America’s First Traitor – Espionage, Treason and Exile


Portrait of Edward Church, an oil painting on canvas by Jacques-Antoine Vallin, was brought to Carolina Conservation after suffering severe fire damage in our client’s home. As Edward Church’s great (times six!) grandson, our client is a direct descendant with a wealth of knowledge about his ancestor and the accompanying portrait of him.

Dr. Benjamin Church Jr.

Dr. Benjamin Church Jr.

He says that the story begins (and largely centers around) Dr. Benjamin Church Jr., Edward’s brother. Benjamin became rather infamous for his role as a Boston revolutionary and has been depicted by some historians as “America’s first traitor,” most notably because of his alleged espionage during the American Revolution. Benjamin was initially one of the main leaders to separate from England, writing newspaper articles, poems and other literature on his Whig ties. He was even chosen to escort George Washington to his new command post in Cambridge after being selected by the Philadelphia Congress. Not only was he an integral, if not mostly unknown, part of American history, he was also a revered surgeon and operated on John Adams. He inoculated soldiers, including Adams, for smallpox during the war and consequently saved many people during an epidemic. Benjamin was the leader of the Continental Forces until Washington arrived and was then appointed Surgeon General.

Things took a different turn when a coded letter Benjamin had written to his brother-in-law, a known Tory, was discovered. The letter was decoded and painted Benjamin as a traitor who had intended the letter to be given to the British. As a result, he was arrested and court marshaled. Scholars still debate whether or not he was guilty, despite the fact that he admitted the letter was indeed intended for the British. Benjamin always asserted that, though he wrote the letter as a way of contacting America’s rivals, it was purely a means of discouraging the British from attacking them. The letter included misinformation as a way to throw off the British and put a stop to the obvious slaughter he was sure that would happen if they attacked America’s far less prepared infantry. Even after defending himself, the majority of Benjamin’s colleagues said he should be put in jail and many even wanted him hung for treason. While he was in jail, he was unable to write or have visitors – not even his lawyer.

George Washington himself stepped forward during this period and said that no law against treason had been established in America, making it unethical to keep Benjamin jailed. He iterated that, until America wrote its own laws, they wouldn’t be able to convict him for treason. However, they exiled Benjamin as retribution and boarded him on a ship that was set for the West Indies. The ship was lost at sea and Benjamin Church was never seen or heard from again.

Before Benjamin was exiled, his brother, Edward, did everything he could to get him out of jail. Because of his association with his brother, his house was looted and his reputation was tarnished. Edward impoverished himself trying to vindicate his brother – writing lawyers, sending letters and trying to prove Benjamin’s innocence. Perhaps as an act of compassion, George Washington personally appointed Edward as America’s first Ambassador to Portugal, where he served for ten years. Eventually Edward was able to separate himself from his disgraced brother and was asked to live in Paris during the French Revolution so he could be the eyes and ears of America. During this time, the Portrait of Edward Church was painted. It was created in 1809 when Edward was 69 years old, though he’s depicted as being much more youthful. It is believed that the painting was framed in 1811 and eventually shipped to America that same year. During the painting’s journey, the ship was intercepted by a British vessel that looted the ship and kidnapped Edward’s servant. The painting, however, remained untouched and continued its voyage to America.

The painting changed hands between relatives through the years and eventually ended up in California during the San Francisco Fire of 1851. Amazingly, the painting remained unscathed, despite the fact that the fire destroyed as much as three quarters of the city. As time went on, the painting continued to be handed from relative to relative (there were 200 Church relatives at this point) and was subsequently stored in a warehouse during the 1920s. Our client’s grandmother received a letter from the owner of the warehouse during this time saying that the storage fee hadn’t been paid in quite some time. She instantly sent a check to him and ultimately acquired the painting. The work was virtually black, as it had deteriorated with time and its varnish continued to darken over the years. Our client’s grandmother finally sent the painting to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1970s to be restored. Before this, the painting had never undergone any conservation treatments. After inheriting the painting and its stories years later, our client took an avid interest in learning his ancestor’s history.

Portrait of Edward Church  under UV light

Portrait of Edward Church under UV light

Unfortunately, our client’s home suffered a fire, and his cherished painting was severely damaged. Because of the damage, the conservation work on this painting will be lengthy and technical. In general, the goal of the first phase of treatment will be the reversal of fire damage and those previous restorations that the fire has caused to fail. This phase of treatment will involve the removal of a heavy layer of soot and the damaged varnish, which will likely include the removal of extensive previous retouching. The next phase of treatment will involve various undertakings to stabilize the painting. This will require the reversal of a failing and very damaged previous lining and of failing previously repaired tears and moisture treatment to return the canvas into the correct plane. This phase will include stabilization of the blistering and bubbling paint layer. The later phases of treatment will involve restorative treatments such as relining the painting to a new canvas support and stretching it to a newer, lighter stretcher, the addition of a new varnish layer, filling losses and reintegrating the areas of loss by retouching with reversible, conservation retouching pigments. The ultimate goal of treatment is full restoration of the portrait, returning it in appearance to 100% pre-loss condition. It is expected that after treatment the painting will be more structurally sound and will have a higher level of fills and retouching and will likely be in better condition than it was previous to the fire loss.

We are excited to see the outcome of the painting’s conservation and are confident that it will be restored and proudly redisplayed in our client’s home. Preserving our clients’ most precious items is our passion and we’re always eager to hear about why each piece is meaningful – in this case, both personally and historically.