This Day in History: Covert operations & the American Revolution
On this day in 1775, Americans take an important step in their fight against Great Britain: The Continental Congress establishes the Committee of Correspondence. Such a dry-sounding name for what would soon follow: secret midnight meetings, covert operations, and even a fake merchant company providing cover to France and Spain!
Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that the Committee earned a new name almost immediately: the Committee of *Secret* Correspondence.
Committee member Benjamin Franklin was soon knee-deep in intrigue. A French secret agent set up a meeting with him through an intermediary. Julien-Alexandre Achard de Bonvouloir was supposed to collect information about Americans and their fledgling revolution.
Franklin and a few others met with Bonvouloir in the days before Christmas 1775.
Was Bonvouloir working for the British Secret Service? Franklin was suspicious. Over the course of several meetings, however, he became convinced that Bonvouloir was actually working for the French government—although the Frenchman steadfastly refused to admit it. Franklin began speaking more freely, and the meetings laid the groundwork for France’s eventual agreement to aid the Americans.
“Everyone here is a soldier,” Bonvouloir reported to the French Foreign Minister on December 28, “the troops are well clothed, well paid and well armed. They have more than 50,000 regular soldiers and an even larger number of volunteers who do not wish to be paid. Judge how men of this caliber will fight. They are more powerful than we could have thought . . . . Nothing shocks or frightens them, you can count on that.”
Hmm. 50,000 regular troops, well clothed and well paid?! It was a rather rosy report, to say the least. Some historians have speculated that Benjamin Franklin purposefully exaggerated the size of the army when he spoke with Bonvouloir. Others wonder if Bonvouloir was misled by some of the overly optimistic news reports then circulating in Philadelphia.
Either way, the Frenchman filed an erroneous report—and the French minister believed it. What a blessing! That report would contribute to King Louis XVI’s decision to help the American effort. He surreptitiously provided one million livres, funding a front company known as Hortalez & Cie. Spain also provided funding. Hortalez & Cie would provide weapons and other supplies to the Americans, even as France and Spain pretended to be neutral.
Secret committees? Midnight meetings? Front companies posing as international merchants, thus enabling Kings to pretend neutrality in the midst of intrigue and conspiracy?
Just another side to our American Revolution that your history textbooks forgot to teach you.
Harlow Giles Unger, Improbable Patriot: The Secret History of Monsieur de Beaumarchais, the French Playwright Who Saved the American Revolution (2011)
Jimmy Dick, The Committee of Secret Correspondence (Journal of the American Revolution; Aug. 5, 2013)
Joel Richard Paul, Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution (2009)
Thomas B. Allen, George Washington, Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War (2011 paperback)
Thomas Fleming, 1776 (2014)