A few weeks ago, I mentioned that Silas Deane returned to America with the French fleet that arrived in July 1778. Congress had recalled him, sending a letter in December 1777 to report on the affairs in Europe. Deane had received the letter in March, then took a few weeks to wrap up his affairs and plan his return to Philadelphia.
Deane in France
By the time he returned, Deane had spent about two years in France. Congress requested that he go there to serve as an advocate before the French Court in March, 1776. The inexperienced merchant from Connecticut took up the task without knowing a word of French or even having any personal contacts in France Despite these limitations, Deane had managed to make personal contact with key leaders at Versailles and to begin a partnership with Pierre Beaumarchais to begin sending arms and supplies back to America. He accomplished all this despite being on his own in France for nearly a year.
At the end of 1776, Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee to work with Deane in France. Together, the Commissioners had not only sent shiploads of arms and supplies, dozens of French officers, but also managed to finalize two treaties with France and bring their new ally into the war with Britain. Deane’s mission had been a success and any return home should have been in triumph.
That, however, was not the case. Almost since Deane’s arrival in Europe, Arthur Lee waged a campaign to attack Deane’s character and behavior in the hopes of having him recalled. Arthur Lee had been living in London when the war began. He was a member of the powerful Lee family of Virginia, with two brothers sitting in the Continental Congress. His legal practice in London helped to establish him as a colonial agent.
Lee had attempted to work with Pierre Beaumarchais to get French military supplies to America after the war began. But Beaumarchais ended up forming a partnership with Deane to further those ends. That seems to have been the origin of Lee’s hostility toward Deane. Lee began a covert letter-writing campaign to powerful people in America, asserting that Deane was defrauding Congress by demanding payment for aid that the government of France intended to be given free of charge. This was not the case. France did provide several generous loans to get the project started. However, French officials expected the assistance program to become self-sustaining as America paid back those loans with the delivery of tobacco.
All of these deals were secret, of course. Congress only got information on them from Deane. Lee, and Franklin. Since the commissioners were sending back Contradictory reports, Congress wasn't sure who to believe. Congress, always desperate for cash, was receptive to accusations that one of its agents was unjustly enriching himself on these secret agreements.
Deane Loses Allies
Deane also lacked political allies in Congress. Deane had been a member of the Continental Congress before his appointment. At the time of his appointment, the members of the Secret Committee who entrusted him with the mission to France were: Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Johnson, John Jay, and Robert Morris.
|Franklin in Paris|
Franklin, of course, had left Congress to serve alongside Deane in France. Franklin still supported Deane, but was no longer in Congress to be his advocate there.
John Dickinson famously left Congress shortly after passage of the Declaration of Independence. He took a commission in the army, but his opposition to independence in Congress and his expressed doubts about the war effort had damaged his reputation. By 1778 he was living as a private citizen in Delaware.
Benjamin Harrison had left Congress shortly after passage of the proposed Articles of Confederation. Harrison had opposed equal representation, which left a large state like Virginia greatly under-represented. He had also opposed General Washington over the appointment of Lafayette to a command position. He had engendered the anger of many radicals by supporting the rights of Quakers to avoid compulsory military service. As a result of all this, he had resigned his seat and returned to Virginia.
Thomas Johnson had left Congress and was by this time Governor of Maryland. John Jay had left to become Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court.
The only member of the committee that supported Deane when he departed for France, who was still in Congress, was Robert Morris. Even Morris had been on a leave of absence at the time Congress recalled Deane. However, he had returned in May 1778. But Morris was no ally of Deane.
Morris had secured the appointment of his half-brother Thomas Morris as an American agent in France. Thomas was supposed to deal with prize ships that were captured, and other financial matters. Unfortunately, Thomas did not share his brother’s business acumen or attention to duty. Thomas Morris spent most of his time in France drinking and partying. Deane had reported this behavior to Congress. While Congress was still trying to sort out this mess, Thomas Morris fell ill and died in January 1778 at the age of 26.
Robert Morris took great offense, in part not believing the accusations that Deane levied against his brother, and also that Deane had made the issue public to Congress rather than writing to Morris privately. The result was that Morris was hostile to Deane and Franklin at this time.
Arthur Lee had levied charges against both Deane and Franklin. But Franklin was seen as a success in France and still had many supporters in Congress. Because of this, Deane, rather than Franklin, became the focus of concern. So, after two years abroad, and without any support among the delegates. Congress recalled Deane to answer questions about the accusations against him.
In its letter to Deane, however, Congress did not mention the charges of financial mismanagement and fraud. Instead, Deane simply received a letter saying he was being recalled for consultation about the situation in Europe. Deane was savvy enough to realize this was more than just fact-finding, that Congress would not be recalling him unless they had reason to question his performance. However, he had no idea what the details of those questions would be.
France Supports Deane
Before he left France, Deane consulted with Franklin, with Beaumarchais, and with Vergennes about his recall and let everyone know that he was returning to Philadelphia. Franklin’s letter to Congress gives the best description of what Deane did or didn’t know about the situation. Franklin gave Deane a letter dated March 31, 1778 to the President of Congress.
My colleague, Mr. Deane, being recalled by Congress, and no reasons given that yet appeared here, it is apprehended to be the effect of some misrepresentations from an enemy or two at Paris and at Nantes. I have no doubt that he will be able clearly to justify himself; but having lived intimately with him more than fifteen months, the greatest part of the time in the same house, and a constant witness of his public conduct, I cannot avoid giving this testimony, though unasked, that I esteem him a faithful, active, and able minister, who to my knowledge has done in various ways great and important services to his country, whose interests I wish may always by every one in her employ be as much and as efficiently promoted.
|Lafayette, Dekalb & Deane in Paris|
At the same time, after discussing the matter with Deane, Beaumarchais wrote a blistering confidential memo for the French foreign ministry critical of Lee’s attacks on Deane.
By character and by ambition Mr. Arthur Lee was first jealous of Mr. Deane. He finished by becoming his enemy, which always happens to small minds, more occupied in supplanting their rivals than in surpassing them in merit.
The connections of Mr. Lee in England, and two brothers whom he has in Congress, have made him recently an important and dangerous man.
His plan has always been to prefer between France and England the power which would most surely bring him to fortune. England has some advantages for him. He has often explained himself on the subject in his libertine suppers. But to succeed, it was necessary to get rid of a colleague so formidable by his patriotism as Mr. Deane. This he has accomplished by causing him to be suspected in several points of view by Congress.
Beaumarchais’ memo went on to outline Lee’s attacks on Deane’s appointment of French officers, and Lee’s accusation that the covert military aid was a gift from France, not a sale. Beaumarchais concludes by noting:
To-day Mr. Deane, loaded with grief, finds himself suddenly and harshly recalled. He is ordered to go to give an account of his conduct and to justify himself from many faults which they do not designate.
Also in support of Deane, Foreign Minister Vergennes sent a letter to Deane in late March attesting to France’s appreciation of his work as a diplomat. In part, it read:
The king, desirous of giving you a personal testimony of his satisfaction with your conduct, has charged me to inform M. the president of Congress of it; this is the object of the letters which M. Gerard will deliver you for Mr. Hancock. He will also deliver you a box with the portrait of the king.
The box, which was a gift to Dean, had a portrait of the King, and was made of gold and encrusted with diamonds. It was a show of gratitude and support for Deane’s service in France. Further, the King of France directed that Deane be a guest aboard the French fleet that would sail to America, along with the new French Minister to America, Conrad Alexandre Gerard.
In the view of France and of Deane’s personal views, he was returning to America in success. He had secured the French alliance, sent many successful officers and had been the source of much needed military aid sent over the previous year.
Arrival in Philadelphia
Upon his arrival in Philadelphia in July, Deane met with President Henry Laurens. Laurens was cordial and congratulated Deane on his many successes. Deane made clear he was eager to make his reports to Congress and return to France and his diplomatic work.
Congress, however, was in no hurry. Deane sat in Philadelphia for over a month, waiting for an audience with Congress. He finally received orders to appear several times in mid-August. Then again, nothing. Finally on September 8, Deane wrote that he was growing impatient and that if Congress did not want to hear from him further, that he would like to return to France. Ten days later, a Congressional committee reported that Arthur Lee and Ralph Izard had accused Deane of financial mismanagement and misappropriation of public money. Congress began calling witnesses, but did not call Deane.
Again, Deane wrote to Congress, asking for the charges against him and to see the letters of his accusers so that he could respond. He said that after spending more than three months in Philadelphia, he needed to get back to France to manage his financial affairs there.
Deane never got to see the letters containing accusations against him, but he did learn more generally of some of the charges. Lee had accused Deane of giving offense to everyone he worked with in France. There is no doubt that Deane offended Lee, but Deane argued that his success spoke for itself.
Deane noted that in 1777 he had shipped 30,000 small arms, a similar number of uniforms, over 250 pieces of brass artillery and numerous other supplies that were critical to the cause and which had been vital to opposing the Burgoyne campaign. There were also all those letters of support from Franklin and various French officials which Deane had delivered to Congress.
Lee also made some minor accusations like that Deane had opened and read all of Lee’s correspondence, which Deane simply denied. Lee accused Deane of leaving him out of negotiations, to which Deane responded that Lee was too querulous and that they did not always trust him with confidential matters under negotiation.
The more significant charge was that Congress had spent millions but that almost everything sent to America still had to be paid for. The obvious implication was that Deane had used that money for other purposes and that Congress will still have to repay all of those loans.
Deane could deny those charges generally, but all of his financial records were still in France. He had no idea that he would be called to answer these specific charges and had left the financial records with his associates who were trying to continue these business dealings in France. Instead, Deane had to cool his heels in Philadelphia, living at his own expense, waiting for Congress to continue its investigation.
Congress was still receptive to Lee’s accusations. At one point, they came within one vote of voting to recall Franklin from France as well. Lee wanted to remove both of his fellow commissioners so that he could take control of the American delegation in France.
One of Deane’s greatest defenders was French minister Gerard. Gerard was concerned about openly supporting one political faction against another in America. After all, his job was to maintain good relations between France and America regardless of who was in charge in Philadelphia. But Gerard did speak with delegates when he could, defending the motivations and actions of both Franklin and Deane.
In a letter to Vergennes, Gerard wrote: "The stories of Arthur Lee are but an absurd tissue of falsehoods and sarcasm, which can only compromise those who have the misfortune of being obliged to have anything to do with him."
Dispute Goes Public
Despite all this support, the Deane hearings dragged on. By December, Deane had grown increasingly frustrated with Congress. He had left Europe in a hurry expecting to be gone for only a few months. He had left many matters incomplete in France, and had even left his thirteen year old son there in the care of others. After spending nine months waiting for Congress to decide anything about his case, he wrote a public letter outlining his situation, attacking Arthur Lee and Lee’s political allies, and which was highly generally critical of Congress.
This public revelation of the infighting between the American Commissioners and the internal disputes within Congress set off a political firestorm. Virginia delegate Francis Lightfoot Lee responded in the press to defend his brother Arthur Lee. This led to follow up articles by Deane. Then, a couple of weeks later, Thomas Paine entered the fray.
Paine published a series of articles savaging Deane. His first article primarily criticized Deane for making this whole matter public and revealing divisions among the leadership. That, Paine, believed, damaged the war effort and the patriot cause generally. Over the next few weeks and months, Paine published articles attacking Deane for his failure to bring his financial records with him and for what Paine seemed to believe were unsubstantiated attacks on Arthur and William Lee. Paine strongly implied that Deane was corrupt, or at least hopelessly naïve in the way he managed affairs in Europe.
Paine’s attacks largely reflected the views of a faction, possibly a majority of Congress who distrusted Deane and thought that his publicizing this dispute only made things worse.
Over the winter, as the articles raged back and forth, Deane remained in Philadelphia without Congress making any effort to continue its investigation or hold hearings. In April, and again in May of 1779, more than a year after Congress first recalled him, Deane wrote to Congress to say that he planned to depart the city. He wrote to the President of Congress that “it was the design of those who wished to sacrifice me to family interests to wear me out, by delays, and, without any direct charges, to ruin me in the opinion of my countrymen by insincere hints and innuendoes.” Upon receiving the letter, President Laurens’ comment was only that “If Deane goes in defiance of Congress, it will be a confession.”
Finally in August 1779, Congress discharged Deane from further attendance and requested that all the commissioners submit their accounts and vouchers for final settlement. Congress reached no ruling on the charges against Deane or anything else. It simply announced that the investigation had ended.
Congress finally offered to pay for his costs for the more than a year that Deane had remained in Philadelphia, but the amount offered was so small, and to be paid in nearly worthless Continental paper dollars, that a disgusted Deane refused to accept the payment entirely.
Perhaps his one small victory was that Robert Morris once again supported Deane. Morris, upon receiving the full information about his brother Thomas’ failures in Europe, accepted that Deane had only been trying to resolve a problem, not attack him politically. Morris commented that Deane had rendered essential services for his country and that he had been “ill-used” by his enemies. In a letter after everything had ended, Morris wrote, “I consider Deane to be a martyr in the cause of America” and that the attacks on him were “shameful.”
Deane finally did return to France in 1780 where Franklin greeted him as a friend. Deane returned, though, as a private citizen. Having so many enemies in Congress, he would not receive another appointment to anything. French officials also received him warmly in appreciation of his past service.
Deane was also reunited with his son Jesse, by this time a young man of sixteen. Deane was also heartened to learn that just weeks before his arrival in France that Arthur Lee had departed for America, to be called to account for his own activities while abroad.
Even with the matter behind him though, Deane would carry a resentment toward Congress for the rest of his life. His experience also left him with serious doubts that the American cause would succeed when led by the conspiring politicians with whom he had interacted during his time in Philadelphia.
Next week, the French and British fleets have their first major encounters at the battle of Ushant.
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The Rise and Fall of Silas Deane, American Patriot: https://connecticuthistory.org/the-rise-and-fall-of-silas-deane-american-patriot
Hoadley, Charles J. “Silas Deane.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 1, no. 1, 1877, pp. 96–100. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20084263
Abernethy, Thomas P. “Commercial Activities of Silas Deane in France.” The American Historical Review, vol. 39, no. 3, 1934, pp. 477–485. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1840146
Covart, Elizabeth “Silas Deane: Forgotten Patriot” Journal of the American Revolution, 2014: https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/07/silas-deane-forgotten-patriot
The Affair of Silas Deane, Thomas Paine Historical Society: https://thomaspaine.org/essays/american-revolution/the-affair-of-silas-deane.html
Address of Silas Deane to the Free and Virtuous Citizens of America, https://docs.google.com/document/d/e/2PACX-1vQrAIUZiKFv5_cKX4NCwqayfFIftj_3BJeHjFxlrOm6Y_6iOR46CAStc3LfVTRQtZ80LCBzc3nvap1i/pub
Parton, James The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, Boston: James R. Osgood, 1864, (excerpt) Part 6, Chapter 3, Beginning of Arthur Lee’s Mischief: http://www.public.coe.edu/~theller/soj/ttl/franklin/b603.htm
(from archive.org unless noted)
Clark, George L. Silas Deane, New York: G.P. Putnam's sons, 1913.
Deane, Silas The Deane Papers, Vol. 3, New York Historical Society, 1889.
Ingraham, Edward D. Papers in Relation to the Case of Silas Deane, Philadelphia: Seventy-Six Society, 1855.
Lee, William Reply of William Lee to the charges of Silas Deane, 1779, Brooklyn: Historical Printing Club, 1891.
Sparks, Jared The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, Vol. 2: Arthur Lee’s Correspondence, Boston: Hale, 1829.
Stillé, Charles J. Beaumarchais and the "Lost Million" A chapter of the secret history of the American Revolution, Philadelphia, Priv. print, 1887.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
James, Coy Hilton Silas Deane, Patriot or Traitor, Michigan State Univ. Press, 1975
Paul, Joel Richard Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution, Riverhead, 2009.
Van Vlack, Milton C. Silas Deane, Revolutionary War Diplomat and Politician, McFarland, 2013 (book recommendation of the week).
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.