BFW: Washington’s Spies

Liz Covert’s podcast, Benjamin Franklin’s World, pertaining to one of George Washington’s spy networks during the American Revolution was rampant with interesting factoids. During the forty-minute podcast, the dialogue between Covert and a man named Alexander Rose was comprised of questions and answers about the New York/Long Island specific spy ring, known as the Culper Ring. It is also noted that the information about the origins and participants of this ring became the inspiration to the AMC show Term.[1] One of history’s best known traitors, Benedict Arnold, paved the way for Rose’s interest in the Culper Ring and inevitably the creation of the show Term. Within Rose’s pursuit of research on the topic he found that the usual words associated with spies were producing little information about the topic due to the fact that spies don’t usually keep around incriminating information about themselves.[2] The Culper Ring was the exception to this rule because George Washington preserved the responses from the Culper’s while they did the same from Washington and thus Rose had been given the pieces to the full history of this organization.[3] This puzzle, when solved after a substantial amount of excavation, reveals that there was a certain evolution to spying, beginning with the use of plain text and then shifting to the use of cyphers and ending with the use of invisible ink. The implementation of each of these components of spying, alongside handwriting and choice of writing instrument, was one of the few things that showed a spy’s true characteristics. Also, most of these spies were just normal people trying to “get by” during this period. Despite the mere level of “getting by” for these spies Rose calls the Culper’s ring to be successful in tipping Washington off about certain events in the war.[4] Rose also states that their absence would probably have not changed the end outcome of the war either and contributes the success of the war to Washington. One of his resounding statements through the podcast was that “spies to not win wars”.[5]

 

One of the things I found particularly interesting was the evolution in which “Spying” went through. The story of Nathan Hall points out the problems with the novice state of spying because of the way in which he was sent into enemy territory to merely “look around and go back”. When Hall gets trapped behind enemy lines without back up and gets tracked by a man names Robert Rogers, he it ultimately sentenced to death. In the wake of this tragedy Washington learned how not to spy and this yielded a more regulated system of surveillance. This evolution was promoted by trial and error, similar to the way the discipline of science is carried out. At this period in time I think it would be fair to say that Washington administering this concept of trial and error was crucial to the then emerging science of warfare with spying as a small component of it.

 

Another thing that directly related to media and communication was the way in which the character of these spies shone through the physicality of their writing. Professor Adelman has stated many times in class that during the heights of censorship of media within the 18th and 19th century, one can tell so much about a piece of post by its mere size, weight and inscriptions on the envelope. This similarly applies to the way in which the evolution of spying manifested in its physical form. Before spies started using cyphers and invisible ink the content of espionage within these texts could have been easily uncovered. But as the stakes grew higher the composition of the letters to Washington grew more secure. I should also be noted that these letters were being ferried through various members of the group and not through the post for the most part, but they none the less were susceptible to being read by the British.

 

The physicality of letters also speaks to the spies themselves, with some of them taking advantage of the evolution of the writing component of spying and others not so much. In terms of tracing members of this group this was crucial and also speaks to a flaw in the Culper Ring, that the spies within the ring were distinguishable from their writing. Townsend, a member of the ring, was educated with nice handwriting   composed by a high end pen while Woodhull was a farmer in Long Island with chicken scratch for handwriting employed by a dull pen. Meanwhile, a man named Brewster within the ring signed his letters with his real name! These very factors could have been the downfall of the organization! But as Rose stated, if had that happened, it would not have dimmed the success of the American Revolution.

 

The last point I want to make is within Covert’s closing argument where she parallels Washington archiving the Culpers Ring’s letters to that of Hillary Clinton using a private server to sent top secret emails. She says something along the lines about how “history repeats itself”. Many people certainly disagree with that statement, even some professors here at Framingham State and for that reason I was shocked that she threw it into the end of the segment so casually. Certain historians consider that statement to be invalid because while similar events may occur in history they are not exactly the same, nor are they prompted by the same or similar reasons or create comparable outcomes. I enjoyed the podcast but in a bitter sweet, pessimistic sort of way, I feel like that statement took away validity from all the great points she had just discussed. I do respect that she tried to relate it to the present day but I wish she had not used that specific phrase that, I at least, have been influenced to stay far away from in my writing and discussions. I feel as if her choice to use such a phrase was almost mirrored by the end of the podcast because her and Rose were discussing the way in which the history of the Culper’s ring was altered and dramatized for the use of it as a story line in the AMC show Term. This speaks to another issue of media and communication by the way in which language and content may be manipulated to please a certain audience.

 

 

[1] Liz Covert and Alexander Rose, Washington Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Network, podcast audio, Benjamin Franklin’s World, accessed November 4th, 2016.

[2] Covert and Rose, Washington Spies, BFW, accessed 11/4/16.

[3] Covert and Rose, Washington Spies, BFW, accessed 11/4/16.

[4] Covert and Rose, Washington Spies, BFW, accessed 11/4/16.

[5] Covert and Rose, Washington Spies, BFW, accessed 11/4/16.

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2 thoughts on “BFW: Washington’s Spies

  1. I don’t recall from listening to the episode the note you offered about Liz offering a parallel between the Culper Ring and the emails. But I think I am one of the professors who shies away from presentist analogies (I think Liz and I differ on that a bit). So I’d just say that I think they have their place as conversation starters, but have serious limits in terms of their utility. What do you think?

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    • Cover makes the parallel in her closing argument when she uses the phrase regarding “history repeating itself”. I agree with you that using such an analogy is limiting, for various reasons. I also find that to the average listener such an analogy creates a kind of appeal that is necessary for this kind of medium. My problem with Covert using such a metaphor resides within the fact that Washington keeping letters from the Culper’s in his secret possession is VERY different than what was going on with Secretary Clinton and her email scandal. I can appreciate that Covert is trying to appeal to a broad audience but like I said in my post I feel as if the way in which she threw in the simile at the end of the episode took away from all the great points she had made and touched upon earlier in the broadcast. The sheer fact that the mediums (that being the internet and letters) are polar opposites speaks to the invalidity of the casual remark she made in her closing argument. The events also fall in very different time periods with very different goals being sought out by the use of the medium. I know I sound like a stickler, but that phrase just makes me cringe.

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