In the chaos of war, there are, and have always been, schemers who will try to take advantage of disorder to enrich themselves, either with power, financial gain, or both. In the turbulence of the outset of the American Revolution, especially the period in which the colonies were trying to form an alliance with France, one such opportunity arose that was quite audacious in its scope.
American affairs in France were rife with double-dealing, deception, and spying, and that was just within the American delegation! Early in the rebels’ involvement with the French, a plan emerged that, if implemented, would have shaken the highest levels of the nascent American government and military to the core. Realistically, it had little chance of succeeding, but it’s an interesting story and an illustration of how the “fog of war” and ambition can impact peoples’ judgment, people who frankly should have known better.
The seed from which this plan sprouted was the French defeat in the Seven Years’ War (known to most modern Americans as the French and Indian War) and the settlement of that conflict, which stripped France of nearly all of her North American presence and generated intense hatred for the British among many of the Frenchmen who fought in the war. One of these was a man named Charles-François de Broglie, a French nobleman. Another was Johann de Kalb, who as Baron de Kalb would one day perform admirably for America in its Revolution. But at this stage, his motives were initially like those of Comte de Broglie—to leverage the American Revolution to exact revenge on Great Britain. And there was Silas Deane, who was on-site in France. He was the first of what was to become the American delegation, later to include Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee. Deane’s reasons for supporting the scheme are more difficult to ascertain than those of de Broglie or de Kalb.
First let’s discuss de Broglie. One of the great schemers of France, so given to backroom manipulations that some in Paris credited him with single-handedly instigating the American Revolution. Back before the Seven Years’ War, he had a long history of spying for then King of France, Louis XV. The King had his own unofficial arm of government called the Secret D’Roi, essentially his majesty’s personal intelligence unit, led by de Broglie. The Secret reported directly the King, and its activities were not even shared with the King’s ministers, though they undoubtedly became aware of them through their own sources. De Broglie’s first introduction to North America was a successful soldiering stint, albeit on the losing side, in the Seven Years’ War. Among other projects he was given early on in his tenure in the King’s service, was the mission to push for the King’s favored candidate for succession as King of Poland. In this effort he was opposed by both the current Polish King and Russia’s Catherine the Great, each of whom had their own favored candidates. De Broglie was unable to put Louis’ man in, a harbinger of future failures.
Johann de Kalb, though Prussian-born, was essentially a Frenchman, as evidenced by his valiant efforts in the losing cause for the French in the Seven Years’ War. As the subsequent dispute between the colonies and the British heated up, de Kalb was sent to America in 1768 by the then French Prime Minister, the duc de Choiseul, on sort of an advance scouting mission, to determine if colonial unrest was creating an opening which the French could utilize to retaliate against the British. De Kalb’s assessment was that although the Americans had legitimate disputes with the British, they would take the side of the Great Britain in any Franco-British conflict. He couldn’t imagine that the British would be foolish enough to endanger their ownership of the colonies. Though he was wrong on both counts, he was right about one thing: He reported that the colonies would eventually declare independence.
De Kalb became a stout supporter of the American cause and eventually made the ultimate sacrifice for it. Writing to a friend in the colonies in 1778, he stated, “I am to such a degree a friend to your country that if the war between England and her colonies in America should continue I could with pleasure devote the rest of my days in the service of your liberty.” Soon thereafter he was sworn in as a commissioned officer by Gen. George Washington. De Kalb became a valuable resource for Washington, who was short on people who were long on military experience. De Kalb was later killed in the Battle of Camden, South Carolina in 1780, and is buried there.
This brings us to Deane, who became the vehicle for the French scheme. With no diplomatic experience (the son of a blacksmith in his native Connecticut, though a practicing lawyer), he was sent to France by the Secret Committee of Correspondence of Congress (later the Committee of Foreign Affairs and eventually the State Department). His instructions were to “appear in the character of a merchant, which we wish you continually to retain among the French, in general, it being probable that the court of France may not like it should be known publickly, that any agent from the Colonies is in that country.” He may have blended in all too well, as he was eventually recalled by Congress on charges that included profiteering on the war effort, and emerged from that ordeal an embittered man for the rest of his life. He was also assigned the task of finding ways of securing “clothing and arms for twenty-five thousand men with a suitable quantity of ammunition and one hundred field pieces.”
In his procurement responsibilities, he worked closely with Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, part-time playwright and lately a full-time smuggler for America. One thing Deane was not assigned to do, but in his zealousness to promote the American cause he did anyway, was to send along with these supplies French nobles and other soldiers of fortune seeking glory and fame in the war. In his letter of December 6, 1776 to the Committee of Secret Correspondence of Congress, he provided a list of sixteen recruits he was sending to the colonies, mostly de Broglie acolytes, with commissions entitling them to ranks ranging from lieutenant to major general, stipulating when they should begin to be paid. A second list attached by de Kalb added twelve more French officers, including the Marquis de Lafayette and de Kalb himself. The Marquis was experiencing resistance in eluding the prohibitions on his efforts to enter the fray of the American Revolution, from both his government and his family.
The ships designated to carry these newly-minted officers, as well as Deane’s letter, from France to the colonies, experienced various delays resulting from the strident complaints of British ambassador, Lord Stormont, who was receiving intelligence about French support for the Americans. Stormont had been aware that de Broglie was in contact with Deane and with Congress, and that he represented himself as the authorized negotiator for the French government. In fact, correspondence between Deane and de Broglie had been spotted on Deane’s table by a British spy. One of Stormont’s more prolific sources, who reported to his boss de Broglie’s bid to take over the American army, was Benjamin Franklin’s eventual secretary Edward Bancroft (aka Edward Edwards), coincidentally a former student of Deane back in the colonies.
While Deane thought he was doing the right thing, granting commissions not only exceeded his authority but caused endless problems for Washington and the American military hierarchy, who were none too pleased to have these usually-untested Frenchmen, many of whom spoke no English, entering service demanding high ranks and seeking to supplant senior American officers. For a time, Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, and John Sullivan resigned in protest. In the end, most of the French officers-to-be were unhappily sent home. The Committee rebuked Deane and his fellow American Commissioners, stating that they had “found it impossible to render themselves usefull for want of the Language and we think this the most likely means to save others the charge and trouble of a long voyage, as well as the mortification, of being disappointed in their expectations. You will therefore serve all such and oblige us by discouraging their coming to America for Military employment.”
In Deane’s December 6, 1776 letter to Congress the last paragraph, in a casual manner, presented his auspicious recommendation. He proposed that de Broglie be brought in to replace General Washington, with an even more expansive role in the political realm as well. He stated, “I submit one thought to you; whether, if you could engage a great general of the highest character in Europe, such, for instance, as Prince Ferdinand, Marshal Broglie, or others of equal rank, to take the lead of your armies, whether such a step would not be politic, as it would give a character and credit to your military, and strike perhaps a greater panic in our enemies.” In other words, he recommended that a French leadership cadre to take over leadership of the American military, and that the grandiose vision of de Kalb and de Broglie would practically awe the British into submission.
De Broglie was probably less than pure in his motives. Although a time limit on his service was discussed in other documents, it is highly likely his goal was essentially to become the King of America, or at least make a king’s ransom financially. De Broglie himself wrote in an unsigned letter to de Kalb, saying, “When you propose the man, you must act as if you were ignorant whether he desired such a position, and you will make it understood that he will only consent to make the supposed sacrifices if he is granted extraordinary advantages . . . . Great pecuniary advantages and a large pension for life, though the amount of these would be reimbursed a hundred-fold by the value of his services.” A man of high rank, though perhaps not the resume to match it, de Broglie thought quite highly of himself. Indeed, this was like the (unsuccessful) Polish caper: “From the then stand-point of Broglie there was nothing strange in the idea that a European soldier of high social and political rank should be proffered to lead the American Colonies in their revolt.” Although he went to great pains to specify that his plan encompassed a three-year period only, it was easily conceivable that he envisioned an elective monarchy for America. De Broglie had in mind a man of the rank of “the Prince of Nassau” (Stadtholder in the Netherlands) as meeting the requirements for his American generalissimo. If an elective monarchy should be installed the generalissimo would enjoy an unrivalled opportunity to win the “election.”
Was the French government aware of this plan and did they support it? As with their other activities to back the Revolution at this stage (shipments of weapons, etc.), they were in support while maintaining the guise of being unaware, or at least having what we would call in modern parlance “plausible deniability.” Their real desire was “to take advantage of the American movement to take France out of its political inertia and raise it before Europe.”
Surprisingly, this proposal was urged on by de Kalb who, given his familiarity with America and his admiration for Washington, should have known it would never fly. Perhaps his European background blinded him to the potency of the reaction against centralized power represented by the Declaration of Independence. Possibly, he didn’t want to cross his close friend de Broglie. In a paper to Deane entitled “A project of which the execution would perhaps decide the success of the cause of liberty in the United States,” de Kalb declared that “Congress should ask of the King of France someone who would become their civil and military chief, the temporary generalissimo of the new republic.” “Numerous armies and courage”—singling out Washington—“are not sufficient to obtain success, if they are not sustained by ability and experience.” He continued,
Many young noblemen would follow him as volunteers, for the sake of serving and distinguishing themselves under his eyes . . . such a leader would be worth twenty thousand men and would double the value of the American troops. This man may be found, I think that I have found him [meaning de Broglie] . . . . The question is to obtain his acceptance, which, as I think, can only be accomplished by loading him with sufficient honours to satisfy his ambition, as by naming him field-marshal generalissimo, and giving him a considerable sum of ready money for his numerous children, the care of whom he would have to forego for some time during his sojourn beyond the seas, to be equivalent to them in case of the loss of their father, and by giving him all the powers necessary for the good of the service.
It was even more stunning that Deane imagined that this proposal would even be considered by the Secret Committee, never mind Congress as a whole. Washington’s military difficulties at the time made him vulnerable, but not to the extent of replacing him with a French nobleman. Possibly the string of early American military losses, combined with the pressure put on by people like de Broglie and the British-spread rumors of an impending reconciliation made Deane think this was the only way the war could be won. Clearly in understatement mode, one record of the affair noted, “In his suggestion that Count Broglie should be called to America as commander-in-chief he [Deane] displayed a want of delicacy and of political knowledge.”
Though it is not clear exactly when Congress received the proposal, it is quite clear that they disregarded it. Congress took no notice of the suggestion, nor, after de Kalb’s arrival in America, when he had the opportunity of seeing the state of the country, did it again emerge. Early in 1777, however, all idea of a French dictatorship in America disappeared. My theory is that before it reached the full Congress it was squashed by the Committee of Secret Correspondence which, with Franklin not yet joining them, consisted of Benjamin Harrison, John Dickinson, Robert Morris, and John Jay. The proposal later emerged from the files of the Committee to be used as a weapon against Deane, so it had arrived at some point. So submissive to France was this proposal that, in his biography of de Kalb, biographer Friedrich Kapp wonders whether “France, under these circumstances, [can] be blamed for considering the Americans simply as their passive instruments?”
On the date of Deane’s letter, December 6, 1776, Franklin had just arrived in France. But unfavorable winds had left Franklin in Nantes, while Deane was in Paris. It is doubtful Franklin ever saw the letter, and though he undoubtedly found out about it later, he appears not to have made any comment concerning it. Perhaps he thought it spoke for itself. If he did see it, he did Deane no favors by letting it pass. Timing played a part—had Franklin arrived a little bit earlier in France he might have seen it and taken more decisive action.
Deane was later recalled from France by Congress, both for his financial dealings and for overstepping his instructions in granting commissions to French officers. This inquiry got personal, evolving into a pamphlet war between Committee of Foreign Affairs secretary Thomas Paine and Deane and his allies. In the course of this feud, Paine included Deane’s letter recommending de Broglie in a pamphlet published in the Philadelphia Packet newspaper in February 1779, thus proving that the letter had somehow quietly made its way into the Committee’s files. In disclosing this, Paine overstepped his authority; and for leaking intelligence documents was stripped of his position as secretary. John Adams, who found out about the proposal in 1778, recognized it to be related to one of the most conniving men in France and summed things up quite succinctly, stating, “I will be buried in the ocean, or in any other manner sacrificed, before I will voluntarily put on the chains of France, when I am struggling to throw off those of Great Britain.”
Deane’s proposal subsequently went back into hiding, the offending paragraph neatly excised from the version of Deane’s letter by historian Jared Sparks in his edited volume The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution. By editing it, “Deane’s letter . . . with a suggestion that de Broglie be commander-in-chief is turned into a mere letter of introduction.” The offending paragraph reappeared in versions published by the United States government in the late 1800s. Kapp’s biography of de Kalb brought it back into the spotlight, a spotlight later magnified by Charles A. Stillé’s article in 1887. The French government’s publication of “Histoire de la Participation de la France a l’etablissement des Etats-Unis d’Amerique” also devotes a full chapter to the incident.
Rebuffed in his bloodless coup attempt for America, de Broglie found new mischief in which to become entangled, working on a plot to invade England, with his agent there, Chevalier D’Eon. This plot fizzled when D’Eon decided he was underpaid and threatened to inform the British of the plot. “The King [now Louis XVI] considered having D’Eon kidnapped and brought back to France, but in the end he conceded and paid the spy what he wanted in order to silence and placate him.” Louis, under pressure for more transparency, lost what little appetite he still had for his predecessor’s plaything, and the Secret d’Roi was soon after dissolved.
The end of the Secret also spelled the end for de Broglie, who went into exile. In his memoirs, he invoked the “I was just following orders” defense to explain all he had done in the Secret. He appealed for and eventually succeeded in securing his return to France. Though many of his associates were imprisoned, he managed to escape that fate, even though suspected of, at minimum, misdeeds or even treason. He died in 1781. His nephew served the American cause and, securing a letter of introduction from Franklin stating, “he bears an excellent character here, is a hearty friend of our cause, and I am persuaded you will have a pleasure in his conversation,” enjoyed an amicable meeting with Washington. The nephew later returned to France, only to be guillotined in 1794.
Ironically, the Comte de Broglie himself ended up performing one key service to the American Revolution: He hosted the famous dinner at Metz, at which the visiting English Duke of Gloucester (brother of King George III) and French officers of the garrison there discussed the problems in the colonies. One attendee was the Marquis de Lafayette, whose fire for the cause was ignited by this discussion. Lafayette’s distinguished service more than made up for de Broglie’s bid to become the “Stadtholder of America.”
A.E. Zucker, “An Interesting Baron DeKalb Letter,” Society for the History of the Germans in Maryland, Volume 31 (1963), 60. Letter is from DeKalb to Dr. Frederic Phyle. DeKalb for some reason reverted to his native German for this part of the letter, which is translated in the article.
Committee of Secret Correspondence to Silas Deane, March 3, 1776, Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-22-02-0222.
Lord Stormont to Lord Weymouth, February 5, 1777, in B.F. Stevens, Facsimiles of Manuscripts in European Archives Relating to America, 1773-1783 (London: Malby & sons, 1889-1895), 14: Document #1425.
David Drury, “The Rise and Fall of Silas Deane, Patriot,” Connecticut History.Org., October 2, 2018, connecticuthistory.org/the-rise-and-fall-of-silas-deane-american-patriot/.
The Committee of Secret Correspondence to the American Commissioners, March 25, 1777. Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-23-02-0338.
James Breck Perkins, “France in the Revolution – Chapter X – The Ambition of Comte De Broglie,” www.americanrevolution.org/frconfiles/fr10.php. This material is derived from the chapter “Travail En Favor De L’Amerique – Le Stathouderat Du Comte De Broglie” (Work for America – The Stadtholdership of Comte De Broglie) in Henri Doniol, Histoire de la Participation de la France a l’etablissement des Etats-Unis d’Amerique(Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1886).
 France in the Revolution – Chapter X – The Ambition of Comte De Broglie. www.americanrevolution.org/frconfiles/fr10.php.
“The Affair of Silas Deane,” The Thomas Paine Historical Society, thomaspaine.org/essays/american-revolution/the-affair-of-silas-deane.html.