From the archives: The birth of counterintelligence in America


For the Monitor

Published: 11-05-2023 8:00 AM

(Ashley Miller shares this month’s story with ConcordTV. Watch the episode on YouTube.)

The spring and summer of 1776 were tumultuous: the British forces occupied New York City by late August, the Great Fire broke out in Manhattan with both British and American forces claiming the opposing side started it, and General George Washington was cracking down on counterintelligence efforts.

In June 1776, Washington was the target of an assassination plot. Using Thomas Hickey, a member of Washington’s elite squad of bodyguards, the British schemed with the royal governor of New York, the mayor of New York City, and more than a dozen others to kill or capture Washington. Hickey then became the first continental soldier to be executed for treason.

Worried that the inhabitants of New York had been “by the wicked arts and insidious and corrupt practices of William Tryon, Esq.: late Governor of the Colony of New-York, and his adherents, been seduced to take part with our enemies, and aid and abet their measures for subjugating the United States of America,” American forces sought to quell their influence.

On Sept. 21, 1776, the New York state representatives established a committee, “appointed for the express purpose of enquiring into, detecting and defeating all conspiracies, which may be formed in this state, against the liberties of America.” The committee was headed by John Jay, a president of the wartime Continental Congress, a diplomat of the new republic, a framer of the Constitution, and the first Chief Justice of the United States. Jay is credited for founding counterintelligence in America and for saving Washington’s life.

As New York was pivotal in the war effort, those suspected of espionage were sent elsewhere in the colonies to reduce their influence until a proper trial could be held. The accused were sent to places such as Exeter, New Hampshire, “there to remain under such restrictions as to the General Court or Council or Committee of Safety shall seem most advisable.”

Accusations ranged from a group of people “more or less concerned in a late insurrection…and the greatest parts actually in arms,” to others who were “endeavoring to enlist men in the service of the enemy,” and “for notorious disaffection to the American cause…and supplying the enemy’s ships with provisions.”

America’s future was fraught and unsure. Facing a fierce military power with experience and resources to boot, Washington utilized every possible tool to ensure a positive outcome for U.S. forces, including espionage.

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From the Archives is a monthly column highlighting the history and collection of the New Hampshire State Archives, written by Ashley Miller, New Hampshire State Archivist. Miller studied history as an undergraduate at Penn State University and has a master’s degree in history and a master’s degree in archival management from Simmons College.