Coffee, Tea and Conspiracy


D.H.T.Shippey  &  Michael Burns

         He was one of the most infamous Tories in the War for Independence, a royally commissioned Printer to the King of England, and a relentless critic of the patriots. He was also one of George Washington’s spies.

        His name was James Rivington, born into book selling and printing as a family business in London. At the age of 36 he fled from large gambling debts in England and relocated to Philadelphia. In 1773 (at the age of 49) he moved to New York, where he opened another print shop. An 18th century colonial newspaper was not, on its own, profitable enough to keep a printer fed. Printers had to diversify their products into books, pamphlets, legal forms, art prints, broadsides and the most lucrative work, government (Royal) documents. Still, Rivington’s weekly newspaper, The New York Gazetteer quickly became popular and well known for impartiality in its political reporting. Rivington was known for being a very educated, intelligent and cultured man.

       The storm of the coming revolution made it difficult for people in New York to remain neutral. Sides were being chosen, and Rivington’s claim to being an “ever open and uninfluenced press” was an early casualty of the war. He became a supporter of the British government’s restrictive acts and a harsh critic of the patriots. His regular journalistic attacks quickly landed him on the bad side of the New York Son’s of Liberty. It wasn’t long before Rivington was hung in effigy and at his fictional execution a mocking confession/speech was read aloud. Rivington, who knew a good news story and how to spin it, reprinted the speech in his paper.

But when news of the shots fired at Lexington and Concord reached New York, the violence went from symbolic to real. Rivington’s house and press were mobbed, and he fled to a British man-of-war in the harbor. With his press destroyed and the lead type melted for bullets James Rivington and his family sailed away for England.

     By 1777 the Howe brothers, with the British army and navy, had pushed George Washington and the Continentals out of New York. Rivington returned to the city now holding a Royal commission as “Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty” and started up his new newspaper, Rivington’s New York Royal Gazette. Close by his press Rivington opened a brilliant second business, an upscale coffee house. In the coffee house, men would gather to relax with the newspapers, books and pamphlets Rivington printed and enter into discussions about current events. It was well known that your bill at Rivington’s Coffee House would be dismissed if you brought him interesting news.

       If the articles Rivington printed had been unpopular with patriots before, now they made patriot blood boil. Among the stories that appeared were: Benjamin Franklin had been wounded by an assassin and was soon to die; Congress was preparing to rescind the Declaration of Independence; The Russian Czar was sending more than 30,000 soldiers to crush the rebels; Washington (like Cromwell) had been declared Lord Protector; Washington fathered illegitimate children; or (the ever-popular) Washington had died. Governor William Livingston (who suffered great ridicule in the paper) wrote,  "If Rivington is taken, I must have one of his ears, Governor Clinton is entitled to the other, and General Washington, if he pleases, may take his head." Rivington’s paper was reviled as the “Lying Gazette” by displaced New York patriots, and even Loyalists felt it was full of exaggeration and disregard for truth. It only makes it that much more shocking to find that this notorious Tory was using his newspaper reporting and coffeehouse to spy for the Patriots.

     Nobody knows when Rivington began spying for George Washington, but we do know that he was part of the Culper Spy Ring operating in and around New York. We know for sure that he had begun his double life by 1778 because of documents in the records of Congress that allude to him. It is clear that while he printed and published articles deriding the Patriots and praising the glory of British Arms, he was simultaneously gathering intelligence and passing it through couriers to Washington’s spy chief Benjamin Tallmadge. The system most often employed involved Rivington writing his intelligence reports on very thin paper and then enclosing them in the binding of a book. The book would be sold to one of Washington’s spies and then taken to the patriots’ camp. The constant stream of coffee house clients in red coats guaranteed regular high quality reports.

Multiple reasons for Rivington turning spy have been hypothesized.  Perhaps he was simply a profiteer getting well paid for his treason, or maybe he knew the British would lose and wanted protection when they abandoned New York. Neither of these theories seems completely satisfying. If greed alone had been the issue then why didn’t Rivington work as a double agent and pretend the part of Washington’s spy while really working for (and getting double pay from) the British? The 2nd theory, that he knew the British would lose, seems even more unlikely. Through most of the war it was hard for people to imagine a complete American victory.





  Sitting in the very securely British held New York, surrounded by both the British Army and Navy, an American victory seemed absurd. Why this seemingly loyal British printer, past middle age and having suffered abuse at the hands of the Sons of Liberty, would turn to aid the Patriots remains as much a mystery now as it was more than 200 years ago. Today, experts involved in espionage say that traitors to their country who are not motivated by idealism or adventure are normally motivated by one or more of three things:

Feeling themselves smarter than those around and not being appreciated for it.

Financial distress.

Family pressure or problems.

If you have all three, you have a perfect potential intelligence asset.

Washington’s aides, when interviewed long after the war, held that Rivington acted as a spy “seeking money due to his lack of payment by the British.” So the educated and entertaining Rivington may have easily fit into the first two categories. As of this time I have not found any records that discuss the third category--his family situation. Rivington himself was never called on to explain his actions, so we may never have a definitive answer.

The greatest single piece of intelligence that Rivington gathered during the war became an item that helped secure the American Victory. Through the coffee house he managed to acquire the complete codebook for the Royal Navy forces. This incredibly valuable information was sent to Washington and then to the French Admiral de Grasse. When British General Cornwallis found himself trapped at Yorktown the fleet was dispatched to rescue his army. de Grasse brilliantly used his knowledge of the codes while fighting the British at the naval Battle of the Chesapeake. As a result of this victory, de Grasse denied any possible escape by sea for Cornwallis. By late September, Washington and General Rochambeau arrived, and the army and naval forces surrounded Cornwallis. The last major battle of the war was won in part because of the work performed by James Rivington.


     Two years and a month after the victory at Yorktown, the last British soldiers sailed away from New York City. Along with the soldiers went almost all of the Tory Loyalists who had supported England through the war. To the surprise of those remaining, James Rivington stayed. He changed the masthead of his paper, removing the Royal from the name and the Royal coat of arms. But if that surprised local patriots and neutral citizens, what happened next must have truly turned their world upside down. According to the Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington by his adopted grandson George Washington Parke Custis, the following occurred after a few days in the newly liberated city. When Washington entered New York a conqueror, upon the evacuation by British forces, he said one morning to two of his officers, “Suppose, gentlemen, we walk down to Rivington’s bookstore; he is said to be a very pleasant kind of fellow.” Amazed as the officers were at the idea of visiting such a man, they of course prepared to accompany the Chief. When they arrived at the bookstore, Rivington received his visitors with great politeness, for he was indeed one of the most elegant gentlemen and best-bred men of the age. Escorting the party into a parlor, he begged the officers to be seated, and then said to the Chief, “Will your Excellency do me the honor to step into the adjoining room for a moment, that I may show you a list of agricultural works I am about to order out of London for your special use?” They left the room, but the officers said the door remained ajar just enough that they heard the distinctive sound of two heavy purses of gold placed on a table. Washington and Rivington soon returned from the inner-room, where Rivington pressed upon his guests a glass of Madeira. Later, when the Visitors rose to depart, Rivington said, “Your Excellency may rely on my especial attention being given to the agricultural works, which, on their arrival, will be immediately forwarded to Mount Vernon.”  It is said that after entering the city, Washington had guards posted at Rivington’s shop to protect it from any patriot reprisals against him.


      With his spying career behind him, Rivington went back to work at his press and his store. His renamed paper was not well received, and within about a year he was forced to abandon printing. It seems that there was no easy seat for Rivington in his later years. Whether people were unwilling to accept him a patriot or were unwilling to associate with someone so controversial, his fortunes continued to diminish. In 1797, Rivington was confined to a debtors prison because of the obligations he assumed on behalf of his sons’ ventures in East India trade. He was released in January 1801, and died in New York on July 4, 1802. His story remains an intriguing episode among the thousands that contributed to American Independence. Rivington Park and the adjacent Rivington Street in Manhattan still bear his name today.

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