George Washington Tells a Lie

TOPICS: Benedict Arnold, Espionage, George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette, Revolutionary War, Rochambeau
George Washington at the Battle of Princeton by Charles Willson Peale (1781) | Wikimedia Commons | US Public Domain

by Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
January 22, 2016

In June 1780, General George Washington told a lie. In fact, he planned a major deception. But as it was intended to deceive the British high command during the Revolutionary War, most Americans would likely forgive him. Washington, with the aid of Major General Lafayette, wanted the British to believe that the French army under the command of Lieutenant General Rochambeau was soon expected to arrive in North America to help the Americans liberate Canada from the British yoke.

A portrait of the Comte de Rochambeau as painted by Charles-Philippe Larivière | Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain Image

Washington and Lafayette designed a proclamation that they planned to have printed in Philadelphia. “We talked of a Proclamation to the Canadians,” Washington wrote to Lafayette in May. “If it is not already done, I think it ought not to be delayed. It should be in your own name, and have as much as possible an air of probability.” Washington wanted to use the document (to be written in French) in order to propagate an elaborate ruse. The proclamation, the American commander wrote, “should contain an animating invitation [to the Canadians] to arrange themselves under the allied banners. … you should hold yourself up as a French and American officer charged both by the King of France and by Congress with a commission to address them upon the occasion. It may indeed be well to throw out an idea that you are to command the corps of American troops destined to cooperate with the French armament. The more mystery in this business the better. It will get out and it ought to seem to be against our intention.”1

A painting of the young Marquis de la Fayette by Charles Willson Peale | Wikimedia Commons | US Public Domain

In late May, Lafayette was busy drafting the proclamation. He explained to the French ambassador in Philadelphia, who was to be in on the secret of the deception, that the purpose of the missive was to “mislead the enemy” about Rochambeau’s expedition. “This document will be printed in the greatest secrecy, but we shall take care to pass it on to New York, ” he explained. (The British headquarters was located in New York City.) The whole purpose was for the “secret” printing of the document and its contents to “get out” in Philadelphia and for the intelligence to make its way to the British commander, who would then hopefully direct his efforts to defending that province instead of Washington’s real objective, New York City. Once the French army actually arrived, the documents would be “thrown in the fire.”2

By early June, Lafayette had a draft of the proclamation finished, and Washington forwarded it to the military commander in Philadelphia. The chief Continental officer in Philadelphia at the time happened to be Major General Benedict Arnold. On June 4, Washington wrote to Arnold from his headquarters at Morristown, New Jersey: “Dear Sir … You will be pleased to put this into the hands of a printer whose secrecy and discretion may be depended on and desire him to strike off a proof sheet with the utmost dispatch … The importance of this Business will sufficiently impress you with the necessity of transacting it with every possible degree of caution.”3 Although the American commander had no inkling at this time that Arnold was a traitor, his caution in not revealing the “secret” led Arnold to believe the proclamation was genuine. In a few days, Arnold, after some difficulty finding a printer who could be trusted, had a proof sheet of the proclamation printed and sent to Washington’s headquarters for final corrections. At the end of June, the American commander returned the proof sheet, with corrections (presumably done by Lafayette) to the printer.4

An engraving of Benedict Arnold by artist H.B. Hall for the George Washington Bicentennial Celebration in likeness of the original portrait by John Trumbull | US Public Domain
An engraving of Benedict Arnold by artist H.B. Hall | Wikimedia Commons | US Public Domain

Arnold immediately advised British captain George Beckwith, British intelligence chief in New York, of the proclamation and sent him the text of the document. The French ambassador played his role perfectly, advising Arnold that Rochambeau’s troops were destined for Canada. Arnold also relayed that information to the British.”5 Arnold thus unwittingly served Washington’s purpose: to get the proclamation into the hands of the British commander in chief and create the impression that the French army intended to attack Canada. Thanks to Arnold’s treachery, Washington’s deception had succeeded.

Washington’s letter to Arnold and the other letters cited in this post will appear in the forthcoming volume 26 of The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, edited by Adrina Garbooshian-Huggins and Benjamin Huggins.


1. Washington to Lafayette, 19 May 1780, U.S. Library of Congress, George Washington Papers (DLC:GW)
2. Lafayette to the Chevalier de La Luzerne, 25 May 1780, in Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790, 5 vols. (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1977-83), 3:35.
3. Washington to Arnold, 4 June, DLC:GW. The enclosed draft of this proclamation has not been identified
4. Arnold to Washington, 7 June 1780, Pennsylvania Historical Society: Gratz Collection. The corrected proof sheet that Washington sent to the printer has not been identified; but there is a hand-corrected proof sheet of the proclamation (in French) in the Nourse Family Papers (3490-a) at University of Virginia’s special collections library.
5. Carl Van Doren, Secret History of the American Revolution: An Account of the Conspiracies of Benedict Arnold and Numerous Others drawn from the Secret Service Papers of the British Headquarters in North America now for the first time examined and made public (New York: The Viking Press, 1941), 459-60.

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