Silas Deane

Silas Deane (1737-1789), a leading merchant and controversial commissioner to France from 1776 to 1778.

Silas Deane was born Dec. 24, 1737, into a family long resident in Connecticut. He took his bachelor and master of arts degrees from Yale College and was admitted to the bar in 1761. He consolidated his standing among the commercial and political leaders of the colony by two marriages, first to Mehitabel Webb, and after her death to Elizabeth Saltonstall. After 10 years as a prosperous merchant and lawyer he was elected to his state's General Assembly in 1772, where he soon stood among the active foes of British measures.

In the first and second Continental Congresses, Deane worked to establish and equip colonial armed forces and personally supplied the expedition that captured Ft. Ticonderoga in 1775. Though for unknown reasons he was not reappointed delegate to Congress in 1776, he had earned national standing as one of the most energetic, resourceful leaders of the Revolution.

Commissioner to France

In March 1776 Congress sent Deane to France, authorized to hasten war supplies to America and to gain French recognition of the soon-to-be-independent Colonies. Deane found France (and its ally Spain) eager to aid the Colonies against England, the ancient enemy of both countries. Yet, the French were unwilling to make open opposition, and he was confronted by numerous informal, clandestine arrangements. Authorized to extend credit for war material, Deane could never be sure what persons or groups in America stood behind his negotiations. Equally uncertain was the status of the French—were they giving, lending, or selling supplies? And were they private businessmen, agents of Louis XVI, or perhaps joint stock operators backed by both France and Spain? Opportunities for misunderstanding, fraud, and profiteering abounded.

The only certainties are that France, under the guidance of the foreign minister Comte de Vergennes, made funds and material available, and that Deane did get quantities of guns and uniforms that sustained American armies in the 1777 campaigns, including the vital victory at Saratoga. Deane also encouraged many European military officers to join the American army.

Deane's Actions under Attack

In late 1776, when Benjamin Franklin came to France as a second commissioner, he endorsed Deane's arrangements without probing details, finding him generally "sincere and hearty in our cause." Less trustful was the third American commissioner, Arthur Lee, who suspected that Deane, and by acquiescence at least, Franklin, were in collusion with French profiteers who were billing Congress huge sums for worthless goods, materials never sent, or supplies meant to be gifts. Lee's charges led to Deane's recall soon after he signed (with Lee and Franklin) the French Alliance in February 1778.

Unsolved Mystery

Called to account by Congress, Deane began appearances before that body in August 1778 to defend himself against charges brought by Lee's powerful friends. Lacking adequate records to prove either guilt or innocence, the hearings degenerated into personal bickerings and factional disputes, eventually leaving those disposed to trust and welcome French aid on Deane's side, and those deeply suspicious of it on Lee's. The acrimonious affair led to the resignation of Henry Laurens (who was against Deane) as president of Congress and his replacement by the more friendly John Jay. Deane published a vigorous self-defense, hurling countercharges at Lee; the ensuing "paper war" became fierce. Lacking reliable evidence, Congress postponed any decision.

After fretting, half-disgraced, for 2 years, Deane returned to Europe to seek evidence to clear himself. The necessary documents were lost, hidden, or nonexistent. Feeling ill-treated and worn down by poor health, Deane wrote despondently to American friends, advising them, in view of the disarray in the patriot cause, to reconcile with England. These letters, intercepted and printed in the loyalist press in New York, added to the cloud already hanging over Deane and seemed to prove him maliciously disloyl.

Sick and bankrupt, Deane spent his last years in England, where his only apparent friend was the notorious "double spy" Dr. Edward Bancroft, who during 1776-1777 had presented himself to Deane and Franklin to spy for them but was actually reporting every detail of the clandestine American negotiations to the British ministers.

Deane died mysteriously while on a ship about to leave for Canada. Recent material presented by historian Julian Boyd strongly implies that Bancroft poisoned Deane to silence incriminating testimony of further double-dealing.

Though in 1842 Congress awarded Deane's heirs $37,000 (a small fraction of their claim) in payment for losses Deane had incurred during the Revolution, no evidence has yet appeared to clarify the charges against him.

Further Reading on Silas Deane

No satisfactory, recent biography of Deane exists. Of the older accounts, George L. Clark, Silas Deane: a Connecticut Leader in the American Revolution (1913), is useful, as is a biographical notice by Charles Isham in volume 1 of The Deane Papers, 1774-1790 in the New York Historical Society Collections (3 vols., 1887-1890). Further letters are in The Deane Papers: Correspondence between Silas Deane, His Brothers and Their Business and Political Associates, 1771-1795 in the collections of the Connecticut Historical Society (1930). Samuel F. Bemis, The Diplomacy of the American Revolution (1935), discusses Deane's diplomatic activity in France. Edmund C. Burnett, The Continental Congress (1941), describes disputes over Deane in Congress. Carl C. Van Doren, The Secret History of the American Revolution: An Account of the Conspiracies of Benedict Arnold (1941), divulges as much as is known of the intrigues surrounding Deane's career.

Additional Biography Sources

James, Coy Hilton, Silas Deane, patriot or traitor?, East Lansing:Michigan State University Press, 1975.

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