Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Espionage: Born on the 4th of July

Thomas Jefferson
The birth of our nation is rightly celebrated on the 4th of July, although the actual signing was not on the fourth and Thomas Jefferson drafted what is perhaps the most famous document in the world between the 21st and 28th of June, 1776.  But, as of the 4th of July, the British colonies in North America were no longer fighting for their rights as Englishmen, but for their independence as a sovereign nation.

What has this to do with espionage and the Yankee Doodle Spies?  Well, everything. The Yankee Doodle Spies are stories of action and espionage during the American Revolution. Counterintelligence plays no small role in the stories and its prime purpose is to root out spies to be prosecuted for treason.  Espionage is a legal term for treason acted out by passing a nation's secrets to a foreign power.  So, you have to have a nation to have treason, and by extension, you have to have a nation to have espionage.

Doctor Benjamin Church

Intelligence gathering was a little known but widespread activity by both sides throughout the eight year war that was the American Revolution. One famous (or infamous) spy during the war was Doctor Benjamin Church.  In the environs of Boston, this chief medical officer for the rebel army passed secrets to the British high command through his mistress in Boston.  His mistress betrayed him. Exposed and convicted at court martial - he could not be found guilty of treason (espionage) because as British subjects, the rebels came under British law and treason (espionage) could only be committed against the King.  The irony was rich!
Church was nonetheless kept under arrest for some years and finally exchanged in 1778.  He died when the ship he was returning to England in was lost in a storm at sea.

Had Church been identified after July 4th 1776, however, he would have been traitor to a nation and thus guilty of treason (espionage).  The states had committees for detecting spies, but these were informal and poorly coordinated efforts that often confused misplaced loyalty with treason.  As Americans celebrate the birth of our nation with the usual parades, fireworks and barbecues, we should keep in mind that the Declaration of Independence, which birthed the world's first modern republic and set the precedent that ideas can challenge dynasties...created the political and military conditions for a counterintelligence service that could ultimately bring charges of espionage against traitors to the Glorious Cause.

Signing the Declaration of Independence


  1. Fascinating stuff! And a different spin on the 4th of July.

  2. Glad you enjoyed...the Revolutionary War had many components, many of which impact our lives today...

    1. Mr. O'Connell. I am enjoying your blog. I am also on a creative experiment regarding the American Revolution, and your information is most helpful. I live in Delaware and I have proudly chosen to become a Founding Member of the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. I will be there this weekend for a preview for Founding Memebrs. It opens publicly on Wednesday, April 19th. By chance are you aware of that? Attending? Etc. If you are amenable to it, please reply via email

      Thank you!