On this day in 1776, one of George Washington’s personal guards is hanged for sedition and treachery. Thomas Hickey had been involved in an effort to undermine the Continental army.
He may even have considered kidnapping and assassinating General Washington.
It was a tumultuous time. Washington’s army was defending New York, which was no easy task. The city still contained Loyalists, and Washington worried that some of them were furtively helping the British. At Washington’s request, a secret committee was established to confer “on the dangers to which this Colony is exposed from its intestine enemies.”
Soon, a plot against the army—and even against Washington personally—was brought to light. An early source of information was a Loyalist then in custody, Isaac Ketcham.
Ketcham had learned of the plot while he was confined at city hall with Hickey, a Continental soldier and a member of Washington’s personal guard. Until then, of course, no one knew that Hickey was involved in a plot against the army. His confinement at city hall had been on a completely unrelated charge of passing counterfeit bills of credit. But then Hickey made the mistake of trying to recruit Ketcham to his cause. Hickey told Ketcham that “the [British] Fleet was soon expected, & that he & a Number of others were in a Choir to turn against the American Army when the King’s Troops should arrive, & ask’d [Ketcham] to be one of them.”
At that point, the plans against the army probably were not very far advanced; however, they may have included such tactics as destroying Patriot arms and ammunition, spiking Patriot guns, or even assassinating Washington. Ketcham was “of opinion they have not as yet fixed any plan of operation; that sometimes they talk, when the fleet arrives, of cutting down King’s Bridge . . . .” He reported that the King was “offering free pardon . . . [and also] land and houses.”
Further investigation showed that the plot was apparently being orchestrated by the Royal Governor, aided and abetted by others in the city, including the Loyalist mayor.
“Many Citizens & others,” Washington reported to John Hancock, “among whom is the Mayor, are now in confinement—the matter has been traced up to Governor Tryon & the Mayor appears to have been a principal agent or go between him and the persons concerned in It—The plot had been communicated to some of the Army, and part of my Guard engaged in It . . . .”
Ultimately, many people were taken into custody, but Hickey took the brunt of the punishment. He was a soldier in the army, while many of the others were not. He was brought before a hastily convened court martial, which found Hickey guilty of “Sedition and mutiny, and also of holding a treach’rous correspondence with the enemy, for the most horrid and detestable purposes.”
Hickey was sentenced to be hanged on June 28.
Washington ordered his army to be present at the hanging. He hoped that “this example will . . . deter others from entering into the like traiterous practices.” Ultimately, almost 20,000 people attended Hickey’s hanging.
It had been a close call. What if a plot to assassinate Washington had succeeded, just as the Continental Congress was about to declare our independence? Could the Revolution have been over, practically before it started?
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George Washington, General Orders (June 27, 1776)
George Washington, Orders to Major General Israel Putnam (May 21, 1776)
John E. Ferling, The First of Men: A Life of George Washington (1988)
Letter from George Washington to John Hancock (June 28, 1776)
Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (2010)