Edward Bancroft: Scientist, Author, Spy

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Review of Books

“[E]ngaging . . . By providing a wealth of detail about the life and times of this much-execrated man, Schaeper balances and softens what has conventionally been seen as Bancroft’s harsh character.”—Edmund Morgan, The New York Review of Books

— Edmund Morgan

Elizabeth M. Nuxoll

“Thomas Schaeper presents an intriguing, full biography of one of the eighteenth century’s most brilliant and multifaceted figures: scientist, author, speculator, entrepreneur, and double agent Edward Bancroft. He offers a thoroughly researched, fair and balanced reappraisal of both Bancroft and British espionage in Europe during the American Revolution, and in doing so rescues Bancroft from melodramatic OSS and Cold War-infused spy narratives.”— Elizabeth M. Nuxoll, Editor, The Papers of John Jay, Columbia University

Library Journal
Bancroft, a spy for the Americans and then the British in the Revolutionary War era, finally gets a full biography. Schaeper (history, St. Bonaventure Univ.; France and America in the Revolutionary Era) tells the story behind this enigmatic and controversial figure's character and actions. A successful scientist who made groundbreaking advances in textile dying methods, Bancroft, born in Massachusetts but living in Europe, turned his attention to the emerging Anglo-American conflict and while stationed in Paris was hired by close friend Benjamin Franklin to gather information on British activities there. However, he was soon convinced by British leaders to use his ties to Franklin and other Americans to feed Britain information on Colonial political and military matters. Schaeper convincingly stresses that Bancroft was motivated solely by a desire for reconciliation, hoping his covert work would lead to America's ending its revolution and remaining tied to Britain. Schaeper presents evidence to contradict negative portrayals of Bancroft, his aim clearly to present his subject as a generous, selfless, and principled peace-seeking man. VERDICT While this book cannot be called a fully objective academic study (Schaeper defends Bancroft so forcefully), it is well researched and well paced. Recommended to undergraduates and general readers with an interest in espionage or American history. [Schaeper is a longtime book reviewer in biography and history for LJ.—Ed.]—Douglas King, Univ. of South Carolina Lib., Columbia
Elizabeth M. Nuxoll
“Thomas Schaeper presents an intriguing, full biography of one of the eighteenth century’s most brilliant and multifaceted figures: scientist, author, speculator, entrepreneur, and double agent Edward Bancroft. He offers a thoroughly researched, fair and balanced reappraisal of both Bancroft and British espionage in Europe during the American Revolution, and in doing so rescues Bancroft from melodramatic OSS and Cold War-infused spy narratives.”— Elizabeth M. Nuxoll, Editor, The Papers of John Jay, Columbia University
The New York Review of Books - Edmund Morgan
“[E]ngaging . . . By providing a wealth of detail about the life and times of this much-execrated man, Schaeper balances and softens what has conventionally been seen as Bancroft’s harsh character.”—Edmund S. Morgan, The New York Review of Books
Choice - M.A. Byron
"A must for any lover of American Colonial history."—M.A. Byron, Choice
Alan Houston
"This is the first full-length treatment of the life of Edward Bancroft. It corrects a great many mistakes and misinterpretations, and for that reason is a valuable contribution to the historical record. In particular, the account of Bancroft's work as a spy in Paris is terrific; I enjoyed it a great deal."—Alan Houston, author of Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement
Harry Dickinson
"Schaeper in the first scholar to explore Bancroft's life in detail and to treat his activities as a spy in a sober, intelligent fashion. He explodes the myths and conspiracy theories of many modern authors who have traduced Bancroft's reputation and with it the reputations of all those associated with him."—Harry Dickinson, University of Edinburgh
Jonathan R. Dull
“A wonderful book which fills a major gap in the history of the American Revolution. Through exhaustive research, Schaeper has uncovered much information about the widely misunderstood master spy Bancroft. His book is as entertaining as it is scholarly. Highly recommended not only to academics but also to general readers.”—Jonathan R. Dull, author of A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution
Choice - Choice Outstanding Academic Title
Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2011 in the North America category.
New York Book Festival - Biography/Autobiography Honorable Mention
Won Honorable Mention in the 2012 New York Book Festival Biography/Autobiography category, sponsored by the New York Book Festival
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300118421
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 3/29/2011
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas J. Schaeper is professor of history, St. Bonaventure University, St. Bonaventure, NY.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction xiii

Chapter 1 Early Life 1

Chapter 2 On the Rise in London 13

Chapter 3 Initiation in Covert Activity 45

Chapter 4 First Steps 65

Chapter 5 Our Man in Paris 83

Chapter 6 The Franco-American Alliance 107

Chapter 7 Gauging Bancroft's Role 134

Chapter 8 In for the Long Haul, 1778-1783 159

Chapter 9 Arthur Lee: Spy Catcher? Benjamin Franklin: Traitor? Edward Bancroft: Murderer? 195

Chapter 10 In America, 1783-1784 228

Chapter 11 Return to Normalcy 241

Epilogue 263

Abbreviations 273

Notes 275

Bibliography 303

Index 323

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