As we celebrate Thanksgiving weekend, a holiday first declared by George Washington’s presidential proclamation in 1789, it is worth remembering that deception played a pivotal role in America’s birth. Our shining city on the hill owes much to the dark arts. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other Founding Fathers are remembered today as virtuous creators of a bold new democracy. But they were also cunning manipulators of their information environment—a side of the founding story that has often been neglected by history.
George Washington’s inability to tell a lie is a lie. That old cherry-tree fable—in which young George admits to his father that he did, indeed, chop down the tree with his hatchet—was invented by a Washington biographer named Mason Locke Weems in 1806 to boost his book sales. In truth, Washington was an avid spymaster with a talent for deception that would remain unequaled by American presidents for the next 150 years. During the Revolutionary War, Washington was referred to by his own secret code number (711), made ready use of ciphers and invisible ink, developed an extensive network of spies that reported on British troop movements and identified American traitors, and used all sorts of schemes to protect his forces, confuse his adversaries, and gain advantage. His military strategy was to outsmart and outlast the enemy, not outfight him. He used intelligence to avoid more battles than he fought, and to trick the British into standing down when standing up could have meant the end of the Continental Army.
Washington began using deception soon after he took command of the Continental Army in 1775. After a summer of skirmishes around Boston, rebel gunpowder was nearly gone; Washington’s soldiers had enough only for nine bullets per man. To hide this potentially fatal weakness from the British while he scrambled to get supplies, Washington ordered that fake gunpowder casks be filled with sand and shipped to depots where they would be spotted by British spies. He also ordered a secret paramilitary mission to seize gunpowder stores in Bermuda that failed only because another secret rebel mission had gotten there first but nobody bothered to tell Washington. Throughout the war, Washington wrote reports inflating his troop strength that were designed to fall into the hands of traitors within his own ranks or agents hiding among the British. During the brutal winter of 1777–78 at Valley Forge, with his troops starving, freezing, and dwindling in number, Washington penned fake documents that referred to phantom infantry and cavalry regiments to convince British General Sir William Howe that the rebels were too strong to attack. It worked. Had Howe known the truth and pressed his advantage, the Continental Army might not have survived the winter.
Washington’s deceptions even involved French bread. On August 19, 1781, he confided in his diary, “French bakery to veil our real movements and create apprehensions for Staten Island.” Because French bread was a major source of food for the troops, Washington bet that stationing French bake ovens in New Jersey would help convince British General Sir Henry Clinton that French and American forces were planning to remain in the New York area and attack Staten Island when in fact they were marching south, to attack Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. The deception was convincing, and it helped win the war. Washington was able to muster superior forces and slow British reinforcements, leading to Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Washington wrote later that victory depended on fooling even his own troops. “Nor were less pains taken to deceive our own Army,” he wrote to Noah Webster in 1788, “for I had always conceived, when the imposition did not completely take place at home, it could never sufficiently succeed abroad.”
Meanwhile, in Paris, Benjamin Franklin secured pivotal French support for the war through a combination of diplomacy and duplicity. Wearing homespun clothes and a coonskin cap, Franklin carefully cultivated his image as a virtuous and simple countryman seeking independence from the domineering British—a ploy that capitalized on French views of the British and made him wildly popular in French social circles. At the same time, Franklin waged a covert propaganda campaign from his Paris basement, where he set up a printing press and wrote articles designed to sway opinion across Europe. A printer by trade, Franklin even imported European paper and type to make his documents look more authentic.
Some of Franklin’s writings were outright lies. In 1777, for example, he wrote a fake letter from a German prince to the commander of mercenary troops fighting with the British in America in which he complains he is being cheated from money owed to him and tells the commander to let wounded soldiers die so the British will pay more. The letter created an uproar in Europe over Britain’s use of mercenaries. In 1782, Franklin created a forgery of a Boston newspaper that included fake local news and even fake advertisements. The main “story” quoted a letter from Captain Samuel Gerrish of the New England militia claiming that the British royal governor of Canada was paying Indian allies for American scalps, and that many of the scalps sold were from women and children. The story was picked up and used by Whig opponents of the war in Britain. Franklin’s use of deception was so skillful, the CIA named him a Founding Father of American intelligence a century later.
America’s revolutionary experience with deception suggests two enduring lessons. The first is that deception almost always unravels. Washington never expected his deceits to last long. They were used to buy time—holding enemies at bay for days, weeks, maybe months. Franklin operated on a longer timetable to influence opinion and secure alliances during the war, but he never assumed his lies would remain intact. In fact, they didn’t; we now know that Franklin’s own American delegation in Paris was heavily penetrated by a British agent.
The second lesson is that deception is a dangerous animal, and therefore must be used with great care, to advance a truly just cause. One key difference between the past and the present isn’t the use of half-truths, spin, lies, and deception. It’s their purpose. The Founders knowingly used the dark arts for a noble collective end. Their purpose was to deceive and divide British troops, unify domestic compatriots, and woo French allies to forge a new nation. Their audacious experiment sought to grant much greater political power to the people rather than live under the yoke of a distant king. It was an inspiring and unifying enterprise worthy of the deception it required.