Hello again! Katie Willard blogging about the latest lecture in the “Spies of the American Revolution: Famous to Infamous” series presented in collaboration with the International Spy Museum. This week features Benjamin Franklin, adored by everyone—except John Adams. But I’m getting ahead of myself!
This lecture was given by James Srodes, author of Franklin: The Essential Founding Father. Out of his six books, two are about spying, and his upcoming book will also be about spying. This man knows what he’s talking about.
Everyone knows who Benjamin Franklin is, of course, but mostly for his apocryphal lightning experiments and inventing what seems like everything. A spymaster, however, doesn’t mesh with our view of Franklin. In fact, Srodes explained that Allen Dulles—namesake of Dulles Airport and longest-serving director of the CIA—described Benjamin Franklin’s intelligence gathering as “classic.”
Srodes began his story in 1757—nearly 20 years before the Declaration of Independence. At this time, Franklin was already 50 years old. He’d had a respectable life as a master of a printing press and newspaper, printing both the Poor Richard’s Almanac and Philadelphia Gazette. He had many scientific experiments under his belt, all of which won him admiration from scientists overseas. He was the first Postmaster General, overseeing the creation of a comprehensive mail system. And he was a distinguished Freemason. So he decided to retire. Who could blame him?
Yet Franklin was never really destined for retirement, and when the General Assembly needed someone to go to London to raise awareness about the colonies’ plight, they decided the one man for the job was Franklin. He was sent off to London, and he didn’t return until 1775.
In Britain, Franklin essentially became a lobbyist, stressing that the colonies needed Britain and vice versa. He represented Pennsylvania and several other colonies, and he networked tirelessly. However, by 1773, after being treated poorly by the British as they mocked his endeavors, he concluded that the colonies did not need Britain: they needed independence. Soon Franklin began dabbling in espionage, running a network of agents in Britain much like George Washington would do across the Atlantic.
His spying efforts started small: he placed these agents in British ministries, mostly to steal the mail of the Royal Governor. Unfortunately, all of this came to the attention of George Eden, the First Earl of Lord Auckland. Franklin had to have known that his arrest for treason would be inevitable, but his loyalty to the colonies came first. After all, he had already concluded that there would have to be a war against Britain to gain independence. We forget this now, but a lot of the Founding Fathers weren’t exactly jumping up and down to start a war. Pitting a vast empire and the world’s best navy against a ragtag bunch of 13 colonies that couldn’t agree on anything seemed ill-advised at the time.
Franklin sought out France as a patron and an ally. Louis XVI may have been hesitant about beginning another tussle with Britain, but any chance to weaken the neighboring country did intrigue him. With that in mind, Franklin sent agents to the Comte de Vergennes, the French foreign minister, but not to steal Vergennes’ mail. Rather, he wanted his agents to butter the French up to the idea of war against Britain. Despite all these spies running around doing backchannel work, a question loomed over budding French-American relations: who would pay France? The colonies had no central government, after all.
Surprisingly, during the spring of 1775, Franklin made one last-ditch appeal for peaceful relations to King George III. Since Franklin’s heart clearly wasn’t in it, King George was not sympathetic: Franklin was finally forced to flee to America. While it’s unlikely that King George and Lord Auckland wanted to take on the nuisance of trying Franklin, Franklin was very bitter about having to flee the country. His stay in America didn’t last long. After helping the Continental Congress with the bureaucratic technicalities of declaring independence (appointing a commander of the army, finding an author for the Declaration of Independence, etc.), Franklin was approached by French agents of the Comte de Vergennes. They wanted Franklin to go back to France. If the French were going to join the war, they wanted Franklin to convince them to do it, not just any American. Despite his ill health, he couldn’t say no to the French, and he packed all of his English finery on a ship and sailed for Europe—again.
Because the voyage to France was so awful and cold, Franklin chose not to wear his dapper outfits or powdered wigs. He wore simple furs to keep warm. When he emerged from the ship, the French were not only shocked by his attire—they were delighted! Even Marie Antoinette was a fan. They dubbed him “le philosophe sauvage,” which means “the wild philosopher.” Franklin chose to ditch the fancy clothes, and soon, his face was everywhere, from decorative plates to a chamber pot that King Louis had specially made for Marie Antoinette. So Franklin was a minor celebrity in France due to his eccentric personality and his playing up to the French’s stereotype of Americans, but John Jay and John Adams were technically the American representatives. Franklin didn’t want them to meddle in his delicate backchannel negotiations to get France officially involved in the war, so he not-so-subtlety suggested that Jay go to Spain and Adams go to the Netherlands—an act that Adams never forgot, despite the fact that he and the French never got along.
With Jay and Adams gone, Franklin was free to do as he pleased. He started a printing press, hiring two Irish printers who could speak both English and French. He instructed his new employees to print pamphlets explaining why France should support America in a war against Britain. He was printing propaganda.
Franklin still needed to solve the problem of who would pay France for its assistance in a war. His solution was to organize privateers—not pirates—to interrupt, capture, and stop merchants who were supplying the British troops in America. This somewhat underhand maneuver led to two things: British troops now had to steal supplies from the Loyalists, which made the Loyalists quite grumpy, and America could take a share of the profit from these supply ships to make a debt service for French loans.
Although Franklin was brimming with good ideas, he still experienced his fair share of trouble. He had disagreements with the British ambassador to France, Viscount Stormont, which casually led to Stormont making plans to assassinate Franklin. Needless to say, nothing happened, but Franklin was also the subject of the spying, as his secretary Edward Bancroft was feeding information to the British. Franklin had a lot to work against, but if lightning didn’t faze him, neither did a traitorous secretary or murderous ambassador.
At this point during the lecture, Srodes began telling us about the research process for Franklin: The Essential Founding Father. His “Ah-ha!” moment occurred when he was at the British National Archives. He came across a seven-page letter written by Edward Bancroft to William Eden. Bancroft used a very basic code: substituting words for numbers. This code was quite easy for Srodes to break, as someone had penciled the key in the margin. According to the letter, 72 was not willing to negotiate on 101. “72” referred to Franklin, and “101” referred to a concept, not a name: independence.
So Franklin wasn’t going to back down on American independence—no surprise there. The real surprise was located on the last page of the letter. On the back, someone had written a message and signed “G Rex” in pencil. The “G Rex” really interested Srodes, so he took the letter to the archivist and asked, “Is this King George III’s signature?” The archivist pointed out that it was indeed his signature and threw in a Latin lesson, explaining that “rex” means “king.”
For Srodes, this was the magic information. This letter, signed by King George III (in terrible code, but that’s beside the point), meant that Franklin’s backchannel communications actually did work, and they were reaching the highest levels. King George’s message amounted to describing Franklin’s information as chickenfeed—that’s spy talk for useless information. Its presence more than its substance was important. All of this beating around the bush was necessary, as Franklin couldn’t feed false information to the king’s face. There was definitely much back-and-forth as to whether America would actually go to war with Britain: Franklin was trying to keep all of his options open. It’s very confusing, but all of this circling around and around was a political game—and thankfully, Franklin was a master of it, so I guess it’s fine if I have trouble following it.
James Srodes answered questions from the audience after his lecture, and there were plenty of to go around! All were interesting, but I really enjoyed Srodes’ response to the question of how Franklin was at the end of his life. Franklin lived to be 83, which was no small feat during an age that lacked penicillin. Even in his aged state, George Washington asked him to weigh in on the Constitution. All Franklin communicated—as he was too frail to speak or stand, and James Madison had to do it for him—was that he was unhappy with the Constitution, but he fully expected future generations to make the same mistakes that the Founding Fathers had made, so there was no point in not approving it. That’s really something worth remembering amidst all the squabbling today; it’s not that different from the 13 colonies arguing back and forth.
After the talk, just as before, James Srodes signed books, and I had a chance to thank him for his lecture—and get a picture with him!
Next week, I’ll be back at the Spy Museum for a lecture about James Lafayette, the Marquis de Lafayette’s awesome spy. If you want to get tickets, click here.