It wasn’t easy being George. He lost his father at age 11 and then his mentor and half-brother just seven years later. He was a veteran of the French and Indian War when in his 20s and then returned home to tend to his estates.
But he was a man of duty who put honor first, and when the British butchered Colonists who complained about the high tax rate, he showed up at the Continental Congress, the only man wearing his military uniform.
Tall and handsome, his posture erect, it was almost immediately decided that he would lead the newly formed Continental Army.
Though army might be too kind of a word. The troops were masses of men from the colonies — ill-fed, raggedy, without training or even much in the way of weapons (unless you count pitchforks), and given to gambling, cussing, enjoying paid encounters and fighting among one another. Not exactly an army to give the well-trained, well-armed and smartly uniformed British much pause.
Add to that, the former Col. Washington didn’t have the knowledge or the experience of a general and since there was no You Tube at the time, he would have to learn on the job and by reading the several books he bought on the subject.
But probably most problematic, several of his own Life Guards, hand-selected men who were to personally protect Washington, were actively betraying him as part of a conspiracy to preserve British rule.
This is the conundrum New York Times best-selling author Brad Meltzer presents us in the opening chapters of his first nonfiction book, "The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot Against George Washington," with Josh Mensch.
“It’s one of my favorite details,” says Meltzer, who is so enthusiastic about the story, he says the same phrase more than once about other incidents as well.
“Washington wanted the best of the best for his personal bodyguards, called life guards, and they turned on him. That just totally hit me — this is the best of the best and they turned on him! You can’t write a book like this if you don’t ask yourself what would have happened if they got him.”
Fortunately, we don’t need to ask. Washington is more than the man on our dollar bills, wearer of a white powdered wig, and hacker of cherry trees who later wore wooden teeth, though the last item turns out not to be true.
When two of his men were fighting, Washington rode right into the fray, jumped off his horse and seized each by the neck to break it up.
“At the Battle of Brooklyn, he gets his butt kicked, and he could have said let’s just go out in a blaze of glory, but he didn’t,” Meltzer says.
“Instead, he commandeers all the boats and gets his troops across the East River. The British are coming fast but, in that moment, he won’t get on a boat until all his men are onboard. He’s the last one on. He’s risked his life for them, and that’s when the troops really all came together.”
He launched this secret society of spies that led to the modern CIA.
That’s why Meltzer says some stories are so good, they need to be told the way they are.
Anyone who has ever read one or more of Meltzer’s books ("The Inner Circle," "The Escape Artist") or watched his TV series ("Brad Meltzer’s Decoded" and "Brad Meltzer’s Lost History"), needn’t worry that this will a be a long slog into boring history.
The story of spy craft, war and the treachery surrounding Washington reads as quickly as any of his novels.
“It was an untold story,” he says. “I discovered it the way you usually discover important things, in a footnote.”
That footnote led to 10 years of research, which Meltzer says he couldn’t have done without the help of writer and documentary producer Josh Mensch.
Besides being a great read of an almost lost part of America’s history, Meltzer says he hopes readers see this not just as a famous story but also a call to the greatness Washington showed.
“We’re all capable of humility, heroism and generosity,” he says. “We have to stop creating this environment where everyone who disagrees with us is shallow or stupid; we have to work together and to do that we have to start with ourselves, the only way to change the world is to first change ourselves.”
If you go:
What: Brad Meltzer with Josh Mensch talk, audience Q & A and book signing
When: 1 p.m. Jan. 22
Where: Community Christian Church, 1635 Emerson Lane, Naperville, Illinois
Cost: Ticket for one adult, $34 ($36.18 w/service fee). This ticket admits one person and includes one copy of the book. Ticket for two adults $44 ($46.53 w/service fee). This ticket package admits two people and includes one copy of the new book. Ticket price also includes a photo with author. Kids younger than 13 are free. To order: brownpapertickets.com/event/3914505
FYI: The presentation is hosted by Anderson's Bookshops. For more information, 630-355-2665.