The Committee of Secret Correspondence

Politics During the War (1775-1783)

August 5, 2013
by Jimmy Dick Also by this Author


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The four-story, brick Carpenters' Hall building in Philadelphia. Source: Harper's Encyclopedia of United States History (1912)
The four-story, brick Carpenters’ Hall building in Philadelphia. Source: Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History (1912)

As the struggle between Great Britain and her colonists in the thirteen North American colonies entered a state of armed resistance against British military power, the delegates to the Second Continental Congress began to ponder the need for foreign assistance. With blood on both sides having been shed at Lexington and Concord, a siege in place around the port of Boston, and the colonies raising militia and expelling all vestiges of royal authority, the Continental Congress had to seriously consider what was going to happen if no reconciliation with Britain was possible. George Wythe, delegate from Virginia, had proposed exploring possible foreign alliances as obtaining supplies from Europe was an absolute necessity. Congress was still controlled by a strong reconciliation faction during 1775 which issued two documents in July, the Olive Branch Petition and the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms.[1] King George’s rejection of both documents and the issuing of the Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition, which declared the colonies to be in “open and avowed rebellion,” pushed enough of the delegates into taking steps to develop foreign assistance.[2]

The delegates decided to create what became known as the Committee of Secret Correspondence on November 29, 1775. Its members were John Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harrison, John Jay, and Thomas Johnson.[3] Robert Morris would join the committee shortly. The original concept was that this committee would establish a correspondence with Americans living abroad to sound out foreign governments and the possibility of aiding the American cause. Shortly after its creation the word secret was added to the committee’s name and its activities were kept quiet as the committee’s members felt that public discussion of the information these men developed would be disadvantageous to everyone involved.[4] This committee would later become the Committee for Foreign Affairs in 1777.

As foreign assistance was critical if the colonies were to successfully sustain a bid for independence, the discussion shifted from whether they should explore foreign assistance to who they should ask for help from? John Adams of Massachusetts was one of several congressmen that saw France as a possible ally in the struggle against Britain.[5] Great Britain’s ascension to primacy among the nations of Europe had displaced France in the balance of power. In addition, French losses during the Seven Year’s War from 1754-1763 had been substantial. All of France’s possessions on the North American continent had been lost during that war. Many of the congressmen felt that France would be interested in aiding the colonists, but they also had many reservations. France had been the traditional enemy of the colonists as well as Great Britain for over a century.

Competition between the French and British colonists dated back to the second half of the 17th century. The Beaver Wars between the Huron and Iroquois confederacies over the fur trade were in many ways a proxy fight between French and Dutch interests.[6] The British entered this struggle and altered it when they defeated and took control of New Netherlands, the Dutch colony of New York. Intermittent wars in Europe caused low level conflict between the French and British colonists as well as their Native American allies for a century until the British victory in the Seven Year’s War displaced the French from North America. During that century of war, both French and British colonial authorities supplied and encouraged Native American raiding of each other’s border areas. As the American congressmen began to look for European assistance, their long association of war with France made them apprehensive about approaching that nation for assistance.[7]

In addition, the animosity between Britain and France was heavily associated with a war between two rival religions, Protestant and Catholic Christianity. The American colonists were overwhelmingly Protestant, and anti-Catholicism was an ingrained prejudice in most colonies with the exception of Maryland which had a significant Catholic population. Even that colony had laws against Catholics holding office although they were often ignored. This fact, combined with what the colonists were trying to do, rebel against a monarchial government, could have been a significant barrier to any forms of assistance from European powers, but there were stronger currents of passion among some in Europe. Many, but by no means all French officials remembered the humiliating losses from the Seven Year’s War and had been looking for a means of turning the tables on Great Britain[8]. While their overall goals diverged widely, from regaining Canada to simply restoring France’s place in the European balance of power, their shared animosity toward Great Britain was enough that the issues of rebellion and religion were overlooked in favor of revenge.

secretAs the members of the Committee of Secret Correspondence began its task, they turned to Americans living abroad that they felt supported the American cause. Many of these men were agents representing colonial business interests such as Arthur Lee, a Virginian and brother of Richard Henry Lee. Lee had been in London representing Massachusetts and supported the rebellion. Benjamin Franklin, who almost certainly had the most contacts in Europe as the result of his scientific and commercial endeavors, sent many letters to men throughout Europe including France and Spain. Franklin sought both the attitudes of the government regarding the American colonies as well as to persuade the recipients that supporting the Americans would be advantageous to those governments.[9] Unbeknownst to Franklin at that time, others sought him out to sound out the American commitment to rebelling against Great Britain.

Officials in France had been observing the events of the American Revolution for many years. Louis XV’s foreign minister, the duc de Choiseul, had been laying plans for revenge even before the peace treaty ending the Seven Year’s War was signed. As early as 1768 Choiseul foresaw that the American colonies would probably revolt against Britain. He also felt that in order for France to defeat Great Britain it would have to do at sea, not on land due to the nature of the European balance of power.[10] Of the large and medium sized nations that comprised a multitude of shifting alliances, only four had naval forces of any appreciable amount. Two of those nations, France and Spain, were allies whose rulers descended from the Bourbon family line. Great Britain and Holland were the other two nations with fairly respectable naval capabilities.

Choiseul’s vision called for France to have a navy capable of winning a war at sea with Great Britain and he bent French internal policy to that end from 1761 until 1770 when he was dismissed over a foreign policy dispute. Choiseul, who envisioned a possible rebellion by the colonies, also sent agents to America to investigate what American military needs might possibly be. One of those agents was Johann de Kalb who visited the colonies in 1767.[11] Choiseul was also prepared to encourage a revolutionary movement by the colonists, but as he did not follow up on that idea because he felt any potential rebellion was years away. In 1774 following the death of Louis XV, Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes became the foreign minister and he continued Choiseul’s policy of naval preparedness. Vergennes sought contact with the Americans, but wanted to keep the discussions secret and informal. To that end he employed Julien Alexandre Achard de Bonvouloir, a young Frenchman who had recently been in the colonies to contact Benjamin Franklin and sound out American intentions.[12]

Vergennes emphasized that Bonvouloir could make no commitments or promises to the Americans, but could relay that the French were not interested in reclaiming Canada and could open ports to American trade.[13] Bonvouloir, who could not speak English, landed in America in October of 1775 and made contact with Franklin through an intermediary. In a series of clandestine meetings at Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia during December, Bonvouloir, Franklin, John Jay, and an interpreter discussed matters. The Americans were satisfied that the French were interested in helping them, while Bonvouloir learned what the Americans desired of the French. Bonvouloir’s report of this meeting in a letter dated December 28th, 1775 gave Vergennes information which he was able to use to persuade Louis XVI to aid the Americans. However, what Bonvouloir wrote to Vergennes was not true.

Tablet designating the location where Bonvouloir, Franklin and the Committee of Secret Correspondence met. Photo by: Wally Gobetz
Tablet designating the location at Carpenter’s Hall where Bonvouloir, Franklin and the Committee of Secret Correspondence met. Photo by: Wally Gobetz

Bonvouloir wrote that the Americans had taken Montreal and were preparing to capture Quebec as part of their invasion of Canada. He also wrote that General Washington’s army besieging Boston was well clothed, well paid and well armed. They have more than 50,000 regular soldiers and an even larger number of volunteers who do not wish to be paid. Judge how men of this caliber will fight. They are more powerful than we could have thought, beyond imagination powerful; you will be astonished by it. Nothing shocks or frightens them, you can count on that. Independency is a certainty for 1776; there will be no drawing back…[14]

As events proved, the Americans lost the battle at Quebec and the Canadian invasion turned into a major defeat. Washington’s army never came close to having 50,000 men at any point and was ill-equipped in 1775.

Since this letter was pivotal in the French deciding to give secret assistance to the Americans at that time, questions arise as to the intent behind it. Did Bonvouloir deliberately exaggerate the American position, was he given false information by Franklin and Jay who sought to improve American standing, or did he believe whatever information he obtained in Philadelphia from various sources such as newspapers and conversations? It is a fact that the newspapers in Philadelphia at that time were full of misleading rumors and information. An entry from one newspaper which Bonvouloir might have read or heard discussed gave a glowing report on the Canadian invasion. It also contained key wording that seems to echo what he wrote to Vergennes. “Our men are in high spirits, being now well clothed,” and “I believe it is the General’s intention to carry the town by storm.”[15]

We may never know why Bonvouloir wrote what he did to Vergennes, but we do know the decisions made based on the contents of that letter opened an extremely vital flow of arms and munitions to America which were desperately needed. The Committee of Secret Correspondence had succeeded in its endeavor to succor foreign help although it should be noted the French were more interested in damaging Britain’s international position than advancing the cause of American independence. While foreign aid was coming to America, more would be needed. To that end the Committee would take additional steps in 1776 which would expand that flow from France and pave the way for the American victory over Great Britain.


[1] Robert Middlekauf, The Glorious Revolution: The American Revolution 1763-1789, rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 320.

[2] Britannia Historical Documents, “Proclamation of Rebellion, August 23, 1775,” (accessed June 15, 2013).

[3] Library of Congress, Journals of the Continental Congress, November 29, 1775. (accessed July 19, 2013).

[4] Office of the Historian,”Secret Committee of Correspondence/Committee for Foreign Affairs, 1775-1777,” US Department of State. (accessed July 20, 2013).

[5] John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). 10 volumes. Vol. 2. Online Library of Liberty (accessed July 21, 2013). See Autobiography following Debates In the Continental Congress, In 1775 and 1776.

[6] Ian K. Steele, Warpaths: Invasions of North America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 131-133.

[7] Middlekauf, Glorious Revolution,  404.

[8] Library of Congress, “Attitude of France to the United States,” The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence, Vol. I (Retrieved July 21, 2013).

[9] Office of the Historian, Secret Committee.

[10] Jonathan R. Dull, The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), 11.

[11] Orville T. Murphy, “The View from Versailles: Charles Gravier Comte de Vergennes’s Perceptions of the American Revolution,” in Diplomacy and Revolution: The Franco-American Alliance of 1778 ed. Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1981), 127.

[12] Jonathan R. Dull, A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 51.

[13] Murphy, “View from Versailles,” 115.

[14] Carl G. Karsch, “The Unlikely Spy,” Carpenters’ Hall (accessed July 19, 2013).

[15] Pennsylvania Packet, January 8, 1776.

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