Central to the story stands the tall and commanding presence of Washington himself. He is rightfully remembered for his character, which breathes with bravery, duty and honor. Yet he is also allowed his flawed humanity. As a Virginia slave owner, he removed African Americans from the Continental army; however, he soon adjusted his prejudices to the requirements of the moment. He writes to John Hancock: “it has been represented to me that the free Negroes who have served in this army are very much dissatisfied at being discarded…” Imagine! There is fear that these soldiers may go over to serve in the British army, so Washington relents, and at different times during the war African Americans will comprise six to twelve percent of the Continental army, making it “the most integrated fighting force in American history until the Vietnam War.”

One is reminded again that, during its two darkest moments, this nation was fortunate to have leaders of such uncontested character as Washington and Lincoln.

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (February 15-March 15, 2019.) Reprinted with permission.


 

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