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The Enigma of Dr. Benjamin Church

One man's traitor is another man's patriot

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One man’s traitor is often another man’s patriot, depending on who does the labeling. Frequently the victor in a war dictates the label. But often the label is not that simple and clear. Such is the case of Dr. Benjamin Church, often called “America’s First Traitor.”  The problem comes from the fact that “America” did not exist at the time of his alleged treason.

Dr. Benjamin Church

Benjamin Church

Benjamin Church was born in Newport, Colony of Rhode Island, British America, on Aug. 24, 1734. A Mayflower descendant through his ancestor Elizabeth Warren Church, his heritage was steeped in the founding of the New World. His father was a merchant. His grandfather, Col. Benjamin Church, played a prominent role in King Philip’s War and led the force that hunted down and killed King Philip.

Col. Benjamin Church, ca 1675

Being the son of a prominent, well-to-do family, much would have been expected of him. He went to Boston Latin School to prepare for Harvard, from which he graduated in 1754. He studied medicine in British America for a time before continuing the study in London. In England that he met and married his wife, Hannah Hill. After his return to Boston, he started a highly successful medical practice and was known for his medical and surgical skills.

By the 1760s Church began to be seen as a supporter of the burgeoning movement in Colonial America that would eventually lead to revolution. He became a prominent member of the Whig Party and was an intimate of Dr. Joseph Warren and Samuel and John Adams. The narrow telling of the story of the American Revolution has long fostered the myth that the intended purpose of the of the Patriot movement was dissolution of the union with England. But this is completely false. Most individuals who espoused the Patriot cause were not seeking to break their English bonds but to have perceived grievances redressed within the existing system. Open, armed rebellion was not a general cause celebre before 1775.

A Leading Patriot

Residing in Boston, Church became a trusted confidant of many of the prominent patriots. In the aftermath of the Boston Massacre, he treated some of the wounded and examined Crispus Attucks’ body. He was a skilled orator, and three years after the Massacre, he gave a spirited oration commemorating the event.

The Boston Massacre, engraving by Paul Revere

Church’s involvement in Massachusetts politics culminated in his 1774 election to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Thereafter, he became a prominent member of the Committee of Public Safety. To all outward appearances, Benjamin Church was a leading patriot, deeply involved in the cause. Church commanded such respect that in July 1775 the nascent Continental Congress appointed him the first director general and chief surgeon of the new Medical Department.

However, sometime in early 1775, Church began to spy for the British military, with direct links to Gen. Thomas Gage. It is not clear how much information passed between them before the fatal shots on Lexington Green. His motives are still not clear.

General Thomas Gage (John Singleton Copley)

General Thomas Gage (John Singleton Copley)

Certainly, the British paid him, and he did maintain a lavish lifestyle that required a large income. Was money the primary motivation for his ostensible change of heart? Or did he grow disenchanted with n increasingly militant patriot cause? Or was it a combination of greed and disenchantment?

The Coded Letter

There is even some suggestion, without any real proof, that he was a closet Tory. It is not likely that the truth will ever be known.  The one thing to remember – often conveniently overlooked – is that treason can be a two-way street. Under British law, the law of the land in the colonies, patriots plotting against the government hovered on the borders of treason. When they began an armed conflict against the government, then they openly committed treason under the British law that governed them.

Church passed his messages to General Gage through a series of messengers. Then in October 1775, one of Church’s former mistresses gave a coded message to a Rhode Island patriot, who turned it over to Gen. Nathanael Greene instead of passing it along. Greene then sent it onward to General Washington.

Washington had the coded letter given to two men good at puzzles. They independently deciphered the message and came up with identical results. The letter provided details of ammunition, recruiting, American strength, New York artillery and Bunker Hill casualties. It was a damning missive.

Nathanael Greene

The former mistress, described as “a very lusty woman much pitted with smallpox,” was arrested and brought to Boston. Through her interrogation and clues from the letter, its author was identified as Dr. Benjamin Church. Church was immediately arrested and brought before the war council. He admitted to sending the letter, but professed innocence of any evil intent. Church claimed he sent it as a ruse to fool the enemy about the Americans’ real situation. He further claimed that nothing in the letter could not be gleaned from public documents and knowledge.

Despite his smooth talk, his lengthy protestations of innocence fell on deaf ears.

Church’s code. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

The Dilemma of Benjamin Church

The problem came when it was time to decide how to deal with him. It was one thing to call his conduct treason, but another to give it the force of law. In open rebellion, the Colonies could not simply fall back on British law and the articles of war adopted in Philadelphia said nothing about treason or espionage. In fact, under the current legal conditions, his actions did not rise legally to a crime of any kind. The easiest thing for Congress to do was strip Church of his appointment as Surgeon General and to turn Church over to the Massachusetts to decide his fate.

Church appeared before the Massachusetts House of Representatives to plead his innocence in an hour-long oration. Again, it fell on deaf ears. The House expelled him. But Massachusetts had the same legal problem as the Continental Congress. It had no laws governing treason, so it could not pass sentence. Congress simply ordered Washington to send him under arrest to Connecticut for indefinite confinement.

He was confined in a damp, dark cell, and specifically denied pen, ink and paper. He won a brief parole when several physicians attested to his poor health in confinement. But this release did not last long, as rioters sacked his Boston house. He returned to prison for his own protection. Efforts to use him in a prisoner exchange also failed. In 1778 he was released and sent in exile to Martinique. However, he never reached his destination as his ship was lost at sea. His wife and children made their way to London. There, the King granted her a £150 pension, over £30,000 today.

Treason or Not?

For 150 years, the single intercepted letter served as the only real proof of Church’s “treason.” Then definite proof emerged in General Gage’s papers showing that he spied for the British since at least the early part of 1775. Among the information passed on by him: the existence of Patriot arms in Concord. And the British paid him for all the information he gave them.

The question remains, however: Did he commit treason? Information passed to British authorities before April 19, 1775, when the Revolution broke out, would not have risen to the level of treason. Everyone was a British subject at the time so he could not have committed treason against any government.

It can be argued that he betrayed the trust of others. But that is not a crime. After April 19, 1775, from a British standpoint, the rebels committed treason against the Crown.  So Church’s spying for British authorities, whether for money or not, served as patriotism to the mother country. Furthermore, at the time of his arrest, the colonies, while in open rebellion, had not declared independence.

Certainly, his contemporaries faced a quandary about what to do with him. Dangerous to the patriot cause, certainly, so they could not simply let him go free. But they didn’t find him guilty of anything.

Traitor or patriot? It depends on your point of view.

Bill Utley has a B.A. in History from Syracuse University and an M.A. in Criminal Justice from the University of New Haven. He has co-authored a book on the French history of Fort Niagara.  Retired from the U.S. government, he is an Army veteran and Dr. Benjamin Church’s fifth cousin, seven times removed. 

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