The Scotsman interviewed Robert Cooper, curator of the Scottish Masonic Museum and Library at Freemason's Hall in Edinburgh, Scotland. Cooper, a well-regarded authority on the history of Freemasonry, reported that he had received important information from an unnamed source regarding the premise of The Lost Symbol: the idea that George Washington was actually in league with the British during the Revolutionary War, and that he planned to betray the American Colonial rebels and hand American forces over to the British, until the exposure of Benedict Arnold as a traitor led Washington to embrace the Revolutionary cause.
All of this leads us to ask two questions:
- Is Cooper's source likely correct? That is, could this really be the direction that The Lost Symbol is taking, based on what we know from the clues?
- Could this possibly be true, in real life? That is, could Washington really have been on the brink of betraying the Revolution?
Is a "Traitorous Washington" Plot Element Consistent With the Twitter Clues?
Short of a peek at the manuscript for The Lost Symbol--which, I assure you, I have not had--the best source we have for the plot of The Lost Symbol is the set of clues being posted by Doubleday on Twitter and Facebook. Is the "traitorous Washington" plot consistent with the Twitter clues?
As a matter of fact, yes, it is.
Consider, for example, Clue #39:
http://twitpic.com/9wl9u - Who is this Redcoat commander?
The URL (a hot link, above) leads to the earliest known portrait of Washington -- a jarring image to modern American eyes -- showing Washington as a British officer during the French and Indian Wars. The more subtle message here may be that Washington remained a British officer, secretly, during the beginning of the Revolution.
(I would also point out that the very numbering of this clue may be a sort of subtle joke on the part of the clue's author. This being the 39th clue may be an homage of sorts to Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film about a foreign espionage network stealing military secrets in England, "The 39 Steps.")
The idea of Washington being a British agent would make sense of Clue #47 (" http://tiny.cc/GjfcP "), which shows the real-life headquarters of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)--caught on a surveillance camera!
The clues are full of references to real-life double agents and betrayals, including Aldrich Ames (Clue #55: "Market mailbox, 37th and R. He wants a meeting"), Robert Hanssen (Clue #51: "Betrayer of double agents: http://bit.ly/RuFxx "), and, of course, Benedict Arnold himself (Clue #30: "Braced Indolent was the Revolutionary War's most famous Can Trout": that is 'Benedict Arnold was the Revolutionary War's most famous TurnCoat').
In light of the leak about the novel's plot, perhaps the most interesting reference is Clue #42 ("An agent to France, + his host's "colors". VLODVGHDQH"), which decodes to SILAS DEANE, the name of an American emissary to France during the Revolution. Deane, of course, was spied upon by his own assistant, Edward Bancroft, who reported everything Deane did to the British. Bancroft's role as a double agent was not discovered until long after Bancroft's death, when the British declassified some intelligence papers that revealed his wartime activities. The subtle message in the clue may be that some people's two-faced nature is not discovered until years after their deaths -- perhaps many, many years after . . . .
In summary, the idea that Washington was secretly a British agent during the Revolution is entirely consistent with the clues. But how about real life?
Could Washington Really Have Been a British Agent?
There is absolutely nothing in the real-life history of Washington that is remotely consistent with the notion that he could have been an agent for the British during the Revolutionary War.
George Washington is one of the most intensely scrutinized figures in all of human history, a man who has had many biographies written about him over the course of over two centuries. (See, for example, Joseph J. Ellis's 2004 biography, reissued in 2008, His Excellency: George Washington, published by Knopf; this book made use of recently catalogued Washington papers at the University of Virginia.) No one--and I mean, no one--has ever mentioned the hint of a shadow of a rumor about this kind of duplicity on Washington's part.
In addition, we need to keep in mind that the British of Washington's era and afterwards had no special love for the United States or Washington's legacy, and would have revealed Washington as a British agent if they could have. In our day, after the U.S. came to Britain's aid in not one but two World Wars in the 20th century, after almost a century of comradery-in-arms, it is easy to forget that Britain was quite opposed to the U.S. for decades after the end of the Revolutionary War. Remember the War of 1812--when the British Empire actually invaded the United States, captured Washington, DC, and burned the White House?? In that era, there is nothing that the British would rather have done than demoralize the United States by revealing that Washington himself had been a British agent during the Revolution. The fact that the British did nothing of the sort would suggest that they simply had nothing on Washington.
I realize that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence": that is, the lack of evidence that Washington was a British agent does not prove that he was not one. However, let us consider another principle of evidence: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" (Marcello Truzzi's notion, as popularized by Carl Sagan). Anyone who wants to make a claim about Washington as a British agent had better be able to cough up some very solid evidence for that idea -- and, right now, there's bupkis, nada, zilch, nani mo nai wa, and so forth, all euphemisms for the fact that there is absolutely nothing in existence to support this notion.
It may well be the case that The Lost Symbol has, as a plot device, the idea that George Washington was himself secretly a British agent. This idea is entirely consistent with the clues that have come forth so far. However, this idea is completely at variance with everything we know about Washington in real life.
[The image above shows Rembrandt Peale's portrait of George Washington, painted sometime during the period 1795-1823; it it currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City. The image was obtained from Wikimedia Commons, which states that the image is in the public domain.]