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Silas Deane – A Brief Biography
Silas Deane (see portrait) was born in Groton, Connecticut on December 24, 1737. He was the oldest of six children whose father made his money farming, speculating on land and possibly as a blacksmith. The family was wealthy enough to afford to pay for Silas to attend Yale University, from which he graduated in 1758 (Doc. 1). At this point he started studying for the law in Hartford and he passed the bar in April 1761 (Doc. 2). While studying for the bar he had supported himself as a teacher or tutor. One of his students was Edward Bancroft who played a major role in the rest of his life.

After joining the bar Silas moved to Wethersfield where his law degree probably enabled him to meet Mehitable Nott Webb. Mehitable’s husband died in 1763 and it is likely that she hired Silas as one of two attorneys required to settle estates. Mehitable’s property was extensive, as her husband Joseph Webb had been a very successful merchant, trader and land speculator – a general 1700s entrepreneur. It appears that Silas’s legal career ended quickly, because by the end of 1763 he had married Mehitable and was managing the Webb business interests at her side. They had their first and only child in 1764, a son Jesse (see portrait). Mehitable had had six children (see portrait) by her first husband and Silas became their stepfather. There were constant interactions between the Deanes and Webbs throughout Silas Deane’s life. Some were good, some bad as is often the case with members of blended families (see Docs. 3, 3i, 4, 5, and 75).

Unfortunately Mehitable did not live long as Silas’s wife, dying of consumption in 1767 shortly after the completion of their elegant house in Wethersfield (see Virtual Tour). By 1770 Silas had remarried, this time to a wealthy widow from the southwestern part of Connecticut near where he had been born. Elizabeth Saltonstall Evards (see portrait) was the granddaughter of an early governor of Connecticut, while her father was a wealthy ship owner and later a general in the Revolutionary War. Her first husband, Mr. Evards, had died at sea. Circumstantial evidence indicates that Elizabeth brought with her to the elegant house in Wethersfield at least two slaves from her childhood home (see Lesson on slavery and Doc. 6). Elizabeth suffered health problems and she, like Mehitable, died at a very young age (in 1777 while Silas was in France).

By 1768 Silas was established well enough in his private finances to enter the world of politics. He represented Wethersfield in the General Assembly and in 1769 held the office of Secretary of the Connecticut Committee of Correspondence. His prominence in the political arena led to his appointment in August 1774 to the First Continental Congress. He traveled to Philadelphia in his private carriage (see print) with the two other delegates from Connecticut, Roger Sherman and Eliphalet Dyer, meeting along the way the delegation from Massachusetts, including John Adams (see Doc. 7 and portrait).

In Philadelphia he first met George Washington, (see portrait) who was representing Virginia. The many letters that Silas wrote to his wife Elizabeth at this time bring to life the excitement and personalities of the delegates in Philadelphia as the colonies began their long road to independence. These letters from Silas compare nicely to the more widely read ones from John Adams to his wife Abigail. Please read Documents 8 and 9, along with Document 7, to get a first hand feel of this time in American history. If Silas Deane were remembered for nothing other than his letters home at this time, it would be credit enough for his part in Revolutionary history.

The First Continental Congress was brief and the members were home by October 1774. During his time at home Silas worked hard as a member of the Committee on Safety of the Connecticut General Assembly to raise the funds that enabled Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold and their troops to capture Fort Ticonderoga on May 9-10, 1775. (See Lesson on Fort Ticonderoga and Saratoga and Doc. 10.)

By the spring of 1775 a Second Continental Congress was called to again meet in Philadelphia. Deane was reappointed to represent Connecticut along with Sherman and Dyer (Docs. 11a and 11b) and the three arrived for the opening on May 10, 1775 (Doc. 12). But by October of 1775 Deane and Dyer had been recalled, or decommissioned, as members representing Connecticut. The General Assembly of Connecticut felt that since Deane was not acting exactly as they desired (backing one general over another as noted in Doc. 13) another person would better represent the State. This sort of action could be arbitrarily taken because at the time there were no written rules governing the selection and termination of an office of congressional delegates. Today it would be more complicated to replace a state representative because of the rules eventually set down in the Constitution of the United States, the important document put together fourteen years later by the very Congress from which Deane was dismissed. This was the first of Deane’s many disappointments in the final years of his life.

Although Deane was disappointed to no longer be a member of the Continental Congress (see Doc. 14) he did not leave Philadelphia because he felt he could still contribute to several committees on which he served (See Doc. 15) and his help was still desired by members of Congress if not by the powers in Connecticut. So rather than going home to Wethersfield to see his wife, he remained in Philadelphia working on plans for a navy for the colonies on a committee chaired by John Adams (see portrait, Doc. 16 and Lesson on Navy).

The Continental Congress continued to regard Mr. Deane’s skills in high esteem because in March of 1776 the Secret Committee of Congress appointed Silas Deane a Secret Agent of the Colonies. His mission (see Doc. 17) was to obtain ammunition, arms and clothing for the struggling colonial army headed by General Washington. He never returned to Wethersfield to see his family but wrote them of his love and expectations (Doc. 18). Between May and December of 1776 Silas Deane was the sole colonial representative in Paris (Doc. 19). He thought he was doing work worthy of being called a hero (Doc. 74). In December 1776 he signed the commission of the Marquis de Lafayette to go to America to help the American cause (Doc. 20). France had not yet aligned itself with the colonies and any aid that was given by France to the colonies needed to be done so in secrecy. Through a private company that was set up just for this purpose, Deane was able clandestinely to procure from France the supplies that were needed to help Washington’s army (Doc. 21). Many shiploads of goods left France and ended up mostly at Portsmouth, New Hampshire to be sent to various locations where the Continental Army needed help.

To quote George L. Clark, who researched Silas Deane’s contributions to the Revolution, Deane sent from France eight vessels that

",,, carried eight thousand seven hundred and fifty pairs of shoes, three thousand six hundred blankets, more than four thousand dozen pairs of stockings, one hundred and sixth-four brass cannon, one hundred and fifty-three carriages, more than forty-one thousand balls, thirty-seven thousand fusils, three thousand pounds of lead, nearly one hundred and sixty-one thousand pounds of powder, twenty-one mortars, more than three thousand bombs, more than eleven thousand grenades, three hundred and forty-five grapeshot, eighteen thousand spades, shovels and axes, over four thousand tents and fifty-one thousand pounds of sulphur.”

Mr. Clark continued

"The Amphitrite and Mercure, on board of which were more than eighteen thousands of arms complete, and fifty-two pieces of brass cannon, with powder and tents and clothing, reached Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in the spring season for the campaign of 1777…” (George L. Clark, Silas Deane: A Connecticut Leader in the American Revolution, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, The Knickerbocker Press, 1913, p. 90).

One of those locations for the 1777 campaign was Saratoga, New York (See Lesson on Fort Ticonderoga and Saratoga). Thanks to the shipments of supplies, the colonists were able to defeat the British there, thus leading to an official recognition by France and the entrance of its army and navy into the conflict. With this assistance from the French, George Washington’s army was able to defeat the British and end the Revolutionary War in 1783. By 1789 the United States of America was fully operational with a constitution and an elected president.

But to return to Silas Deane’s story, late in 1776 Congress sent Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee (Doc. 73) to openly join Deane in negotiating more strongly with the French. These negotiations, credited most directly to Franklin who earned the respect and admiration of the French nation and King, led to two treaties being signed on February 6, 1778 (see Treaty of Alliance and Act Separate and Secret).

One was a Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the other was a Treaty of Alliance. Deane’s signature is to be found on both along with Franklin’s and Lee’s. They carefully arranged for their delivery to the colonies (Doc. 22). Now that the French were official allies of the colonies, their army and navy took off across the Atlantic Ocean to give Washington and his army the help that was so desperately needed (Doc. 23). Obviously, Deane had played a very important role in the negotiations with France.

Just when he seemed poised to be forever remembered as a “hero of the American Revolution,” Silas Deane’s circumstances underwent a drastic change. What exactly happened is still not fully understood or agreed upon by dedicated scholars let alone amateur historians. Hence the words “mystery” and “intrigue” on the opening screen of Silas Deane Online.

Even before the treaties were signed, Congress had written a letter to Silas Deane recalling him to Philadelphia (Doc. 24). Deane received this letter after the treaty signing and made arrangements to return in March of 1778. He was not particularly concerned, as no charges against him had been mentioned in the letter, which had asked him to return to Philadelphia. He left in quite grand circumstances on the French admiral’s ship and arrived in Philadelphia in August.

There are always at least two sides to every controversy. This is definitely true of the treatment of Deane by members of the Second Continental Congress. He spent well over a year (April 1778-August 1779) in Philadelphia attempting to defend himself (Doc. 25). During that time Deane was accused by many, defended by many, presented much information to Congress and defended himself against the accusations, most vocally by Thomas Paine (Docs. 26, 27, 28, 29). Virtually all of volume 3 of the New-York Historical Society’s The Silas Deane Papers (1778-1779) {490 pages} address this bitter controversy. Congress officially discharged Deane on August 6, 1779 (Doc. 28). His problems were increased when he was not able to obtain from Congress the reimbursement that he said he had spent in order to get the French aid.

Among his enemies was his fellow diplomat in Paris, Arthur Lee, who through the powerful Lee family member had convinced many members of Congress that the supplies from France had been a gift of the French while Silas said they were given as a loan that had to be repaid. This situation deeply divided Congress and no decision was ever made concerning Silas Deane or the payment of funds to him until well after his death. Arthur Lee was eventually recalled himself but Silas Deane was completely ruined through non-action by the Congress on his behalf. He stayed in Philadelphia until the fall of 1779, went for an extended stay with his brother in Virginia and returned to France in 1781, now a thoroughly frustrated American without a diplomatic portfolio. From 1780 until his death in 1789 Deane was unwanted almost everywhere. He left France in disgrace, lived quietly from 1781-3 in Belgium and eventually went to England from 1783-1789.

During this sad period in his life, one activity that Silas used to fill a great deal of his time was letter writing. He wrote an unbelievable number of letters, some running more than twenty pages, attempting to convince his former supporters (George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, John Trumbull and many other family members and friends) that he had done nothing wrong. He was without funds, often quite ill and sometimes considered to be out of his mind (see Lesson entitled “Musings”). But he consistently stuck to his story in all this correspondence – that he was innocent of the bad financial accusations, and some of treason, against him. He was always trying to obtain from Congress the full amount that he felt he had paid out of his pocket to help the American cause. It is generally accepted as fact by historians that the root of all of his troubles stemmed from the fact that Arthur Lee, of the powerful Lee family of Virginia, who had signed the French treaties with Deane, disliked Deane enough to cause him all his problems. It is important to note that there was never any official charge made against him, just lots of bad press.

Silas Deane made at least one disastrous error in judgment. He wrote a pamphlet in 1783, published in 1784, addressed to the American citizens entitled “To the Free and Independent Citizens of the United States of North-America” (Doc. 30; N.B. We have typed in bold a very telling section of this long document if you cannot read it all at this time). In this pamphlet Silas strongly advised the colonies to reconnect with England for future success in the world of trade and finance. Unfortunately for Deane’s reputation it was at this very point that General Washington’s army, with the help of France, was the victor in the Revolutionary War. Deane had thought the conflict would end with England being the victor, an outcome that had seemed likely at many points during the Revolution.

During the last six years of his life which were spent in England, Deane also was busy making plans to help the colonies move into the industrial age (Docs. 31, 32 and 33). He traveled around England and saw the importance of factories and steam power and improvements in the transportation system that were taking place in England. Deane wanted to bring those innovations to America.

Finally, in 1789, Deane felt he could return to America. With financial help from friends and family, he boarded a ship leaving England in September 1789. After a delay brought about by inclement weather, it appeared that September 23, 1789 would be the start of a new, and hopefully brighter period in Deane’s life. Instead it was the day he died on shipboard (Docs. 34 and 34i). But even Deane’s death cannot be spoken of without controversy, or without intrigue and mystery (Doc. 53). Because there is no first hand account of the hours surrounding his death now in existence, some of Deane’s contemporaries and some twentieth century scholars have raised questions as to whether he died of natural causes Perhaps you would like to trace the misconceptions and truths about his death. Documents have been provided throughout this website to help you find your way but it will take a great deal of patience to come to a justifiable conclusion.

Was Silas Deane a hero? A scoundrel? A thief? A man whose ideas, after his death, proved to be beneficial to the American economy? Cursed by a political enemy? Unlucky? Not too smart? You decide. Silas Deane Online provides the user with lessons to start your research, some documents chosen to help the user reach a basic understanding of this provocative American, and an extensive bibliography for the user to pursue his or her own research.

 

 



Silas Deane


Yale Class of 1758


Silas passed the bar


Elizabeth Deane


Mehitable Deane & son Jesse


Silas Deane House,
Webb Deane Stevens Museum


Hairstyles of the time


John Adams


George Washington


Congress, 1774


General Lafayette


Saratoga


Benjamin Franklin


Europe, 1813


Silas' pamphlet, 1783


Inside Silas' pamphlet, 1783


General Rochambeau


Silas Deane miniature, 1776


Silas Deane's Obituary

 
           
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