Edward Bancroft: A Man of Competing Loyalties

A Man of Competing Loyalties

Early in the war, Benjamin Franklin headed a commission in Paris aiming to convince the French – powerful, longtime foes of the British – to provide America with financial and military assistance. The commission was of paramount importance to the rebelling colonies at the time, as most considered an alliance essential to any hopes for an American victory. Unbeknownst to Franklin and the other delegates, the commission had been penetrated by British spies, most notably, Edward Bancroft, the commission’s secretary.

In his position, Bancroft had access to every conversation and negotiation, and occasionally served as translator for delegate Silas Deane in meetings with the French foreign ministry. Bancroft was considered a Patriot who served America well during the Revolution, but his allegiance was tenuous. He had long hoped the two adversaries would come to a mutual reconciliation, and fretted that French involvement would be ruinous to the British Empire.

Edward Bancroft portrait
British spy Edward Bancroft

Early in the war, Benjamin Franklin headed a commission in Paris aiming to convince the French – powerful, longtime foes of the British – to provide America with financial and military assistance. The commission was of paramount importance to the rebelling colonies at the time, as most considered an alliance essential to any hopes for an American victory. Unbeknownst to Franklin and the other delegates, the commission had been penetrated by British spies, most notably, Edward Bancroft, the commission’s secretary.

In his position, Bancroft had access to every conversation and negotiation, and occasionally served as translator for delegate Silas Deane in meetings with the French foreign ministry. Bancroft was considered a Patriot who served America well during the Revolution, but his allegiance was tenuous. He had long hoped the two adversaries would come to a mutual reconciliation, and fretted that French involvement would be ruinous to the British Empire.

Endorsement of Edward Bancroft by Benjamin Franklin
Endorsement of Edward Bancroft by Benjamin Franklin and others for British Royal Society membership, 1773

Dead Drops and Messages in a Bottle

In the same month the Declaration of Independence was approved, Bancroft was recruited to spy by a close associate and New Hampshire Loyalist who offered Bancroft a sum of 500 pounds, an amount equal to $100,000 in today’s currency. In exchange, Bancroft was to report on progress made in the treaty negotiations between America and France, divulge the names of American agents abroad and methods for their payment, and deliver copies of correspondence between the delegates and the Continental Congress.

Bancroft obliged, communicating the secrets he gathered to his British handlers through a dead drop – a hiding place used by spies to exchange messages and payments – in this case a bottle hidden in a tree root in the Tuileries Garden in Paris.

The commission was ultimately successful, forging an alliance between France and America in 1778. Many weeks would pass before the Continental Congress learned of it, as such communication was subject to long sea voyages. Officials in London, however, received a copy of the agreement within days, courtesy of Bancroft.

Despite Bancroft’s betrayal, the alliance provided desperately needed resources and weapons to Washington, ultimately tipping the war in America’s favor. His treachery wasn’t discovered until the late 1880s – nearly seventy years after his death – after the British government provided researchers with access to a trove of diplomatic archives, including detailed documentation of his underhanded dealings.