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This Day in History: The guy who spied on Benjamin Franklin

On this day in 1777, Dr. Edward Bancroft embarks on a journey to France. He plans to work as a spy! Bancroft would work directly with Benjamin Franklin, but he would use his position to feed information to the British.

Or could he have been a double agent, working for both sides?

Bancroft was born and raised in America, but he ultimately found himself studying medicine in London. He was well respected in England, but it was known that his sympathies lay with the American colonies. He later said that he “advocated some of their claims, from a persuasion of their being founded in justice.” Thus, it was not odd that many Americans trusted him.

Importantly, Bancroft advocated for America to be treated fairly, but he never got on board with the idea of American independence.

In March 1776, the Continental Congress dispatched Silas Deane to France. Deane was to explore the possibility of French support in the American Revolution. Congress advised him to work with a few men, including Bancroft. This he did, and Bancroft joined Deane in Paris. Deane had already met Bancroft when the two were younger, thus he trusted Bancroft. He could not have predicted what would happen next.

There is some question about exactly when Bancroft became a spy, but we do know WHY he agreed to pass information on to the British.

Bancroft would later write of his worry that the “Government of France would endeavour to Promote an Absolute Separation, of the then United Colonies, from Great Britain.” He was concerned about the effects of such outcomes on England, the place that he called home. “[A]ll my views, interests & inclinations were adverse to the independency of the Colonies,” he concluded.

Remember, he had always been for reconciliation, not American independence.

Bancroft returned to France several times. On one of these trips, he was re-united with his old friend, Benjamin Franklin, who had just become the American ambassador to France. Bancroft ended up working, somewhat unofficially, as a sort of secretary, aide, and confidant to Franklin and to Deane for years, even as he passed information on to the British government.

To some degree, Bancroft’s activities and motivations during this time remain puzzling. “Without a doubt,” his biographer writes, “his primary allegiance lay with the British Empire . . . . But that does not mean he was anti-American. He genuinely believed that it was in America’s best interest to stay united with Britain. To help Britain retain the colonies, he needed to win the confidence of Franklin, Deane, and others. Therefore, in his work for them, he had to do a decent job. What is so puzzling is that he did more than just a decent job. He gave advice that Franklin and Deane valued highly. There is no indication that he ever tried to sabotage their work.”

Bancroft remained a spy for most of the war, but historians disagree on how effective he was. On one hand, as his biographer notes, “Bancroft was the only agent to win the full confidence of Franklin and Deane,” and he was the “only one to escape detection by the Americans and the French.” On the other hand, the British government never seemed to do too much with the information they were provided, even though it was thorough and generally accurate.

Kind of puzzling, to say the least. Perhaps the answer lies in something that George Washington once said: “The singular interpositions of Providence in our feeble condition were such, as could scarcely escape the attention of the most unobserving.”

What do you think?

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