Opinion

Spies like us

Brion McClanahan Author, The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution

On September 22, 1776, twenty-one year old patriot Nathan Hale confidently strode to the gallows in New York City. He was charged with espionage, declining both a minister and a Bible in the hours before his execution, yet he faced his impending doom with a manly resolve. Perhaps he recited several lines from Joseph Addison’s “Cato” in the minutes before his death, but legend has it that the young Connecticuter said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

When the noose snapped Hale’s neck, General George Washington lost the most conspicuous member of a group of brave American spies, men and women whom Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger argue saved the American revolution. Their new thrilling page-turner, George Washington’s Secret Six, has brought the famous Culper Ring to our collective attention and saved them from the dustbin of history.

The Culper Ring served an important role in the dark days of the American war of independence. Kilmeade and Yaeger conclude towards the end that the ring delivered the intelligence that resulted in Washington’s masterful move to Yorktown in 1781. Formed out of necessity, Washington’s spies represented an interesting mix of uniformed soldiers and unassuming citizens. None achieved the same level of notoriety as Nathan Hale. The leader of the ring, Benjamin Tallmadge, was a flamboyant soldier who to the end of his life proudly reflected upon his time in the war. One of the leading spies in the Ring, Robert Townsend, was a simple shopkeeper, a shy and unassuming man who seemed to slip under the radar and who was often chastised for his apparent lack of zeal for the patriot cause. And Agent 355, the lone woman of the group, was later captured and perhaps rotted to death on a British prison ship. Her identity remains a mystery, still shrouded in the secrecy that allowed her to avoid capture for much of the war.

These were men and women of action in a time of action, heroes who put the patriot cause above their own interests and safety and who never received parades or accolades for their sacrifice and dedication. Their story is one of courage, determination, and resolve. The Culper Ring should be on every American tongue and in every history textbook.

But the story itself, though remarkable, is not the only thing that draws the reader into the narrative. Kilmeade and Yaeger explore the modern implications of the spy ring and the relevance of the founding generation to contemporary America. Progressives tend to downplay or even scoff at the importance of the founding generation, portrayed as dead, white, slave-owning men who refused to pay their taxes and bristled at central authority. These wealthy, intolerant, bigoted, racist, and chauvinistic men would be unfamiliar with the modern issues of today. Unfortunately for the progressive left, this stereotype does not mesh with the details of the Culper Ring.

Both Townsend and fellow spy Abraham Woodhull shared abolitionist beliefs after the War. Woodhull was a devout Christian who freed his slaves near its conclusion. Additionally, Tallmadge and his fellow spies relied upon several women for their information, most importantly Agent 355. This has long been true in the espionage business; men are more likely to spill confidential information in the intimacy of the bedchamber or under the influence of feminine wiles. Women often seem to be more daring, and perhaps because of eighteenth-century norms they were able to operate without drawing the same suspicion as their male counterparts. Kilmeade and Yaegar make it clear that without these founding women, the Founding Fathers might have been swinging from the gallows pole.

Ultimately, Kilmeade and Yaegar determine that the Culper Ring developed many of the tactics modern spies use today — “the dead drops, the well-crafted backstories, the compartmentalizing of intelligence, the secret encrypted code.” They were men and women of their time, but these spies were like us, common patriotic citizens who would understand contemporary problems and threats to American security. Certainly, they would not countenance the modern surveillance state, particularly in regard to domestic spying — the Culper Ring would have been impossible in such a climate — but they would agree that a certain level of foreign espionage and intelligence gathering is necessary to maintain an advantage in foreign policy. After all, the Culper Ring helped fell the strongest military power in the world in the eighteenth century. Washington slept better knowing the Culper Ring was bravely operating. Anyone who believes that foreign espionage is pointless should read this book. More importantly, anyone who thinks the founding generation is irrelevant to modern America must read this book.