Silas Deane: Forlorn and Forgotten Patriot

Silas_Deane_(William_Johnston)When the American colonists entered into a shooting war with the British Empire over their grievances, they were not prepared in many ways. They lacked the means to produce the materials of war such as gunpowder, arms, and artillery, as well as a currency or any form of bullion or financial credit. If they were to have any chance of getting the British Parliament to recognize certain rights the colonists had, they had to have the means to resist the might of the empire if it were brought to bear upon them. As 1775 and the revolution dragged on with no agreement in sight, the delegates of the Second Continental Congress began to look for assistance in foreign quarters. To that end they established the Committee of Correspondence which was charged with seeking out Americans living in Europe to ascertain the mood of foreign governments regarding the Revolution on November 29, 1775.[1]

This committee, which added the word “Secret” to its title to emphasize the clandestine nature later became the Committee for Foreign Affairs in 1777. These European contacts reported that France would likely be interested in helping the Americans. As a result of these reports, contact with an agent of France, and the beliefs of several of the committee members, they decided to send an agent of Congress to France. The Secret Committee commissioned Silas Deane on March 27, 1776 to secure the arms, uniforms, and equipment needed to equip an army of 25,000 men.[2] His cover was that of a trader seeking to buy gifts for the Native American tribes on behalf of Congress. He was also tasked with acquiring credit for the Congress. Congress thought Deane’s status as a former congressman and very effective businessman would fulfill that role despite the fact he could not speak or read French.

Deane boarded ship in March and after some delays and setbacks in the West Indies crossed the Atlantic and arrived in Bordeaux, France on June 6, 1776.[3] Shortly after he arrived in Paris he managed to meet with the French Foreign Minister. Unknown to Deane the French had already decided to secretly aid the Americans based on reports they had received. The French government had previously arranged a secret loan on behalf of the Americans for the purchase of military supplies through a dummy company. A French playwright who had been inspired by the opportunity for France to exact vengeance upon Great Britain for its humility defeat in the Seven Year’s War had been buying supplies before Deane arrived.[4] Deane was directed to work with him and together they bought a substantial amount of older French arms and munitions and arranged for its shipment to America.

Despite working in secrecy, Deane’s arrival in France and the purchase of the munitions did not escape the notice of the British. The British ambassador worked with his government’s spies and often had detailed information on the supposedly secret cargoes.[5] Despite the ambassador’s best efforts to block the shipping of the supplies, Deane was successful in getting the ships to sail for America. Two of the ships, the Mercure and Amphitrite made Portsmouth, New Hampshire in March, 1777 while two others reached port in Massachusetts. Their cargos included cannon balls, over a thousand barrels of desperately needed gunpowder, 52 cannon, and over 12,000 muskets.[6] These munitions were the crucial difference in enabling the Continental Army to defeat General Burgoyne in the Saratoga campaign later in the year.

Once Congress declared independence it decided to create a commission of three men to work on creating an alliance with the French. Deane, who was already in France was an obvious choice. Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the worldliest man the new nation had and who was also highly regarded in France was also an obvious choice. Congress then selected Arthur Lee, also already in Europe as the third member which proved to be a major disaster as Lee constantly bickered with Deane and Franklin, accusing both men of pocketing funds and profiting from the conflict. Lee was hypocritical in the last accusation because while Deane certainly had used some of the French money, Lee was playing the stock market in London himself (along with just about everyone able to do so including the British spies) and profiting from the war.[7] Deane, Franklin, and every other American diplomat sent to Europe were spending their own personal funds in arranging the arms shipments and paying for their lodgings while working on behalf of the American War effort with little reimbursement in sight.

This internal conflict came perilously close to wrecking the emerging relationship between France and the United States on more than one occasion.[8] Only the mutual antipathy against Great Britain and the high regard Franklin was held in by many in the French court kept the American mission going. Deane and Franklin were key players in constructing the Franco-American alliance without which the odds of an American victory would have been considerably less. Lee’s accusations also were aired in Congress where factions jockeyed over positions and political points even as Congress was driven from Philadelphia as the British Army pushed Washington’s troops out of the way at the Battle of Brandywine. Deane’s conduct in France was nothing like Lee accused him of, but Deane had made one mistake which outweighed everything else he did.

Deane had exceeded his commission in 1776 when he hired four French officers as major generals for the Continental Army along with at least fifty other officers of varying ranks.[9] This created chaos in the army as well as angering Washington and others in Congress. Deane had been pressured to hire these officers by the French. Lacking the diplomatic skills Franklin would wield when confronted with the same situation, Deane felt he had no other choice. Although two of these officers turned out to be exemplary soldiers, De Kalb and Lafayette, most of the rest were far more trouble than they were worth. It was for this reason that Congress recalled Deane in late 1777.[10]

Deane’s recall came just as he and Franklin were successfully concluding the arrangements for the Franco-American alliance. Deane remained in France until the end of March, 1778. The French were quite irritated that he had been recalled, particularly for the reasons stated, and arranged to send Deane home in the flagship of the French naval squadron sent to America to attack the British fleet there. Deane was also given an expensive gift from the King to show his support for Deane’s work and an endorsement by Franklin.[11] On the other hand, the French wished that Arthur Lee had been recalled and made that point quite clear to Congress. The recall of Deane illustrates the problems and factions that operated within Congress. Deane’s recall was made before Congress learned of the alliance as well as without taking into consideration Franklin’s low opinion of Arthur Lee.

Deane testified to Congress on his behalf, but due to the desire of the French to conceal the aid they had given the Americans prior to the signing of the alliance, he could not prove that he had not profited from the arms shipments or monies loaned by the French government to purchase arms.[12] Part of this confusion was due to Arthur Lee’s fraudulent claim made to Congress that the monies were gifts of the French when in fact they were loans.[13] This caused a great deal of conflict for Deane, and later for the American and French governments after the war for a very long time. Lee’s petty jealousy of Deane and Franklin continued to cause problems until his own recall in 1779. Deane’s financial struggle with Congress resulted in his returning to France in1780 in an attempt to gather the documents necessary to prove his claims.

Deane had already spent a great deal of his own considerable fortune and was in serious financial troubles. He was owed a great deal of money by a Congress that didn’t want to pay him what they owed him and to make matters worse, really was in no position to pay him at all. In addition, Deane’s wife had died in 1777. Deane, who was disillusioned with the seemingly continual incompetence of the American troops became despondent of the entire situation and wrote several letters to his brother expressing his contempt of Congress and despair over the lack of American success.[14] These private letters were intercepted by a British spy and sent to London where they were printed in a New York newspaper in an attempt to discredit the American cause. Unfortunately for the British these were printed in October, 1781, the very month that Cornwallis surrendered his army to Washington at Yorktown. In American eyes, Deane was practically a traitor.

A skimping Congress refused to pay him what he was owed. In fact, his family was not paid until 1842, and even then a piddling sum compared to what the nation actually owed him. Deane was forced to remain in Europe for several years as he was advised not to return to America. His fortune gone, family all dead but for one son, and his health shattered, Deane was a shadow of his former self. Once the new national government under the Constitution began operations Deane finally felt it would be safe to return to Connecticut, but he died mysteriously before his ship had left British waters in 1789. Some have linked Deane’s death to poisoning, but no evidence has ever been found to substantiate that theory.[15]

The real truth is that Silas Deane had done what so many other American patriots had in fighting for America’s independence. The words at the end of the Declaration of Independence tell us that Americans were willing “to mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Silas Deane, even though he was no longer a delegate to the Continental Congress when that document was approved, certainly lived up to them in his actions on behalf of his country. Deane had given all in the service of his country, and when in a moment of despair his private thoughts were used as propaganda, lost everything. He was a patriot who despite his inexperience at diplomacy had successfully accomplished everything asked of him by a desperate country who then turned their backs on him in his own moment of need.


[1] Library of Congress, Journals of the Continental Congress, November 29, 1775.  (accessed July 19, 2013).

[2] Library of Congress, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence, Chapter XIV.

[3] Joel R. Paul, Unlikely Spies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), 104.

[4] Jonathan R. Dull, The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), 47-48.

[5] Samuel F. Bemis, “The British Secret Service and the French-American Alliance,” in The American Historical Review, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Apr. 1924), 475.

[6] Paul, Unlikely Spies, 253.

[7] Paul, Unlikely Allies, 290.

[8] Stacy Schiff, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2005), 135-136.

[9] Library of Congress, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence, Vol. 2.

[10] Library of Congress, Journals of the Continental Congress, December 8, 1777.

[11] Letter from Benjamin Franklin to Henry Laurens, President of the Congress, March 31, 1778. Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 26, 1778.

[12] Library of Congress, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence, Chapter XIV.

[13] Paul, Unlikely Allies, 194.

[14] Intercepted Letters of Silas Deane, New York Historical Society, (accessed October 4, 2013).

[15] James W. Davidson and Mark H. Lytle,After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection, 6th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010), xvii-xxxii.

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  • Enjoyed the article. I never cease to be amazed at no matter how successful the war effort evolved, Congress seemed to be determined to screw it up. Note your sources [2} and [9]-[12] were not accessible.

    • I have no idea why or what is going on, but here is the link I just pulled up for the first broken reference link.

      I will be the first person to admit I know absolutely nothing about the internal workings of the Internet. I’m kind of surprised because I copied and pasted the web address as I made the notes. Obviously I’m in the Library of Congress, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence, Volume I, Chapter XIV, Silas Deane for this link. Thanks for pointing out they are not working.

  • There is little doubt of the value to the revolution of Dean’s actions with Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais and his huge front company Hortalez et Compagnie as well as his other efforts in obtaining covert assistance from the French Government. However the article fails to mention his relationship and interactions with Dr. Edward Bancroft. Bancroft,a British agent who served as private secretary in the Paris Commission, kept British authorities well informed of French-American plans for supporting the revolution. The fact that the British Government did not use his valuable intelligence effectively does not lessen Bancroft’s collection role. This aspect of Dean’s activities in Paris is critical to understanding and assessing his performance and value while at the Commission.

    • That is my next article. The format for the Journal requires brevity so I had to edit things. I agree that Bancroft is important and so I wrote an entire article about the spying. One thing I’ve found while researching the role of France in the War of American Independence is that diplomatic history is very complicated. I think this explains why the public doesn’t look at it that much. The editors pointed out that there were so many names in my original article they feared the readers would become confused. In addition, everyone was lying to everybody in France. Keeping the truth straight from the tangled web of lies was hard enough for the actual people involved let along historians 230 some years later.

  • Of Arthur Lee, “It is a delicate subject, but justice requires me to say that the jealous disposition of Mr. Lee, which led him to apprehend designs injurious ho him in every one he dealt with, and the liberties he took in expressing himself on that and other subjects, gave a general disbust, and often proved prejudical to our affairs.

  • A great article, Mr. Dick. As a historian who is a resident of Deane’s hometown of Wethersfield, CT, I applaud your efforts to shed a more positive light on Deane’s accomplishments and reputation. What is ironic is that Dr. Bancroft was once one of Deane’s students, which would make the theory of Bancroft’s poisoning of Deane all the more evil.
    It’s not Rev. War, but you might enjoy my China Marine photo essay here:
    I look forward to your next article on Bancroft. Best, Damien

  • Fascinating article. I have just given a talk to the American History group at The Harvard Club of NYC, focussing on the two year timetable between the Battle of Yorktown and the signing of the British/ American Treaty of Paris. I uncovered the Silas Deane/ Beaumarchais story and made it a major portion of my talk. I had read the Paul book and also a Penguin book called The Founding Conservatives by David Lefer as my primary sources. I’m fascinated by the likely use of French artillery and other supplies in the Battle(s) of Saratoga that gets no mention in any of the accounts of these battles. Even though it was “unofficial” support, it seems critical to the sudden increase in American strength and the ultimate victory, but I’ve found no references to it. I used the painting of the surrender of Burgoyne featuring the de Valliere four pounder as “proof” of French artillery involvement in the battles, although this was clearly painted well after the fact. Have you seen any popular historical accounts crediting French military supplies as helpful/critical to American victory in the Saratoga battles(s)?
    I’m also interested in the materials your footnotes indicate you got through the Library of Congress and, particularly, the New-York Historical Society. I’m a member of the latter and have used their library ( and librarians) for research on other Revolutionary period talks I have given. Have you worked with any particular librarian there?
    I find the absence of any substantial historical/financial records on the unrewarded Deane/Beaumarchais contribution to the success of the American Revolution very surprising.

  • Bob, you may wish to take a look at my book, “Spies, Patriots, and Traitors”, for some content but also source footnotes of material on the French Covert Action operation.

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