The Spy Who Loved U.S.

If the perfect crime is one that never gets discovered, then the perfect spy is one whose identity is never revealed. Edward Bancroft came close to becoming the latter: a century passed before the public realized that he had engaged in espionage. Many Americans do not even recognize Bancroft’s name, and yet some historians have termed him the most treacherous American spy for the British during the American Revolution. With the publication of Edward Bancroft: Scientist, Author, Spy, author Thomas J. Schaeper has done more than a little detective work to become the first person to “[examine] Bancroft’s entire life and [peruse] the thousands of relevant documents in American, British, and French archives.” In doing so, he reveals a man who probably would have disappointed to have been remembered as a spy first, rather than as a family man or scientist. Schaeper suggests that rather than viewing Bancroft as an American traitor, we consider him a citizen under British rule caught in a type of “civil war.”

One would expect that a man portrayed in fiction as “deranged” and by historians as “villainous” to demonstrate an obvious hatred of the colonists.  The most surprising aspect about this particular spy is his public—and more importantly, sincere—sympathy with the people on whom he was informing. Perhaps it should not be so surprising, since Massachusetts-born Bancroft believed he was trying to salvage his countrymen from certain disaster and also considered espionage “a brief hiatus” from his research career. He published an anti-British tax policy, pro-American colonies’ rights book in 1769, long before the British government courted him as a spy. Remarks on the review of “The Controversy Between Great Britain and Her Colonies” responded to a previous publication that argued Britain had the right to tax the American colonists as much and as often as it saw fit. Bancroft reiterated James Otis’s phrase “no taxation without representation,” claiming in his book that man’s natural rights, the British constitution, and British citizens’ self-interests all should convince Parliament to allow the colonies political representation. Bancroft was the only British agent to gain Benjamin Franklin’s complete trust, but it was his already honest interest in the well-being of Britain’s colonies that would make him such an effective spy.

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