Assassination Attempt on George Washington in 1776
In June 1776, a huge British invasion fleet was making its way to New York Harbor and a group of conspirators hoped to take advantage of the confusion by murdering George Washington. Fortunately for the Continental Army, one of the plotters, Thomas Hickey, a private in Washington’s Guard, was unable to keep quiet and bragged about the plan while in prison. The plot was foiled, so Washington was safe and able to lead his men to a victory over the British.
As a member of Washington’s private Guard, Hickey had easy access to the Commander-in-Chief. The role of the Guard was to protect Washington, watch over the army’s coffers and protect the official documents sent and received by the Continental Army’s leader. As such, you would expect the men trusted with such important duties to be brave and upstanding individuals, but Hickey was not cut from the same cloth as the others.
Indeed, it was his propensity to get himself in trouble that helped uncover the plot in the first place. On June 15, 1776, Hickey was sent to prison for passing counterfeit Bills of Credit along with another plotter by the name of Michael Lynch. The two men were unable to stay silent about their plans and told another prisoner, Issac Ketchum, about the plot along with details of how they recruited and paid others to join in support of the British. Ketchum wasted no time in reporting his findings to the prison guards in an attempt to obtain a favorable outcome in his own case (also involving counterfeiting).
The exact details of the plot are not known regarding whether the conspirators planned to murder Washington or kidnap him and hand him over to the British. What we do know is that top Tory Government officials such as Mayor David Mathews and Colonial Gov. William Tryon were involved. Hundreds of rebels were set to defect to the British army, and after capturing or killing Washington and several important officials, they would cause chaos amongst the rebel forces. The British would use the opportunity to launch an attack and try to demolish the rebellion before it got started.
Loyalist sentiment in New York was still relatively strong, so there was a chance the plan could have succeeded. Washington became aware of a plot against him about a week beforehand when a woman requested an audience with him. She told him his life was in danger and Washington took the matter seriously enough to tell only his closest confidants. On June 22, Washington pounced, and a number of plotters were arrested including Mathews (placed under house arrest) and several members of the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard.
Although Hickey wasn’t close to being the leader of the plot, he was one of the scapegoats as the Continental Army presumably chose to make an example of him. Several of his co-conspirators testified against him in return for leniency. A jury found Hickey guilty, and he was hanged in front of 20,000 spectators on June 28, 1776. He was the only member of the plot to die for his actions. Washington’s Guard remained in place until he disbanded it in 1783. If the plot had succeeded, it would have been a hammer blow to the Continental Army; who knows how it would have fared against the British without its inspirational leader?