Brad Meltzer interview: Tracing the assassination plot of George Washington

Brad Meltzer
The First Conspiracy author Brad Meltzer talks history and writing. Pic credit: United States National Archives

We hold our heroes to incredibly high standards, whether they are fictional or real. For those that are historical, crucial moments have been swept under the rug while landmark moments are emblazoned forever in textbooks with little context.

Some of those details become twisted into fiction. Others remain forgotten, dusty details that make many of these heroes much more complex, more tangible, more interesting, and ultimately, more human.

Take George Washington for example. We all remember hearing tales of him chopping down the cherry tree, then leading the American Revolution as general of the Continental Army, crossing the Delaware River and defeating the British Army.

He became America’s first president and stepped down after two terms. But there are vast gaps in between that we were never taught — unless you’re looking for them yourself. 

For example, did you know there was an assassination plot against him, and that he shut it down by hanging one of the men responsible in public?

Most American history books tend to gloss over things like this, but not New York Times bestselling author and TV host Brad Meltzer.

His latest book, The First Conspiracy, tries to connect the dots of a story that were overshadowed by the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which was just days away from happening.

The failed assassination of George Washington

While researching for one of his thrillers, Meltzer found his next book where all good details are found–in the footnotes.

“I remember seeing ‘secret plot to kill George Washington,'” Meltzer told Monsters and Critics. “Is this real, is this fake, is this internet nonsense? What is it?”

Five years went by and Meltzer could not shake the idea of the assassination plot and it was burning inside him to get it onto paper.

His first step was approaching Pulitzer Prize winning author Joseph J. Ellis, who has written many of the essential presidential biographies, one of them being Washington. 

“He was one of the people who said to me, ‘This is a story about George Washington’s spies. You can find all of the slaves that Washington owned, but you’ll never find all of his spies, by the nature of what you’re searching for. It will forever be elusive. You should try; you may get a book out of it, but at the least, you’ll get an adventure.'”

And that was the challenge that Meltzer was willing to take but he couldn’t do it by himself. 

Meltzer employed one of his old friends, Josh Mensch, with whom he co-wrote the book and was one of his experts on the HISTORY series, Decoded, who went out to find hard facts to follow a trail of clues. 

“I like to imagine us as Indiana Jones crawling through the cavern unearthing amazing things. We sing ‘The Raiders March’ to each other, and I yell, ‘throw me the idol,’ and he yells, ‘I’ll throw you the whip,’” Meltzer joked. “But the truth is that most of this was online. We just took the time to read it.”

“Josh was able to find the secret tribunal who tried the man who was hung for the plot to kill Washington. Once we had that we knew we were onto something.”

Unfortunately, Washington wasn’t the type to keep chronicles of his life in stacks of diaries. He wasn’t Thomas Jefferson or John Adams.

They were able to pinpoint the exact date of the public execution and that there were 20,000 witnesses on hand and all of them would not be able to keep quiet about it.

“It was the largest public execution at that point in North American history,” shared Meltzer.

“One of the people who was watching was so disturbed by what he saw that he invented a new word that he had never existed because there was no other word to describe it. It was a word called ‘sacricide,’ which was the death of good.”

Searching for George Washington’s spies

From there Meltzer and Mensch started to piece together the work of Washington’s spies. It is after all their story as much as it is Washington’s and this early counterintelligence would be the foundation of what would inspire the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“When George Washington found what was going on, he started his own secret committee, called the Committee on Conspiracies, which if you’re going to start a secret committee, you need a cool name,” Meltzer said.

“It was run by John Jay, who of course became the first Supreme Court Justice, but was the one kicking down doors and doing interrogations and in that moment, became America’s first counterintelligence agency. To this day, in Langley, Virginia there’s a room dedicated to John Jay, who is known as the father of counterintelligence.” 

In fact, a newfound respect for Jay is a byproduct of The First Conspiracy, adding to his and Washington’s legend.

“You rarely think of a Supreme Court Justice as the guy doing Jack Bauer interrogations and pulling people out of their houses in the middle of the night,” Meltzer said of Jay. “He’s an original American badass!”

“People always say that the C.I.A. is the precursor to the O.S.S. but in reality, it’s this moment, it’s this plot against Washington where we see it take shape.”

Meltzer has written a total of 12 bestselling thrillers, comics and the all-ages graphic novel series, “Ordinary People that Change the World” with artist Chris Eliopoulos.

That latter book contains lesser-known stories of triumph and character in historical figures that range from Sacagawea, Jim Henson, Rosa Parks to Neil Armstrong.

I Am Billie Jean King by Brad Meltzer and Chris Eliopoulos
I Am Billie Jean King by Brad Meltzer and Chris Eliopoulos

The 18th book in the series, I Am Billie Jean King comes out February 5. Shockingly, The First Conspiracy is Meltzer’s first nonfiction book and proved to be Meltzer’s biggest challenge because he had to stick within the mainframe of the facts.

“It’s going to be incomplete by it’s very nature,” shared Meltzer. “These events happened over 200 years ago and there are parts you’re never going to be able to explain.”

So the challenge that Meltzer and Mensch were faced with was, can they still tell a credible story?

“There’s a moment that they think George Washington’s housekeeper might be in on the plot, and in the middle of the night disappears,” Meltzer shared.

“So we find all these stories where she’s in on it and disappears, and we say, honestly, nobody knows. She became lost in history and remains one of the greatest question marks in the story.”

“I think people appreciate the truth, the best story you can always tell is the true story.”

Now that doesn’t mean there’s a shortage for history buffs to immerse themselves. There’s a wealth of what Meltzer calls the “good stuff,” which he credits Mensch’s uncanny ability to dig up.

“He found out that when it came time to commander the army in the Revolutionary War, there was no time to get him a fancy new uniform,” Meltzer explained.

“So he had someone make him a sash so that people knew, I’m the guy in charge. He also ordered all of these books on how to be a better general, like some type of Revolutionary Dummies Guide.” 

“Washington’s not perfect in any way, he’s trying to brush up on this stuff because these British generals have been trained for decades. It’s those kind of details that inform the entire story and paint the real person.”

The First Conspiracy by Brad Meltzer
The First Conspiracy Dust Jacket

To those who would rather oversimplify a person down to just their accomplishments, wind up standing further away from them. It is through our shared flaws and imperfections that bring us together.

“Our men were not the greatest of men, we were criminals, we were bastards and heroes,” Meltzer continued. “Some were only doing it for the money. [In the end] we still figured out how to come together and that’s inspiring.”

“The mistake we make in our heroes, whether it’s our superheroes, science fiction heroes, or our historical heroes, is that we dip them in granite and we put them on pedestals and then they’re dead.”

“Even Superman has Clark Kent. They all have moments where they’re scared and terrified and thought they couldn’t do it.”

How they can persevere and triumph over those obstacles and how they charted their own path, is how we find out if their worth the monument.

“It’s George Washington’s own people that turn on him. I don’t care how strong you are, that is a moment that is devastating,” Meltzer added. 

“If it’s easy, it’s not impressive to me, what’s far more impressive to me is when it’s hard. In this moment, Washington is getting kicked around and I love watching him come back and figure his way out of it.”

The First Conspiracy is out now wherever books are sold. Since its release, The First Conspiracy has been on the New York Times Bestseller’s List and on Amazon’s Top 20 Non-Fiction Most Sold & Read List.

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