Silas Deane and Colonial Arms
By Richard E. Noble
Silas Deane was born in Groton, Connecticut. His father was only a blacksmith but he managed to get the boy to Yale where Silas received his law degree. Silas was a very ambitious young man. He married well, not once, but twice. His first bride was a widow and her late husband was a merchant. Silas took over the business. After his first wife died he met and married the granddaughter of a former governor of Connecticut. This must have peeked Silas’s interest in politics. He became a delegate to the first and second Continental Congress.
In 1776 Congress sent Deane to France. He was the first American to represent the American Colonies abroad. He also had a rather clandestine mission. The Americans wanted him to purchase war materials and arms for the upcoming battle. In France, he was secretly hooked up with a playwright, named Beaumarchais and a dummy company called Hortalez and Company. The French were on shaky terms with the British. They wanted no publicity with regards to their helping British Colonies to revolt. The French King was not ready for a war with England at the moment.
Beaumarchais ... “The courtly gentleman of ‘wit and genius’ as Deane called him, sold gunpowder to Americans at a 500 percent markup and sent bills of lading with the shipments indicating these were not gifts. Muskets discarded by the French army and given to Beaumarchais for nothing were passed along to the United States at half their original cost. Robert Morris, another well known Patriot, told Deane before he left Philadelphia ... “If we have but luck in getting the goods safe to America the profits will be sufficient to content us all. Late in 1777 Congress got the bill from Hortalez and Company for 4,500,000 livres. It was authorized by Deane. The Congress decided to call Deane home for a little talk.
Congress, through the year 1778 had been having a little difficulty with scandals of a similar nature. A Dr. William Shippen, head of the medical department, seemed to have a good deal of extra money from his negotiations in hospital supplies. Then there was Thomas Mifflin an army quartermaster-general who had done a little too well at his post. And good old General Nathanael Green was rumored to be making a rather quick fortune. “By late 1778 the American Revolution for many had lost the quality of a crusade. Those who had prospered on wartime contracts now rolled about Philadelphia in gaudy coaches.
While the ragged continental army survived on half rations, slim supplies and often no pay, the city’s rich, many of them friends of Deane, dressed their women in finery and loaded their tables with delicacies. John Adams was worried. He feared that the publicity from all these money scandals and profiteering could result in an actual civil war.
Deane had a couple of other scams going at the time. Deane would use his political connections in France to ship goods without declaring what the cargo was. If the ship would arrive safely, he would declare it private ... his personal goods. If the ship sunk, or the goods were damaged, he would declare it a U.S. government cargo. On top of that he seemed to have a little gambling problem. One of the more interesting gambling casinos of the day were the insurance companies. The insurance companies would insure anything. They would even give you odds on current events. You could “insure” yourself on the possibility of an upcoming war, or who might win or lose the present war. Deane being an “insider” in the political shenanigans going on between France and the Colonies had been doing quite well in many of his “insurance” ventures.
When Deane got back home a big brouhaha erupted. The inspectors asked to see the account books, only to find that Deane had “forgotten” them in Europe. Tom Paine who had proudly taken the position of Secretary for Foreign Affairs to Congress in the American War, at no pay I might add, had privileged information in his files. These privileged files clearly stated that the King of France had donated the bulk of these materials to the Colonial war effort, free of charge. When Tom pointed this out to the investigating committee, he was called a liar. Deane not only called Tom Paine a liar, but he went to the newspapers with his side of the story. Paine demanded an apology from Deane. When Deane refused, Paine went to the newspapers himself. Deane then demanded an apology and a retraction from Paine. Paine proceeded to document his allegation to the committee and the newspapers with information from his privileged files. This mess caused the president of the Congress, Henry Laurens, to resign and the French ambassador, Mister Gerard, to have convulsions. If the King of England found out that the King of France had been supplying arms to the Colonists, the English would attack the French immediately.
Now Mister Gerard entered the committee room and the newspaper columns. He demanded that Paine denounce all such accusation about his beloved France and its proper King. The French government would never, never do such a thing, and certainly not the King. Tom Paine had made this whole thing up. In private, Mister Gerard was not at all upset with Mister Paine. He even offered to put Tom on the French payroll as a propagandist for French causes in the Colonies. In public, though, he was “hot.”
Paine had P.O.ed a number of other people besides Mister Gerard; both Robert and Gouverneur Morris where not happy with Tommy. Gouvernouer Morris was a friend of Deane and Tommy had insinuated that such notables as Robert Morris might actually be in on some of the ill-gotten gain themselves. Needless to say Paine was asked to resign. Paine resigned from the committee, but not as a journalist. He continued to defend himself and attacked publicly several prominent members of the committee who had forced his resignation; Gouvernor Morris, John Penn, William Drayton, and others.
Paine was disgraced and ostracized and Deane went back to France. As Deane bumped about Europe, he was approached by the British to write home to some of his influential friends encouraging the Colonies to capitulate with the British. The British double-crossed Deane and had the letters printed in occupied New York. Immediately Deane became a traitor and Paine, once again a hero. Deane was forced to remain in Europe. He took to alcohol and most likely gambling. He went broke.
Finally, after a number of years, a relative in the Colonies agreed to pay his passage home. He died mysteriously aboard the ship. Some say he committed suicide; others say that he was poisoned. If he was poisoned, it was probably by a guy named Edward Bancroft who is alleged to have been a double agent. Bancroft was an old friend. They were involved in many an “insurance” deal together. Bancroft had done quite well in the espionage game and may not have wanted the publicity that an old, wimpy, soul searching Deane might have engaged in upon returning to his home land. *
* “Paine” David Freeman Hawke. . .Harper & Row
* Three works used in this essay; “After the Fact”, James West Davidson & Mark Hamilton Lytle.... “Paine” David Freeman Hawke... The Oxford History of the American People, Samuel Eliot Morison
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