An Unlikely Spy Embedded as a Newspaper Printer

The Culper Spy Ring was a professional network of 20 spies managed by Benjamin Tallmadge of the 2nd Connecticut Light Dragoons under orders of General George Washington. The Culper Ring’s mission, according to Wikipedia: Infiltrate British-controlled New York City and report troop dispositions and intentions, and conduct covert operations throughout the American Revolutionary War.

As P.K. Rose points out in The Founding Fathers of American Intelligence, the Culper Spy Ring was the most professional of Washington’s agent networks. However, beyond the Culper Ring, “Washington had numerous other agents reporting on enemy activities in New York City. Among them [was] James Rivington, a prominent Tory newspaper publisher.”

“Jemmy Rivington’s Tory newspaper, the Royal Gazette, was extremely critical of George Washington. However, Rivington was also a spy who passed along secrets of the British navy to colonial leaders. On one occasion, Rivington helped break a British code that almost surely saved American lives during one of the war’s earlier battles,” according to Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism (Eric Burns, 2006).

Wikipedia states: “[Rivington] published one of the most famous Loyalist newspapers in the American colonies, while secretly supplying George Washington with information… Rivington, who opened a coffee-shop adjacent to his printing-house, would have been the last New Yorker suspected of playing the part of a spy for the Continentals, but he furnished Washington with important information. His communications were written on thin paper, bound in the covers of books, and conveyed to the American camp by agents that were ignorant of their service. The date of Rivington’s secret change of heart is disputed, but when New York was evacuated in November 1783, Rivington remained in the city, much to the general surprise. Removing the royal arms from his masthead, changed its title to Rivington’s New York Gazette and Universal Advertiser. But his business rapidly declined, his paper ceased to exist at the end of 1783.”

Pictured below is a rare 1783 issue of the Royal Gazette, printed by James Rivington, patriot spy.

4 Comments

  1. The Colonial Newspaper: Unsung Hero of the American Revolution | Rag Linen | Online Museum of Historic Newspapers
    March 19, 2010

    [...] code that almost surely saved American lives during one of the war’s earlier battles.” Read the Rag Linen blog post on this [...]

  2. mariay99 (mariay99)
    April 26, 2010

    RT @raglinen: More on Washington’s spy network http://tinyurl.com/yjqps3x #americastory

  3. TweeterNese (Denise)
    April 26, 2010

    RT @raglinen: More on Washington’s spy network http://tinyurl.com/yjqps3x #americastory

  4. Will Brownell, PhD
    September 11, 2011

    Dear friends,

    Your comments on Rivington are all accurate. One point is lacking, however: Rivington got the new code books of the British navy (explaining the way to interpret British signals and flags at sea) and got them to Washington, ensuring that the US and French navies could block the British effort to reinforce Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. This allied victory in the Battle of the Capes was decisive, for this very decisive victory. Indeed, without that victory, I would submit, our troops would have had to fight Yorktown under the powerful guns of the British fleet. Probably we would have lost.
    Of course, Rivington was a swine, who switched sides to us for convenience when finally we were winning. And this is why he did not great business after 1783… Indeed, he seems to have published only 2 pamphlets and to have died in poverty.
    But we are fortunate that he did what he did, for it greatly helped us at Yorktown…

    Best,

    Will Brownell, PhD

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