Benjamin Franklin made his fortune as a printer, journalist and newspaper proprietor, before taking up a non-executive role in his own firm to dedicate his time to public service. It was natural that he should build close contacts with the newspaper trade during his time in London as a political representative.
He put these contacts to good use. Between 1758 and 1775, he wrote scores of articles. As was the custom of the time, they were written under a pseudonym, but at least 141 have been subsequently identified.1 His satirical pieces, such as "Rules by Which a Great Empire May be Reduced to a Small One," became more biting as the division between Britain and the Colonies increased, but Franklin still fervently hoped that his satire would wake dormant British opinion to the consequences of a final breach.2
Once shots were fired, however, it was the relationships forged by Franklin and by Arthur Lee, his fellow representative, that enabled the Patriot account of the "savage barbarity" of the British troops at Lexington and Concord to become accepted by the British reading public as the true version of events.3 So effectively was this achieved, that seven London-based papers carried an advertisement, on 9 June 1775, for the compensation of the victims of British aggression. The money raised was to be sent via an intermediary to Dr. Franklin, now newly-arrived in America, who it was thought would be sure to arrange its fair distribution.
Franklin would find another role for one particular editor, Ralph Griffiths of the Monthly Review. Griffiths was used as a ‘post box’ for American intelligence. At a time of civil war between Britain and its colonies, this was treason. The evidence comes in a memorandum from the Colonists’ Committee of Secret Correspondence, dated 2 March 1776, and dictated by its leading member, Benjamin Franklin. The memorandum was to Silas Deane, the committee’s agent in France, who was attempting to gain money and weapons from the French. It aimed to establish contact with Edward Bancroft, a Franklin protégé and regular contributor to the Monthly Review, and directed Deane “to procure a meeting with Mr Bancroft by writing a letter to him, under cover to Mr Griffiths at Turnham Green, near London, and desiring him [i.e. Bancroft] to come over from London, to you in France or Holland, on the score of old acquaintance. From him you may obtain a good deal of information of what is now going forward in England, and settle a mode of continuing a correspondence.”4 The meeting was secured, but had unintended consequences: the American Bancroft was arrested on his return from the continent and was only able to secure his freedom, not to mention his life, by agreeing to work for British counter-intelligence. Consequently, in late 1776, when Benjamin Franklin became the Minister in France for the newly-declared United States, his trusted personal secretary, one Edward Bancroft, was a British double agent.
Bancroft’s duplicity was not discovered by historians until 1889.5 The major question is whether it was discovered by Franklin himself. Historian Bernard Bailyn believes that Franklin, at his most Machiavellian, was deliberately using Bancroft to leak confidential documents to the British; and that he did so in order to reveal the closeness of the relationship between America and France and thus deter the British from a full commitment to the American hostilities for fear they would be vulnerable to French attack.6 If Professor Bailyn is correct, then Franklin willingly put at risk the Earl of Shelburne, one of the opposition leaders who was most sympathetic to the American cause.
It is certain that both Viscount Stormont, the British Minister in Paris, and his aide-de-camp, Colonel Fullarton, knew that Franklin was in secret correspondence with Shelburne. Fullarton, supported by Stormont in the House of Lords, declared as much in the House of Commons and backed it up in writing – though of course he could not disclose his source. The accusation, one of treason in time of war, was sufficient for Shelburne to ‘demand satisfaction’ from Fullarton in a duel that both men took very seriously and in which Shelburne was wounded.7
Details of a purported spying initiative by Franklin in Paris have recently been brought to light through the Georgian Papers Programme at Windsor Castle.8 A British agent with the codename ‘Aristarchus’ reported, in 1781, that Franklin had arranged for one of his own agents to hide inside a chimney in order to overhear the conversations of the visiting Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. Aristarchus declared that “money is not to be spared on this account”. However, it has to be doubted that Franklin, who was perennially scrabbling around for funds, would have had any to spare for something so speculative. The ‘report’ may have had more to do with the fact that Aristarchus’ own pay was often greatly in arrears, and he realized that if he notified the King of any diabolical dealings of Dr. Franklin then it was likely the royal purse strings would be loosened. After all, George III had come to detest Dr. Franklin, following the outbreak of war. Such was the ferocity of the King’s displeasure, that he even believed, totally fancifully, that the famous inventor had specially designed his lightning conductors on British buildings so that they deliberately attracted lightning bolts in order to destroy what they were supposed to protect.9
George Goodwin, FRHistS., FRSA, FCIM
Author in Residence at Benjamin Franklin House in London
for Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s
Founding Father (Yale University Press).
1. Verner Crane, Benjamin Franklin’s Letters to the Press (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1950), vii.
2. William B Willcox et. al., eds., Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 10 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), 391-399.
3. Essex Gazette (Salem, Massachusetts), April 25, 1775.
4. "The Committee of Secret Correspondence: Instructions to Silas Deane, March 2, 1776," Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 22, 369-373.
5. Thomas J. Schaeper, Edward Bancroft: Scientist, Author, Spy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 266-269.
6. Bernard Bailyn, To Begin the World Anew (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 66-67
7. British Library, Bowood Papers, Add. Ms. 88906, 10 ff., 108-193; Lord Fitzmaurice, Life of William, Earl of Shelburne, vol. 2 (London: Macmillan and Co., 1912), 52-53.
8. Valentine Low, "The Ageing Spy Who Saved George III," The Times (London, United Kingdom), January 28, 2017.
9. George Goodwin, Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 269-271.