In 1776 Thomas Hickey, a member of George Washington’s elite Life Guard, was executed in New York City after his conviction for treason. Hickey had been tried for participating in a plot to assassinate Washington, ending the continental rebellion against George III, King of Great Britain.
The plot never came to fruition, but knowledge of its existence may have been the catalyst behind “The Trial and Execution of the Traitor George Washington” by Charles Rosenberg. He holds a degree in history from Antioch College and a law degree from Harvard Law School. Both disciplines drive the narrative in his novel.
The story begins in the autumn of 1780 with the assignment of Colonel Jeremiah Black of the Royal Army to capture George Washington and return him, ideally alive, to London where he is to stand trial for treason, or so Black has been told.
As the story unfolds it becomes more apparent that other motivations for Washington’s capture might be afoot, most notably King George’s personal rage at the insults rendered him in the Declaration of Independence, even though Washington had no role in the writing of that document. The mission is shrouded in great secrecy, its nature known only to the Prime Minister, the First Lord of the Admiralty and of course the king himself.
After a queasy 7-week voyage across the north Atlantic, Black is put ashore under cover of night and met by loyalists privy to a small fragment of the plot. Black avoids a series of misadventures and is able to capture Washington and transport him to the British warship waiting offshore. Washington will be taken aboard and sent to the Tower of London to await trial.
The first third of the novel moves briskly, but after Washington’s installation in the Tower of London the pace slows and the plot grows more intricate, full of legal and historical twists and details. It is not giving up any of the story to reveal that Washington does, indeed, come to trial in a delightfully crafted sequence of scenes in Old Bailey, London’s central criminal court. To say more would betray the knotted final chapters of the book.
Rosenberg has obviously done his historical and legal homework in preparation for the writing of this novel. His description of the legal twists and turns of the plot is played out through extensive use of dialogue, but dialogue that does not feel as if it is aware of its role as a plot device. And his interspersion of real historical details and characters with fictional ones adds to the novel’s overall feel of credibility.
Although the first chapters read like a story aimed at a young adult audience, once Washington is delivered to his captors in London the narrative grows more intense, not only requiring more engagement from the reader but also more greatly rewarding it. Devotees of historical fiction will appreciate this book, especially those who enjoy tales of alternative history.