Unlikely allies, p.19
Unlikely Allies, page 19
Word soon spread through Paris that Deane was commissioning officers on behalf of the Continental Army. The sons of French aristocrats, or purported aristocrats, quickly lined up outside Deane’s door to offer their services. Many of these men were mere adventurers, and Deane had no criteria for judging who was truly qualified to help the American cause. He had to rely on his own instincts and the recommendations of others. As visitors in uniform streamed into his sitting room, Deane abandoned any hope of living anonymously. The flock of young men visiting Deane’s apartment could not have escaped the notice of even the most inattentive spy, and Stormont grew increasingly frustrated observing Deane’s activities. But Deane’s recruitment activities became the source of a diplomatic tempest for other reasons.
Among the men who found their way to Deane’s doorstep were the nineteen-year-old Marquis de Lafayette and two of his friends, the Vicomte de Noailles and the Comte de Ségur. All three came from exceptionally wealthy and influential aristocratic families. Lafayette was a powerful-looking young man with beautiful features and an intense gaze. His parents had died when he was a boy, leaving him with a huge fortune. He had been trained in military science and riding at the elite Académie de Versailles, where he befriended Noailles and Ségur. Noailles’s father, one of the richest and most powerful men in France, had selected Lafayette to marry his adolescent daughter, which only further assured Lafayette’s social position. The three glittering young men, however, had other plans. They had joined the Masons and become followers of the social reformer Abbé Guillaume Raynal, who disdained the aristocracy, colonialism, and the Church. Lafayette and his friends rejected the decadent lifestyle of their parents and embraced the American Revolution as the struggle for human dignity. When the three young men showed up at Deane’s apartment to volunteer, Deane hesitated to add their names to his growing list of commissioned officers. They appealed to him as a fellow Mason, and he allowed himself to be persuaded by Lafayette’s idealism and boyish charm. Deane allowed himself to imagine that these three might inspire a generation and ensure France’s continued support for the American struggle. Unfortunately, Deane did not fully appreciate the high position these men occupied in French society and the risk their enlistment posed to Franco-American relations.
The families of Lafayette, Noailles, and Ségur reacted immediately and angrily to the news that their sons had joined the Continental Army. Lafayette’s pregnant young wife and his father-in-law, who was also the father of Noailles, accused the French government of collaborating with the American rebels. To make matters worse, Noailles’s uncle was in the awkward position of having recently been appointed ambassador to London. Vergennes feared that Britain would view the enlistment of these three famous aristocrats as a declaration of war. He prohibited any ships carrying French officers or arms to America from leaving port and ordered the arrest of the three young officers before they could escape to America. Unsatisfied by French actions, the British blockaded the French coast and threatened to cut off all trade. Deane and Beaumarchais faced financial ruin, and it appeared that Deane’s mission had once more collapsed.
To complicate matters further, the impetuous young Lafayette could not be stopped, even by the French government. He evaded arrest, secretly purchasing and outfitting his own warship, La Victoire , to carry him and the other French officers to America. Despite Vergennes’s best efforts to prevent him from reaching the ship. Lafayette sailed from Bordeaux, leaving behind a diplomatic brouhaha, a pregnant sixteen-year-old wife and a two-year-old daughter, an enraged father-in-law, an anxious General Broglie, and a bellicose British ambassador.
Members of Congress would later harshly criticize Deane for many of the nearly sixty commissions he issued. Congress did not understand how circumstances had compelled Deane to make snap judgments about whom to appoint. He knew that he was acting without authority, but he felt he had to act in the absence of any further instructions from Congress, and he wanted to ensure France’s support. It was true that some of these officers were underqualified, and that some American officers resented the inflated ranks and salaries awarded to some of the French. Yet Deane’s critics never credited him with the enormous contributions made by many of the French officers. Deane was responsible for sending to Washington two of his most valued generals: Baron de Kalb, who proved to be perhaps the greatest tactician in the Continental Army, and Lafayette, whom Washington came to love as a son. While it is true that Deane acted without authority, these soldiers would ultimately help secure victory for Washington’s army. By then, however, it was too late to redeem Deane’s reputation.
Paris and London,
November 1776-March 1777
One day in early November, Deane was working in his study on the rue de l’Université when he overheard a commotion in the front hall. His valet was shouting in English at someone who was trying to push past him into the vestibule. Deane peeked out of the study to see who was making such a disturbance. Was Deane being arrested? Was this a British agent planning to assassinate Deane? Or was it another soldier wanting to go fight for the Americans? His valet informed him that a strange-looking man was demanding to see him. The same man had twice before come to Deane’s door demanding to see the American emissary, but the valet had refused him entrance. “You never saw a worse looking fellow in your Life,” the valet explained to Deane. The man looked like a beggar or a criminal, and the French valet added that “he speaks English so strangely that I can hardly understand him, and I think if he was honest he would speak plain.” Curious, Deane told his valet to admit the stranger. Reluctantly, the valet acquiesced, but insisted that he would remain within earshot in case the stranger threatened Deane.
In the light of his study, Deane could see the man more clearly in all his peculiarity. He was a scrawny-looking twenty-five-year-old with long, unkempt, reddish hair down to his shoulders and a reddish face marked with freckles. He wore a filthy, ill-fitting jacket the color of dried blood, a fantail hat, and a long watch chain (most likely stolen). “His dress,” Deane later quipped, “no way recommended him at Paris.” For several moments the man stammered incoherently. Deane labored to understand his broad Scottish accent. His name was James Aitken, but he was commonly known as “John the Painter.” He would not disclose his purpose because he was afraid that the valet was listening. Deane tried to press him to explain himself. “[I]f a Man is ill used,” Aitken responded cryptically, “has he not a right to resent it and to seek revenge or retaliation on those who have injured him?”
“This is a droll question,” Deane replied. “[G]o into the Fields and tread on the meanest insect and see if it do not at least try to turn upon you.”
“Right, right,” Aitken responded excitedly, his eyes darting wildly. “Your honor has cleared up every doubt in my Mind; I have been most grossly injured, and I will be most signally revenged.” Then, somewhat presumptuously, he asked what rewards might be available for someone who served Congress with distinction.
What was this man raving about? Deane grew impatient with Aitken’s way of talking in riddles. Congress would reward all those who served it, Deane assured him, but “I have not any time to lose, and therefore come at once to the point,” Deane insisted.
Aitken said he had lived in America and had “foolishly” sided with the British Crown, serving in the forces of Virginia’s royal governor Lord Dunmore against the rebels. After being treated poorly by Dunmore, he decided to join the Americans and fight for liberty. So Aitken claimed that he had returned to Britain to help the Americans in any way he could.
As Deane would later learn, most of Aitken’s story was a lie. Aitken was actually an itinerant house painter, a pyromaniac, a common thief, and a highwayman who had robbed homes and coaches throughout England. His secret ambition was to be a military officer, for which he had no obvious qualifications. In 1773, he had journeyed to America, looking for honest work, and when the Revolution exploded, he
Aitken perhaps appreciated the incredulity with which Deane received him. “[T]hough I may appear to your honor a very weak, and insignificant creature, yet if you will give me another audience, I will shew you from the intelligence which I can give you that I can strike a blow . . . as will need no repetition.” His eyes rolled wildly. Aitken meant to punish Britain in a way unimaginable, but he was not prepared to reveal his plan with the French valet hovering so close. He merely hinted that he had some information about Britain’s ports that would interest Deane. Though Deane did not know what to make of this strange man, he was curious as to what Aitken was really talking about and told him to return the next day at the same hour.
The following day Aitken returned and waited patiently outside of Deane’s hotel until Deane left for his morning stroll. Aitken followed Deane silently down the rue des Saints-Pères three blocks to the Quai Malaquais, turning right, as did Deane, along the river. He did not speak to Deane until they were crossing the Pont Neuf, headed to the Ile de la Cité. Beneath them boats sailed by, laden with wine and flour. The cold wind blew Aitken’s unruly hair over his face. He spoke so softly in his brogue that Deane had to stand close to hear him.
Aitken’s plan was to destroy the British navy by destroying the Royal Navy dockyards throughout England. He planned to burn down all the dockyards at Portsmouth and Plymouth, on the west coast, and at Chatham, Deptford, and Woolwich, near London. It sounded like madness for one man to attempt to destroy even a single dockyard, but Aitken understood that the dockyards were entirely vulnerable to fire. The trick was to be able to set a large blaze in multiple locations throughout the dockyard and still manage to escape undetected before the fires were noticed. He had designed a small incendiary device that could be concealed in a pocket and would ignite hours after he left the scene. Aitken’s device was a primitive time bomb. By placing a few incendiary devices at strategic locations, he could create a massive fire without being present at the scene.
Deane was too shocked to respond. He did not quite see how Aitken’s plan could work, but he saw no reason to discourage him on the off chance that it might succeed. Deane could see that for Aitken such an act was clearly criminal arson, but for Deane, as a citizen of a foreign country presently at war with Great Britain, he was bound only by the laws of war, not by the criminal law of Britain. An enemy’s naval dockyard was an appropriate military target, even if the means of attack were unconventional and the attacker was an unstable pyromaniac. Deane regarded himself as a patriot, defending his country in time of war. Deane later argued that anyone of common sense must approve of his motives, “motives no less than a desire to weaken a declared enemy, and to preserve my country, by every means in my power, from the horrors, and distress of fire and desolation.”
Deane made no effort to stop Aitken, but he provided Aitken only nominal assistance. Perhaps facetiously, he assigned Aitken the code name “Zero,” which may have represented Deane’s assessment of Aitken’s likelihood of success. Though Aitken asked Deane to finance his operation, Deane would only agree to pay 72 livres (a little more than $500 today), to cover Aitken’s travel expenses. He foolishly suggested that if Aitken were in trouble he might contact Deane’s friend Bancroft while in London. Aitken would later claim that Bancroft was supposed to pay him another 300 pounds (about $55,000 today) for his attacks on the dockyards, but there is no evidence to support that, and both Deane and Bancroft denied it. In addition, the British later alleged that Deane supplied Aitken with a “passport” purportedly signed by Vergennes on behalf of Louis XVI. If that were true, it is puzzling why Vergennes would have signed such a document. The passport would not have offered Aitken any protection, and it had the consequence of linking Aitken’s terrorism to the French government. It is possible that Deane hoped that if Aitken were captured by the British, the passport would be enough to spark a confrontation between Britain and France, but that would not explain why Vergennes would have endorsed it. It is perhaps more likely that the passport was a fraudulent document concocted by the British Foreign Ministry to link Aitken to Deane and Vergennes.
Aitken returned to England in mid-November and immediately set out to effectuate his plan. He hired a tradesman in Canterbury to construct the incendiary devices out of tin, according to his simple drawings. He created a combustible mixture of turpentine and other paint products that could smolder for hours before bursting into full flame. Each device was less than ten inches long and three-by-four inches around and looked like a small rectangular lantern. He began in Portsmouth on December 6, setting one fire in the dockyard and two in a neighboring residential area as a diversion. Contrary to what he had told Deane, he planned to destroy not only the military target, but the entire city. Aitken’s cheap matches failed to catch flame, however, and he was able to set only one of the fires in the dockyard before he escaped. The fire burned down a factory that produced rope for naval rigging, but did not succeed in destroying the dockyard or the city.
The next day Bancroft was surprised to find a crazed-looking stranger in his front parlor at Number 4 Downing Street. Bancroft had no idea that Deane had recommended him to Aitken. Aitken began by boasting that he had just come from burning down the royal dockyard at Portsmouth. He claimed that Deane had sent him to destroy all the Royal Navy dockyards around the country and had told him that Bancroft would give him whatever money he needed and provide him with a safe place to hide.
Bancroft was terrified. He had no intention of risking his neck to protect a wild man who cheerfully boasted of committing arson. He had no way of knowing whether Aitken had burned Portsmouth or had ever met Deane. Yet, he was caught in a classic dilemma of a double agent: he needed to respond in a way that would neither raise the suspicion of Aitken and Deane as to his loyalty to the Americans, nor the suspicion of his British patrons as to his loyalty to the crown. Bancroft told Aitken that he could not allow him to stay nor would he give him any money. Bancroft might have warned Aitken that Bancroft’s home was monitored by British spies to ensure his loyalty to the British. Bancroft’s one concession was to agree to meet Aitken again.
They met at the smoky Salopian Coffee House on Charing Cross Road the evening of the following day. This seemed like a particularly indiscreet meeting place. The crowded coffeehouse was frequently patronized by naval officers leaving work across the street at the Admiralty Office. Aitken appeared more nervous than he had the previous day. Anyone there might have been a government agent watching them from a nearby table. Had Bancroft led him into a trap? Bancroft himself felt trapped by Deane’s indiscretion. Perhaps Deane and Aitken were testing his loyalty?
Speaking in a quiet voice and leaning forward so that he could be heard above the din, Bancroft told Aitken that as much as he admired and liked Deane, he could not involve himself in Deane’s schemes so long as he lived under the British Crown. He would not help Aitken and asked him never to return to his home. He discouraged Aitken from any further attacks on the dockyards, but assured him that in any case he would not divulge his identity. Aitken became red-faced and indignant. He accused Bancroft of deceiving Deane as to his true intentions and swore that he would continue the fight against the British government. Rising from the table, he looked Bancroft squarely in the eye and warned him that he would soon be hearing of his deeds at Plymouth. As Aitken stalked out of the coffeehouse, Bancroft worried more about Aitken’s capacity to destroy him than any threat he might pose to the Royal Navy.
One month later, Aitken was captured after two failed attempts to burn down the naval yard at Bristol. The trial of “John the Painter” in early March drew large crowds and wide publicity. The chief prosecution witness was an informer to whom Aitk
When news of the trial spread, many in Bancroft’s social circle denounced him as a traitor to the nation. All this gossip against Bancroft incensed Paul Wentworth, Bancroft’s patron and spymaster, who had reason to know on which side Bancroft’s loyalties truly lay. Over dinner at his club in Pall Mall with Thomas Hutchinson, the former governor of Massachusetts, Wentworth heatedly defended Bancroft. It was impossible, Wentworth insisted, that “anyone should suppose Doctor Bancroft anyway capable” of spying with John the Painter. Wentworth’s assurance may have persuaded Hutchinson, but Wentworth knew better than to suppose that men were exactly as they seemed. Wentworth added that “Bancroft had told 20 of his friends what John the Painter said to him.” Wentworth coyly speculated that perhaps Bancroft was actually a spy for the British government.
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