Washington in Philadelphia: Birthplace of American Espionage

George Washington’s name brings to mind the image of a confident General crossing the Delaware River or an older, dignified President captured in his official portrait. Both portrayals, composed with the benefit of hindsight, reflect the victorious military commander and wise statesman. That history, however, was not assured when the Second Continental Congress appointed Washington commander of the Army in June 1775. The only certainty was more bloody engagements with the British like those of the battles of Lexington and Concord the previous April.

On July 3, 1775, Washington assumed command of a poorly trained and under equipped Continental Army facing one of the best trained and equipped military forces in the world. Washington put his personal affairs in order, updated his will, and prepared for impending and sustained conflict.

Concurrently, the Founding Fathers formed themselves into a nest of spies and created an intelligence network in every colony. Among those selected to oversee the intelligence operations were Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Morris, and Edward Rutledge. That their espionage efforts are generally unknown today speaks to the secrecy they maintained throughout and following their Revolutionary War years.

Two weeks after taking charge of the army and from a secret account, Washington recorded payment of $333.33 to an unnamed individual to establish an intelligence network in Boston. Congress organized a Secret Committee in September to clandestinely procure arms and ammunition from foreign sources and established channels of covert communications among the 13 colonies. The following June, Congress authorized a Committee on Spies to “detect and prosecute” foreign spies and Loyalists to the Crown.

From afar, France watched the revolutionary fervor grow, but remained uncertain about its outcome.  In December 1775, Frenchman Julien Achard de Bonvouloir, posing as an Antwerp merchant, arrived in Philadelphia. In reality, de Bonvouloir was an envoy of France, sent to America to assess the state of the revolution and take the measure of the men behind it. While mutually suspicious of each other, members of the Committee for Secret Correspondence and “the merchant” agreed to meet. De Bonvouloir disavowed an official government role but suggested weapons might be available to the Patriots from private sources. These secret meetings set the stage for future covert and overt French support of the colonies.

Meanwhile, Washington was working directly with businessman Robert Morris to acquire smuggled arms. At a low point in the war in December 1776, Washington ignored Morris’ controversial reputation for questionable commercial dealings and sought money from him to pay ”people who are of particular value to us.” Later Washington described the incident: “the time and circumstances of it [the money] being too remarkable ever to be forgotten by me.”

Seventy-year-old Benjamin Franklin, the oldest signatory of the Declaration of Independence, specialized in what is today called fake news. With a lifetime spent in publishing, Franklin knew the power of information and misinformation. He disguised leaflets as tobacco pouches which, when opened, tempted Hessian soldiers to defect with the promise of a better life in America. He forged an entire newspaper featuring a story of British war atrocities.  London publishers were unaware of the article’s source and reprinted the “news,” an action that abetted Franklin’s deception and its intent to undermine England’s support for the “far away” war.

What value did the Father of His Country, George Washington, give to these intelligence and deception operations? In 1776 he wrote to a subordinate General, “Everything in a manner, depends upon obtaining intelligence” and six months later, the man who “could not tell a lie” reported to the Continental Congress, “We are deceiving our Enemies with false Opinions of our Numbers.” Known as the “birthplace of American democracy,” Philadelphia’s role as the birthplace of American espionage has been a well kept secret.

 

Learn about Philadelphia’s espionage history, read stories of spymasters who called the city home, and see sites where world changing intelligence operations were planned and executed. SPY SITES OF PHILADELPHIA by H. Keith Melton and Robert Wallace, published by Georgetown University Press, is available at amazon.com.

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