We often hear about intelligence activities which take place during times of war. Having good intelligence is indeed critical to military and diplomatic success. But there is also intelligence work that goes into the decision to enter a war in the first place, either as a primary combatant or as a participant in an alliance.
When France considered an alliance with the American colonies against Great Britain, it wanted to be sure it was making as informed a decision as possible. While the better-known reports are the ones that gave the final push to make that leap, those reports were built upon the lesser-known spade work, by earlier emissaries sent to gather information necessary to make a decision of such military, political and economic gravity.
Many agents, some famous and some not, some French and some not, were involved in initial information gathering efforts in the period between the end of the Seven Years’ War and France’s formal entry into the American Revolution in 1778. Three of the earliest agents were François de Sarrebourse de Pontleroy de Beaulieu (hereafter “Pontleroy”), Johann Kalb, also known as Baron de Kalb, and a man who, until the 2010s, had no name in the historical record, and was simply referred to by the name of his diary: “A French Traveller.”
The reasoning behind the French entry into the American Revolution makes, on the one hand, no sense at all, and on the other hand, almost complete sense. On the “no sense” side, why would a Catholic monarchy, still licking its wounds and hemorrhaging debt from the just-concluded Seven Years’ War, devote huge amounts of money and manpower to support a Protestant-driven, anti-monarchial rebellion? There were many factors involved in such a complex calculus, but I see two primary reasons, one emotional and one largely based on cold, hard rationale. Emotion drove the French desire for revenge after France’s embarrassment at the hands of the British in the Seven Years’ War, a war that stripped the French of all their North American possessions, Canada most prominently, and ceded Louisiana to Spain. Revenge can drive people, and even governments, to take actions that might not, in the long run, be in their best interests. At the same time, there were more subtle considerations of global power politics and maintaining a balance among the major powers, Great Britain, France, and Spain, especially now that North America was part of the mix.
Besides its lost possessions in North America, France had to look south from there and worry about its island possessions in the Caribbean. It didn’t take much of a visionary to see that America could one day become a power on the global stage. And from the French point of view, having them reconcile with the British would be a disaster, creating a unified force and upsetting the delicate balance of power, not to mention the absolute level of French influence, which France tried so hard to maintain. Once the center of all European activity, she became, wrote a Frenchman, “an unheeded onlooker. None cared for her favor or her wishes. Of all great powers she was least considered. England was in the ascendant, France at the nadir of her power.” Keeping the rebellious colonies and Great Britain at each other’s throats would hobble this potent combination and hopefully provide an opening for France to exact its military revenge. A more ambitious companion initiative, which I won’t detail here, involved a plan for a full-scale invasion of the British mainland while the British were occupied in North America.
How strong a factor was revenge? “The Duc de Choiseul [the French Foreign Minister between 1766 and 1770] in 1764 denounced to his master the intrigues, the jealousy, the ‘haughty tone’ of England in the world’s affairs. This archenemy of French power aimed, he declared, at supremacy ‘in the four quarters of the globe.’ England’s true aim had been to rob France of her American colonies and trade. For the future she evidently planned to seize all Louisiana, penetrate thus to New Mexico, and in time follow Cromwell’s plan and open the way through Central America to all of Spain’s possessions. To this end England aimed to stifle the French marine at its birth and to rule the sea alone.” Choiseul was not going to let this happen on his watch. His approach was essentially two-pronged: to take full advantage of the unrest in the colonies and to plan an invasion of the British mainland. This required a fiscal restructuring as well as a military one. While that was going on, he sent out his spies to acquire the intelligence necessary to successfully execute these ambitious goals.
Work on the revenge angle started almost as soon as the ink was dry on the 1763 Treaty of Paris which concluded the Seven Years’ War. It was led by Choiseul. Choiseul’s original goal was to incite a rebellion in the American colonies which would weaken the British enough to enable the French to reclaim Canada. But any French involvement in North America necessitated firsthand knowledge of what was going on there. To this end, they needed their own people “on the ground” to assess the prevailing mood and political trends and look for openings which could be exploited, to wreak revenge on the British. If these agents could stoke the conflict, so much the better.
Reports indicated that “Choiseul hoarded every document, every proclamation and revolutionary broadside, every seditious American sermon or clipping from a rebellious newspaper. The surest way to his favor was to report discontent and trouble in the Carolinas or Virginia . . . In America the secret emissaries took every means to spread dissatisfaction among the colonists. They took pains to impress Americans with their own importance. Their strength was represented as an object of greater magnitude than the British rulers were aware.” Benjamin Franklin, in a 1767 letter to his not yet estranged son William, declared that France, “the intriguing nation,” was “blowing up the coals between Great Britain and her colonies,” and he, at that time, hoped to prevent her success. At this stage, the elder Franklin was still in a British Subject state of mind, though he would one day consummate the alliance with those “intriguing” French.
This is where Pontleroy (sometimes using his surname of Beaulieu) and our other unnamed “agent” entered the mix. Pontleroy was specifically sent by Choiseul to the colonies, while the “French Traveler” was not a Frenchman at all, but a Scottish merchant in America on his own accord, who providentially obtained a front row seat to the Stamp Act crisis in the colonies. His observations are documented in “Journal of a French Traveller in the Colonies in 1765.” This intelligence provided an unexpected bonus to the French foreign ministry. When and how they received it, and how they used the information, is unclear. Regardless, it provides us a unique perspective on the developing rebellion from a first-hand witness.
In the early post Seven Years’ War period, most American colonists, aggrieved though they were, still considered themselves British subjects. Despite the severity of the reaction to the Stamp act, they viewed it more or less simply as a spat with the mother country. Most forward-thinking observers realized that the burgeoning colonies would sooner or later break away from Great Britain, but not yet. Hence, at this stage cooperation with the French lacked context—cooperation in doing what?
Pontleroy, a lieutenant of the navy in the department of Rochefort, was dispatched in 1764 (some sources claim 1765) by Choiseul to visit the English colonies in America. He was pitched to Choiseul in less than glowing terms: “[he had] no talent for writing, but he might map out to advantage the plans of the principal ports of America and even of England, by entering the service of an American merchant who put him in command of a ship. He was well acquainted with ship building, piloting and drawing.”
He was, indeed, a somewhat quirky character. Reportedly when he “became gorged with information he seemed to fall into a state of mental coma, so that he wrote and talked painfully.” Due to his lack of aptitude for written communications, Pontleroy passed his information to François-Marie Durand de Distroff, the French Plenipotentiary to Great Britain, who in turn passed the information to Choiseul in a series of letters written from his post in London in August of 1767. “Only the patient efforts of Durand, acting as agent for Choiseul, drew out his report.” He assumed the guise of a French tobacco merchant, and had instructions to assess the extent of the revolutionary fervor in America. In his travels he ranged throughout the thirteen colonies, mostly traveling by boat and assessing the naval angle, in accordance with his vocation.
Pontleroy found the Americans had a motto that he interpreted as demonstrating many colonists’ ambivalence toward Great Britain if not an openness toward working with France, despite that as Englishmen they had an almost inborn enmity for it: “Angleterre: C’est notre modele et notre rivale, notre lumiere et notre ennemie.” “England: She’s our model and our rival, our light and our enemy.”
Pontleroy reported to Choiseul, through Durand, that:
[The colonies] abounded in corn, cattle, flax, and iron; in trees fit for masts; in pine timber, lighter than oak, easily wrought, not liable to split, and incorruptible.
The inhabitants, already numerous, and doubling their numbers every twenty years, were opulent, warlike, and conscious of their strength; how they followed the sea, especially at the north, and engaged in great fisheries; how they built annually one hundred and fifty vessels to sell in Europe and the West Indies, . . . and how they longed to throw off the restraints imposed on their navigation.
New York stood at the confluence of two rivers, of which the East was the shelter to merchant vessels; but its roadstead was also a vast harbor where a navy could ride at anchor.
The large town of Philadelphia had rope-walks and busy shipyards, and manufactures of all sorts, especially of leather and of iron. In the province to which it belonged, the Presbyterians outnumbered the peaceful Quakers. Germans, weary of subordination to England and unwilling to serve under English officers against France, openly declared that Pennsylvania would one day be called Little Germany.
In all New England there were no citadels, from the people’s fear of their being used to compel submission to Acts of Parliament infringing colonial privileges. The garrison at Boston was in the service of the Colony. The British troops were so widely scattered in little detachments, as to be of no account. “England,” reasoned the observer, “must foresee a Revolution, and has hastened its epoch by emancipating the Colonies from the fear of France in Canada.”
The “French Traveller” story is considerably less conventional. A researcher working in the French naval archives in 1921 turned up the seventy-nine-page “French Traveller” journal. What made this document unusual in the French archives was that the first fifty-four pages were in English. The remainder, in French, includes a recap of the English portions and some details on the coastal defenses of several key colonial ports. The journal reads like a travelogue of the colonies, starting with a trip from Havana, Cuba, to Beaufort, North Carolina, in early March 1765 with travels all the way to Long Island, New York, in late August before backtracking down to Philadelphia before the account ends in September 1765.
What is clear from the document was that it was an espionage report—the detail that was of military value is proof enough of this. Further, the connections he was able to make along the way with prominent gentlemen far exceeded what could be expected from an average itinerant merchant, if he was a merchant at all. What is not clear is at whose behest he was doing this work, how the report made its way into the French archives, and how it factored into the French Ministry’s thinking. Thanks to the diligent work of Ph.D. candidate Joshua Beatty in the early 2010s, we do finally have a name to attach to this man. Long posited to be an Irish Catholic, the man turned out to be a Scotsman and Catholic named Charles Murray.
Murray’s big claim to fame in his reporting is that he happened to be passing through Williamsburg, Virginia, on May 30, 1765 and was present at the Virginia House of Burgesses when Patrick Henry made his (called by many) treasonous speech in support of the Virginia Resolves, rebuking the Stamp Act. As it was reported by Murray,
One of the members stood up and said he had read that in former times Tarquin and Julius had their Brutus, Charles had his Cromwell, and he Did not Doubt but some good american would stand up in favour of his Country . . . when the speaker of the house rose and Said, he, the last that stood up had spoke traison, and was sorey to see that not one of the members of the house was loyal Enough to stop him, before he had gone so far. upon which the Same member stood up again (his name is henery) and said . . . he was ready to ask pardon, and he would shew his loyalty to his majesty King G. the third, at the Expence of the last Drop of his blood, but what he had said must be atributed to the Interest of his Countrys Dying liberty.
This version differs somewhat from the recollection of a twenty-three-year-old Thomas Jefferson (writing late in life). By Jefferson’s account, Henry added King George III to his examples of men betrayed, and when the cries of “treason” arose he attempted to quell them by adding “may [the King] profit by their example”. In the end, four of the six resolves proposed by Henry and the House of Burgesses were approved, and became a bulwark in the colonial resistance to the Stamp Act and for establishing Henry’s reputation as a firebrand. The next day the Governor dissolved the House.
This is what Choiseul wanted to hear, but he needed more. In 1768, he dispatched another agent, de Kalb, first to Amsterdam to absorb whatever rumors he could about unrest in the British colonies and, if those proved enough, to journey to America with instructions to:
inquire into the intentions of the inhabitants, and endeavor to ascertain whether they are in need of good engineers and artillery officers, or other individuals, and whether they should be supplied with them . . . [and] inform himself of their facilities for procuring supplies and will find out what quantities of munitions of war and provisions they are able to procure . . . and examine their resources in troops, fortified places, and forts, and will seek to discover their plan of revolt, and the leaders who are expected to direct and control it.
His report on these factors fired up the activities of Beaumarchais in supplying the Americans with military stores and also inspired the later flood of officer aspirants sent to America by its first envoy to France, Silas Deane, in 1776-77.
The bottom line, though, was the part of his instructions that required de Kalb to “acquaint himself with the greater or lesser strength of their purpose to withdraw from the British Government.” On this point, he provided Choiseul with what was for him a less than satisfactory answer. De Kalb’s observation was that although the colonies were one day destined for independence, they were still firmly in the British camp and would likely stay there when push came to shove. Proving the timeless impact of not giving the boss the answer he wanted to hear, de Kalb was shunned by the Minister upon his return to France, having to wait nearly a month to meet with Choiseul to explain his report. When the meeting was granted, Choiseul dismissed de Kalb quickly, chastening him that he had “returned too soon from America,” and that he “need not send me any more reports about the country.” Choiseul was eventually dismissed by the King during the Falklands crisis with Spain in 1770. The later intel that helped seal the Franco-American alliance was submitted to his eventual successor, the comte de Vergennes, by an agent named Bonvouloir. With this information, among other data, Vergennes negotiated the alliance and treaty of commerce with Franklin, released in early 1778.
Though the French ultimately entered the conflict and were instrumental in the American defeat of the British, the story did not end well for the French. The war bankrupted the already-depleted national treasury, the plan to invade England fizzled, and the forces and ideas it set off eventually, along with many other factors, resulted in Louis XVI losing his head at the revolutionary guillotine. According to historian Jonathan Dull, “French participation in the American Revolution yields its deepest meaning when seen as a tragedy.” Yes, revenge was achieved and, perhaps, the global balance of power and France’s status as a major player restored, but it came at an exceedingly steep price for the powers that sought it.
Bob Ruppert, “The Three Documents That Brought France Into the War,” Journal of the American Revolution, October 13, 2014, allthingsliberty.com/2014/10/the-three-documents-that-brought-france-into-the-war/.
C. H. Van Tyne, “French Aid Before the Alliance of 1778,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 31, No. 1 (October 1925), 21 ,www.jstor.org/stable/1904500.
Harlow Giles Unger, Improbable Patriot: The Secret History of Monsieur de Beaumarchais, the French Playwright Who Saved the American Revolution(Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2011), 15.
Benjamin Franklin to William Franklin, August 28, 1767, Founders On-Line, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-14-02-0146.
The Journal is held and by the American Historical Society and was published as “Journal of a French Traveller in the Colonies, 1765” in two parts in The American Historical Review, Vol. 26, No. 4 (July 1921), 726-747, www.jstor.org/stable/1836736, and Vol. 27, No. 1 (October 1921), 70-89, www.jstor.org/stable/1836922.
France in the American Revolution, Chapter II, The Treaty of Paris and Its Consequences, www.americanrevolution.org/frconfiles/fr2.php.