After the French and Indian War, or the Seven Years War as it was known in Europe, Spain and France began to plan for their revenge against Britain. They had been humiliated by Britain by the terms of that ended that war. They began to rebuild their navies and to train them together with joint maneuvers to learn how to work together in a single battle plan. They had a common signal system so that they could communicate orders between their fleets. After the war the two navies had eighty-four ships of the line, the biggest ships at the time with the most guns. They had planned so that by the time they were to face Britain again they would have a total of two hundred and twenty ships of the line. Only then could they think of taking on the Royal Navy.
In 1768 France sent an agent to America to assess the situation there. The American colonies had just gone through the throes of the Stamp Act and its subsequent riots and political turmoil. The agent reported back that he felt that “there is no doubt that this country will liberate itself at some point,” but that this might not happen for several more years. When fighting broke out between Britain and the American colonies in 1775, France again sent an agent to look into the political situation in America. He met with the Secret Committee of the Continental Congress. The French agent told them that if they wanted arms, ammunition or money, “they shall have it.” He also agreed to pass on to his superiors any request the congress might have. When he returned, he reported to the Comte de Vergennes, the French Foreign Minister, that the Americans had spirit, but they lacked three things to assure victory; “a good navy, provisions, and money.” He further reported that the Americans knew they could not defeat Britain by themselves without a seafaring nation to help them and that left them dependent on France and or Spain. He said the Americans lacked food, clothing, tents, blankets, and money and that at least one third of the population still was loyal to Great Britain. But, he concluded that “the goal of the rebels was no longer to redress grievances, but that the goal was rapidly becoming that of total independence.”
At this point one man, named Caron de Beaumarchais, writer of the wildly successful play The Barber of Seville and confidant of King Louis XV, began to write to the king pointing out that if France were to give aid to the Americans, France might get their revenge through them. While in London for an assignment for Louis, he met an American, Arthur Lee, younger brother of Richard Henry Lee, a powerful member of the Continental Congress. Together the two of them began to talk of France sending aid to America. Neither had any authorization from their respective governments to enter into any such kind of talks. But Beaumarchais began to send a series of letters back to officials in Paris, pushing for just such aid. “America must be aided in her struggle”, he said. He went on to say that he felt that “the quarrel between America and England will soon divide the world and change the system of Europe.”
Vergennes forwarded Beaumarchais’ correspondences to the new king of France, Louis XVI, who had only recently become king upon the death of his grandfather, Louis XV. Vergennes knew that the new king was wary of getting involved with the Americans and sucked into another war with Great Britain. His grandfather had fought many wars and had bankrupted France in the process.Also France was in the process of a costly naval build up. In 1774 the nation spent sixteen million Livres on their navy. In 1776, just two years later, the naval budget had ballooned to forty-five million Livres. Vergennes attached a cover letter to the Beaumarchais correspondence in which he told the new king,
It is to prevent England from gaining a doubled advantage that makes it imperative for France to intervene in the current dispute . . . England is France’s natural enemy . . . her cherished dream and long-standing goal is, if not the destruction of France, at least our emasculation, humiliation and ruin.
France then convinced Spain to join with the French in giving money to buy arms and material to the Americans. The Spanish foreign minister reminded Vergennes that the money must “always be cloaked and hidden and only appear to be commercial.” In the end the king agreed to the aid as long as it was done quietly and at a minimum of cost. Vergennes then wrote Beaumarchais and gave him his marching orders.
We are going to give you one million Livres. We shall get Spain to contribute an equal sum; with these two million . . . you will establish a large commercial house and at your own risk, supply America with arms, ammunition, [and] equipment . . . You will not demand money of the Americans, for they have none, but you will demand payment from the produce of their soil.
Up to this point Beaumarchais had been working with Arthur Lee in London. Everyone in France knew that the aid France was willing to give, while on generous terms, was not a free gift; France was expecting to be repaid. Beaumarchais was expecting to be repaid, he had just signed a personal loan for the money. “At your own risk,” Vergennes had told Beaumarchais. But when informed by Beaumarchais of what was going to happen, reminding him “do not fail to send a ship loaded with good Virginia tobacco,” Lee began to waffle. Lee wrote back saying that getting the tobacco that was to pay for the shipments to France was going to be difficult and went on to assert that “This is not a commercial transition we are engaged in, but a political one of the widest scope.” Lee was expecting a free gift from France, not a loan.
People in America were unaware of the steps that France and Spain were taking to be able to offer aid to America. The Continental Congress had set up a Secret Committee whose job it was to seek and obtain aid from foreign sources in order to supply the American army properly. The committee quickly decided to send a man to France to seek that aid. The man they chose was Silas Deane. Deane had been a member of the Continental Congress during its initial session in 1774 and had been reappointed to attend the Second Continental Congress when it reconvened in May of 1775. However, by the time it reconvened, fighting between Americans and Britons had already broken out in Massachusetts. Deane, as an official in the colony of Connecticut, had taken responsibility in sending Benedict Arnold to take Fort Ticonderoga to capture the British guns there. Also, he was active in securing a major general’s commission for Israel Putnam. In getting Putnam the commission, Putnam passed over other Connecticut senior militia officers, and these men had connections back home. Also there had been a boundary dispute between Connecticut and Pennsylvania and authorities in Connecticut wanted the Continental Congress to intervene. When Deane told them to wait until after the war was over, he displeased a number of powerful men back home, so much so that when they held an election to pick their delegation for the Continental Congress for 1776, Deane was left off the ticket.
The men in the Continental Congress knew how valuable Deane had been to the war effort. It was Deane who had drawn up a set of army regulations for the new Continental Army. When there was talk of creating a navy, it was Deane who sat down on his own and drew up a complete list of what it would take to build twelve frigates at Continental expense. He included everything: the cost of the hulls, the sails, the rope, anchors, guns and powder, the number of the crew and officers, the pay of each, and tallied up the cost for everything, then he gave that to the congress to use as a model for passing resolutions to create a navy. When they heard that Deane was not going to be re-elected to the congress, they then hired him to superintend the building of the naval ships.
John Adams, a man who rarely sang the praises of other men, wrote of Deane when he learned that Deane had not been re-elected to the congress, “There is scarcely a more active, industrious, enterprising and capable man than Mr. Deane. I assure you, I shall sincerely lament the loss of his services. Men of great daring are much needed.”
Based on his known work ethic and dedication to the cause of America, the Secret Committee chose Deane to be their man to send to France. They knew they would need someone of courage and fortitude, as the first thing they wanted him to do when he got to Paris was to look up Vergennes and inform him that “the supply we want at present is clothing and arms, for twenty-five thousand men, with a suitable quantity of ammunition and one hundred field pieces,” all on credit.
Deane had not been home for several months while attending to congress. Because he had not been re-elected his wife had been expecting him to come home soon. Now he had to write and tell her he might not be home for several years. He told her about going to France for the congress and that he was regretting the pain that “I must give you by this adventure.” And he thanked her for being “one of the best partners and wife . . . I am about to enter on the great stage of Europe and in consideration of the importance of quitting myself well, weighs me down.” But, he said he had the opportunity of taking part in “the opening of a door for the greatest and most extensive usefulness if I succeed” and then added, “if I fail, the cause I am engaged in . . . will justify my adventuring.”
The committee decided that as the colonies had not yet declared independence from Great Britain, Deane could not go to France as a diplomat. He was sent under the guise of a commercial agent. His official commission came not from the Committee, but rather the individual members of the committee. Their commission stated, “You are to immediately repair to France . . . We hope you will be in the respectable light that you deserve to be and to put on a footing to purchase all the goods wanted at the best of terms.”Those were his public instructions. He was then given a set of secret instructions that were more specific to the real nature of his assignment.
Secret Instructions to Silas Deane
March 2, 1776
We the underwritten, being a committee for the secret correspondence, do hereby certify (to) whom it may concern, that the bearer, Silas Deane, is by this to go to France, there to transmit such business commercial and political as we have committed to his care, on behalf and by the authority of the Congress of the Thirteen United Colonies . . .
Instructions for Silas Deane, Esquire
When you come to Paris, by delivering Dr. Franklin’s letter to . . . Monsr. Duberg. By conversing with [him] you will have a good opportunity of learning Parisian French and you will find in Monsr. Duberg a man prudent and faithful, secret, intelligent in affairs and capable of giving you very sage advice . . .
With the assistance of Monsr. Duberg, who will understand English, you will be able to make immediate application to Monsr. Vergennes . . . acquainting him that you are in France upon the business of the American Congress in the character of a merchant . . . it may be well to show him first your letters of credence . . . that France . . . would be looked upon as that power whose friendship it would be best for us to obtain and cultivate . . .
The supply we at present want is clothing for twenty five thousand men, with a [significant] quantity of ammunition and one hundred field pieces— that we mean to pay for the same by remittances to France, Spain, Portugal and the French Islands as soon as our navigation can be protected by ourselves or friends . . .
In a paragraph toward the end of Deane’s secret instructions he was given and instruction that was to prove disastrous for America and Silas Deane. That paragraph instructed Deane to look up an old friend of Benjamin Franklin who lived in London.
Edward Bancroft was an American and had at one time been a student of Deane’s. Bancroft did indeed go to Paris at Deane’s request and they hit it off so well that Deane asked him to be his personal secretary. As such he was to have full access to all Deane’s papers, and information of Franco-American relations, the amount of aid being given to the Americans by the French, how much money was being loaned, as well as any French preparations for war. The choice of Bancroft to be on Deane’s staff was to turn out to be a disaster.
Deane arrived in Paris on July 8, 1776, four days after the Declaration of Independence had been declared by the Continental Congress. Of course, no one in France was aware of it at the time. As we have seen the French had been preparing for some time setting up a method to secretly send aid to America, so they were ready for Deane when he arrived.
On July 11, a mere three days after Deane’s arrival in Paris, he was presented to Vergennes. They met for two hours. Deane informed him of the full breath of his commission and was extended “the kings protection” against any threats of violence by the British, but Vergennes did request that Deane be cautious and not compromise French neutrality. Vergennes then immediately authorized a shipment of thirteen thousand small arms to be shipped to America and put Deane in touch with Beaumarchais. Vergennes further advised Deane that he could get military aid at good prices on credit up to three million Livres and Deane agreed.
When Deane showed up with the proper credentials from the Continental Congress, the French naturally decided that Deane was the man they should to deal with. Arthur Lee, who had earlier been talking to Beaumarchais in London about American aid, traveled to Paris to confront Deane. Deane gave him a cold shoulder. Lee then tried to get Beaumarchais to drop Deane and deal strictly with him, but Beaumarchais had his marching orders from Vergennes and as far as France was concerned, Deane was the representative sent by the congress and Deane was the person they were going to deal with. In addition Vergennes and French intelligence suspected Lee of being a British spy, as French intelligence was aware that Lee was in contact with the British foreign office.
Just before Deane arrived in France, the British had evacuated Boston and now all America was free of British occupation. At that time Spain decided to kick in the second million livres they had agreed to earlier for American aid.
While Deane was in Paris, the Secret Committee was constantly writing to Deane, informing him of events in America and hoping the letters would catch up to him. On July 8, just as Deane was landing in France and only a few days after the Declaration of Independence, the committee sent him a packet of letters and a copy of the Declaration. In addition the committee informed Deane that they had sent William Bingham to the French Island of Martinique in the Caribbean and that if Deane could send all his mail by French vessels to Bingham, he would forward them on to the committee. Unfortunately, the vessel that was carrying the mail was captured by the British and the documents never reached Deane.
On August 5, Bingham wrote to Deane from Martinique advising that the French governor of the island was fully supportive of the plan and that Deane could forward his letters to Martinique in the care of the French general in command of the island’s forces to ensure a safe delivery. In essence the French were allowing the Americans to use the French diplomatic mail service. But Deane, having never received the instructions from the Secret Committee about Bingham and his role in Martinique, disregarded the letter.
On August 11, even though they had not heard from Deane, Secret Committee member Robert Morris wrote to Deane advising him,
I am much concerned that we have been so unfortunate in our remittances to you, one ship whose cargo cost £60,000 has been taken . . . other cargoes are necessarily detained by the British men of war on our coasts and in our bays . . . amounting to £2,000. I shall remit bills as fast as I can get them.
On September 12 Morris again wrote to Deane, even though the Committee had still not yet heard one word from him. “I have bought a considerable quantity of tobacco but cannot get suitable vessels to carry it. You cannot conceive of the may disappointments we have met with this respect.” He went on to describe how it was becoming extremely difficult to get ships out. “I hope your credit has been sufficient.” Obviously, no one in America was aware of the two million Livres loan from the French and Spanish governments that was funding Deane’s efforts in Paris.
On October 1, Morris, as chairman of the committee, again wrote to Deane with a laundry list of things desperately needed by the army in America and assuring Deane that America had every intention in paying off any loans that Deane might be incurring.
We hope your reception in Paris has been equal to your expectations and our wishes . . . If France means to befriend us send us success in good muskets, blankets, clothes, coatings and proper stuff or tents, also in ammunition . . . we are willing to pay for them, and shall be able to soon as we can safely export tobacco and other valuable produce . . . we hope you have obtained good credit, and you may depend that remittances will be continued until your engagements are discharged . . . whatever engagements you make for payment of the cost of such clothing and necessities, the Congress will order sufficient remittances to fulfill the same, but in our circumstances it requires time to accomplish them.
On October 23, Morris again wrote to Deane telling him he was now not an unofficial representative, but one of three full-fledged diplomats assigned as representatives to France. The other two were to be Arthur Lee and Benjamin Franklin. The congress had heard nothing from Deane since he left. The Secret Committee had been constantly writing to him on the assumption that he had arrived safely and was obtaining the goods that the Americans desired. The letters point to a number of things.
First was the dire straits the Americans were in. They desperately needed everything to make war. Up to the time of the revolution all manufactured goods were imported from Great Britain. With the war, that stopped. America was in desperate need of a friend and that had to be France as it was the only country in Europe, aside from Spain, with the power, especially a navy, to be able to stand up to Britain.
Second, the letters affirmed that America was willing to pay for what they needed, but they had no ships that could deliver the raw materials to market to pay for what France was willing to let them have. What ships that could be had were either bottled up because of a British naval blockade, or had been given privileges by the various colonies to raid British commerce.
They were counting on Deane to do whatever was needed to get supplies and promised to make all payments he agreed to. Now if they could only hear something from Deane.
What was Deane doing? Deane and Beaumarchais were buying arms, uniforms, powder and all that the American army needed. They were putting the items they were buying in storage waiting for American ships to arrive to collect them, and bring with them the tobacco and other produce from American farms to pay for the goods. But the ships never came. Not only were the ships not coming, neither was any correspondence from America, especially from the Secret Committee of the Continental Congress. Deane never received on single letter from America in 1776.
On August 8, 1776 Deane wrote to the congress advising that he had arrived and that he had a good reception from Vergennes and the French and that he was starting to buy the needed arms and equipment.
On September 17, he wrote again saying, “I shall send to you in October clothing for twenty thousand men, thirty thousand fusils, one hundred tons of powder, two hundred brass cannons, twenty-four brass mortars with shells, shot and lead.”
On September 30 he wrote again, giving the committee a report on the events in Europe.
Buy now Deane was getting nervous. He had not heard a word from the congress or the Secret Committee since he had arrived in France. He wrote a letter on October 1 advising that the French were also getting a little nervous over not having heard a word from anyone in America. What is more, the British ambassador to France was telling the French that they were in the process of negotiating an end to the war with the Americans, which was not true, but gave the French pause. If the Americans were talking peace with the British, why should the French stick their necks out to aid the Americans? Deane told Morris that “I had nothing left but to make the most positive assertions that no accommodation could take place and to pledge myself in the strongest possible manner that this would turn out” not to be true, yet even so the French put out and order to suspend furnishing Deane with any more equipment. “I know not where the blame lies,” he said, “but it must lie heavy somewhere.”
On October 8 Deane again wrote to the committee telling them that the “Declaration of Independence of the fourth” had good and bad effects. They had heard about it from British newspapers, as no correspondence had yet reached Deane. He went on to explain that in the declaration the congress declared they were seeking no foreign alliances. This surprised the French as it appeared to them through the aid that was being asked for by Americans, an alliance was exactly what America wanted. Again, the French needed some clarity and the silence that was coming from America since Deane’s arrival was causing concern and some alarm.
By mid-October no American ships had arrived in France to collect the goods that had been stockpiled by Deane and Beaumarchais. Deane then decided that he was going to have to hire French ships to carry the goods to America and bring the tobacco and other produce back on the return trip. This meant that he was going to have to use some of the money that was meant to be used to buy goods to hire ships. On October 17 Deane wrote to the committee saying,
Gentlemen, I once more put pen to paper to attempt to point out my distressed situation, totally destitute of intelligence or instructions from you since I left America . . . [I] will plainly inform you that the cause of the United Colonies or United States has for some time suffered at the court for want of positive orders to me or some other person . . . [I have] . . . been favorably received . . . but the sin quo non is wanting; a power to treat from the United Independent States of America. How, they say, is it possible that all your intelligence and institutions should be intercepted when we daily have advice of American ships arriving at different parts of Europe?
On October 25 Deane was again crying out, having still had not heard one word from America since June, “where are you?”
Gentlemen, I have purchased two hundred tons of powder . . . I must again, urge you to hasten remittances. Tobacco, rice, indigo, wheat and flour are in great demand . . . I must say your silence . . . discourages me at times . . . From whatever cause the silence has happened, it has greatly prejudiced the affairs of the United Colonies of America . . . it has thrown me in a state of anxiety and perplexity which no words can express. I have made one excuse after another until my incentive is exhausted.
Deane was rounding up French ships and sending them off to America as fast as he could, but still hearing nothing from Congress. Late in November he wrote to the committee again telling them of the extreme urgency in sending payments immediately.
I now advise you to attend carefully the articles sent to you . . . Large remittances are necessary for your credit . . . by making your remittances, a loan maybe obtained, if you make punctual remittances for the sums now advanced . . . The want of intelligence has more than once will nigh ruined my affair. Pray be more attentive to this important subject, or drop at once all thoughts of a foreign connection.
Deane and Beaumarchais obtained the French ships to send the supplies to America. The largest carried fifty-two cannons, with carriages, 20,000 cannon balls, 9,000 grenades, 6,500 muskets, nine hundred tents, spades, pick axes, three hundred twenty blankets, 8,545 stockings, 4,097 shirts and 1,272 handkerchiefs. It was expected to return with tobacco, rice and wheat. It came back empty. There was nothing to remit to Deane and Beaumarchais for the items purchased. Vergennes had the French government loan Beaumarchais an additional million Livres to keep the supplies moving to America.
The silence from America began to wear on the Franco-American relationship. Vergennes trusted Deane; there had always been a warm relationship between them. Deane had always dealt honestly with Vergennes and had never tried to go around his authority. But Vergennes was getting nervous about the lack of correspondence from the American congress. By the end of 1776 France had sent 10,000 muskets and close to a million pounds of gunpowder to America. At the beginning of the war there had been one musket for every four American soldiers, and fifteen rounds of ammunition. By the time Washington counterattacked in New Jersey in December 1776, every American soldier had a musket and sixty rounds of ammunition. This was a direct result of Deane’s efforts while he was alone in France.
By December Deane gave up on trying to reach the Secret Committee. He decided to write to one of the members of congress that he was friends with. He wrote to John Jay of New York.
Dear Jay, if my letters arrive safe, they will give you some idea of my situation. Without intelligence, without orders, and without remittances, yet boldly plunging into contracts, engagements, negotiations, hourly hoping that something will arrive from America . . . The fear of our giving up, or accommodating is the greatest obstacle I have had to contend with . . . I would advise you to attend carefully the articles sent to you . . . large remittances are necessary.
Finally, just five days later, on December 8, Deane learned that Benjamin Franklin was in France and was about to join him in Paris. Franklin and Arthur Lee were to join with Deane as official representatives from an independent United States of America. Deane was not alone anymore.
Deane immediately notified Vergennes and, on the 12th wrote to the committee that “nothing for a long time created greater speculation than this event, and our friends here are elated beyond measure . . . I will not attempt here to express the pleasure I feel on this occasion, as it rewards at once the difficulties under which I have been constantly in danger of sinking.”
The question remains, if the Committee of Secret Correspondence was frequently writing to Deane and Deane was writing to the committee even more frequently, why was absolutely no mail getting through either way? One would think that some few letters would make it through. Was the British blockade that effective? We saw from one of Deane’s letters that some American ships were getting through to Europe, but none bringing mail to Deane. There were a number of factors that were at play.
First was the blockade. It was definitely hurting the Americans as we saw from correspondence posted by the committee. That they were trying to send things out but the British Warships were constantly patrolling the harbors of America.
But there was another factor in play. As we saw, Deane, at Franklin’s urging, made contact with Edward Bancroft. Bancroft was born in Massachusetts and had apprenticed himself to a physician. Before finishing his medical studies he migrated to British Guyana as a surgeon and worked as a doctor on one of the plantations there. He traveled all over Guyana studying animals and plant life. He wrote an essay on the environment under the title An Essay on the Natural History of Guyana in South America and had it published when he moved to London. The book was theauthority on the subject for the next one hundred years. The book made Bancroft famous and recognized as a scholar. As he remained in London he met and became friends with Benjamin Franklin. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1773 and Franklin was one of his sponsors. Bancroft liked living in London and was a very pro-British Empire man, proud of his role in the Empire. He became a British-American in the full sense of the word.
Bancroft spoke French fluently while Deane did not, and translated for him in his meetings with various French officials. He helped Deane write his reports and manage his correspondence. Shortly after agreeing to work with Deane, he traveled back to London, ostensibly to clean up his affairs there. While in London, Bancroft became a spy for the British, “and what a spy he was. Bancroft was the asset that case officers and analysts today dream of.” When the treaty of Alliance between France and the United States was made, Bancroft gave a copy to the British ambassador in Paris that same night. What is amazing was that Bancroft’s role as a spy was never discovered for over one hundred years. American historians throughout the nineteenth century accepted Bancroft as a loyal American who did yeoman duties alongside Deane and Franklin. It wasn’t until a historian in the 1880s, researching to write a biography of him, discovered the papers appointing him as a British spy.
Once Bancroft became Deane’s assistant, the British knew everything that Deane did and said and it was their man who controlled Deane’s correspondence. Officials in London knew all the details of the Franco-American treaty before anyone in America even knew there was an alliance. Bancroft continued to be paid by the British up until his death in 1821.
The third problem that caused a breakdown in communications between France and America was that Arthur Lee’s three private secretaries were all paid British spies. As Lee kept interfering with Deane’s efforts, and later the efforts of Franklin, he was fully aided by the British agents working for Lee. There is no evidence that Lee was aware of this at the time, one can only assume that the negative reports that Lee was sending to the congress that were full of misinformation, suited the purpose of the British.
It seems Lee’s letters were often getting through to Philadelphia whereas Deane’s were not. The inability of Deane’s and Beaumarchais’ letters to get through in that fateful year of 1776 were to cost both these men dearly, politically, and financially as time went on.
To Deane, July 8, 1776, Letters of Delegates to Congress, 4:405 (the editors note that the original letter was not found but found a reprint in he North American and United States Gazette, Philadelphia, October 12, 1855).
Jack Rackove, The Secret Agent, newrepublic.com/article/90870/edwardbancroft-thomas-schaepes.