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Edward Bancroft

Edward Bancroft: Scientist, Author, Spy

Thomas J. Schaeper
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
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    Edward Bancroft
    Book Description:

    A man of as many names as motives, Edward Bancroft is a singular figure in the history of Revolutionary America. Born in Massachusetts in 1745, Bancroft moved to England as a young man in the 1760s and began building a respectable résumé as both a scientist and a man of letters. In recognition of his works in natural history, Bancroft was unanimously elected to the Royal Society, and while working to secure French aid for the American Revolution, he became a close associate of such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and John Adams. Though lauded in his time as a staunch American patriot, when the British diplomatic archives were opened in the late nineteenth century, it was revealed that Bancroft led a secret life as a British agent acting against French and American interests.

    In this book, the first complete biography of Bancroft, historian Thomas J. Schaeper reveals the full extent of the agent's deception during the crucial years of the American Revolution. Operating under aliases, working in ciphers, and leaving coded messages in the trees of Paris's Tuileries Gardens, Bancroft filtered information from unsuspecting figures including Franklin and Deane back to his contacts in Britain, navigating a complicated web of political allegiances. Through Schaeper's keen analysis of Bancroft's correspondence and diplomatic records, this biography reveals whether Bancroft should ultimately be considered a traitor to America or a patriot to Britain.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17171-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xvi)

    It was about nine o’clock on a Tuesday evening in Paris in January 1778. A rather ordinary-looking man could be seen strolling through the Tuileries Gardens. He appeared to be in his midthirties, a bit shorter and stouter than average. Any passerby who might have asked him for directions or the hour could have perceived that he spoke French with an accent that was British—or possibly American. Th e man seemed perfectly respectable, but a curious observer might have noticed him looking over his shoulder to see if he was being watched. When he was certain that he was...

  5. 1 Early Life
    (pp. 1-12)

    The first thing to clear up about Edward Bartholomew Bancroft is the date of his birth. Depending on the book, article, or encyclopedia entry, one can read that he was born on the ninth or the twentieth of January, in either 1744 or 1745. All of these are correct. In the Julian calendar, still used in Britain and its colonies, he was born on 9 January 1744. The Julian calendar was at that time eleven days behind the Gregorian calendar, which had been adopted by all Catholic and most Protestant countries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Moreover, as late...

  6. 2 On the Rise in London
    (pp. 13-44)

    From May 1767 to the spring of 1777, Edward Bancroft lived mainly in the British capital. During this period he also made several extended journeys—to South and North America, Ireland, and France.¹

    Soon after he reached London, it became clear that this young man of humble origins was prepared to make it big in the great metropolis. In June 1767, just weeks after arriving unannounced and with no powerful friends or sponsors, he became a physician’s pupil at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. That institution (commonly called “Bart’s”) was one of only two large hospitals in London at that time. (The...

  7. 3 Initiation in Covert Activity
    (pp. 45-64)

    After Benjamin Franklin’s departure for America in March 1775, Bancroft continued to show every sign of being a full-fledged supporter of the colonial cause. On 7 August 1775 from his home in Downing Street he wrote to Franklin condemning the British government’s “Chains of Despotism.” Bancroft decried the sending of additional British troops to America as a “hostile invasion” and asserted that the British would incite the Indians “to butcher the Inhabitants of the Colonies.” Through this “Carnage” the colonists would “be reduced to submission.” Bancroft condemned the 1774 Quebec Act, which permitted French Canadians to practice their Catholic religion...

  8. 4 First Steps
    (pp. 65-82)

    Once Bancroft had submitted his initial report to the British ministry in August 1776, it was not clear what he was supposed to do next. Obviously, he could not collect information on American activities in France if he himself was in England. So what did he do from the late summer of 1776 to March 1777, when he moved to Paris?

    Understanding his actions requires a basic grasp of the British ministry at that time. Starting with Robert Walpole in the 1720s, the person who was first lord of the Treasury usually came to be regarded as the chief minister....

  9. 5 Our Man in Paris
    (pp. 83-106)

    Edward Bancroft’s most active and important period of espionage took place during his first year of residence in Paris—from April 1777 to the open break between France and Britain in April 1778. How did he operate? What was his relationship with the various American representatives in France? What kinds of information did he collect?

    To follow the story, one must know the major personalities involved. First there is the Bancroft family. Bancroft’s wife, Penelope, arrived in Paris a few weeks after her husband, in May 1777, in tow with five-year-old Edward Nathaniel and two-year-old Samuel Forrester. Bancroft had a...

  10. 6 The Franco-American Alliance
    (pp. 107-133)

    The Battle of Saratoga is often considered a major turning point in the Revolution. The British goal was to take control of the Hudson River valley and thus separate New England from the middle and southern colonies. After suffering defeat in two battles in mid-September and early October, General John Burgoyne surrendered to the American commander, General Horatio Gates, in the town of Saratoga, New York, on 17 October 1777.

    The standard view of the battle holds that it accomplished two things: It helped to turn the tide in favor of Washington’s Continental Army, and it persuaded France to give...

  11. 7 Gauging Bancroft’s Role
    (pp. 134-158)

    The vast majority of all the materials concerning Bancroft’s espionage come from the period up to the spring of 1778. The questions historians have asked about him likewise have been based primarily on this early period. How important was Bancroft to George III’s government? What did British ministers do with the information he provided? How did he avoid being detected?

    Scholars have varied widely in their estimates of his importance. Most have asserted that he did great damage to the American cause. Depending on which author one reads, Bancroft was the most important British spy of the American Revolution, the...

  12. 8 In for the Long Haul, 1778–1783
    (pp. 159-194)

    After Ambassador Stormont and his staff left Paris in March 1778, Bancroft’s work became more dangerous and difficult. Most of the details of how he communicated with London remain unknown. Putting messages in a tree in the Tuileries Gardens ended in March, for there was no longer anyone left in Paris to retrieve them. In early April 1778 Bancroft wrote to Paul Wentworth that “all communications with you will soon be impracticable.”¹ He managed to get that letter to London by sending a private messenger through Ostend. Until the United Provinces entered the war against Britain in December 1780, travel...

  13. 9 Arthur Lee: Spy Catcher? Benjamin Franklin: Traitor? Edward Bancroft: Murderer?
    (pp. 195-227)

    Over the years many historians have wondered how Edward Bancroft managed to fool everyone, both the Americans and the French. There was nothing new in his methods. Ciphers, aliases, invisible inks, and the depositing of messages in hiding places had been standard fare for centuries. Certainly Bancroft’s intelligence and perhaps his carefulness helped him. But his daily intimacy with so many important figures nonetheless has led many to speculate that his undercover work must have been spotted by someone.

    As a consequence, numerous authors have argued that indeed Bancroft did not escape detection entirely. It has long been known that...

  14. 10 In America, 1783–1784
    (pp. 228-240)

    After the signing of the preliminary articles of peace on 30 November 1782, Bancroft’s job as a British agent was finished. He would also no longer be needed as an informal adviser and assistant to Franklin and the other Americans. Writing on 4 February 1783 from Madrid, where he was serving as unofficial American chargé d’affaires, William Carmichael asked Temple Franklin what several others must have been wondering: “What does Bancroft propose to do?”¹

    It was not surprising that he moved back to London, where he had already established himself in business, science, and medicine. Before leaving France, he gave...

  15. 11 Return to Normalcy
    (pp. 241-262)

    When he was reunited with his motherless children in August 1784, Bancroft was thirty-nine years old. He had another thirty-seven years to live. Realizing that he could not pursue his sundry business and scientific pursuits while also caring for small children, he soon arranged to have Maria, Julia, Catherine, and John placed in boarding schools just outside London.¹ The older two boys, Edward Nathaniel and Samuel, continued their studies in Dr. Rose’s academy, where they had been sent a year earlier. As far as the scanty evidence permits one to speculate, he remained close to his children. They visited him...

  16. Epilogue
    (pp. 263-272)

    Edward Bancroft was dead but not forgotten in the nineteenth century. His novel, political commentaries, andNatural History of Guianawere known to specialists in those areas. In the field of textile dyes, hisExperimental Researchescontinued to be one of the most often cited reference works. Both Britain and America claimed him as their own. In the United States he was best remembered as a friend of Benjamin Franklin and other Revolutionary leaders. His scientific accomplishments merited him an entry in Britain’s prestigiousDictionary of National Biographyin the 1880s.

    His son Edward Nathaniel lived in Kingston, Jamaica, almost...

  17. Abbreviations
    (pp. 273-274)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 275-302)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 303-322)
  20. Index
    (pp. 323-329)