David and Jeanne Heidler / Dec. 4, 2020

No Assassin, No Creed, No Turn — Thomas Hickey

There are a million ways a revolution can go wrong.

Video gamers and fans of a cable miniseries know more about Thomas Hickey than almost anyone who studies American history in today’s schools. We understand that Hickey is a relatively prominent figure in “Assassin’s Creed,” a popular interactive computer game, and he is a somewhat important figure in a storyline of the AMC series Turn. The character in these settings draws marginally on actual history. A man named Thomas Hickey did manage to get himself hanged on formal charges of conspiracy and mutiny 244 years ago during the American Revolution. It happened just days before the United Colonies declared independence and became the United States, which is more critical in Hickey’s story than a first glance shows.

Here is what happened, as far as we firmly know. Thomas Hickey was a sergeant in the Continental Army. In the spring of 1776, he was tapped to serve in General George Washington’s corps of Life Guards, after the American army had marched from Boston to New York City. The guards were created to ensure the commanding general’s safety, but they were hardly an elite unit, as Hickey’s presence shows. The rebellion was in its infancy, and the Continental Army was heavy with amateurs establishing formal procedures by trial and error.

In the case of Hickey, the error would lead to an important trial, a court-martial to be specific. The guards were a uniform bunch in terms of appearance rather than integrity. They had to be of a certain height and at least look like soldiers, but it was up to the commanders of regiments to pick men noted “for their sobriety, honesty and good behavior.” It didn’t always work out that way, and despite their motto of “Conquer or Die,” some of the guards, like Hickey, were unwilling to do either.

Sobriety, honesty, and good behavior were in short supply for this soldier. Irish-born, Sgt. Hickey had been in the British army during the 1750s and fought in the French and Indian War, which is how he came to the American colonies and leaped at the first chance he found to desert his post. Most accounts assume that he took refuge in Wethersfield, Connecticut, but if so, his life was unremarkable there. When American resistance to Britain led to a shooting war in 1775, Hickey resurfaces in the documentary record. He joined the American army, but he was not motivated by the American Cause. His military experience probably made him a welcome addition to the ragtag forces opposing George III, and it likely made him seem fit for assignment to the Life Guards.

And that is all we really know about Thomas Hickey’s past. Once in the Life Guards, his actions aren’t much clearer, and the only reason we know about him at all is he was finally judged a nefarious character. But how nefarious? The crime that first landed him in jail was the petty one of passing counterfeit money in New York City. Behind bars, he behaved so stupidly he defied reason. He profanely blustered about the foolishness of the American cause and how he would never fight for it. Conquer or die? Not so much, per Tom Hickey.

But his rants began to attract attention when he claimed to be a recruiter for a conspiracy of men loyal to the King and started doing that business with fellow prisoners. He claimed that everything was being amply funded by the British, so the getting was good as conspirators assembled a sizeable secret group in the Continental Army, some 700-strong and even able to infiltrate Washington’s personal guard.

Hickey personally presented himself as evidence of this claim, but he soon found evidence being presented against him before hard-faced men who made no secret that Sgt. Hickey was in a great deal of trouble. In only a few days, Hickey went from braggart to corpse swinging on the end of a rope before a crowd of 20,000 jeering spectators thronging the streets near Bowery Lane. But those few days could have become dangerous to the point of disastrous.

Weeding out a man like Thomas Hickey was a matter of basic military hygiene, and George Washington didn’t hesitate to sign the death warrant. At the same time, however, Washington realized that other forces more dangerous than Hickey were in play. The Provincial Congress of the United Colonies was already edgy over rumors that the many Loyalists in New York were up to no good. Hickey’s claims soon went through the rumor mills to transform him from a counterfeiting blowhard into a master assassin with equally murderous confederates. People whispered that Hickey or someone else in the Life Guards intended to stab George Washington to death as the Royal Navy attacked New York City. Stories told of sweet peas killing chickens, peas intended for General Washington’s table that fortunately he did not eat. The secret corps of 700 traitors in the ranks were to turn their artillery on the American army while Redcoats landed to finish the slaughter. Loyalists would destroy King’s Bridge on the Harlem River to trap every Patriot on Manhattan for arrest, transport, and execution.

None of this was true, but it didn’t have to be. Hickey was a turncoat, but at most, he was an opportunist willing to change sides when convenient. His presence in the unit protecting George Washington regrettably made Hickey seem more sinister than he was, looming large in the fevered imaginations of a people in rebellion and at war. In that, he became more dangerous than an assassin. Frightened authorities began to cast a broad net, and arrests on mere hearsay followed.

There are a million ways revolutions can go wrong, and indiscriminately punishing people for suspected rather than actual opposition to the Cause is one of them. When Hickey’s revelations became more important than Hickey’s transgressions, it threatened to intensify already ugly divisions between those Americans loyal to the King (Loyalists) and those Americans also faithful to the King but willing to resist his policies. For quite some time, the disagreements between these two positions had been only a political argument, if a heated one. After Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the debate began trembling on the verge of a civil war waiting to happen.

In that fateful summer of 1776, as the commitment to independence remained uncertain, men in taverns as well as at the Continental Army’s officers’ mess still toasted the King’s health. George Washington’s neighbors held a wide range of attitudes about what was happening to their country. He knew that many insisted that all resistance to the King, especially open rebellion, was illegitimate. In their view, American congresses and armies were unlawful by statute and treasonous by action, and they had to be actively opposed. If necessity required covert cooperation with imperial authorities to thwart all forms of resistance and fight any form of rebellion, so be it. Friendships were doomed, and families were estranged over such questions.

Washington was afraid of this more than a knife at his throat. Covert activity to disrupt the military and promote civil discord threatened not just the existence of the revolutionary movement but its meaning as an aspiration for liberty and equality. Washington’s problem then was multi-fold. He couldn’t allow treachery to exist in the army, but he was reluctant to take action that could portray the army as hopelessly corrupted. From another perspective, he couldn’t allow Loyalists to disrupt the military and disturb the peace. Yet he didn’t want to encourage vindictive elements of the patriot community already inclined to harass and persecute Loyalists. A sense of fairness caused Washington to cringe over reports of thugs manhandling “hair shirts” — the vulgar term for Loyalists — but something else alarmed him in that dangerous summer, and how he managed it is often overlooked as a significant accomplishment. In fact, it was to rank among his finest hours.

George Washington was never a great military tactician, but he was something better. He knew that history had shown time and again that a popular general is a dangerous character in a revolutionary movement. Because a revolution is convulsive by nature, it is prone to snap the bonds of peaceful civic relations. The revolution then becomes a prelude to civil war as questions of loyalty and dissent poison communities. It puts some people at other’s feet and ultimately places everyone at one another’s throats. Restoring order in such a setting is most easily achieved by force and compulsion, usually by a strong man at the head of an army who then uses preserving the peace as an excuse for personal decrees capriciously enforced. That is how civil unrest paves the path to tyranny.

Washington did not pursue that course at the beginning of the American Revolution, and his restraint made its remarkable conclusion possible. His prompt and decisive actions make clear that he believed a serious Loyalist conspiracy was afoot in New York. It is also clear that he believed that New York’s mayor David Matthews was funding the scheme with money provided by colonial governor William Tryon. He had enough evidence that British money was being thrown around New York like seeds on fertile ground, and he didn’t hesitate to have Matthews arrested in his Brooklyn residence for his “dangerous designs and treasonable conspiracies against the rights and liberties of the United Colonies.” Washington even acted as if to schedule trials for Matthews and some twelve other prisoners who had begun to implicate one another in plots large and small.

But Thomas Hickey was the only man ever to stand trial. On Washington’s orders, Mayor Matthews and the twelve other prisoners were sent to Connecticut, ostensibly to neutralize them. But it was as much to keep them safe. After he sent them to Connecticut, Washington acted as if they did not exist, and soon David Matthews and his family were residing in homes comfortably as guests rather than prisoners. In due course, the infamous 13 “escaped” to British authorities or simply and harmlessly melded back into the American landscape. Everyone took Washington’s cue to look the other way.

Beyond the achievement of being the first person in the Continental Army executed after a formal court-martial, Thomas Hickey was nothing more than a petty criminal with a big mouth. He was not an assassin. He had no creed except for opportunism. In his experience, any turning that went on was framed by empty bluster and petty avarice rather than sinister espionage.

In announcing Hickey’s death to the army, George Washington described him as an embarrassment rather than a threat, a wretch who himself claimed to have been led astray by loose women. Washington calmly advised his soldiers to take Hickey’s life and death as a cautionary tale about morality and rectitude.

And thus the commander-in-chief quietly by example showed Patriots how to fight the British rather than one another. It was one of several of George Washington’s finest hours.

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