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Benjamin Franklin And The French Alliance
Adapted from her new book, The Secret War of Independence , Behind the benevolent smile lurked the master of intrigue, skillfully maneuvering the vacillating courts of Europe
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
Lord North relayed the meticulous royal commands to the secret service, whose active head during the war was William Eden, a genius at directing espionage. His key man for American contacts was Paul Wentworth of New Hampshire, who before the war had been the London agent for that colony and after the war was elected a trustee of Dartmouth College, to which he had presented scientific apparatus. In the interval, quite unsuspected by his compatriots, he did high-level work for Eden.
Wentworth recruited Bancroft into the service and supervised his work in Paris closely, never quite sure of his loyalty to England. George III was uneasy about both Americans because they gambled wildly in stocks and kept mistresses. However, when Franklin arrived in Paris, Bancroft was in an ideal position to watch the King’s most dangerous enemy, and he made a good bargain with the secret service. He had a large family and expensive tastes, and needed and loved money. His contract with Wentworth gave him £500 down, the same amount as yearly salary, and a life pension.
In mortal terror of discovery, Bancroft was always called “Edwards” or some other cover name in the secret files, and even in private conferences with Wentworth and Lord Stormont. Since Wentworth often slipped across to Paris, much of Bancroft’s information could be delivered verbally, but he made a weekly report in writing.
These reports were written in invisible ink between the lines of love letters addressed to “Mr. Richardson” (Bancroft’s tiny, curiously contorted script was almost feminine). A box tree on the south terrace of the Tuileries Gardens had a convenient hollow under the trunk, and into this hole a bottle containing the gallant letter was let down by a string. Every Tuesday evening an agent of Stormont would pick up the letter and leave another with new instructions. The British were methodical.
In his contract Bancroft agreed to a long list of particulars. He was to steal all original papers possible from the commissioners, and copy others. He must gather exhaustive information on the mission’s dealings with Congress, with Versailles, with merchants shipping out contraband. Bancroft was to report on the movements of American privateers and trading vessels in European waters, and relations between the West Indies and continental America. Anything he could learn about the mission’s connections with Spain and other countries was wanted.
The British had many other secret agents in France, and other avenues of information. Anthony Todd, secretary of the General Post Office, read Franklin’s letters to people in England. Moreover, every port in Europe was under the surveillance of the British Admiralty’s intelligence service, directed from Rotterdam by Madame Marguerite Wolters, widow of the former chief.
But Bancroft was in the most strategic position of any informer, and his conduct at Passy was mysterious. Franklin was a shrewd judge of men, and his unclouded confidence in Bancroft needs some extraordinary explanation. Bancroft was a supreme spy, but he preserved a curious code of his own, almost a code of honor, about what he would or would not do. He often held back information or distorted it, and Wentworth sensed this and by summer made him take an oath before he delivered an oral report. It is significant that while the Americans and French trusted Bancroft implicitly, the British were always suspicious of him, had his letters opened at the post office, and watched his movements.
While a gifted and expert secret agent can develop a second personality which keeps him from making slips, in Bancroft’s case this doubling of self may have reflected a profound split in the psyche. His affection for Franklin and Deane had the ring of sincerity, and years later, when Deane was of no possible use to him, he was still the devoted friend. Perhaps the greater part of Edward Bancroft was truly American. His contacts with his British employers revealed a quite different side, deformed by cupidity and fear.
Franklin faced the critical year of 1777 with the knowledge that the British fleet would pound American hopes to nothing unless France and Britain began their ordained war. France had 26 battleships ready, and by spring Spain would have thirty. Franklin looked upon these fleets with the lust of a patriot whose country was in mortal danger for lack of their support.
Plainly neither side wanted to start hostilities, and they had perfected a system for avoiding a rupture. Whenever Stormont got good evidence that France was shipping contraband to America or admitting American prizes to her ports, he drove to Versailles to make a formal protest. Vergennes would promise to investigate the matter, which meant that Stormont had lost a point. In the matter of the Hortalez ships, it was Vergennes who had yielded. By this process of elastic diplomacy the amenities were preserved while both sides gained time for war preparations and spared their exchequers the drain of active hostilities.
In short, England and the Bourbons had tacitly agreed that their war might be postponed indefinitely—and while they dallied, physical danger and sickening of hope were paralyzing America. Too much depended on Franklin. Congress demanded impossibilities of him: a huge loan which France could not afford, French battleships and seamen, and the prompt entrance of the Bourbons into the war. Like a good diplomat, he conveyed these urgent demands to the ministries in a most persuasive form, but he had already gauged the situation in the royal courts and expected no miracles.