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Deane, Silas (1737-1789)

Silas Deane (1737-1789)



Scandal . Silas Deane was a rising star on the American political scene until he was destroyed in a political scandal that reshaped American politics and altered the course of American diplomacy. The scandal of 17781779 destroyed Deanes political and business career, left his chief detractor labeled as unstable and erratic, led the president of Congress to resign, and forced Congress to fire Thomas Paine as secretary to a congressional committee. The Deane scandal developed at the same time as other political disputes, involving issues as different as the structure of Pennsylvanias government and the proper nature of the new nations relationship with France. The Deane scandal marked the first open breach among supporters of American independence and led these political leaders to turn to public opinion to secure support.

Man on the Make. Born in Groton, Connecticut, on 24 December 1737, Silas Deane, the son of a blacksmith, graduated from Yale College in 1758. He was admitted to the bar in 1761 and received a masters degree from Yale in 1763. An ambitious young lawyer, in 1763 Deane married Mehitabel Webb, a widow with six children and a successful store, which helped launch Deane on the road to success. When Mehitabel died in 1767, Deane again married this time to Elizabeth Saltonstall, grand-daughter of a former colonial governor. In 1769 he was named chairman of the local committee responsible for enforcing the nonimportation agreements, and in 1772 he was sent to the general assembly. Secretary to the assemblys committee of correspondence, Deane in 1774 and 1775 was sent to the Continental Congress. There he was actively involved in creating a Continental Navy, and with other Connecticut men Deane outfitted a military force to capture Fort Ticonderoga. Connecticut did not send Deane to Congress in 1776, but Congress sent him to France, the first representative of the united American colonies in Europe.

Commissioner. Deane carried secret instructions from two committees of Congress to France. One committee authorized Deane to sell American goods in France or in other countries; the other committee instructed him to buy guns, ammunition, and other military supplies. If possible he was to begin negotiations for French support of American independence. Deane did all these, with great success. Working with French playwright and political activist Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (author of The Marriage of Figaro, first performed in 1784), Deane sent eight ships loaded with military supplies to the colonies, which helped the poorly supplied American army win the Battle of Saratoga. Deane also sent French officers to join Washingtons army.

French Officers. Deane reported on the rage among French gentlemen and officers for an American military adventure, and he obliged dozens of French officers with American commissions. Washington could not use all the officers Deane commissioned, but he had to make room for them, which might mean displacing his own commanders. After Congress voted not to commission French officers who did not understand English, Congress had to tell Deane this did not mean that he could commission any officer who did understand English. Finally Congress voted not to receive any more French officers, but those already in America insisted on keeping their positions. One French officer, the Irish-born general Thomas Conway, collaborated with other officers and with some Congressional supporters to try to replace Washington in 1778. Another French officer, Philippe Charles Tronson Du Coudray, arrived expecting to be given senior command of the American artillery. The prospect of Du Coudrays promotion prompted Henry Knox, Nathanael Greene, and John Sullivan to offer their resignations. Du Coudrays extravagant claims to honor and preference were ended when he tried to ride his horse on the ferry across the Schuylkill. Refusing to dismount, Du Coudray drowned when his panicked horse dove into the river, thus relieving Congress from a very troublesome malcontent.

Recall. In 1776 Congress had dispatched Arthur Lee and Benjamin Franklin to join Deane as American commissioners to France. As the three worked on a treaty with the French government, members of Congress, along with Washington, grew frustrated with Deanes French officers, and in August 1777 Congress began to consider recalling Deane from France. In November 1777 Congress formally asked him to return home, but he would not receive the news before the commissioners signed the treaty with France in February 1778. Deane returned home to answer to Congress and to inform Congress that Arthur Lees incompetence threatened to undermine the French alliance. Arthur Lee, for his part, had grown deeply suspicious of Deane and had told his brother Richard Henry Lee that the military aid Deane had sent from France in 1776, for which he had billed Congress, had been intended as a French gift to the Americans. The Lees, joined by Samuel Adams and Connecticuts Roger Sherman, with whom Deane had endured a frosty relationship (Deane called him my old Colleague Roger the Jesuit), suspected Deane of profiteering and corruption.

Deane and Congress. Deane demanded a quick investigation, but Congress did nothing in the fall of 1778. In October, Deane published a series of anonymous queries in the Pennsylvania Packet, charging Arthur Lee with close, traitorous communications with a British agent, and in December, Deane publicly blasted the Lees in a newspaper essay To the Free and Virtuous Citizens of America. This marked the first open political dispute among the Patriots, and it caught the Lees off guard. To John Adams the publication of Deanes defense appeared... like a dissolution of the Constitution. The Lees moved to have Congress censure Deane for his public breach, but they failed. Henry Laurens, president of Congress and a Lee ally, resigned to protest Congresss failure to censure Deane. The Lees then turned to Thomas Paine, secretary to Congresss Committee on Foreign Affairs, to come to their aid. Paine wrote a vigorous series of essays attacking Deane for profiteering. Deane had risen like a rocket, Paine said, and now he would fall like a stick. But in blasting Deanes connection with Beaumarchais, Paine revealed too much about French diplomacy, publicly acknowledging that France had supported the American colonies as early as 1776, when France insisted she was neutral. The French envoy to America forced Congress to fire Paine for publishing this information. I did not see how they could ever trust any of Us again, John Adams wrote in his diary, saying the scandal would have the worst Effects upon Spain, Holland, and in England, besides endangering a civil War in America.

Political Division. Congress divided between a Deane faction, led by Robert Morris and John Jay, and a Lee faction, led by Richard Henry Lee and Samuel Adams. New England and the Lees joined together against Southern delegates and the New Yorkers, whom Adams called Deanes Tory friends and Mercantile Abettors. The issue for Congress was public virtue: by mixing his diplomatic responsibilities with the pursuit of private profit, Deane had betrayed the public trust. On the other hand, Deanes defenders did not see why public servants such as he should go broke in serving their country. Civil war was averted, but while Congress and the newspapers debated charges and countercharges, Washingtons army was dissolving. Deane had left France without the necessary paperwork to prove his case; to his supporters this was an honest mistake, but to his detractors it looked as though he had something to hide. In 1780 Deane returned to Europe as a private citizen, hoping to recover the small fortune he had spent in 1776 supplying the American army. In 1781, with the British in control of South Carolina and New York, Deane despaired of American victory, and wrote to American friends urging reconciliation. When the British intercepted these letters, and the Loyalist New York press published them, what little was left of Deanes public reputation was destroyed. He now seemed not only a profiteer but also a traitor. His health broken, his money gone, Deane lived in poverty in Belgium, then in England, where the British government gave him a small pension. In 1789 he tried to sail to Canada, but died just out of the port of Deal on 23 September 1789. In 1842 the United States government agreed that the 1779 audit had been a gross injustice to Silas Deane and awarded his heirs $37,000.


Thomas Paine, The Affair of Silas Deane, in Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, edited by Philip S. Foner (New York: Citadel Press, 1945);

Jack Rakove, The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979);

Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic 17761787 (New York: Norton, 1972).

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Silas Deane

Silas Deane

Silas Deane (1737-1789), a leading merchant and controversial commissioner to France from 1776 to 1778.

Silas Deane was born Dec. 24, 1737, into a family long resident in Connecticut. He took his bachelor and master of arts degrees from Yale College and was admitted to the bar in 1761. He consolidated his standing among the commercial and political leaders of the colony by two marriages, first to Mehitabel Webb, and after her death to Elizabeth Saltonstall. After 10 years as a prosperous merchant and lawyer he was elected to his state's General Assembly in 1772, where he soon stood among the active foes of British measures.

In the first and second Continental Congresses, Deane worked to establish and equip colonial armed forces and personally supplied the expedition that captured Ft. Ticonderoga in 1775. Though for unknown reasons he was not reappointed delegate to Congress in 1776, he had earned national standing as one of the most energetic, resourceful leaders of the Revolution.

Commissioner to France

In March 1776 Congress sent Deane to France, authorized to hasten war supplies to America and to gain French recognition of the soon-to-be-independent Colonies. Deane found France (and its ally Spain) eager to aid the Colonies against England, the ancient enemy of both countries. Yet, the French were unwilling to make open opposition, and he was confronted by numerous informal, clandestine arrangements. Authorized to extend credit for war material, Deane could never be sure what persons or groups in America stood behind his negotiations. Equally uncertain was the status of the French—were they giving, lending, or selling supplies? And were they private businessmen, agents of Louis XVI, or perhaps joint stock operators backed by both France and Spain? Opportunities for misunderstanding, fraud, and profiteering abounded.

The only certainties are that France, under the guidance of the foreign minister Comte de Vergennes, made funds and material available, and that Deane did get quantities of guns and uniforms that sustained American armies in the 1777 campaigns, including the vital victory at Saratoga. Deane also encouraged many European military officers to join the American army.

Deane's Actions under Attack

In late 1776, when Benjamin Franklin came to France as a second commissioner, he endorsed Deane's arrangements without probing details, finding him generally "sincere and hearty in our cause." Less trustful was the third American commissioner, Arthur Lee, who suspected that Deane, and by acquiescence at least, Franklin, were in collusion with French profiteers who were billing Congress huge sums for worthless goods, materials never sent, or supplies meant to be gifts. Lee's charges led to Deane's recall soon after he signed (with Lee and Franklin) the French Alliance in February 1778.

Unsolved Mystery

Called to account by Congress, Deane began appearances before that body in August 1778 to defend himself against charges brought by Lee's powerful friends. Lacking adequate records to prove either guilt or innocence, the hearings degenerated into personal bickerings and factional disputes, eventually leaving those disposed to trust and welcome French aid on Deane's side, and those deeply suspicious of it on Lee's. The acrimonious affair led to the resignation of Henry Laurens (who was against Deane) as president of Congress and his replacement by the more friendly John Jay. Deane published a vigorous self-defense, hurling countercharges at Lee; the ensuing "paper war" became fierce. Lacking reliable evidence, Congress postponed any decision.

After fretting, half-disgraced, for 2 years, Deane returned to Europe to seek evidence to clear himself. The necessary documents were lost, hidden, or nonexistent. Feeling ill-treated and worn down by poor health, Deane wrote despondently to American friends, advising them, in view of the disarray in the patriot cause, to reconcile with England. These letters, intercepted and printed in the loyalist press in New York, added to the cloud already hanging over Deane and seemed to prove him maliciously disloyl.

Sick and bankrupt, Deane spent his last years in England, where his only apparent friend was the notorious "double spy" Dr. Edward Bancroft, who during 1776-1777 had presented himself to Deane and Franklin to spy for them but was actually reporting every detail of the clandestine American negotiations to the British ministers.

Deane died mysteriously while on a ship about to leave for Canada. Recent material presented by historian Julian Boyd strongly implies that Bancroft poisoned Deane to silence incriminating testimony of further double-dealing.

Though in 1842 Congress awarded Deane's heirs $37,000 (a small fraction of their claim) in payment for losses Deane had incurred during the Revolution, no evidence has yet appeared to clarify the charges against him.

Further Reading

No satisfactory, recent biography of Deane exists. Of the older accounts, George L. Clark, Silas Deane: a Connecticut Leader in the American Revolution (1913), is useful, as is a biographical notice by Charles Isham in volume 1 of The Deane Papers, 1774-1790 in the New York Historical Society Collections (3 vols., 1887-1890). Further letters are in The Deane Papers: Correspondence between Silas Deane, His Brothers and Their Business and Political Associates, 1771-1795 in the collections of the Connecticut Historical Society (1930). Samuel F. Bemis, The Diplomacy of the American Revolution (1935), discusses Deane's diplomatic activity in France. Edmund C. Burnett, The Continental Congress (1941), describes disputes over Deane in Congress. Carl C. Van Doren, The Secret History of the American Revolution: An Account of the Conspiracies of Benedict Arnold (1941), divulges as much as is known of the intrigues surrounding Deane's career.

Additional Sources

James, Coy Hilton, Silas Deane, patriot or traitor?, East Lansing:Michigan State University Press, 1975. □

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Deane, Silas

Silas Deane, 1737–89, political leader and diplomat in the American Revolution, b. Groton, Conn. A lawyer and merchant at Wethersfield, Conn., he was elected (1772) to the state assembly and became a leader in the revolutionary cause. He was (1774–76) a delegate to the Continental Congress, which sent (1776) him as diplomatic agent to France. There Deane worked with Pierre de Beaumarchais in securing commercial and military aid for the colonies, obtaining supplies that were of material help in the Saratoga campaign (1777). He recruited a number of foreign officers, such as the marquis de Lafayette, Casimir Pulaski, Baron von Steuben, and Johann De Kalb. Late in 1776, Congress sent Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee to join Deane. Together they arranged (1778) a commercial and military alliance with France. Deane, however, was soon recalled by Congress and was faced with accusations of profiteering made against him by Lee. Embittered, unable to clear himself, and accused as a traitor after publication of some pessimistic private letters, Deane lived the rest of his life in exile. In 1842 Congress voted $37,000 to his heirs as restitution and characterized Lee's audit of Deane's accounts "a gross injustice."

See C. Isham, ed., The Deane Papers, 1774–1790 (5 vol., 1887–91); biography by G. L. Clark (1913).

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