George Washington takes command of the Continental army. (Mount Vernon via Smithsonian)

The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch; Flatiron Books (413 pages, $29.99)

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New York City has seen dark times, but in the spring and early summer of 1776 the outlook was especially grim. The Revolutionary War was in its early, chaotic days, the British fleet sailed en masse toward the city, and in a desperate defensive measure, General George Washington ordered thousands of his Continental troops into lower Manhattan. Almost a third of the city's citizens fled, and Washington's filthy, untrained and undisciplined soldiers quartered themselves in the elegant houses left behind. They were hungry, cold and scared, and they numbed their fear with drink, gambling and prostitutes. They were about to face the greatest military force in the world, outgunned and outmanned, fighting for a country that hadn't been created yet.

In hindsight, America's victory against the British seems like one of history's inevitabilities, but in the beginning it was anything but. And had a small group of pro-British conspirators had their way, the Glorious Cause might have lost its essential leader — George Washington — to imprisonment, execution or assassination.

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