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 January 4, 1738
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 (m. 1763; d. 1767)
Elizabeth Saltonstall Evards (m. 1770; d. 1777)
Children Jesse Deane
Alma mater Yale

Silas Deane (January 4, 1738 [O.S. 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 first foreign diplomat from the United States to France.[1] Recalled to the United States, Deane was forced to defend his financial affairs in Paris; and the interception and publication of his letters by the British, suggesting that the American cause was hopeless, further diminished his reputation. After the war, Deane lived in Ghent and London, and then died under mysterious circumstances while attempting to return to America .[2]

Early life and family[edit]

Silas Deane was born on January 4, 1738 [O.S. December 24, 1737][3] 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.[4] In April 1759 he was hired to tutor a young Edward Bancroft in Hartford, Connecticut.[5] 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.[4]

Deane married twice, both times to wealthy widows from Wethersfield. In 1763 he married Mehitable (Nott) Webb after assisting her with the settlement of her first husband's estate. They had one son, Jesse, born in 1764. Mehitable died in 1767.[4][6] In 1770 Deane married Elizabeth (Saltonstall) Evards, granddaughter of Connecticut Governor Gurdon Saltonstall of the Massachusetts Saltonstall family. Elizabeth died in 1777 while Silas was in France.[1] (One of Deane's stepsons was Continental Army Brigadier General Samuel Blatchley Webb.)[6]

Continental Congress[edit]

In 1768 Deane was elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives, in 1769 he was appointed to the Wethersfield Committee of Correspondence, and from 1774 to 1776 he served as a delegate from Connecticut to the Continental Congress.[4]

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 Fort Ticonderoga and to establish the United States Navy.[4]

A dispute between Deane and fellow Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman about appointing 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 to assist Congress.[4][7]


"Baron de Kalb Introducing Lafayette to Silas Deane" (1879 Print)

On March 2, 1776 Congress appointed Deane as a secret envoy to France with the mission of inducing the French government to grant financial aid to the colonies.[7] Deane began negotiating with French Foreign Minister Comte de Vergennes as soon as he arrived in Paris. With the assistance of the playwright and outspoken supporter of American independence, Beaumarchais, Deane organized the shipment of arms and munitions to the colonies.[8][9]

Deane also tacitly approved the plot of Scotsman James Aitken (John the Painter) to destroy Royal Navy stores and dockyards in Portsmouth and Plymouth, England, on behalf of the Continental cause.[10]

Deane's position was officially recognized after Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee arrived in Paris in December 1776, with orders from Congress appointing the trio as the diplomatic delegation to France.[5]

Deane recruited the services of a number of foreign soldiers to the cause, including Lafayette, Baron Johann de Kalb, Thomas Conway, Casimir Pulaski, and Baron von Steuben.[5] For a variety of reasons many of the foreign officers were unpopular in America and many in Congress blamed Deane for their behavior,[11][12] leading them to recall him on December 8, 1777.[7]

On February 6, 1778, Deane and the other commissioners signed the Treaties of Amity and Commerce and of Alliance, officially creating the alliance between France and the American colonies.[5]

Accusations in Congress[edit]

On March 4, 1778, Deane received a letter from James Lovell containing the recall order from Congress. Lovell only mentioned giving a report to Congress about European affairs; and Deane fully expected to be sent back to Paris within a few months.[7] France sent Deane back home aboard a warship carrying the first French ambassador to the United States. Louis XVI also presented Deane with a portrait framed with diamonds, and both Vergennes and Franklin wrote letters of commendation.[11]

Deane was shocked when Congress, following his July 14, 1778 arrival in Philadelphia, questioned him concerning newly received accusations of financial misdeeds sent by his fellow commissioner Arthur Lee.[5][7] 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.[5] While he was waiting to address Congress, Deane stayed with Benedict Arnold, who had just been appointed the military governor of Philadelphia.[13] Deane was defended before Congress by John Jay in a long and bitter dispute over the charges.[7]

Frustrated, Deane published a public defense in the December 5, 1778 issue of Pennsylvania Packet entitled The Address of Silas Deane to the Free and Virtuous Citizens of America in which he attacked Arthur Lee, other members of the Lee family, and their associates.[14] Arthur's brothers, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee both wrote responses, calling Deane's accusations libelous and injurious to the American cause for independence.[14] On January 14, 1779 Deane replied in the Pennsylvania Packet, listing eight ships that had sailed from France with supplies due to his efforts. Congress then offered Deane $10,000 in depreciated Continental currency in compensation but Deane refused feeling the offer was too low.[7][14]

Deane was finally allowed to return to Paris in 1780 to settle his affairs and attempt to assemble the records in dispute. On arrival he discovered that he was nearly ruined financially because the value of his investments had plummeted and some ships carrying his merchandise had been captured by the British.[5] Even worse, Deane's private letters, which had been intercepted by the British, were published in Rivington's Royal Gazette in New York. Deane's letters declared the military situation of the colonies to be hopeless and suggested a rapprochement with Britain. Deane was accused of being a traitor.[15]

In March 1781, King George III had approved a request from Lord North to bribe Deane in an attempt to recruit him as a spy and to influence Congress,[15] but the British decided not to make overtures to Deane after the king read his defeatist correspondence in mid-July. The British then forwarded the letters 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 been a British spy[5] and the British were likewise unaware that Rivington was a spy for Washington, as a member of the Culper Ring.)

After the war and death[edit]

In October 1781, Deane moved to Ghent where he could live more cheaply than in Paris. Then in March 1783, he moved to London, hoping to find investors for manufacturing ventures he planned to pursue after he returned to North America. Deane toured several manufacturing towns in England in late 1783, considering plans for steam engines that could operate grist mills, even consulting James Watt for advice. Deane also tried to attract investors for a planned canal linking Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River.[5] 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.[16]

In the fall of 1787, Deane became bedridden from an unknown illness and did not fully recover until April 1789. His condition depleted his remaining money and forced him to depend on the charity of friends.[5] 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—which Jefferson eventually did after negotiating a greatly reduced price.[5]

In 1789 Deane planned return to North America in an attempt to recoup his lost fortune and reputation. After boarding the ship Boston Packet, he became ill and died on September 23 while the ship was awaiting repairs after turning back following damage from fierce winds.[5]

In 1959 historian Julian P. Boyd suggested that Deane might have been poisoned by Edward Bancroft, the British spy who had been employed by the American commissioners in Paris,[17] because Bancroft might have felt threatened by Deane's possible testimony to Congress.[2][5]

Deane in 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. ^ Burket, Jeri Lynn; White, Lorraine Cook (2010). The Barbour Collection of Connecticut Town Vital Records. Volume 15: Griswold 1815-1848, Groton 1704-1853. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company. p. 109. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Covart, Elizabeth M. (30 July 2014). "Silas Deane, Forgotten Patriot". Journal of the American Revolution. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Schaeper, Thomas J. (2011). Edward Bancroft: Scientist, Author, Spy. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. pp. 2–3, 68–69, 114, 195–227. 
  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 h 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. ^ Warren, Jessica (2005). The Incendiary: The Misadventures of John the Painter, First Modern Terrorist. Toronto: McClellan & Stewart. 
  11. ^ a b Flemming, Thomas (2007). The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown. New York: Harper Collins. pp. 58–59. 
  12. ^ Dick, Jimmy (28 October 2013). "Silas Deane: Forlorn and Forgotten Patriot". Journal of the American Revolution. 
  13. ^ Lefer, David (2013). The Founding Conservatives: How a Group of Unsung Heroes Saved the American Revolution. New York: Sentinel. p. 202. 
  14. ^ a b c The Deane Papers Volume III: 1778-1779. New York: New York Historical Society. 1889. pp. 66–78, 239–244, 280–281. 
  15. ^ a b The Deane Papers Volume IV: 1779-1781. New York: New York Historical Society. 1890. pp. 502–518. 
  16. ^ Deane, Silas (1784). An Address to the Free and Independent Citizens of the United States of North America. London. 
  17. ^ Boyd, Julian P. (1959). "Silas Deane: Death by a Kingly Teacher of Treason?". William and Mary Quarterly 16 (2-4): 165–187, 310–342, 515–550. 

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]