For Americans, the year 1776 is known for the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence. Yet the year contained something else just as dramatic: a secret conspiracy against George Washington, which might have killed him had it succeeded. Over two centuries later, we investigated and told the story of this little-known plot in our new book The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington. In the spirit of the book, here are seven surprising things you probably didn’t know about Washington, including some details about the plot against him.
1. Washington’s iconic uniform was actually a repurposed rip-off.
When Washington was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the continental army on June 15, 1775, there was no time to design a new uniform before he traveled from Philadelphia to Boston to officially assume command. He had to quickly assemble an outfit based on his weathered two-decades-old colonel’s uniform from Virginia’s Colonial militia. The only new addition was a simple blue sash (pictured) so that fellow officers and enlisted men would know he was actually their new commander.
2. Washington had a special elite unit of soldiers — the ‘Life Guards’ — who served as his personal bodyguards.
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With so much British spying and espionage, officers realized that Washington’s life was in danger on almost a daily basis. In March 1776 he formed a special, elite unit of soldiers—known as “The Commander-in-Chief’s Guard” or simply the “Life Guards”—whose job it was to protect Washington’s person. This unit had a unique uniform, a special flag (seen in the image), and it’s own motto: “Conquer or Die.” Little did Washington know, it would be some of his own Life Guards who would “turn” and join a treasonous plot against him.
3. In the 1770s almost every adult male in New York City was drunk… basically every day.
The stats for alcohol consumption in New York City on the eve of the Revolution were staggering. According to available data, the average adult male New York City resident drank between seven and eight shots of rum every day. That number only covers rum; it doesn’t include the additional consumption of beer, gin, and other popular spirits.
4. The governor of New York and the mayor of New York City hatched a deadly, secret plot against Washington.
At the beginning of the war, New York City was a hotbed of loyalism—that is, it was full of British sympathizers. Two such loyalists were the exiled governor of New York, William Tryon (pictured), and the mayor of New York City, David Mathews. As we detail in our book, Tryon and Mathews were part of a secret conspiracy against Washington on the eve of the British fleet’s arrival in New York Harbor, just before the first great battle of the war.
5. Washington’s investigation of the secret plot against him was the beginning of American counterintelligence, and a precursor to the CIA.
When Washington arrived in New York City with his army in the spring of 1776 to prepare for the first major British offensive of the war, he soon realized that the city and the region around was full of secret plots and schemes against his army. In response her formed a “secret committee,” led by a young New York congressman named John Jay (pictured), to secretly investigate enemy espionage and treasonous activity; soon, this secret team would discover the plot against Washington himself. Almost single-handedly, this committee pioneered the field of American counterintelligence; today, the CIA refers to Jay as the “Founding Father of Counterintelligence.”
6. Many colonists took the side of the British in the Revolutionary War.
In grade school, most of us learned a version of the American Revolution in which the plucky colonists all banded together to take on their common enemy England. In fact, many colonists took the side of the British when the revolution began. These so-called loyalists —or “internal enemies” as Washington called them—were a constant threat to the colonial war effort. Some risked their lives as spies for the British (pictured), or engaged in other forms of espionage.
The first, full-scale battle between the British forces and the Continental Army was a complete disaster for the Americans.
By the end of June 1776, Washington had successfully avoided the plot that may have taken his life. But he was about to face something else: the massive might of the British army and navy, arriving by fleet in New York Harbor. Despite Washington’s months of preparations, the British overwhelmed the American forces in Brooklyn, then successfully occupied the island of Manhattan. They would occupy New York City for almost eight years, the full duration of the war. The only consolation for the colonists? Washington managed to escape with the remainder of his army to New Jersey, and the scrappy colonial army lived to fight another day.