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.


Library of Congress

Benjamin Franklin at the court of France, 1778

Whenever he can give his subject the benefit of the doubt, Schaeper reports his conduct as straightforward and intelligible, as he attempts to cut away the layers of indignant verbiage that assigns traitorous, even homicidal, motivations to Bancroft’s every utterance and deed. Julian Boyd, the revered editor of the papers of Thomas Jefferson, went so far as to indict Bancroft for involvement in the murder of Silas Deane, who died suddenly while waiting to sail for the United States in hopes of clearing his name. Deane was a very sick man who had suffered severe privations after being publicly disgraced by the ever-paranoid Arthur Lee and his cohorts, who were quick to accuse others of venality and treason. Schaeper argues that Deane’s death may not have been all that sudden or mysterious. Since he acquits Deane of the charge of treasonous espionage, what remains is his history of shady business transactions. Whatever the cause or manner of Deane’s death, it strains credulity to think that Bancroft had him killed to prevent disclosure of their dealings, which had ranged from feckless to reckless to even, by modern reckoning, dirty.

What we now punish as insider trading was commonplace in the eighteenth century. As Linda Colley has shown in The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh (2007), people who were not born with access to power improved their standing by making fortunate marriages, clutching the coattails of relatives, and courting the rich and highborn—in a word, by leveraging friendship and kinship ties. Deane and Bancroft, and the Lee brothers, with their connection to the redoubtable Lee family, recognized that public service was poorly paid and not even rewarded by the thanks of a grateful nation. Like everyone else of consequence, public servants sought protection and patronage. What opened purses and doors was “influence.” People as high-minded as George Washington—who would have echoed the fictitious Charles Wentworth in discountenancing “too great a sensibility to the value of wealth”—clubbed together with schoolmates and cousins and dealt with adventurers in madly hopeful schemes to get rich quick. One of the advantages of befriending other men was being let in on whatever good things your pals might be starting up.

Charles Royster’s Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company (1999) chronicles one of these byzantine enterprises, whose shareholders included Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other Virginia grandees. The whole idea was, for lack of a better term, fantasy-based. But no more so than Benjamin and William Franklin’s participation in the land speculations of the Illinois Company or Bancroft’s involvement with Thomas Walpole in the Vandalia Company. The more prominent the men, the more grandiosely they talked about exploiting friendship and family bonds under the rubric of “making influence.” If Bancroft expected to benefit from cronyism, he was merely adhering to the business norms of his time.

Schaeper also dismisses theories that Bancroft was a double agent, taking British pay while actually reporting back to the Americans. To explain why he became a spy, Schaeper argues that we should believe Bancroft when he says he succumbed to pressure and then, having demonstrated talent for espionage, continued on this pathway, though “repugnant to my feelings.” At any rate, he never evinced hatred of the United States or of his fellow Americans. Still, for most American historians a stench hangs over him.

Espionage is a profession that both fascinates and repels many citizens. The Old Testament acknowledged the necessity of spies when Joshua dispatched two men of Shittim to Jericho before he attacked it. When men fight wars, they require knowledge and foreknowledge of their enemies’ actions. The war for American independence was fought by generals like Washington who professed to believe that espionage dishonored everyone, notwithstanding the example of Captain Nathan Hale, who was hanged by the British for espionage in New York City. (Ironically, it was Hale’s use of visible ink for his notes and sketches that helped bring about his exposure.) Although Washington became good at running a spy ring and talked the Continental Congress into subsidizing it heavily, he wasn’t about to brag about it. When James Fenimore Cooper wrote the story of a top patriot spy, he followed convention by having the noble Washington persuade Harvey Birch, who spurns a reward of gold doubloons, to carry his loathsome identity to the grave. Schaeper has little patience with such cant.

There remains the question of Bancroft’s effectiveness as a spy. Reviewing his assignments demonstrates what a valuable asset he was to the British. It was he, after all, who gave them advance warning that the French fleet under the Comte d’Estaing had sailed for America to challenge Lord Howe’s warships. But the British seem to have made no significant use of this information. Nor do reports from other British spies figure notably in accounts of other major military and naval actions or strategies. Franklin himself seems to have dismissed espionage as, on balance, not worth fretting about. When a seemingly dotty American expatriate wrote to him, warning that he would be plagued by spies in France, he answered tolerantly, “If I was sure therefore that my Valet de Place was a Spy, as probably he is, I think I should not discharge him for that, if in other Respects I lik’d him.”

Bancroft’s talent for getting next to Franklin made him better than a valet, and gave him far greater access to secrets and astute readings of the workings of Franklin’s mind. But when Schaeper systematically assesses his subject’s effectiveness, he draws largely negative conclusions about the impact of Bancroft’s intelligence coups on British foreign policy and the conduct of the war.

He considers this record of failure as arising in large part from the structure of the British government. Lord North, who was de facto prime minister but rejected the title, shared the running of the war with a number of other ministers. Overlapping jurisdictions, duplication of functions, and political antagonisms rendered them incapable of prompt, decisive military action: “Lord North’s government was not just small and disorganized but also dysfunctional.” Factor in the enormous distance from the theater of operations and the hostile scrutiny of many elements within Parliament and the populace, and the government was bound to temporize and falter. In their hands the intelligence gold that Bancroft unearthed for them was transmuted to military lead.

If Bancroft was disheartened by these developments, he didn’t say so. His worst disappointment came later, when the British government was stingy with his pension. In truth, despite Schaeper’s impressive marshaling of evidence, it is difficult to know Edward Bancroft at all. If we are to believe his Royal Society portrait, his face wore the gravitas that scholars of his time wished to project. Samuel Fuller, the filmmaker, claimed that every human being has a “third face” that “remains a secret to even your dearest loved ones.” Far from corrupting human relations, he argued, “the perpetuation of our secret selves is what makes life both survivable and glorious.” Edward Bancroft had this third face, and perhaps others. Schaeper does not claim to have fathomed the riddle of his motivations for spying for the British. His focus is on explaining what Bancroft did for the sake of surviving. If the man went through life cherishing a secret self as a means of achieving not mere survival but glory, it is a clouded sort of glory.

Thomas Schaeper gives a full and fair estimation of an American with gifts of mind and personality, who spied on other Americans, displaying keen professionalism in this chosen sphere. Yet it must be remembered that it was but one of the spheres he inhabited. He achieved a degree of distinction in fields ranging from literature and political thought to zoology, natural history, and the chemistry of organic dyes. But for the spying, however, it is unlikely that historians would have paid much attention to him. In the annals of British espionage, he must be acknowledged as a singularly talented, industrious, and faithful spy. Not only was he ingenious: he managed to escape exposure for more than a century after filing his last report. It was through no fault of his own that the war government that gave him his marching orders failed to reap the benefits of his excellent endeavors. There was Edward Bancroft, bird-dogging Benjamin Franklin by day and night, but so much of what he placed at the feet of his masters spoiled where it lay.