Thriller writer Brad Meltzer is hoping his first nonfiction book, “The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington” (Flatiron Books), does for the United States’ first president what Lin-Manuel Miranda has done for Alexander Hamilton, which was based on the 2005 book by Ron Chernow.
No, Meltzer isn’t hoping for another musical about a Founding Father. “Washington’s story doesn’t really lend itself to a musical,” said Meltzer. Nor would he ever see himself portraying Washington on any theater stage as Miranda did Hamilton. “My kids would be mortified,” Meltzer said with a laugh.
Instead, he hopes “The First Conspiracy” similarly gives readers a fresh view of history and the people behind historical facts.
“I want people to look at a side of history they’ve never known about and in a way they’ve never seen. We all know about the Revolution and George Washington, but I personally never knew about a plot to kill him. What the book does is reveal Washington’s character but also shows how history could have changed,” said Meltzer, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“We’re a country founded on legends and myths, and the ones we love the most are about our history. We love the idea that we were this ragtag group that came together and held hands and defeated the British fighting force that, at the time, was the greatest in the world to create this new country. That’s a great story. But the truth is we were far more divided as a country. The (different) … regiments hated each other. We didn’t even have the same uniforms.”
He cites a favorite story featured in “The First Conspiracy” in which the American troops were losing the Battle of Brooklyn.
“Washington was out-generaled, he didn’t have the experience that the British generals had and we were about to lose,” said Meltzer. “He could have easily said the (American troops) would take as many of the (enemy) as possible and go out in a blaze of glory. Instead he adapts, and plans a daring escape for his military. In the middle of the night he brings all these boats to the East River for his troops. But he won’t get on the boat until all those under him get on the boat first, even the lowest ranking soldier. He risked his life to save others. All the regiments see him. And that is one of the moments when we all came together. That showed real leadership.”
Meltzer’s fascination with history has been the basis of his 12 best-selling, high-concept thrillers, the latest of which was “The Escape Artist,” and his successful string of “Heroes” picture books for kids ages 5 to 8 depicting American icons when they were children. He also was the host of the television series “Brad Meltzer’s Lost History” and “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded.”
His fiction focuses on arcane facts, those little known strange but real-life incidents that Meltzer weaves into his action-packed plots. And “The First Conspiracy” is chock with those unbelievable realities. Add in betrayals on the highest levels, liars, counterfeiters and jailhouse confessors, and “The First Conspiracy” fits comfortably in Meltzer’s storytelling wheelhouse.
Set in 1776, “The First Conspiracy” concerns a handpicked group of soldiers who served as George Washington’s bodyguards. Known as the “Life Guards,” they had earned Washington’s unwavering trust as the new country was being formed. But unknown to Washington, some members had switched sides. In the months before the Revolutionary War, these traitorous soldiers, as well as the governor of New York and mayor of New York City, hatched an assassination plot against Washington. When the plot was uncovered, Washington arrested the guilty parties and hanged one of the conspirators in front of 20,000 troops and citizens in an open field. It was the largest public execution of its time in all of North America. The arrest and execution happened days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Meltzer said he stumbled across the assassination plot about a decade ago when he was doing research for one of his thrillers. “It was where one finds the best details — in a footnote,” he quipped. While he made a quick mention of the plot in his 2015 novel “The President’s Shadow,” the fact stayed on his mind. “I couldn’t shake it. I kept asking myself ‘Why doesn’t anyone else know this story?’ It was too good a story to let go. But I just couldn’t find a plot that would fit.”
Plunging into research, Meltzer teamed up with his friend and colleague Josh Mensch, who was the executive producer of the TV series “Lost History,” and whose name is credited on the cover. They had an ah-ha moment when they found the transcripts from the secret tribunal. “It was amazing to see it all written down. It wasn’t like Indiana Jones running through the jungle … This is all digitized, it’s just that no one wants to read it. We read it,” said Meltzer.
“We figured at best we would get a book, and, at worst, we’d have a little adventure,” he added.
They got both, and a feel for Washington the man, the times leading up to the Revolutionary War and the struggling new United States. “The First Conspiracy” shows the emerging country “was as divided as we are now,” said Meltzer.
“The reality is there were just as many (British) loyalists as there were patriots. Your neighbors could be your bitter enemies when it came to politics, as divided as we are now. Debauchery was rampant among the troops. Prostitution was immense. The alcohol proof in what they drank was so much higher than what we drink now. George Washington hated all this. He outlawed gambling in the military. He didn’t want anyone drinking alcohol who was in the military. He wanted us to be better than all that. He wanted us to be truly be the united states. He wanted to bring a sense of decency and honesty to a military that was crumbling around him. We see George Washington on the money every day, but this shows him as a person.”
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