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The Usage of Espionage in the American Revolution

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The American Revolution is one that some regard as not so revolutionary. The relative tameness of the revolution as compared to others is what leads to this idea. However, the usage of espionage at the time was extremely advanced and was a precedent to many agencies known today. A combination of enlightenment ideals and espionage technologies are what ultimately lead the colonies to win the Revolutionary war.

The period of enlightenment was proclaimed in the eighteenth century by philosophers who believed they have transitioned into a time of free-thinking and the celebration of the individual man. The enlightenment period had effects on more than just individual rights but on politics during this time period. For example, John Locke wrote ‘Two Treatises of Government’ in 1690, his main argument of this paper is the idea that men are free and equal by nature and refuted the claim that God has made people subject to monarchs (Tuckness). Locke’s claim was widely accepted by many colonized lands and his beliefs were prominent in the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776. In the American colonies, the sentiment prior to the French-Indian war colonists saw themselves as subjects of the English monarchy but when that war ended there was a shift in nationalism and people began to think of themselves as Americans (Allen, 17). The change of national identity was a result of enlightenment ideals along with continued abuse and lead to the need for independence in the Americas.

Once the decision was to declare war against the monarchy of England there were decisions to be made about how to fight. General George Washington wanted to stick to the traditions of Old World armies, this includes not fighting in winter and using traditional intelligence in order to gain information on their enemies (Allen, 45). New World armies were expected to do the same, but Washington needing a win for his battered troops employed espionage tactics in order to gain information and win different battles throughout the war.

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Before espionage could be used there were technologies that were required to be mastered. These technologies include maps, sophisticated communication and printing. In Washington’s early days he was trained in surveying, this skill transferred to knowing where land was wilderness as opposed to road systems (Allen, 4). There were many communication techniques that were employed by Washington and his troops that added to his intelligence networks and ultimately led him to winning the Revolutionary War. An example of this is that many members of the Sons of Liberty were printers and publishers, this control of the press allowed the Americans to spread different propaganda against the British (Allen, 18). The propaganda that was being spread was full of enlightenment ideals, for example, “defense of the freedom that is our birthright” Locke’s beliefs of individual rights are prominent within this quote. The lack of communication within the British intelligence was a factor of the American success, the intercepting of a letter and changing their contents are an example of their unsophisticated system of communication (Allen, 33). Though sometimes the colonists’ messages were also intercepted they were deeply encrypted using code as well as invisible ink to hide their messages. Benjamin Tallmadge created a spy ring in New York City and helped to develop important aspects to code writing, for example, deciding that different agents, including Washington, needed secret identities. These identities were created using different variations of three numbers assigned to members of their intelligence system along with code names. For example, Tallmadge would be identified as 721 and would be called John Bolton whereas Washington would be solely identified through his numbers 711 (Allen, 60). Tallmadge also used this system for different places, months and words that were frequently used in communication and planning throughout the war (Allen, 63). The combination of Tallmadge’s number system along with secret identities lead to a higher level of sophistication within the communication that occurred amongst the colonies, this made deciphering the code more difficult for British agents who intercepted it. Invisible ink was a technology available to both sides of the war. The most common method of this, as seen in the National Treasure movie, was using lemon juice to write and when heated a message will appear. The British used two types of ink and would stipulate which method would make it appear, fire or acid, in the corner of the message (Allen, 68). Washington wanted a more complicated ink so their messages could not be revealed as easily with fire or acid, so he sought Sir James Jay. Jay was a chemist who developed a system in which used two chemicals in order to reveal the message, this method was spread to all intelligence groups both at home and abroad (Allen, 69).

Washington’s use of spy networks throughout the war was essential to the success of the Americans. Washington himself had minor experience with being a spy during the French and Indian war, he “mingl[ed] with French officers” (Rose, 96). This allowed him to gain knowledge about their weaknesses and troop locations, the experience that Washington got from this early exposure to espionage “shape[d] his understanding of the value of open spy networks” (Halverson, 128). Another example of Washington’s innate knack for the undercover intelligence networks is that he would find people who knew the information he needed or find people who knew how to get the information he needed (Allen, 8). Washington also realized the importance of moral amongst troops and how it was essential to winning the war. Within his different spy rings his reports would range from “size and location of British military supplies” to the “health and spirits of the army, navy and city” (Allen, 50). Washington taking into account the spirits of the city gave him a better insight into how a city is faring under British control and whether or not the Americans needed to provide aid. When describing espionage Washington stated that it is “everything which can be interesting and important for us to know” (Halverson, 129). Enforcing the idea that knowledge of army positions, though important, is not the only thing espionage should be used for. Washington favored having spies that lived on the other side because their “local circumstances...give them an opportunity of making observations” (Allen, 52). Washington frequently used civilians within his networks and he sometimes would recruit them on his own. One of his notable recruits was Nathaniel Sackett, unlike other civilian members of intelligence agencies however, Sackett would report to Washington directly (Halverson, 130). Even though Washington recruited some spies, he did not have personal contact with many of them, the reason being that having spies be not directly linked to him lessened the chance for a single intelligence officer to gather all the information and use if for themselves (Halverson, 128). In order to avoid this from occurring, Washington would gather small bits of information from many sources. Washington would also use sleeper agents to gain information on the enemy, John Honeyman was a perfect example of one of these agents. Honeyman was a known Tory and was hated by the townspeople for selling meat to Hessians (Allen, 48). Honeyman was really working for Washington and was using his trusted position in order to gain information on the Hessian army, Honeyman was then imprisoned. However, a fire broke out and Honeyman escaped, no one but Washington knew that he was working for the Americans so he was able to return to his duties and keep feeding information to Washington. There were a few occasions where “American officers holding spies were unaware that the prisoner was employed by Washington” (Halverson, 132). This goes to show the levels of secrecy Washington had around his intelligence operations. Sometimes, he would implement spies that were made to be captured in order to throw off British officials. In some cases, the agent would be posed as a “fugitive from the persecution of danger” (Fitzpatrick, 368) the danger being American troops. In these scenarios, they would go into British territories under that alias, give misinformation about the location and size of the American armies and then escape back into the custody of the Americans. If possible, these agents were also tasked with carrying information about the troops they had run into (Halverson, 132). Washington also created an overseas network of intelligence-led by Silas Dean in France (Allen, 82). This network became known as the Secret Committee of Correspondence, they used their own codes, ships and would create new messenger systems (Halverson, 131). Having intelligence abroad along with intelligence in the Americans allowed Washington to have a complete vision of his enemy that allowed him to plan accordingly.

There were many different organizations and people that were connected to Washington’s intelligence networks. Some organizations include the Sons of Liberty and the Daughters of Liberty, bother organizations would help with the spread of propaganda during the revolution. The Songs of Liberty would help spread the message to foreigners aiding the British that if they desert they would get land (Allen, 79). The Daughters of Liberty were women who wanted to aid in the revolution, women were valuable members of intelligence networks because men did not believe women posed a real threat. An example of women being able to gain intelligence comes in Lydia Darragh, her home was being used by British officers as a meeting place. One night, John Andre held a secretive meeting in her home, rather than go to sleep like she was ordered she listened to the conversation and once the meeting was over faked sleep until Andre believed she had not listened (Allen, 102). Darragh sent her message to Washington which was able to confirm other reports he had received of movements of British troops. Many women did not receive the same fame from their actions as Lydia Darragh, for most female spies their true identities are not even known. For example, there was one woman known as “Old Mom” Rinker who would carry information to underground spy networks (Allen, 101). Women were not the only group that was exploited in order to help war efforts, Quakers were essential in helping aid intelligence for Americans. Robert Townsend, or Culper Jr according to Tallmadge’s code system, was a merchant and Quaker (Allen, 53). His profession and religion made him the perfect agent because his profession allowed him to travel throughout Long Island and New York City and his religion is against violence which kept suspicion away from him.

The Americans’ use of espionage, their more sophisticated technology, and their liberating ideologies are what ultimately lead them to win the war. The British had spies as well, but they were not as well informed and had inferior communication which leads to confusion amongst their ranks. The complex spy network led by Washington allowed him to know about many different aspects of intelligence that he planned accordingly for. The British also had invisible ink but unlike the Americans, it could be easily revealed using an acid or heat whereas the colonists used a two chemical system when encoding their messages. One technology the British did not have on their side was the ideology that they were fighting for their fundamental rights. The passion the Americans had to defend their land as a result of enlightenment ideals ultimately lead them to victory.


  1. Allen, Thomas B. George Washington, Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War. National Geographic Books, 2007.
  2. Fitzpatrick, John C. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799 Volume 21 December 22, 1780-April 26, 1781. Vol. 21. Best Books on, 1939.
  3. Halverson, Sean. 'Dangerous Patriots: Washington's Hidden Army during the American Revolution.' Intelligence and National Security 25.2 (2010): 123-146.
  4. Rose, Alexander. Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring. Bantam, 2014.
  5. Tuckness, Alex, 'Locke's Political Philosophy', The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
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