Silas Deane

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Silas Deane
Silas Deane - Du Simitier and B.L. Prevost.jpg
Silas Deane, c. 1781
United States Envoy to France
In office
March 2, 1776 – March 4, 1778
Serving with Benjamin Franklin, Arthur Lee
Appointed by Continental Congress
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by John Adams
Delegate to the Second Continental Congress from Connecticut
In office
May 10, 1775 – January 15, 1776
Delegate to the First Continental Congress from Connecticut
In office
September 5, 1774 – October 26, 1774
Personal details
Born December 24, 1737
Groton, Connecticut
Died September 23, 1789
on a ship near Kent, Great Britain
Resting place St. Leonard's, Deal, Kent, United Kingdom
Spouse(s) Mehitable Nott Webb (1763–1767)
Elizabeth Saltonstall Evards (1770–1777)
Children Jesse Deane
Alma mater Yale

Silas Deane (December 24, 1737 – September 23, 1789) was an American merchant, politician and diplomat. 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 traveled to France to lobby the French government for aid.[1] Deane was drawn into a major political fight over his actions in Paris, and subsequently endorsed Loyalist criticisms of American independence. After the war, Deane lived in Ghent and then London. During his return voyage back to America, Deane died under mysterious circumstances.[2]

Early life and family[edit]

Silas Deane was born on December 24, 1737 in Groton, Connecticut, to blacksmith Silas Deane and his wife Hannah Barker. The younger Silas was able to obtain a full scholarship to Yale and graduated in 1758.[3] In April 1759 he was hired to tutor a young Edward Bancroft in Hartford, Connecticut.[4] In 1761 Deane was admitted to the bar and practiced law for a short time outside of Hartford before moving to Wethersfield, Connecticut and establishing a thriving business as a merchant.[5]

Deane married twice, both times to wealthy widows from Wethersfield. He married his first wife, Mehitable (Nott) Webb in 1763, after assisting her with the settlement of her first husband's estate. They had one son, Jesse, who was born in 1764. Mehitable died in 1767.[3][6] Silas then married Elizabeth (Saltonstall) Evards in 1770. Elizabeth was a granddaughter of Connecticut Governor Gurdon Saltonstall of the Massachusetts Saltonstall family. Elizabeth died in 1777 while Silas was in France negotiating for the Continental Congress.[1]

One of Deane's stepsons was Continental Army Officer Brigadier General Samuel Blatchley Webb.[6]

Continental Congress[edit]

Deane took an active part in the movements in Connecticut preceding the American War of Independence. He was elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1768, appointed to the Wethersfield Committee of Correspondence in 1769, and from 1774 to 1776 was a delegate from Connecticut to the Continental Congress.[3][5]

While a member of Congress, Deane used his influence to obtain a commission in the Continental Army for his stepson, Samuel B. Webb, who had accompanied him to Philadelphia.[1] Deane excelled in the committee work of Congress, helping to coordinate the attack on Ft. Ticonderoga and establish the United States Navy.[3]

A dispute between Deane and fellow Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman, over whether to support the appointment of Israel Putnam as a Major-General under Washington's command led the Connecticut legislature to replace Deane as a delegate to the Continental Congress.[1] However, instead of returning to Connecticut, Deane decided to remain in Philadelphia and assist Congress in some of its work.[3][7]


On March 2, 1776 Deane was appointed by Congress to go to France as a secret envoy to induce the French government to lend its financial aid to the colonies. Subsequently he became, along with Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee, one of the regularly accredited commissioners to France from Congress.[5][7]

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 supporter of American independence, Beaumarchais, Deane organized the shipment of shiploads of arms and munitions to the colonies, helping to finance the war.[8][9] Deane also enlisted the services of a number of foreign soldiers to the cause, among whom were Lafayette, Baron Johann de Kalb, Thomas Conway, Casimir Pulaski, and Baron von Steuben.[5] 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.[10][11] It was also in Paris that Deane tacitly approved of Scotsman James Aitken's (John the Painter) plot to destroy Royal Navy stores in Portsmouth, England on behalf of the Continental cause.[12]

Accusations of carelessness in keeping account of his receipts and expenditures, his having promised the foreign officers commissions outranking American officers, and the differences between himself and Arthur Lee regarding the contracts with Beaumarchais, eventually led Congress to recall Deane on December 8, 1777.[7] Before returning to America, Deane on February 6, 1778 signed the Treaties of Amity and Commerce and of Alliance with France, which he and the other commissioners had successfully negotiated.[5]

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.[10]

Accusations in Congress[edit]

Deane received a letter from James Lovell containing the recall order of Congress on March 4, 1778 and arrived back in Philadelphia on July 14, 1778. The letter from Lovell only mentioned giving a report to Congress about the conditions of the affairs in Europe and Deane fully expected to return Paris within a few months.[7] Upon his arrival he faced questions from Congress over accusations by Arthur Lee of financial misdeeds committed by Deane. Since Congress had mentioned nothing about financial records to him, Deane had left his account books back in Paris and was unable to adequately defend himself against the charges or seek reimbursement for the use of his own money in procuring supplies in France.[4][7] In Congress, Deane was defended by John Jay in a long and bitter dispute over the charges. Frustrated, in 1779 Deane published a public defense against the charges with a list of the eight ships that sailed from France with supplies. In response, Congress offered him $10,000 in depreciated Continental currency but Deane refused feeling the offer was too low.[7]

Deane's 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.

Deane was finally allowed to return to Paris in 1780 to settle his affairs and attempt to find copies of the disputed records. When he arrived there he discovered that he was nearly ruined financially after the value of his earlier investments had plummeted and some of the ships carrying his merchandise had been captured by the British.[4] Events turned even worse after the November and December 1781 publication in the Rivington's Royal Gazette in New York of private letters Deane had sent earlier to his brother, which were subsequently intercepted by the British. In the letters, Deane stated that he felt the military situation of the Revolution was hopeless and suggested a rapprochement with Britain. This caused Deane to be branded as a traitor back home.[5][13]

When the letters of King George III were made public in 1867, it was revealed that on March 3, 1781, the king approved a request from Lord North to bribe Deane in an attempt to recruit him as a spy and to influence Congress.[13] The British appear to have stopped their overtures toward him after the king read Deane's intercepted correspondence in mid-July 1781. The letters were then forwarded to General Clinton who provided copies to loyalist James Rivington to publish in his newspaper. Unbeknownst to Deane, his former secretary in Paris, Edward Bancroft had already been working as a British spy for four hundred pounds a year.[4][14] Likewise, the British were also unaware that Rivington was also a spy, working for Washington as a member of the Culper Ring.

After the war and death[edit]

In October 1781, Deane moved to the city of Ghent where he could live more cheaply than in Paris. He then moved to London in March 1783, hoping to find investors for manufacturing ventures he planned to pursue after he returned to the United States. Deane toured several manufacturing towns in England in late 1783, wanting to develop plans for steam engines that could operate grist mills; even consulting James Watt for advice. He also tried to attract investors for a plan to build a canal linking Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River.[4] In 1784 he published a defense of his actions during the war entitled An Address to the Free and Independent Citizens of the United States of North America.[15]

Deane became bedridden in the fall of 1787 due to an unknown illness from which he did not fully recover until April 1789. His condition depleted all of his remaining money and forced him to rely on the charity of friends to pay for rent and food.[4] Then in the summer of 1788 a Frenchman named Foulloy approached Thomas Jefferson in Paris with an account book and a letter book dating from Deane's diplomatic mission, apparently stolen from Deane during his illness. Foulloy threatened to sell the books to the British government if Jefferson did not purchase them first; which Jefferson eventually did after he negotiated a greatly reduced price for them.[4]

In 1789 Deane planned to set sail back to America to try to recoup his lost fortune and reputation. After boarding the ship Boston Packet, he mysteriously took ill and died on September 23 of that year, while the ship was awaiting repairs after turning back following damage from fierce winds.[4]

Some historians have suggested that he was poisoned by Edward Bancroft, the double agent with the British who had been employed by both John Adams and Silas Deane for gathering intelligence during the Revolutionary War. They suspect Bancroft may have felt threatened by potential testimony from Deane to the American Congress.[2]

Deane 1766, painting by William Johnston


Silas Deane's granddaughter, Philura (Deane) Alden pressed his case before Congress, and his family was eventually paid $37,000 in 1841 for the money owed to him on the grounds that the previous audit by the Continental Congress was "ex parte, erroneous, and a gross injustice to Silas Deane".[7]

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.


  1. ^ a b c d Van Vlack, Milton C. (2013). Silas Deane, Revolutionary War Diplomat and Politician. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc. 
  2. ^ a b Davidson, James West and Mark Lytle (1992). After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. NY: McGraw-Hill. pp. xxvii–xxxv. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Covart, Elizabeth M. (30 July 2014). "Silas Deane, Forgotten Patriot". Journal of the American Revolution. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Schaeper, Thomas J. (2011). Edward Bancroft: Scientist, Author, Spy. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. pp. 2–3, 195–227. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Deane, Silas". Encyclopædia Britannica 7 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 898. 
  6. ^ a b Webb, James Watson (1882). Reminiscences of Gen'l Samuel B. Webb of the Revolutionary Army. New York: Globe Stationary and Printing Co. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Baker, Mark Allen (2014). Spies of Revolutionary Connecticut: From Benedict Arnold to Nathan Hale. Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press. pp. 61–69. 
  8. ^ "Wethersfield, CT, and Onions", Yankee Magazine, August 1993
  9. ^ Paul, Joel Richard (2009). Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution. New York: Riverhead Books. 
  10. ^ a b Flemming, Thomas (2007). The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown. New York: Harper Collins. pp. 58–59. 
  11. ^ Dick, Jimmy (28 October 2013). "Silas Deane: Forlorn and Forgotten Patriot". Journal of the American Revolution. 
  12. ^ Warren, Jessica (2005). The Incendiary: The Misadventures of John the Painter, First Modern Terrorist. Toronto: McClellan & Stewart. 
  13. ^ a b The Deane Papers Vol. IV 1779-1781. New York: New York Historical Society. 1890. 
  14. ^ Nelson, Craig Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of a Modern Nation 2006 pp. 140
  15. ^ Deane, Silas (1784). An Address to the Free and Independent Citizens of the United States of North America. London. 

Further reading[edit]

  • 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)

External links[edit]