Benjamin Franklin was one of the most imposing figures in American history, a scientist who dabbled in catching lightning from the sky, the inventor of such useful tools as the lightning rod and bifocal glasses, the founder of the modern library system, a newspaper publisher and the founder of the first American debating club. In addition, he served as a diplomat, traveling to both France and England on behalf of the Continental Congress. Franklin was also one of the colonies’ most important spies.
In May 1775, Franklin returned to Philadelphia, Pa., after a stint in London and helped draft the Declaration of Independence as a trusted member of the Second Continental Congress. Like many who worked hard to rid the colonies of British influence, he had opposed the Stamp Act of 1766 and the concept of taxation without representation. Upon his return to Philadelphia, Franklin began his career as an intelligence agent, heading the newly created Committee of Secret Correspondence set up by the Continental Congress. The purpose of the secret committee was to gather intelligence from the rebel colonists’ allies in England and other European countries and find out how they might help the rebellion. One of the men whom Franklin met was Julien Achard de Bonvouloir, who proved to be a boon to the rebel colonies. Born in Normandy, he reported to Adrien-Louis de Bonnières de Sousastre, comte de Guines, a powerful diplomat, on the ever-changing military and political situation in America.
Whether de Bonvouloir was already working for French intelligence at that point is not known, but he was sent back to America on orders from the French Foreign Ministry to report on a possible alliance. De Bonvouloir told Franklin that France secretly wanted to help the Americans and it was his job to see how it could be done.
In return, Franklin told the Frenchman that the American army was bigger and better equipped than it really was. He also hoped to convince his guest that France should take a risk and aid the colonies.
Following the meeting between Franklin and de Bonvouloir, the Committee of Secret Correspondence sent lawyer and merchant Silas Deane to Paris in April 1776 to act as its representative. It was Deane’s job to acquire the guns and military supplies for 25,000 men. Deane arrived in Paris in July 1776, after a two-month voyage, under the guise of a businessman buying goods for the India trade. He had been told to contact Dr. Edward Bancroft, an American who lived in London but was then visiting Paris. Bancroft was to be used as a secret agent for Deane. But what neither Franklin nor Deane knew was that Bancroft was a double agent who also worked for the British Secret Service.
Another influential individual who aided the rebel cause and forged a clandestine relationship with Deane was Frenchman Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Beaumarchais was a well-known playwright who worked as a secret agent in the employ of the French Foreign Ministry.
On instructions from French Foreign Minister Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, Beaumarchais was asked to set up a venue by which American farm products, in short supply in France, would be exchanged for military hardware. Beaumarchais set up what is today called a proprietary company—in spy parlance, a dummy firm that would provide a clandestine means to facilitate this trade. The name of the business enterprise was Hortalez et Compagnie. Its 40 ships were used to carry munitions to America. Without the selfless actions of Beaumarchais, the fate of the rebellion might have been quite different.
Over time, Deane and later Franklin, who came to Paris in September 1776 as head of the American diplomatic mission, told Bancroft all their plans to acquire French help. Upon his return to London, Dr. Bancroft reported Franklin’s progress in acquiring help to Paul Wentworth, a highly placed member of the British Secret Service.
While living in London, as the agent for a number of the colonies, Franklin was introduced to Bancroft. The “Sage of Philadelphia” told Dr. Bancroft of the budding clandestine relationship between the French and the colonies. Soon Franklin returned to America, but it seems Bancroft was still spying for Franklin. When Deane was getting ready to leave for France, Franklin gave him instructions that upon arrival he should meet with Bancroft, adding, “From him you may obtain a good deal of information of what is now going forward in England.”
Both Dr. Bancroft and his ally, Wentworth, had a shady reputation that was well known in the upper echelons of the British government, which therefore never took seriously Wentworth’s reports regarding the information provided by Franklin. Wentworth was brought into the espionage game by William Eden, the chief of the British Secret Service. His orders were to meet with Bancroft and report back to London on the latter’s meetings with Franklin, and later Deane. (Wentworth met with Franklin after his return to France in 1776.) Wentworth persuaded Bancroft to meet with Eden and two other important members of the British political establishment, Lords Suffolk and Weymouth, to talk about the events going on in America and the colonies’ efforts to enlist France in their struggle against the Crown.
Franklin sailed for France from Philadelphia on October 29, 1776. Once settled in Paris, he could turn his attention to cementing the newly declared United States’ ties with France and his own covert role as spymaster. He appointed Dr. Bancroft as secretary of the American mission, and Bancroft promptly took up residence in Franklin’s home.
To pass on his secret messages, Bancroft used one of the oldest tricks in the espionage business, a dead drop. He also used a new form of writing called invisible ink, hiding his secret intelligence under regular text. He put these messages in a bottle with a string attached and each Tuesday evening after 9:30 went to the beautiful Jardin des Tuileries, where the bottle was placed in a hole in the roots of a certain tree. There, the bottle would be retrieved by a handpicked messenger. Over the following months, Dr. Bancroft provided the British with a wealth of information, including the names of colonial agents in Europe and the Caribbean.
While Franklin was busy getting secret military help from France, he was also meeting with some members of the British opposition who were sympathetic to the American cause. He would turn over his information to the comte de Vergennes.
Deane too conducted large-scale undercover operations, having been in France for six months before Franklin’s arrival. He was instrumental in getting Gilbert de Motier, marquis de Lafayette, to espouse the American cause. Soon Lafayette arrived in the States to lend his military expertise in the fight against the British. Deane hired James Aitken, aka “John the Painter,” to go to England and conduct sabotage activities against British military and commercial sites, until he was caught and hanged in March 1777. He also used “secret ink” in his many letters to Franklin.
Deane got into trouble with the Continental Congress because of some questionable deals that he allegedly made with various French military officers. While in France, Deane soured on the American cause and went into exile in the Netherlands. He was recalled by Congress in November 1777 and replaced by John Adams (after a detailed investigation, Deane was cleared of charges in 1842, years after his death).
The turning point as far as the French were concerned came with the American victory at Saratoga. After that important battle, the French decided to officially recognize and ally themselves with the United States in February 1778.
Many years later, historians speculate that Benjamin Franklin himself could have been a British spy at times, and that he looked out for his own interests, positioning himself so as to be safe regardless of who won the war. After all, Franklin had been surrounded by British double agents while living in Paris. He had heard that Dr. Bancroft was working for the British and commented, “If I was sure, therefore that my valet de Place (Bancroft) was a spy, as probably he is, I think I should not discharge him for that, if in other respects I liked him.”
While this in itself doesn’t condemn Franklin to the ranks of British spies, it doesn’t look good for the head of the American delegation to Paris who was supposed to foster American goodwill.
In this century, one author has written that all the available evidence points to Franklin’s complicity with the British. University of Florida’s Cecil Curry, in his book Code Number 72: Ben Franklin Patriot or Spy? (Prentice Hall), claims that he was recruited into British intelligence by Francis Dashwood, 15th Baron le Despencer, the former chancellor of the Exchequer, via the Hell Fire Club, of which Franklin was a member. Some writers believe there was actually a connection between the Hell Fire Club and the British Secret Service. Franklin did indeed meet at certain times with Lord Despencer.
Curry may have found something intriguing concerning Franklin and the number 72. When Wentworth sent his reports to London after his meetings with Franklin, he began his accounts by saying that “72 received me very kindly.” The reference to 72 apparently meant Franklin. In another of his reports to Eden, Wentworth wrote the number 72 over Franklin’s name. Is it possible that 72 was Franklin’s cover name given him by British intelligence?
All these intriguing possibilities raise one pertinent question. If Franklin did know of Dr. Bancroft’s treason, why did he pass real information to him that would then be given to the British as well as the Americans? Or was Franklin actually giving him false flag data that he knew the British would fall for?
No historical evidence conclusively points to the role of Franklin as a British spy. Whatever the case, the portrait now emerging of Franklin’s life indicates a much more complex man than the simplistic mythology that has grown up around him.
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.