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Silas Deane, c. 1781
|Born||December 24, 1737
|Died||September 23, 1789
|Spouse||Mehitable Webb (1763–1767)
Elizabeth Saltonstall Evards (1770)
|Occupation||merchant, politician and diplomat|
Silas Deane (December 24, 1737 – September 23, 1789) was an American merchant, politician and diplomat. Originally a supporter of American independence Deane served as a delegate to the Continental Congress and then as the United States' first foreign diplomat when he travelled to France to lobby the French government for aid. Deane was drawn into a major political row over his actions in Paris, and subsequently endorsed Loyalist criticisms of American independence and lived on a modest charity provided him in London. Deane later lived in the Dutch Republic and Great Britain. Upon attending a naval voyage back to America, Deane died under suspicious circumstances.
Deane was born in Groton, Connecticut, the son of a blacksmith. He graduated from Yale in 1758 and in 1761 was admitted to the bar, he practiced law for a short time outside of Hartford before he became a merchant in Wethersfield, Connecticut. In Connecticut he taught the future double-spy Edward Bancroft.
He took an active part in the movements in Connecticut preceding the War of Independence, was elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1772, and from 1774 to 1776 was a delegate from Connecticut to the Continental Congress.
Early in 1776, he was sent to France by Congress in a semi-official capacity, as a secret agent to induce the French government to lend its financial aid to the colonies. Subsequently he became, with Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee, one of the regularly accredited commissioners to France from Congress.
On arriving in Paris, Deane at once opened negotiations with the Comte de Vergennes who was the French Foreign Minister. With the assistance of the playwright and outspoken support of American independence, Beaumarchais, Deane organised shipment of many shiploads of arms and munitions of war to America helping finance the Battle of Saratoga." He also enlisted the services of a number of Continental soldiers of fortune, among whom were Lafayette, Baron Johann de Kalb, Thomas Conway, Casimir Pulaski, and Baron von Steuben. Many of these officers soon made themselves unpopular once they reached America for a variety of reasons. As Deane had signed the contracts hiring them, he was given the blame by politicians in Philadelphia.
His carelessness in keeping account of his receipts and expenditures, and the differences between himself and Arthur Lee regarding the contracts with Beaumarchais, eventually led to his recall and replacement by John Adams as ambassador to France on November 21, 1777 and was expected to face charges based on Lee's complaints and on his having promised the foreign officers commissions outranking American officers. Before returning to America, however, he signed on February 6, 1778 the treaties of amity and commerce and of alliance with France, which he and the other commissioners had successfully negotiated. It was also in Paris that Deane formally approved of Scotsman James Aitken's (John the Painter) plot to destroy Royal Navy stores in Portsmouth, England on behalf of the Continental cause.
As a mark of approval for Deane's conduct in Paris, the French government agreed that he should travel back to the United States aboard a warship carrying out the first French ambassador to the United States. Louis XVI presented Deane with a portrait framed with diamonds and both Vergennes and Franklin wrote letters commending Deane.
Deane reached Philadelphia on July 14, 1778. In America, Deane was defended by John Jay and John Adams in 1778 in a long and bitter dispute before Congress, whose requests for copies of his receipts and disbursements were refused by France; since France had not officially made alliance with the Thirteen Colonies until February 6, 1778, they felt that any such evidence of their prior involvement would be a diplomatic embarrassment. Deane in turn then agitated for a diplomatic break with France and questioned the integrity of members of Congress who disagreed with him.
He was finally allowed to return to Paris in 1781 to settle his affairs and attempt to find copies of the disputed records, but his differences with various French officials, coupled with the publication in Rivington's Royal Gazette in New York of private letters to his brother in which he repudiated the Revolution as hopeless and suggested a rapprochement with Britain, led to his being barred from entry and branded a traitor at home.
When King George III letter's were made public in 1867, it was revealed that Deane had been working as a British informant for the entire period of the revolution. His secretary, William Bancroft was also working, possibly unknown to Deane, as a British spy for four hundred pounds a year.
Deane eventually settled in the Netherlands until after the treaty of peace had been signed, after which he lived in England in a state of poverty. He published his defence in An Address to the Free and Independent Citizens of the United States of North America (Hartford, Conn. and London, 1784).
Deane married twice, both wealthy widows from Wethersfield: Mehitable Webb in 1763 (who died in 1767), and Elizabeth Saltonstall Evards in 1770. His second wife was a granddaughter of Connecticut Governor Gurdon Saltonstall of the Massachusetts Saltonstall family.
His stepson was Continental Army Officer Colonel Samuel Blachley Webb of the 9th Connecticut Regiment – later consolidated into the 2nd Connecticut Regiment which became part of the 3rd Connecticut Regiment, which became the 1st Connecticut Regiment
Death and controversy
In 1789 Deane planned to set sail back to America to try to recoup his lost fortune. He mysteriously took ill and died on September 23 of that year, while his ship waited repairs. Some historians argue that he was poisoned by Edward Bancroft, an American double agent with the British who had been employed by both John Adams and Silas Deane for gathering intelligence during the Revolutionary War. Bancroft may have felt threatened by a potential testimony from Deane to the American Congress. As it turns out Silas Deane was never found guilty of Arthur Lee's accusations. His granddaughter Philura through her husband pressed his case before Congress, and his family was eventually paid $37,000 in 1841 on the ground that a previous audit was "ex parte, erroneous, and a gross injustice to Silas Deane". However, this event took place fifty years after his death.
The successful Revolutionary frigate USS Deane was named after him, as is the Silas Deane Middle School, the Webb Deane Stevens Museum, and the Silas Deane Highway in Wethersfield. His grand mansion, completed in 1766, was declared a National Historical Landmark and restored, and is open for public viewing as the Silas Deane House. There is a road in Ledyard, Connecticut, named for Deane.
- Davidson, James West and Mark Lytle (1992). After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. NY: McGraw-Hill. pp. xxvii–xxxv.
- One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Deane, Silas". Encyclopædia Britannica 7 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 898.
- "Wethersfield, CT, and Onions", Yankee Magazine, August 1993
- Fleming p. 58
- Fleming p. 59
- Chisholm 1911.
- Nelson, Craig Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of a Modern Nation 2006 pp. 140
- Samuel Blachley Webb
- Baker, Mark Allen. "Spies of Revolutionary Connecticut, From Benedict Arnold to Nathan Hale." Charleston: The History Press, 2014.
- Fleming, Thomas. The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown. First Smithsonian Books, 2008.
- Davidson, James West and Mark Lytle. After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 1992.
- The Correspondence of Silas Deane was published in the Connecticut Historical Society's Collections, vol. II.
- The Deane Papers, in 5 vols., in the New York Historical Society's Collections (1887–1890)
- Winsor's Narrative and Critical History, vol. vii. chap. 1.
- Wharton's Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols., Washington, 1889).
- Paul, Joel Richard "Unlikely Allies, How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution" (2009, Riverhead Books, Penguin Group)
- Lefer, David "The Founding Conservatives, How A Group Of Unsung Heroes Saved the American Revolution" (2013, Sentinel, Penguin Group)
- Institute of Museum and Library Services website dedicated to Silas Deane
- Collection of Silas Deane Letters
- Silas Deane at Find a Grave