Edward Bancroft – Britain’s Spy in the American Delegation to France

On March 2nd, 1776, the Committee of Secret Correspondence (after 1777, it was the Committee on Foreign Affairs) formed by Second Continental Congress selected Silas Deane to go to Paris to convince the French to come into the war on our side. There Deane began negotiating with the French Foreign Minister, the Comte de Vergennes. At the same time, he set up a shell company with a famous French character Pierre-Caron de Beaumarchais who besides being an ardent supporter of the American independence was also an inventor, musician, playwright, financier and an arm dealer. Without the munitions the company acquired, the Continental Army wouldn’t have had enough muskets or gunpowder.

Benjamin Franklin instructed Deane to contact his former student, Edward Bancroft who was a Connecticut native and ex-patriate living in London. After meeting with Deane in Paris, Bancroft returned to London to prepare to move to Paris where he would become, once Franklin and Arthur Lee arrived, the American delegation’s secretary.

Once Bancroft came to Paris, Deane recruited the Marquis de Lafayette, Baron Johann de Kalb, Thomas Conway, Casimir Pulaski and Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. With the exception of Conway, all these men made a major contribution to the American cause. They did, however, rub some in the Continental Army the wrong way and ultimately led to Deane’s recall from France.

In the beginning, neither Franklin, Lee or Deane knew Bancroft was a British spy. Bancroft did not approve of American independence from Britain. After meeting with Deane in France, Bancroft returned to London where he met with the head of the British Secret Service William Eden and set up how he would pass information to the British government.

Bancroft had access to every piece of correspondence sent or received by the American delegation to France. and passed the relevant content on to the British via innocuous letters that had the real information written in invisible ink. For example, the intelligence he provided the British enabled them to put extreme pressure on the Dutch which delayed the sailing of a new frigate called L’Indien. John Paul Jones was supposed to be its first captain and due to the delays, he was given Bonhomme Richard. What is interesting is that while Jones was waiting for L’Indien to be finished, Bancroft and he became friends and, when Bancroft was accused of being a spy, Jones came to his defense.

Another example is that the British government knew details about the negotiations between the Americans and the French but were unable to prevent it from being signed. Supposedly, King George III had copies of the treaty between the United States and France about two days after it was signed.

After the war, Bancroft remained in England and continued increase his personal fortune. It was not until 1789 that he was unmasked and his treachery became known. What is strange is that Benjamin Franklin, known for his distaste for Loyalists, one of whom was his own son, still continued to correspond with Bancroft after the war.

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