Sunday, September 22, 2019

Episode 115: Congress and French Diplomacy

I’m stepping away from the war today to catch up on what the Continental Congress has been doing.  We last left Congress in early July 1776 after it approved the Declaration of Independence.

Yet even after approving the language of the Declaration on July 4th, Congress immediately turned to other business that same afternoon.  Congress voted on a diplomatic delegation to Pittsburgh to meet with Indian tribes, and held another vote on providing the Board of War with authority to hire employees to make more flints for the army and several other matters.  In other words, there was no time to rest on their laurels or even reflect much on independence.

Congress Signed the Declaration on August 2, 1776
(from Today I Found Out)
The delegates did not even get around to creating a final draft of the Declaration for several more weeks.  Most of them signed the copy that we today regard as the original on August 2.  In fact, thousands of copies had already circulated around the country and were already on their way across the Atlantic before anyone signed what we consider the “original” declaration.  Congress simply filed away the signed copy.  It did not make any formal attempt to send that, or any copy, to London.  This was a declaration to the world, not a petition to their former leaders.

Turning attention to other matters, the three most important ongoing committees in the fall of 1776 were the Board of War, the Committee tasked with drafting the Articles of Confederation, and the Secret Committee of Correspondence which handled foreign diplomacy,

Running a War

The late summer and fall of 1776 was a chaotic one for the War.  Congress watched General George Washington lose New York and New Jersey as his army eventually fell back to just outside Philadelphia by the end of the year.  In the north, Congress saw General Benedict Arnold lose the battle of Valcour Island, opening upstate New York for invasion.  Fortunately for the patriots, the British decided to hold off on that invasion until the following spring.  But things did not seem to be going well for the Continental war effort.

Aside from the day to day issues of running the army, one of the Board of War’s most contentious activities was promoting officers.  General Washington made some recommendations, but did not press too hard for fear of infringing on civilian control of the army.  After Washington started losing battle after battle during the British invasion of New York, Congress had less interest in his views anyway. Many were debating the idea of selecting a new commander for the army.

William Heath now a major
general (from Wikimedia)
State representation among generals also remained a bone of contention.  Although New England provided most of the soldiers, a disproportionate number of top officers came from southern states.  John Adams and others from New England had supported that tactic a year earlier to get the southern states on board with going to war, by this time, they wanted to see more New Englanders in top positions.

In August, Congress promoted four new major generals, all from New England: William Heath (MA), Joseph Spencer (CT), John Sullivan (NH), and Nathaniel Greene (RI).  Missing from that list was another New Englander, Benedict Arnold of Connecticut.  Arnold thought he deserved promotion, but all four who were promoted were already senior to him as brigadier generals, so he patiently waited for his turn.  Besides, at the time, he was preparing to fight the Battle of Valcour Island, after which Congress would certainly see the merit in promoting him.

Congress also promoted 6 new brigadier generals in August, three from New England (James Reed, John Nixon, and Samuel Parsons), two from New York (Alexander McDougall and James Clinton) and one from Pennsylvania (Arthur St. Clair).  This led to push back from the southern colonies.  The Board had to bring more southern balance by naming four more southern generals in September, Adam Stephen of Virginia, Christopher Gadsden and William Moultrie of South Carolina, and Lachlan McIntosh of Georgia.  In October, they added William Maxwell of New Jersey and William Smallwood of Maryland.

Major General Nathanael
Greene (from Wikipedia)
Don’t worry, you won’t need to remember all of these names.  I’ll talk more about each of these new generals when they do something interesting.

Congress’ disappointment with the militia during the New York area fighting also persuaded many delegates of the need for a more professional and well trained standing army.  They accepted Washington’s recommendation of three year enlistments.  Up until this time, most enlistments had been a maximum of one year.  Three year enlistments allowed the army to rely on a core of trained Continental soldiers when things got tough.

One of the problems with a standing army, was that they were expensive.  Congress still had no taxing authority because they could not agree even on a general outline on how to collect taxes.  They were paying for everything with paper money, which was essentially a promise to provide real hard currency at some point in the future.  Churning out so much paper money already, combined with no plan after a year and a half on how to make good on all this paper, had caused serious devaluation.  Even with the amount they had produced, they did not have enough, even of that paper money to pay the army, or provide soldiers with the basic necessities of food, clothing, and weaponry.

The Board of War did its best to get what it could and to keep the Continental Army together even as the British pushed them out of New York and back toward Philadelphia.

Debating Articles of Confederation

Pressing war issues aside, Congress had been trying to put together Articles of Confederation since 1775, long before they started debating independence.  Without the Articles, Congress really had no basis for operating or doing much of anything.  It used some of the general rules of order the members knew from their colonial legislatures, but they were essentially making up everything as they went along.  There was no set of rules that gave Congress any authority to do anything, or how they should operate.

John Dickinson
(from Dickinson College)
On July 12, 1776, Congress began debate on a proposed draft from John Dickinson.  Dickinson did not participate in the debate himself.  He had left Congress to command a Pennsylvania Battalion deployed to New York to stop the British invasion there.

Congress would debate the matter on and off for the next year and a half, without reaching any consensus.  The big issues involved whether each State would continue to get one vote, or whether state population would determine representation.  Also, there was a debate over how to tax the States.  Some wanted it based on population, others on the combined wealth of a colony.  Finally there came a debate over competing land claims.  One of the biggest was whether to validate some colonial claims to land, many of which conflicted with other colonies.  Some of those claims reached all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Some of these debates raised the slavery issue.  There was no debate on freeing them, but there were debates over whether slaves should be considered people for purposes of calculating population and whether to consider their value as property for purposes of taxation.  Slavery was becoming a contentious issue given all the recent talk about inalienable rights and all men created equal.  But all thirteen states still allowed slavery at this time.  With the many other issues regarding how to set up government, the idea of tackling such a major political, social, and economic issue would have to wait.

In late 1776, Congress would not even resolve the disputes over creating the articles.  It would take Congress until near the end of 1777 before it could agree on Articles of Confederation. I’m not going to get into all the debate details now.  That will be a future episode.  For now, suffice it to say that coming to any consensus on any of this was impossible.  Congress would argue about it, then put it aside when they needed to deal with more pressing issues, like how to keep an army fed and armed as the British regulars advanced on Philadelphia.

New French Delegation

Congress was eager to find allies in Europe to help with the war effort.  The colonies had a wealth of trade goods that British laws had kept from trading with Europe.  But now independent, America hoped to use this trade to tempt Europeans into trading for goods needed for the war effort.  John Adams had been working on a draft of such a treaty since at least March 1776.  On July 18, once Congress had completed its debate on independence, Adams submitted his model treaty for consideration.  Congress reviewed, debated, and amended the model treaty over the next two months.

Silas Deane (from Wikimedia)
On September 17, Congress approved its model treaty, which it hoped to shop around Europe and see if it could make any deals.  The following week, Congress adopted instructions for a delegation of Commissioners to go to Europe and use the model treaty as a basis for negotiations.  It formally appointed Silas Deane, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson as Commissioners.  As you may recall from Episode 83, Congress had already sent Deane to Europe where he was unofficially lobbying France and trying to get military assistance for the cause.  Franklin, who had spent years in London as a colonial agent, prepared for his new role as American diplomat.  Jefferson, begged off.  He had returned to Virginia where he would work on the new State’s legal code.

So for the third delegate, Congress turned to Arthur Lee, who you may recall from Episode 108 had been living in London and trying to compete with Deane in setting up arms deals for the Continental Army.  Lee and Deane already hated each other.  Franklin, who had known Lee when the two men lived in London, also did not much care for Lee.  So from the beginning, the delegation was not a united one.  It would take months for Franklin to cross the Atlantic and for Lee to learn of his new commission.  So for almost the rest of the 1776, Deane continued to operate in France on his own.

French Aid Stumbles

In mid August, French newspapers reported that America had declared independence. Deane, in France, never received direct word from Congress, nor even a copy of the Declaration to present to the court of Versailles.  Congress did try to mail him a copy, but it never arrived.  Arthur Lee also had come to Paris in August, only to find that Deane had already finalized about 3 million livres worth of military contracts.

Arthur Lee
(from Stratford Hall)
Lee, who had hoped to profit from some of these deals, began writing letters to his brothers in the Continental Congress, as well as his friend Samuel Adams.  Lee told them that France was not covertly selling these supplies in exchange for tobacco.  Rather, France was giving those supplies for free.  He alleged Deane was attempting to profit from the assistance by getting Congress to send payments which he could keep for himself.  Lee absolutely knew this was a lie.  He had spoken to French diplomats and other knowledgeable sources who confirmed these were sales, not gifts.  Lee just seemed to want to destroy Deane’s credibility with Congress and get him sent home.

Around this same time in London, the opposition in Parliament complained publicly that Silas Deane was openly meeting with foreign minister Vergennes and arranging for French covert arms shipments to America.  Deane’s agent, Edward Bancroft, reported this public information to Deane, who now feared that British spies knew everything he was doing.  Of course, he did not suspect that his own agent, Bancroft, was the double agent giving most of this information to the British.

With the British exposing the arms deal publicly, with Congress not communicating with Deane, and with America not shipping boat loads of tobacco to France to pay for the arms, the French government began to doubt whether Deane was even a legitimate agent of the American government. It also feared that British knowledge of its attempts at aid were about to lead to war between France and Britain. For a few weeks, the French government shut down the operation completely.  Only Deane’s heavy lobbying efforts convinced them to allow it to continue.

Even so, Deane and his French associate Beaumarchais could not seem to get anything done without British officials complaining to the French government to shut down their illegal exports.  Since the British had spies working in their offices, the British knew about all attempted shipments and were able to get the French government to shut them down before they could leave port. The French had to comply or else face the possibility of going to war with Britain.

French Generals

Without any guidance from Philadelphia, Deane was pretty much making up his job as he went along.  He tried to maintain a private trading business to hide his arms deals.  But that did not seem to fool anyone.  He tried to intervene when an American privateer landed in Spain with five British ships as prizes.  Since no one recognized the United States as a sovereign power, they also did not recognize Congress’ letter of marque authorizing the Captain to act as a privateer.  Without that letter, he was just a pirate who should be hanged.  Although Deane still had no official government authority, he got the French government to intervene and release the Captain and his crew.  Deane had to promise that American privateers would avoid using Spanish or French ports in the future.  I'm not sure anyone believed that promise, but it gave the French government cover to get Spain to release the American crew.

Deane also started making other commitments without any Congressional authorization.  France had been pressuring Lee to commission French officers to go fight in the Continental Army.  It was common practice in Europe for officers to serve in other armies when their country was at peace.  Officers gained valuable experience in command and battle.  Typically, an officer would be enticed by a higher rank than he had in his own army.  At the same time, the Continental Army would benefit from experienced officers and engineers who had professional training.

 General Johann de Kalb
(from Wikimedia)
Although he had zero authority to do so, Deane granted a commission as a major general in the Continental Army to the German-born French officer Baron Johann de Kalb, along with a 6000 livre advance and a promise of another 6000 to pay his expenses.

Even more disturbing than Deane’s decision to commission generals without the approval of Congress, was the fact that Dekalb’s main mission seemed to be to convince Congress to replace General Washington with the French General Victor de Broglie as commander in chief of the Continental Army.  Up until that time, de Broglie’s biggest accomplishment was losing the Seven Years War with Britain.

Although in the fall of 1776, many Americans were thinking about replacing Washington, It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking that putting a French general in charge of the army was an acceptable idea.  Deane simply sent a letter to Congress saying the French government thought it was a good idea, without giving his own opinion one way or the other.  But the simple act of passing along the proposal without comment, led many in Congress to conclude that Deane seriously thought this was a good idea.  Many in Congress began to question Deane’s judgment.

After Kalb’s appointment, many other French officers sought an audience with Deane, seeking commissions.  Most got turned away, but Deane did issue a few others, including another major general’s commission to a 19 year old Marquis named Lafayette.  In total, Deane issued about 60 commissions, including four major generals, all without any authorization from Congress.

British Interference

Deane, however, was still operating without any real guidance.  He had not received any word from Congress about anything.  The British had been pretty effective in intercepting or forcing the destruction of almost all messages between America and France.

British spies in France were able to keep close tabs on the activities of Beaumarchais and Deane as they purchased and stored military supplies bound for America.  By November 1776, the Roderigue Hortalez company, created by Beaumarchais as a front for the covert arms deals, was ready to load up three large supply ships in Le Havre France for its first shipment to America.

Beaumarchais (from Wikimedia)
This mission had the tacit support of the French government.  Recall back in Episode 108 that the French Minister, the comte de Vergennes, had put Dean and Beaumarchais in contact with each other. The French government, however, could not appear to support the Americans actively.  If the British discovered the plan to sell arms to America, the French government would have to disavow having any knowledge of it and shut it down. Everyone was trying to keep a low profile so British spies would not discover the plots.  Beaumarchais, worked in town under an assumed name as he oversaw the loading of supplies.

Things got delayed though when a French officer, Colonel du Coudray, who Deane had promised to make a major general, delayed coming to town.  He had received word that the British had taken New York and now feared the war might be over before he could arrive in America.  Finally, du Coudray showed up in early December, ready to sail.

In the meantime, Beaumarchais discovered a local production in Le Havre of his play The Barber of Seville.  He did not like the production and offered to assist as director of the play.  Soon word got out that Beaumarchais was directing his play at Le Havre.  This blew his cover and British agents quickly realized he was in town to load ships for America.

The British Ambassador, Lord Stormont, rushed to Versailles to demand Vergennes stop the departure of these ships, or he would consider it an act of war.  Vergennes had no choice but to order the ships seized.  He delayed getting the order to Le Havre for a couple of days, hoping the ships would get out of port before his orders arrived. But only one had left port by the time his orders made it there.

A couple of weeks later though, the one ship that had left port, returned to France.  A storm had destroyed part of its food.  Also, du Coudray thought his quarters were unacceptable, and demanded the Captain return to port.  By then, France had been forced to impose an embargo on all of Beaumarchais’ ships and so authorities seized the ship as soon as it returned to the harbor.  So no assistance would leave France in 1776 thanks to Beaumarchais’ ego over his play and General du Coudray slowing down the operation with his reluctance to leave for America.

French aid would have to wait until Franklin and Lee arrived in France in 1777.  Franklin, Lee, and Deane would all have to learn to play nice with each other before they could then convince France to provide arms to America.  They never would discover that their secretary Bancroft was a British spy.  He would continue his work for London throughout the war. After the war, Bancroft moved to England but continued to correspond with Franklin.  It was only decades after everyone had died that Bancroft’s role as a spy became public knowledge.

Next Week: Dean lands himself in more hot water after he provides funding to a terrorist who promises to destroy shipyards in Britain on behalf of the American cause.

- - -

Next Episode 116: American Terrorist in Britain

Previous Episode 114 Escape from Fort Lee

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Further Reading


Dickinson Draft Articles of Confederation.

Discussion of Dickinson Draft Articles of Confederation::

The Model Treaty, 1776:

Arthur Lee:

Beaumarchais and the American Revolution:

The Rise and Fall of Silas Deane:

Ruppert, Bob America’s "First Black Ops" Journal of the American Revolution 2017:

Roderigue Hortalez et Cie, a Very Helpful Trading Firm:

Kite, Elizabeth S. “Preliminaries of French Secret Aid = 1775-1778" Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, vol. 46, no. 2, 1935, pp. 58–67,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Dean, Silas The Dean Papers, Vol. 1, New York Historical Society, 1887.

Ingraham, Edward D. (ed) Papers in Relation to the Case of Silas Deane, Philadelphia: Seventy-six society,  1855.

Lee, Richard Henry Life of Arthur Lee, Vol 1 & Vol 2, Wells and Lilly, 1829

Sparks, Jared The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, Vol. 1, N. Hale and Gray & Bowen, 1829.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Dull, Jonathan Diplomatic History of the American Revolution, Yale Univ. Press, 1985 (book recommendation of the week).

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Isaacson, Walter Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004

McCullough, David John Adams, Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Paul, Joel Richard Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution, Riverhead, 2009.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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