Rough Diplomacy

Silas Deane : Patriot Destroyed

Silas Deane, was Connecticut delegate to the Continental Congress, shortly, after he was ousted from his seat and was sent as the first American envoy to Paris in 1776. on a secret mission.

The Committee of Congress for Secret Correspondence, was then formed . It’s members were Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harrison, John Dickinson, John Hay and Robert Morris.

They  instructed Deane to meet with French Foreign Minister Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, and  stress America’s need for military stores and assure the French that the colonies were moving toward “total separation”.

Deane had been recalled to America by Congress after fellow diplomat Arthur Lee accused him of misappropriating French funds.



Deane managed to negotiate for unofficial assistance from France, in the form of ships containing military supplies, and recruited the Marquis de Lafayette to share his military expertise with the Continental Army’s officer corps.

By November  1776, Deane wrote the Committee, expressing his frustration at their lack of specific instructions, and reported that he garnered two hundred pieces of brass cannon, arms, tents and accouterments for thirty thousand men with  ammunition in proportion.  Twenty brass mortars,  were also  waiting to leave for the rebelling colonies at Havre de Grace in Nantes, France.

Secondly, in December , Deane wrote Congress to ask that they ratify the commission of major general that he had promised to Lafayette.

Dean also worked with Beaumarchais to create a front company for smuggling French arms and supplies to the Continental Army.



Later Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Arthur Lee were sent to France to also serve as delegates ,but they did so in an open capacity unlike Deane.

Eventually , because of that, Deane’s political opponents suspected him of fraud despite significant contributions such as, working without salary and spending  much of his own money persuading the French to ally the Patriot Cause.

Deane’s career ended in disgrace. He died bankrupt under suspicious circumstances on board a ship while returning from his exile in Europe to the United States in 1789 ,after a  jealous Arthur Lee had accused Deane  of misappropriating French funds.

A painting was to be made of the signing, but when asked to pose , the British refused. They were too proud to have their faces on the painting of what amounted to a defeat- to this day it  is incomplete.

The accusation haunted Deane, because the French government would not release their confidential documents involving Deane’s clandestine mission, he was never able to prove his innocence, nor was he ever proven guilty.

On February 6, 1778, the Treaties of Amity and Commerce and Alliance were signed; they were ratified in May 1778. One month later, war between Britain and France formally began when a British squadron fired on two French ships.

 During the American Revolution, French naval fleets proved critical in the defeat of the British, however Deane was still called a traitor and a spy, treated shabbily by the Continental Congress, and driven into poverty – maligned throughout history.

Previous to the accusations, Author Lee went to London to begin legal studies . It was only after that he was named, along with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, as an American Commissioner to France.

Treaty of Alliance

Treaty of Alliance

It seemed not to matter to Lee that Silas Deane as the first U.S. diplomat,  had been a valuable servant to the cause of independence.

And though alredy in early in 1776, the Congress sent Silas Deane , alone, to persuade the French government to send soldiers, guns and money in support of the American Revolution and further more, Deane managed to get support from France, including ships, arms, surplus military supplies with  officers like the Marquis de Lafayette.

Perhaps the effort of Silas Deane was lost on Lee,  only  later was Deane  joined by Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee to  negotiate formal terms of the Treaty of Alliance, which formally  promised France’s military support and was signed on Feb. 6, 1778.

As for Author Lee’s character

Nobody Liked Arthur Lee

Arthur LeeArthur Lee

Even his biographers agree, nobody liked him because he was miserable to be around as he was an extreme malcontent

Lee hated French government officials because they were monarchical and Catholic. He hated Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin. He was jealous of his older brothers, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, delegates to the Continental Congress, and William Lee, a commercial agent for the Congress.

It was in letters to his brothers Author Lee sent, saying Silas Deane misappropriated funds for his own use.  Afterward came the first thing historians fail to realize about Silas Deane.  After receiving  a letter from the Continental Congress asking Deane to return to Philadelphia.

It didnt say why and Deane merely thought they wanted a “general report.” He was also unaware of the charges against him,  while he arranged for  transportation and sailed back to Philadelphia, he left  his papers behind.  The evidence against him was sent via other means.

Upon returning , Deane   walked into a whirlwind. The Continental Congress was bitterly divided over the alliance with France, about independence from Britain and, now, also over Silas Deane.

At this time charges weren’t formally brought against him. Nothing was decided, and the controversy dragged on for a year. Then Silas Deane argued he was due money because he got such a large amount of  help from France for the war. While doing so ,  Deane made a grave  mistake. He lost his temper in public, It was violent and even his friends said he shouldn’t have done it. Afterward  for this tantrum , he published an emotional defense of himself.

In the end, he got no thanks, no money, no salary. He went back to France as a private citizen – a private citizen going broke.

The Evidence

Benjamin FranklinBenjamin Franklin

Unbeknownst to Silas Deane, his friend Edward Bancroft was a British spy who kept the British government apprised of negotiations between the French and the three American diplomats. Some historians claim Deane had to know Bancroft was a spy and was therefore one himself. Some even claim Franklin was a spy for the same reason. Bancroft himself has been  reviled as a despicable traitor.

Bancroft was a spy and a traitor. During his entire life, he was loyal to Great Britain, if not to his friend Silas Deane. In the late 1760s, Bancroft moved to London, where he wrote novels, practiced medicine, experimented with electricity and studied inks and dyes.  He also supported American grievances against Britain.

When the war broke out, he began to turn , the British government asked Bancroft to go to Paris and report on Lee, Franklin and Deane. He did.

Once a week he stealthily put a bottle that contained a message into a hollow tree in the Tuileries Garden. An hour later, another British agent retrieved the message. In that way, the British government knew far more about what was happening in Paris than the Continental Congress did.

“There is not one shred of evidence that Deane or Franklin knew Bancroft was a British spy,” Schaeper said. “There’s lots of evidence to the contrary.”

For example, Franklin hated the British for burning down towns. His son William, royal governor of New Jersey, remained a Loyalist. Because of that, Ben Franklin didn’t have anything to do with him for the rest of his life.

In 1785, Franklin returned to the United States and wrote friendly letters to Bancroft.  It makes no sense to argue that Franklin wouldn’t speak to his own son because of his loyalty to the British, but remained friendly with Edward Bancroft.

Broker and Sicke

Edward Bancroft

Letters that ended up in the wrong hands at the wrong time put another nail in the coffin of Silas Deane’s reputation.

In 1781, the war with Britain was going badly and many Americans wanted to give up. Deane was living in Belgium. He was broke, depressed, demoralized and bitter about the way the Continental Congress treated him.  He wrote some letters to friends in America, attacking the Congress and arguing the United States ought to surrender. The British intercepted those letters and kept them.

In October of 1781 the British surrendered at the Battle of Yorktown. After the battle, they published Deane’s defeatist-sounding letters in New York.

After that, Ben Franklin wouldn’t have anything to do with Deane. many of his friends also  turned against him, thinking he was a traitor.

Then Deane turned to Bancroft, of all people. He wrote to him, saying, “I hope you don’t desert me.”


The end was near for Deane ,Bancroft had learned about poison-tipped arrows as a young man living in South America. Bancroft used that knowledge to poison Deane before he returned to America. The reason? He  didn’t want him  to reveal he’d been a spy.

Shortly after the ship to America set sail, Silas Deane suffered convulsions and died on Sept. 23, 1789.  He died of a cerebral hemorrhage aboard the ship, according to physicians who studied his symptoms.

Nonetheless, Deane was unable to clear his name and was forced to live in exile until his death in 1789. In 1842, Congress reopened the investigation into Deane’s accounts and, finding no evidence of misconduct, ordered that his heirs be paid $37,000 in reparations.


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