This Day in History: James Rivington, Patriot Spy or Loyalist?
On this day in 1775, a mob hangs James Rivington in effigy. A few weeks later, they attacked his home and office. But were they insulting a man who would turn out to be a member of the legendary Culper Spy Ring?
Rivington came to America in 1760. By 1773, he was running his own newspaper in New York. It was a politically neutral paper at first: Indeed, one of his contemporaries would note that “Rivington, for some time, conducted his Gazetteer with such moderation and impartiality as did him honor.” However, as tensions with Great Britain grew, Rivington’s paper began to lean toward a Loyalist point of view.
Actually, it didn’t just “lean” toward a Loyalist point of view. It became downright obnoxious! At about that time, Alexander Hamilton would write to John Jay that “Rivington’s press” was “dangerous and pernicious.” He described Rivington as “detestable . . . in every respect.” Charles Lee, who would be George Washington’s second-in-command, wrote to Benjamin Rush that “the miscreant Rivington is suffer’d to heap insult upon insult on the Congress with impunity.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rivington’s paper was boycotted in nearly two dozen communities. Rivington himself was hanged in effigy. His home and printing office were attacked. He fled to a British ship for safety and had to ask the Continental Congress for a pardon. Finally, perhaps fearing for his life, he sailed to England in January 1776.
He returned to British-occupied New York in 1777. He now had a formal appointment as the King’s printer. Except it appears that, at some point, he’d agreed to be a double agent for the Patriot cause.
The details of his life as a double agent are murky. No one seems to know exactly when he became a spy. George Washington Parke Custis (Washington’s step-grandson) thought that Rivington became a spy as early as 1776. Other historians have hypothesized that he became as spy as late as 1780. Rivington appears in Benjamin Tallmadge’s secret code book, which was created in 1779.
Rumors of Rivington’s involvement in a spy ring began soon after the war. In December 1783, after British troops (finally) left New York, the Massachusetts Gazette reported an interesting tidbit: “JAMES RIVINGTON, Printer at New-York, was, as soon as our troops entered the city, protected in person and property, by a guard . . . he will be allowed to reside in the country, for reasons best known to the great men at helm.”
Soon, people were gossiping. Ashbel Green, a chaplain of the U.S. Congress, later wrote of his surprise that Rivington stayed in New York. “But the surprise soon ceased,” he added, “by its becoming publicly known, that he had been a spy for General Washington, while employed in abusing him, and had imparted useful information, which could not otherwise have been obtained.”
How did Rivington get information and convey it? He ran a popular coffee shop close to his printing office. The coffee shop was financed, in part, by Robert Townsend (a.k.a. Culper Junior). British officers liked to hang out there! Rivington also published and sold books. Reportedly, Rivington conveyed information by hiding secret papers inside book covers. The books were sold to other spies who could carry the books back to George Washington’s headquarters. Some evidence suggests that Rivington may have provided information that was helpful during the Siege of Yorktown.
But other evidence is puzzling. One historian asks: “If rumors were circulating in 1784 about Rivington acting as an American agent, why wouldn’t Rivington have embraced the theory even if it wasn’t true? His silence in the face of the gossip reveals that he was still fiercely loyal and/or not wanting to jeopardize his son’s pensions [in the British army].”
Was Rivington really a spy? It seems likely. But we may never really know.
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Alexander Rose, Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (2006)
Catherine Snell Crary, The Tory and the Spy: The Double Life of James Rivington (William & Mary Quarterly; Jan. 1959)
Carol Sue Humphrey, The American Revolution and the Press: The Promise of Independence (2013)
Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America, with a Biography of Printers, and an Account of Newspapers (1810) (Vol. 2)
Letter from Alexander Hamilton to John Jay (November 26, 1775)
Letter from Charles Lee to Benjamin Rush (Dec. 15, 1774)
Todd Andrlik, James Rivington: King’s Printer and Patriot Spy? (March 3, 2014)