Little is known of Thomas Attwood Digges' early life. A member of a prominent Maryland family, he may have attended Oxford in the 1750s and then returned to America. In 1767, Digges went to Portugal as a merchant; by 1774 he was in London acting as an agent for
various shipping interests. There he associated with other American supporters of the Revolution such as William and Arthur Lee, Matthew Ridley, Joshua Johnson, and William Carmichael. In 1775 he published a semiautobiographical novel, The Adventures of Alonso
. With the outbreak of war, Digges turned to clandestine trade with America, usually through Portugal or Spain, and became interested in the welfare of American prisoners in England. In 1778, at the behest of their mutual friend David Hartley, Digges began a correspondence with Benjamin Franklin under a variety of pseudonyms that lasted until 1781, when Franklin accused Digges of embezzling funds intended to aid the prisoners (Digges, Letters
, p. xxiii–liv; William Bell Clark, “In Defense of Thomas Digges,”
, 77 [Oct. 1953]:381–438).
The correspondence between Digges and JA that began with this letter was both important and extensive. The Adams Papers editorial files
indicate that, between 3 March 1780 and 23 April 1782, the two men exchanged 73 letters. JA sent or received letters as Ferdinando Ramon San, but Digges adopted a variety of names, including Alexander Brett, J. W. C., William Singleton Church, T. Dundas, William Fitzpatrick, Alexander Hamilton, Timothy D. Ross, William Ross, William Russell, Alexander Williamson, and T. Williamson. William Singleton Church was the pseudonym most frequently used in Digges' correspondence with JA. Digges, like Edmund Jenings, is a shadowy figure who may or may not have been a British agent, funnelling information to JA in order to obtain his confidence and receiving useful intelligence in return. In any case, JA described him as a person “with whom I had a correspondence under feigned names, and who sent me regularly pamphlets and newspapers: with whom, however, I was not sufficiently acquainted ever to write without reserve” (JA, Corr. in the Boston Patriot