Recent news regarding the ring of Russian spies broken up by the FBI and the subsequent "spy swap" between the U.S. and Russia sounds like it was ripped from the headlines during the Cold War era. But did you know that one of the Founding Fathers is also considered the "founder" of American intelligence gathering and covert action?
Benjamin Franklin was a true Renaissance man by all accounts. Franklin was a writer, printer, satirist, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was noted for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. (Who could forget the old story about Ben, the kite, the key and the lightning storm?) He invented the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, among other things. He became wealthy publishing Poor Richard's Almanack and The Pennsylvania Gazette. He played a major role in establishing the University of Pennsylvania and was elected the first president of the American Philosophical Society. From 1775 to 1776, Franklin was the First U.S. Postmaster General, and from 1785 to 1788, the modern equivalent of the governor of Pennsylvania.
He is the only Founding Father who is a signatory of all four of the major documents of the founding of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, the Treaty of Alliance with France, and the United States Constitution. Franklin participated in drafting the Declaration of Independence, and took part in the Constitutional Convention. Toward the end of his life, he became one of the most prominent abolitionists. Not bad for a man who ended his formal schooling at the age of ten!
As a diplomat, Franklin was sent to France during the Revolutionary War and was responsible for securing French military assistance, as well as negotiating the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the Revolutionary War. His methods in doing so represent a foundation of sorts for American intelligence gathering and covert action. The CIA has described Franklin's contributions:
In December 1776, Franklin was named the Ambassador to France. During his time in Paris, Franklin developed a relationship with the French Government that involved much more than diplomatic work. His real mission was to convince the French Government to become a military ally against the British.
In order to accomplish this, Franklin used his charm and virtues to establish a reputation as a friendly, humble and industrious American. This image was in stark contrast to how the French perceived the British at that time.
Franklin's charm and established friendships with French officials allowed him to successfully manipulate French perceptions of America. On more than one occasion, Franklin convinced the French authorities not to reduce secret aid or block American privateer ships from using French ports despite British protests and threats.
After the American victory during the Battle of Saratoga, Franklin convinced French leadership that he was seriously considering British peace proposals. He orchestrated meetings between the American Commissioners and British envoys, all the while informing French authorities of the discussions and keeping up appearances that a peace agreement was inevitable.
Franklin's trick worked. On January 7, 1778, the French Royal Council decided to negotiate an alliance with America.
Another little known fact is that Franklin was also involved in orchestrating paramilitary operations during the Revolutionary War, including an invasion of a British town:
During the Revolutionary War, Franklin was involved in many paramilitary operations, including coordinating the efforts of privateers operating out of French and other European ports against British shipping. Franklin also played a role in the only American military attack on the British Isles during the Revolutionary War period.
In April 1778, Captain John Paul Jones raided the British port of Whitehaven. Franklin and Jones had planned to burn the ships at port. However, once the attackers were ashore, the element of surprise was lost and they were forced to retreat. The cost of the damage was minimal; no more than 250 - 300 pounds (less than $50,000 of today's U.S. dollars).
Even though the raid was not successful, it was an important achievement for America in terms of propaganda and morale. A British town had been invaded for the first time since the late 1600s.
It looks like the title of "spy" could be added to Franklin's already lengthy resume!
This post originally appeared here.