For God and Country: The Intelligence Role of the Rev. John Vardill

On September 26, 1776, the Continental Congress appointed an official Commission to France. It was composed of Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee. The Paris Commission, America’s first diplomatic mission abroad, opened in late December of 1776. Franklin was its de facto head of mission, and it was located in the Hotel de Valentinois, in the Paris suburb of Passy.

Obviously, its personnel, and its mission of seeking French assistance and eventual formal alliance, were of significant interest to the British Government and its intelligence organizations. In France, British intelligence collection was directed by Lord Stormont, its Ambassador to the French Government, and its capabilities were extensive. For most of the war Britain had the Commission thoroughly penetrated with reporting agents, including the Commission’s private secretary Dr. Edward Bancroft.[1]

Where the Reverent John Vardill comes into the picture is not in France but rather in London, where his job was to recruit American seamen whom he could then direct to the Paris Commission for employment in arranging shipments of military supplies, funds and Commission communications back to the Continental Congress and army.

While not the norm, several Anglican clergy have been identified as supporting British intelligence operations. But, most of these cases involved the clergy utilizing their intellectual or scholarly background in a support capacity for an operation. Probably the best known was Rev. Jonathan Odell, who was a member of a Loyalist intelligence network in the New York – New Jersey area directed by William Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s estranged son.[2] William had been the Royal Governor of New Jersey and was an active supporter of the Crown. Odell played an important role in the communications between Benedict Arnold and the British as Arnold attempted to negotiate a suitable deal for betraying his country.

When Arnold instructed Joseph Stansbury, a Philadelphia merchant of known Tory sentiment, to travel to New York City to contact the British and start negations for his services, Odell was his first contact. There is some evidence that Stansbury was already a British agent, acting as a “stay behind” asset in the city now under American control once again.[3] In any event, Odell introduced him to Franklin, and subsequently he was passed along to Maj. John Andre, Gen. Henry Clinton’s aide. As Andre rather clumsily attempted to establish the legitimacy of the offer, Odell’s role became one of operational support. He would handle the development of the invisible ink, or “stain” as it was referred to at the time, used for correspondence and then decipher the code used in communications from Arnold to Andre. He played only a minor role in the Arnold defection scheme. Arguably his most significant effect on the operation was not really his fault.

Invisible ink can be a tricky medium of communication, especially when its use must be done under the stress of secrecy by an individual in enemy territory. This was the case for Arnold. Also even under the best conditions careful application and drying is required to insure the invisible text can be clearly developed. So, when Arnold replied to Andre’s response asking for some specific reporting which would assist Andre in determining the validity of Arnold’s offer, Odell found that in his reply Arnold had allowed the ink to run together and the message was thus unreadable.[4] This caused a serious issue for Andre. Was it really an accident, or was it part of a ploy being used in a “double agent” operation against Clinton? It was the start of a suspicion that kept Andre from fully committing himself to vetting and accepting Arnold as a volunteer for several months.

But, now back to a clergyman who actually ran agent operations.

The Reverend Vardill was born in New York City on July 5, 1749. His father was a ship’s captain. He studied at King’s College, now Columbia University, starting in 1762 and graduated with a B.A. in1766, and an M.A. three years later. His loyalties were to the Crown from the very beginning of his involvement in politics. In the 1770s he authored several political broadsides supporting British Government actions as the Whig elements in the colonies pushed for more and more political independence from the mother country.

There is no way Vardill can be considered a traitor since his loyalties were openly displayed. He was simply a British citizen born in the American colonies who supported his governments’ actions.

In early 1774, Vardill traveled to London to take the vows of the Anglican order. There he continued to write newspaper articles in support of British government actions. Vardill also seems to have had connections within British Prime Minister Lord North’s political circles.[5] In any event, by mid-1775 he realized he could not safely return to New York City.

Sometime in the 1775-76 period Vardill was recruited by William Eden, the Under Secretary of State and one of the senior British civilian spymasters. His job was to develop relationships with Americans who may have, or could develop, access to plans and intentions of the American government regarding European support, especially from France. In a 1783 petition to a Royal Commission addressing compensation for services and losses by loyalists during the American Revolution, Vardill stated that he “… devoted his time, from 1775 to 1781 to the Service of Government … “. He specifically mentioned providing “… Intelligence supplied from an extensive American Correspondence …”[6]

Indeed, on a couple of occasions he was able to secretly examine papers which American couriers had brought to London from Franklin in Paris for passage to well-placed sympathetic politicians, and report their contents to Eden.[7] However, it was his recruitment and handling of two American agents which proved to be the most valuable contributions of his intelligence career: Jacobus Van Zandt and Capt. Joseph Hynson.

Van Zandt was an American living in Paris, and traveled to London with correspondence Franklin wished to provide to his political contacts. In Paris he had developed a social relationship with members of the Paris Commission based upon his family’s wealth and social standing in New York City. He also lived above his means, and had a reputation for being in debt. While in London, Vardill met him and offered to provide funds to pay his debts if he would provide the confidential correspondence and, upon returning to France, continue his social activities with Commission members, and report all information of interest to Lord Stormont. He agreed, and took the operational alias of George Lupton in his reporting.

In addition to his reporting on conversations with Dr. Franklin and others, Van Zandt was able to obtain a list of the “mail drops,” that is, false names and mailing addresses used by the Commission to correspond with their sympathizers in Britain.[8] This information allowed a special office in the British postal system to clandestinely open these communications, and copy their contents before they were delivered. This correspondence provided insights into American activities with the French Government as well as identifying individuals in Britain who were secretly supporting the American cause.

Unfortunately, Van Zandt was far from clever in his elicitation techniques, and his questions became too obvious. By early 1778 he lost contact with Commission members and was terminated by Vardill.

The other agent really was the star of the show. Captain Hynson was from a Maryland family and from all accounts a rather crude and conceited fellow. In early 1777, while in London, he stayed at a boarding house run by a Mrs. Elizabeth Jamp. In addition to renting rooms, she also had an ample supply of ladies of easy virtue, which added to her income and the comfort of her guests. And, she also happened to be reporting to Vardill, providing information on house guests of potential intelligence interest.[9]

After the proper inducement from Vardill, Hynson advised that he had been tasked to obtain an English ship, take it to France and then have it transferred to the Continental Navy. He also noted that he was trusted by the Commission to handle shipping details of military supplies from France to the Continental Army. Upon his return to France he became a reporting agent for British Intelligence.

His most valuable service, however, was turning over to the British all the official correspondence of the Commission to the Continental Congress for the period of January to June 1777. Hynson was given the package of communications to pass to a Captain Folger, whose ship was about to sail for America. Before doing so he was able to open the package and replace the correspondence, which was not to be opened except by the Congress, with blank papers. When Folger sailed off, Hynson passed the correspondence to British intelligence, and Eden personally gave it to King George III.[10] For several months the British Government knew exactly what the Paris Commission had been doing, while the Continental Congress did not.

Later that month, Hynson, possibly drunk or perhaps under orders, wrote to Deane from London revealing his association with British Intelligence and offering, for a price, to become a double agent, which in effect he already was. This ended his association with the Commission.

As to the blank papers, the Continental Congress’s Committee of Foreign Affairs sent a letter to the Paris Commission on January 12, 1778 advising that it had received no correspondence of any kind since May 26, 1777 and that the packet delivered by Folger contained only “clean white paper.” The Committee stated that they would investigate the matter and Folger’s activities, and did so for several months. Folger was finally released from prison on May 8, 1778 since no evidence of his involvement was found.[11]

Vardill served Eden till the end of the war in 1783. He applied to a Royal Commission in that year for compensation, a professorship he had been promised at Oxford, and financial losses he endured from not being able to perform his duties as a professor at King’s College, New York and as an assistant at Trinity Church in that city.[12] Unfortunately, the Commission awarded him only a small portion of his claim. And, he left government service.

Like a great many intelligence officers, while working during a time of conflict and stress they were highly valued. But, with peace they meant considerably less.


[1] For details of British spies and their activities within the Paris Commission, see Kenneth A. Daigler, Spies, Patriots, and traitors: American Intelligence in the Revolutionary War (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2014), 62-92.

[2] Carl Van Doren, Secret History of the American Revolution (New York: Viking, 1941), 197-98.

[3] Thomas B. Allen, Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 292.

[4] Van Doren, Secret History, appendix, “Arnold-Andre Correspondence,” May 31, 1779, Odell to Andre, 442-43.

[5] Steven Graham Wigely, “John Vardill: A Loyalist’s Progress,” M.A. Dissertation, History Department, University of California at Irvine, 1975, 102.

[6] Memorial of John Vardill (November 16, 1783), Appendix C, Audit Office, 12/20 p413, British National Archives.

[7] Lewis D. Einstein, Divided Loyalties: American in England During the War of Independence (London: Cabden-Sanderson, 1933), 54-55.

[8] Ibid., 55.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Samuel Flagg Bemis, “British Secret Service and the French-American Alliance,” The American Historical review, Vol. XXIX. No. 3, April 1924, 480.

[11] U.S. Department of State, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Vol. 2, 468-69, link, accessed April 24, 2017.

[12] Memorial of John Vardill, 416-17.



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