Edward Bancroft


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Scientist, Author, Spy

Thomas J. Schaeper

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The first complete biography of a little-known but fascinating figure in the history of espionage and the American Revolution

A man of as many names as motives, Edward Bancroft is a singular figure in the history of Revolutionary America. Born in Massachusetts in 1745, Bancroft moved to England as a young man in the 1760s and began building a respectable résumé as both a scientist and a man of letters. In recognition of his works in natural history, Bancroft was unanimously elected to the Royal Society, and while working to secure French aid for the American Revolution, he became a close associate of such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and John Adams. Though lauded in his time as a staunch American patriot, when the British diplomatic archives were opened in the late nineteenth century, it was revealed that Bancroft led a secret life as a British agent acting against French and American interests.

In this book, the first complete biography of Bancroft, historian Thomas J. Schaeper reveals the full extent of the agent's deception during the crucial years of the American Revolution. Operating under aliases, working in ciphers, and leaving coded messages in the trees of Paris's Tuileries Gardens, Bancroft filtered information from unsuspecting figures including Franklin and Deane back to his contacts in Britain, navigating a complicated web of political allegiances. Through Schaeper's keen analysis of Bancroft's correspondence and diplomatic records, this biography reveals whether Bancroft should ultimately be considered a traitor to America or a patriot to Britain.

Thomas J. Schaeper is professor of history, St. Bonaventure University, St. Bonaventure, NY. 

“[E]ngaging . . . By providing a wealth of detail about the life and times of this much-execrated man, Schaeper balances and softens what has conventionally been seen as Bancroft’s harsh character.”—Edmund S. Morgan, The New York Review of Books

"A must for any lover of American Colonial history."—M.A. Byron, Choice

"Well researched and well paced. Recommended to undergraduates and general readers with an interest in espionage or American history."—Library Journal

"This is the first full-length treatment of the life of Edward Bancroft. It corrects a great many mistakes and misinterpretations, and for that reason is a valuable contribution to the historical record. In particular, the account of Bancroft's work as a spy in Paris is terrific; I enjoyed it a great deal."—Alan Houston, author of Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement

"Schaeper in the first scholar to explore Bancroft's life in detail and to treat his activities as a spy in a sober, intelligent fashion. He explodes the myths and conspiracy theories of many modern authors who have traduced Bancroft's reputation and with it the reputations of all those associated with him."—Harry Dickinson, University of Edinburgh

“A wonderful book which fills a major gap in the history of the American Revolution. Through exhaustive research, Schaeper has uncovered much information about the widely misunderstood master spy Bancroft. His book is as entertaining as it is scholarly. Highly recommended not only to academics but also to general readers.”—Jonathan R. Dull, author of A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution

“Thomas Schaeper presents an intriguing, full biography of one of the eighteenth century’s most brilliant and multifaceted figures: scientist, author, speculator, entrepreneur, and double agent Edward Bancroft. He offers a thoroughly researched, fair and balanced reappraisal of both Bancroft and British espionage in Europe during the American Revolution, and in doing so rescues Bancroft from melodramatic OSS and Cold War-infused spy narratives.”— Elizabeth M. Nuxoll, Editor, The Papers of John Jay, Columbia University

Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2011 in the North America category.

Won Honorable Mention in the 2012 New York Book Festival Biography/Autobiography category, sponsored by the New York Book Festival
ISBN: 9780300187458
Publication Date: September 11, 2012
352 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
4 b/w illus.