The Birth of American Counter
intelli­gence

John Jay was a leading figure in the birth of the American republic. Celebrated for his lasting contributions to the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, he was also one of the great statesmen of his time, serving as a diplomat, jurist, and state governor in later years. Often overlooked is Jay’s exemplary record leading the Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies. As a result of his numerous successes in exposing British espionage activities and spoiling plots against the rebellion, Jay is widely considered the founding father of American counterintelligence.

camera icon - click to open modal with more details Founding Father John Jay
The Charter of the Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiraciesp page 1 camera icon - click to open modal with more details Establishment of the Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies
The Charter of the Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies page 2

John Jay was a leading figure in the birth of the American republic. Celebrated for his lasting contributions to the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, he was also one of the great statesmen of his time, serving as a diplomat, jurist, and state governor in later years. Often overlooked is Jay’s exemplary record leading the Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies. As a result of his numerous successes in exposing British espionage activities and spoiling plots against the rebellion, Jay is widely considered the founding father of American counterintelligence.

Patriot, Revolutionary, and Statesman

John Jay was born in 1745. A New Yorker, he was known in his later years as one of the original Constitutional framers, author of five of The Federalist Papers – the published essays that galvanized the public behind the new Constitution – and the first Chief Justice of the United States. As a diplomat, Jay helped negotiate the end of the Revolutionary War with the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and averted – temporarily – another war with Britain by negotiating what became known as the Jay Treaty. Before all that, he was a devoted Patriot and a delegate to the Continental Congress prior to becoming its President.

Perhaps the most unheralded aspect of Jay’s long public service career was his wartime role in counterespionage. Among his many successes in that capacity, he is credited with saving George Washington’s life.

Jay was just thirty years old when he was appointed to lead the Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies, formed by the New York State Legislature for the purposes of “inquiring into, detecting and defeating all conspiracies which may be formed ... against the liberties of America.” The Committee’s charter was to investigate the activities of known Loyalists, those disaffected with the American cause, and those who might be threats to the revolution. Committee members were sworn to secrecy, empowered with new legal authorities, including the power to deport, and a company of militia was placed at its disposal. Over the course of its existence, the Committee investigated more than 500 allegations of betrayal and sedition.

 

The Spy of Fishkill

One of Jay’s most effective operatives was Enoch Crosby, a cobbler and former Continental Army soldier who once served under Benedict Arnold and also spied early in the war in the Fishkill area, about seventy miles north of New York City. Crosby used his trade as a cover for moving about the area, posing as a British sympathizer and employing assorted aliases to infiltrate several Loyalist groups. He collected information about their plans and activities, sharing it with Jay and the Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies for investigation, thereby undermining a number of regional Loyalist operations. He also passed names of known British spies in the area.

Though Crosby came under frequent suspicion from area Loyalists, his genuine allegiance was never discovered. He was also arrested on occasion by the Americans, believing him to be a member of the Loyalist groups he infiltrated. Once his captors learned his true identity, they would engineer his “escape,” allowing Crosby to remain in character and return to his espionage. Jay was so impressed with Crosby’s skills and instincts, he gifted the spy a horse and modest operating budget.

After nine months of constant suspicion and detainment, Crosby was no longer useful as a spy and rejoined the Army. When the war ended, he returned to his home community where he served as a deputy sheriff, a deacon, and a justice of the peace. He died in 1836.

Portrait of an older Enoch Crosby camera icon - click to open modal with more details Enoch Crosby
A sketch of Enoch Crosby published in 1831 camera icon - click to open modal with more details A sketch of Enoch Crosby published in 1831
John jay script signature camera icon - click to open modal with more details
The Treaty of Paris, formally ending the Revolutionary War camera icon - click to open modal with more details The Treaty of Paris, 1783

Foiling a Plot to Kill George Washington

In 1776, the Committee was probing Loyalist plots to undermine the Continental Army in New York City prior to a large-scale British advance. In the course of that investigation, the Committee uncovered a fiendish plot against George Washington.

Washington, a spymaster himself, was chagrined to learn the espionage was in his own camp. A number of his elite bodyguards, known as his “Life Guard,” had allied themselves with the British and plotted to capture or assassinate their commanding general. Jay’s committee unraveled it all, saving Washington’s life and bringing the traitorous men to justice.

A Lasting Legacy

Jay’s wartime experiences with counterespionage almost certainly shaped his perspective as one of our Constitutional framers. Along with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, he was a co-author of The Federalist Papers, a collection of eighty-five published essays intended to boost public support for the new Constitution.

In Federalist No. 64, Jay notably argued for the necessity of secrecy in the exercise of certain Executive Branch powers. The whole of the essay was a discussion of treaties, the Executive Branch power to negotiate them, and the role of the Senate in advising and consenting. In the late 18th century, no responsibility of the new government had greater sensitivity than its liaisons with overseas powers. Jay, experienced in matters of both espionage and diplomacy, emphasized the role of discretion in foreign affairs, and wrote of a public interest best served by withholding certain information from an elected Congress. As Jay asserted in the essay—

“It seldom happens in the negotiation of treaties, of whatever nature, but that perfect SECRECY and immediate DESPATCH are sometimes requisite. These are cases where the most useful intelligence may be obtained, if the persons possessing it can be relieved from apprehensions of discovery. Those apprehensions will operate on those persons whether they are actuated by mercenary or friendly motives; and there doubtless are many of both descriptions, who would rely on the secrecy of the President, but who would not confide in that of the Senate, and still less in that of a large popular Assembly.”
—Federalist No. 64

In short, Jay argued that trust is a vital element of budding foreign relationships, and potential partners and allies are unlikely to be forthcoming without it. By backing an Executive need for secrecy, including the need to protect sources of information, Jay was establishing a guiding principle that would become foundational to America’s future intelligence enterprise.