Thursday, July 26, 2018

Spy vs Spy: France and England Match Wits During the American Revolution

J. M. Hochstetler

William Eden, Baron Auckland
I’m currently writing Refiner’s Fire, book 6 of my American Patriot Series, set during the American Revolution. In this installment, Elizabeth Howard has been taken to France for safety after an attempt on her life by the British. Since both Elizabeth and the man she loves, General Jonathan Carleton, are spies, I’ve been digging into the intelligence operations of the French and British, and I’m finding it quite amusing.

Long before France signed formal treaties of alliance with the United States in early 1778, the French were already shipping supplies desperately needed by the Continental Army to aid America in her war with England. A main threat to their efforts was Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. Headed by William Eden, the Service was already in full operation in France by the time England officially declared war on her old enemy.

Benjamin Franklin
After receiving the news of British General John Burgoyne’s disastrous defeat at Saratoga in December 1777, the British began to seriously consider the possibility of reconciliation with their rebellious colonies. Lord North, the British Prime Minister, made a conciliatory speech before Parliament. George III even went so far as to privately recommend opening a channel of communication with Benjamin Franklin. “That insidious man” as he termed him, was at the time ensconced in Paris as the first of the American’s commissioners sent by Congress.

British agents immediately began to filter into Paris to put out feelers as to what peace terms the Americans might consider. Some of the agents chosen were surprising, and perhaps because of it they were undetected, at least by the Americans. In fact, their main agent, and perhaps the one who maintained the deepest cover was an American who was Franklin’s closest and most trusted friend: Dr. Edward Bancroft. He certainly had the most spectacular success.

Edward Bancroft
Franklin and Bancroft met in London while both men were living there for some years. In his mid thirties, Bancroft, who was a physician, was also from New England. Genial and accomplished, a man of many interests, he was the perfect companion for Franklin, who installed him the commission’s secretary. He worked hard—at more than the commissioners suspected, actually—and was fluent in French, which Franklin could hardly speak. He not only became indispensable to the commissioners’ work, but also lived with them in the Hôtel de Valentinois, giving him access 24/7. John Adams disliked the man for a number of reasons. But although Arthur Lee, the third member of the commission, was convinced he was a British spy, Adams, along with Franklin, discounted the opinion since Lee was suspicious of everyone. Unfortunately, in this case he was right.

Known in the British spy network as Dr. Edwards, Bancroft was secretly a double agent who spied for the Americans as well as for the British. In serving as secretary to the Americans, Bancroft had access to every detail the British could possibly want to know. His orders were to provide, among other things, the American commissioners’ “correspondence with Congress, & their Agents, & the secret, as well as ostensible, Letters from the Congress to them,” and also “Copys of any transactions, committed to Paper, & an exact account of all intercourse & the subject matter treated of, between the Courts of Versailles & Madrid, and the Agents from the Congress.” In addition he was to provide detailed information on all shipping between France and America.

The method of transferring the intelligence was less than genius: Reports were written in invisible ink and placed in a bottle buried in a hole beneath a designated tree on the south terrace of the Tuilleries Palace in Paris. They were retrieved from there by a Mr. Deans every Tuesday evening at half past nine. Rather primitive in light of today’s technological advances in spycraft, wouldn’t you say? Obviously it wasn’t very secret either, considering how much of the intelligence flowing from Paris to London was promptly intercepted by the French.

Charles Gravier, le comte de Vergennes
In fact, espionage was at times carried on in an almost laughably farcical manner on all sides. One example: Bancroft would send the British a list of cargoes that France was shipping to America to aid the war effort. In short order Lord Stormont, the British ambassador to France, sent a vehement objection to the French Foreign Minister, Vergennes, who then helpfully forwarded Stormont’s protests and cargo lists to the American commissioners—who apparently never noticed how often the items were listed in the exact same order as in their own minutes!

Franklin himself is to a large extent responsible for intelligence leaking out of the commission like water out of a sieve. He had a very casual attitude toward security. In fact, an old friend, William Alexander, who had established a residence in Auteuil, less than a mile from Passy where he would be close to Franklin, warned him against leaving his correspondence openly lying about. A cordial, well-to-do Scot, Alexander was in and out of the Hôtel de Valentinois as frequently as a family member and often roused Franklin at an early hour to converse about scientific subjects. He was outspoken in his contempt for British policy toward America, believed the war to be an appalling blunder on England’s part, and favored full independence for America. And he was a British spy.

Regardless of the regular warnings he received, Franklin maintained that it was impossible to detect all spies, adding that “I have long observed one rule which prevents any inconvenience form such practices. It is simply this: to be concerned in no affairs that I should blush to have made public and to do nothing but what spies may see and welcome.” I’m sure that was cold comfort to the ships carrying war supplies that were sunk by the enemy because of intelligence Bancroft and others passed along.

Bancroft was clearly the most successful of the spies surrounding Franklin and remained undetected by the Americans until years after the Revolution. He was, however, only one of a very large number of British spies who gathered reams of intelligence on French and American efforts during the Revolution. Of course, one can be certain that the French were spying on us as well, even as we were making our own attempts to spy on them and the British!

For all our technological advances in spycraft today, it’s certain that the other side is employing corresponding countermeasures. One has to wonder whether in reality we’ve advanced all that far. Please share your opinions as you observe the charges flying back and forth over the Russians attempts to compromise our elections, Chinese hackers, and more!
J. M. Hochstetler is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. She is also an author, editor, and publisher. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill Amish Series coauthored with Bob Hostetler, won Foreword Magazine’s 2014 Indie Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Book 2, The Return, received the 2017 Interviews and Reviews Silver Award for Historical Fiction and was named one of Shelf Unbound’s 2018 Notable Indie Books. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year and a finalist in the Carol Award.


  1. Very interesting post. I like to read about various famous people and about history in general. Also, I really liked your article "How Tall Were Our Historical Heroes?".We read it with our colleaguesfrom app review app store company and learned a lot of new things.

  2. What an interesting post! Some of this I knew and some I didn't. You know, I think we have advanced some in the spy world but, everyone is still very sneaky.
    I was wondering while reading the post if, Elizabeth gets caught up in it again while in France. But, please don't tell me if she does. I don't want an y spoilers! Although, (sigh, sign, sign) I sure wonder when I'll be able to read whether or nor she does.

  3. Lol! Well, I won't tell you, Bev. Keep on reminding me, and I'll get RF done--I need somebody cracking the whip. 😁

    1. Trust me, I will keep on you! I'm trying to wait patiently for RF! Boy, after that one I'll have to start bugging you about the next one! LOL

  4. Informative and interesting post. We've advanced in the spy world but there are still ways individuals are obtaining information without the knowledge of privacy being invaded until later.

  5. Joan, very interesting post.
    Blessings, Tina