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The American Who Spied for the British

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Royal Society
Edward Bancroft; artist unknown

Edward Bancroft (1744–1821), the subject of Thomas Schaeper’s engaging biography, was an American who became a singularly well-situated spy for the British. By providing a wealth of detail about the life and times of this much-execrated man, Schaeper balances and softens what has conventionally been seen as Bancroft’s harsh character.

Bancroft’s personality and actions are susceptible to clashing interpretations. How he came to be a leading spy for the British remains, despite his biographer’s brisk and welcome objectivity, something of a conundrum. A man of humble yet respectable Yankee origins, first in Massachusetts, then in Connecticut, where he was a student of Silas Deane, a schoolmaster who went on to become an American diplomat, he made his way in the world by means of an inquisitive, retentive mind and assiduous application. He had also a talent for attracting rich, powerful patrons, a quality he shared with his contemporaries Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

In 1763, after studying medicine in Connecticut with a local physician, he broke his apprenticeship contract, took ship for Barbados, and soon secured a post as “Surgeon to a gentleman of Fortune” who owned plantations on the Demerara River in Dutch Guiana. By twenty he was treating the slaves and slave owners of six large plantations. Despite excellent earnings in a practice that “serves rather as an Amusement, than a Toil,” Bancroft threw over the job to devote himself to the natural history of the region and to writing about it with considerable distinction. After a brief sojourn in New England, he sailed in February 1767 for England, where he found vast opportunities and several men open to furthering his ambitions.

H.W. Brands, a biographer of Benjamin Franklin, observes of Bancroft that “such schooling as he received was largely makeshift and self- administered.” His autodidactic zeal would have made a favorable impression on Americans and Britons who had wrested their own broad educations from an array of sources and circumstances. The empiricism displayed in Bancroft’s Essay on the Natural History of Guiana (London, 1769) would have commended itself to Franklin. And his report on the Mediterranean torpedo fish and the “torporific eel” of South America, which concluded that they produce painful shocks by means of electricity, played to one of the old investigator’s keenest interests.

Franklin, then residing in London, met Bancroft in 1769, and in 1773 he and Joseph Priestley got the young man elected to the Royal Society. It is probably true that Bancroft’s farmer father succumbed to an epileptic fit in a pigsty when he was a small boy. How far, then, he had come by his mid-twenties, when he published not only his Natural History but also a cogent critique of William Knox and George Grenville’s Controversy Between Great Britain and Her Colonies, an assertion of parliamentary supremacy over the colonial assemblies of British North America.

Despite his absences from America and his total inexperience as a political controversialist, Bancroft’s Remarks on the review of “The Controversy Between Great Britain and Her Colonies” (1769) demonstrated a firm grasp of constitutional doctrines and history. And he was bold enough to proclaim, “no taxation without representation.” Not long after, he published an epistolary novel, The History of Charles Wentworth, Esq. (1770). Its idealistic protagonist declares himself averse to “too great a sensibility to the value of wealth,” which is the sort of thing young men avid for wealth are apt to say.

Thanks to his intellectual gifts and ardent defense of his country, Bancroft stepped easily into the circle of notables surrounding Franklin, who was serving as the agent, that is to say lobbyist, for several colonies. Bancroft sided with him during the infamous episode of the Hutchinson letters. How Franklin obtained the private correspondence of Thomas Hutchinson and Andrew Oliver, royal officials in Massachusetts united in their detestation of American pretensions to self-government, and why he sent the letters to Thomas Cushing, speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, are matters still disputed today. Publication in the colonies of these documents in 1773 was bound to incite outrage when Americans read Hutchinson’s demands for the abrogation of their rights.

When Franklin admitted his role, he was summoned to appear before the Privy Council. Bancroft showed no qualms about his mentor’s actions and stood near him while the solicitor general, Alexander Wedderburn, fiercely denounced Franklin before the Privy Council and a throng of hostile spectators. “Bancroft’s attendance at the Cockpit that day took courage,” Schaeper observes, as did his signing petitions to Parliament for repeal of the so-called Intolerable Acts.

Meanwhile Bancroft was elected to the Medical Society of London and secured a post with the Monthly Review, contributing book reviews while setting up a medical practice. Despite claims and counterclaims about his initiation into the world of espionage, it is by no means easy to draw conclusions about how he first came to be a spy, and for whom. In July 1776, he met with the ubiquitous Silas Deane, who had been sent to France by the Continental Congress. Deane, whose name would become inextricably bound to Bancroft’s, allegedly recruited him as a spy for the Americans, with a cover as secretary to the American delegation to France. This, like many other supposedly authoritative assertions, is shot down by Schaeper’s research. In a memorandum Bancroft wrote sometime after meeting with Deane, he explained that he learned “every thing which passed between [Deane], & the French Ministry,” secrets he passed on to Lords Weymouth and Suffolk, both secretaries of state whose jurisdiction encompassed the United States:

I had then resided near ten years, & expected to reside the rest of my Life, in England; and all my views, interests & inclinations were adverse to the independency of the Colonies, though I had advocated some of their Claims, from a persuasion of their being founded on Justice. I therefore wished, that the Government of this Country, might be informed, of the Danger of French interference, though I could not resolve to become the informant.

As Bancroft ingenuously put it, he found himself “entangled and obliged to proceed.”

In late 1777 or early 1778 he managed to insert himself into the family circle of Franklin, newly arrived in France to represent the United States in its bid for military aid and diplomatic recognition. There was a great deal that needed doing and no one, apart from a grandson, William Temple Franklin (known as Temple), to shoulder the work. Franklin was over seventy and afflicted with gout and kidney stones. His French was serviceable—doubtless eked out with the humorous byplay that captivated his French audiences—but far from fluent.

Bancroft, on the other hand, was comfortable with the language. He seemed by lucky happenstance to materialize at the older man’s side just when he needed an affable gentleman volunteer to undertake the tasks of interpreter, copyist, editor, and sounding board. While it is commonly claimed that Bancroft was hired as secretary to the American mission or held a post under the Continental Congress, Schaeper shows that “Bancroft never received a salary or a title.” Did his fellow Americans simply assume that he was so prosperous that he could devote himself to assisting Franklin?

The British government, conscious of his importance to their intelligence-gathering operation, acceded to his request for compensation commensurate with his work. Besides annual pay of £200, the British agreed to grant him a £600 pension when he stopped spying and lucrative, if nebulous, future considerations. A one-time disbursement of £500 helped Bancroft pay down his debts, but he still had to borrow money to transport his family to France. Decent pay, it was hardly munificent for a man who was supporting his English wife and children in suburban Chaillot, and who, with more enthusiasm than judgment, pursued dodgy business deals.

Franklin’s untiring endeavors on behalf of the United States gave Bancroft matchless opportunities to get his hands on information coveted by the British, who wanted to know everything the French contemplated doing for America. The quest for gold, ships, soldiers, and supplies was a desperate gambit that only Franklin could pull off. Bancroft knew there wasn’t a moment to waste. When he wasn’t copying secret documents “in a certain place all the afternoon,” he was translating dispatches or memoranda, drafting reports and propaganda, running errands, serving as an interpreter, crossing the Channel, and improving his acquaintance with French aristocrats like the Marquis de Lafayette. He was also having intimate conversations with American dignitaries, when he wasn’t dining and strolling with Franklin and Temple. This maelstrom of activity in Versailles, Paris, and Passy somehow left him time to act as courier, confidential messenger, and even business agent for the American naval hero John Paul Jones and, of course, Silas Deane. These particular friendships were bolstered by jointly floating schemes for profiting from the investment and commercial opportunities presented by the war.

We tend to picture spies of the old school as squinting through shrubberies, but Bancroft did his work on parterres, in music rooms, at festive dinners, and even at the Masonic lodge of the Neuf Soeurs in Paris. It was Franklin’s sponsorship that ensured his induction, alongside Temple and Jones, into one of the most exclusive domains of European Freemasonry. Schaeper tells us a lot about his tradecraft, including the use of a dead drop in a tree at the Tuileries Gardens, an episode that has fascinated historians—unduly, Schaeper says. As an expert on the extraction and industrial uses of vegetable dyes, for which he held a number of patents, it was child’s play for Bancroft to concoct invisible inks and instruct others, such as Lord Stormont, the British ambassador in Paris, in their use.

Unlike Patrick O’Brian’s fictional naturalist/surgeon/secret agent Dr. Stephen Maturin, who has lethal skill with pistol and sword and a fell passion for the game of espionage, Bancroft didn’t go about heavily armed or have much recourse to elaborate cutouts or brain-buzzing ciphers. Although he assigned numbers to the principal players, Spain being 136, for instance, while clothing was coded 7n802adx6, his outstanding skills were copying documents rapidly and accurately and giving virtually verbatim transcripts of conversations with unsuspecting sources.

His chief tactic of concealment consisted of aliases like “Dr. Edwards” and “St. Pierre.” So long as France maintained its posture of ostensible neutrality, Paul Wentworth, a British spy with ties to rich and influential Americans, who introduced Bancroft to British officials, could remain in residence in London, taking verbal reports or transmitting messages by couriers, whether his own or Bancroft’s servants. Once France allied itself to America, getting intelligence into British hands became a more complicated business, but Bancroft tackled the job with his usual aplomb.

Bancroft required no camouflage. He was as good an American as the next man, in a decade when most Americans, Franklin included, believed themselves true Britons and desired to remain within the Empire as first-class subjects of the king. Even apart from those who fled America or took up arms against the Continental Army, there were many colonists who doubted what their country could achieve by independence. Despite close brushes with exposure—such as his association with an unstable incendiarist who called himself John the Painter and repeated accusations of treason by the brothers William and Arthur Lee and Ralph Izard—Bancroft maintained his standing as a loyal American. John Adams castigated him as an impious stockjobber but never doubted his patriotism. Historians of stature, among them Samuel Flagg Bemis, Julian Boyd, and Forrest McDonald, have accused him of avarice, immorality, and heinous deeds, but the gravest charges against him rest largely on hearsay backed by wild surmise. Now, thanks to Schaeper’s evenhanded approach, he can be viewed through a more pragmatic, or at any rate less lurid, perspective.

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