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from The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

by James Parton

Boston: James R. Osgood, 1864.

 

Part 6

CHAPTER IX.

THE FATE OF SILAS DEANE.

           

            Unhappy Deane! Upon arriving at Philadelphia he discovered, to his sorrow, that Arthur Lee, insignificant as he might be in Europe, was far from being powerless in America. Virginia ruled the country then, and in Virginia the Lee families were ancient, numerous, wealthy, and influential. As for poor Deane, he had, it is true, the portrait of the king set in diamonds, and other proofs that he stood very high in the esteem of the French ministry and of Dr. Franklin, but he had no family influence, little wealth, small tact, and no great general ability. Besides the black and constantly repeated insinuations of Lee and Izard, he had to contend with the odium excited by Du Coudray and his followers, as well as the inexplicable mystery of Beaumarchais and Hortalez, whose agent, De Francy, was then at Philadelphia asking Congress to pay him sundry millions for goods which Arthur Lee kept telling them were the free gifts of a gracious monarch.

           

            A circumstance occurred between the recall of Deane and his arrival in America, which served to increase the growing distrust in the mind of Congress respecting their servants in Europe. In January, 1778, when nine months had elapsed since a letter had been received from the envoys at Paris, arrived Captain John Folger, with a large packet of dispatches from them. With his own hands, as he had promised, the captain conveyed the precious packet to the door of Congress, which was then sitting at York. How this packet had been longed for, how eagerly it was opened, every one can imagine. But who can portray the astonishment and mortification of the Foreign Committee when they discovered that the dispatches had been stolen, and blank paper put in their stead? Externally, the packet was regular and perfect, directed in Franklin's own hand, and sealed with the seal of Arthur Lee; within, it was mere sheets of white paper folded in the proper form. Honest Captain Folger was instantly arraigned, and subjected to the severest cross-questioning, but he told a straightforward story, which only showed that he knew nothing whatever of the matter. His reputation was high, both as a citizen and as a sailor. He was thrown into prison, however, and held for several weeks. His passengers were examined without result; and, in short, the affair was investigated on both sides of the ocean without eliciting any single fact implicating an individual. In this total absence of evidence, every one interested in the affair indulged in conjecture that accorded with his disposition. Dr. Franklin, Mr. Adams, and all other rational beings who had attended to the case, concluded that the theft had been accomplished, before the ship left France, by some light-fingered agent of the British ministry. But Arthur Lee's evil mind led him to the conviction that the thief was an emissary of Silas Deane, who, he thought, wished to destroy the letters of the Lee party, because they contained accusations against him. No charge more destitute of evidence or probability was ever made: nevertheless, the insinuation, doubtless, had its effect upon some minds, and the loss of the dispatches gave ground for the general feeling, that there was villainy somewhere among the agents of Congress in Europe. In private letters, Lee did not scruple to hint a belief that Dr. Franklin himself, whose superscription the packet bore, was privy to the abstraction of the dispatches.

           

            All unconscious of impending evil, Silas Deane, after a three months' voyage, arrived in Delaware Bay, passenger on board the ship of Admiral D'Estaing, accompanied by M. Gerard. How natural that he should expect a distinguished welcome — he, who had stolen across the sea, two years before, in a hired sloop, the secret emissary of revolted colonies, and now returned, the acknowledged minister of a victorious nation, the honored guest of a French admiral, bringing back a powerful fleet (twelve line-of-battle ships and four frigates), to aid his country, and accompanied by an embassador of the King of France! Accordingly, when the fleet dropped anchor in Delaware Bay, on the tenth of July, Mr. Deane wrote an exulting letter to the president of Congress, which he sent express to Philadelphia, by the hands of Captain Nicholson." I shall embark this afternoon," he concluded, "in company with his excellency, Monsieur Gerard, for Philadelphia, and hope soon to have the honor of paying my respects to your excellency and the honorable Congress in person, and to congratulate you on the late glorious events." And then, in the style of a victorious general, recommending his favorite aid-de-camp for promotion, he besought for his messenger, Captain Nicholson, the favorable consideration of Congress.

           

            He reached Philadelphia. He was not received as a conquering hero of diplomacy. Congress did not hasten to throw open its doors for his reception, and showed no desire to receive from him the "information," which in their resolution of recall they said they were in want of. Seven weeks passed away without his having been summoned. He had brought with him from France only a hundred pounds, not expecting to be detained in America many weeks: his private estate in Connecticut was not large; and, thus it happened, that the man whom Arthur Lee charged with having gained a fortune of three hundred thousand dollars by trading in France with the public money, was beginning to be embarrassed for the means of subsistence. He ventured, at length, to remind Congress of his presence, and to solicit an "early audience." An audience was then granted him, and he told his story. But he told it not to admiring and grateful countrymen, but to distrustful and estranged employers. All the friends and relations of Arthur Lee, all of Franklin's ancient foes, and a large proportion of the faction who desired to put Horatio Gates into the place filled by George Washington, were disposed to believe the foul calumnies sent over by every ship from Paris. Arthur Lee had redoubled his malign activity after Deane's departure; averring, even in his public letters, that Deane had assumed to himself the entire management of business, and had refused to explain any thing to his virtuous colleague; that he had left his accounts in Paris in "studied confusion," and spent nearly twice as much money on his private account as either of the other envoys. "All that we can find," wrote Lee, "is, that millions have been expended, and that almost every thing remains to be paid for." Millions of francs had been expended, and almost every thing did remain to be paid for; but what had that to do with the charges against Silas Deane? Deane had drawn more money on his private account than either Lee or Franklin; because upon him had fallen the chief burden of business, the minor expenses of the embassy, and the charges of an establishment in Paris.

           

            Against these vague, vile, groundless insinuations, the luckless Deane could do little more than reply, that he had left all his papers and accounts in Paris; that those accounts were regular and correct; and that Arthur Lee was a suspicious, quarrelsome, false-hearted knave, whose word was totally unworthy of consideration. (1) Congress evidently did not believe him. Nor can we wonder that they did not; for, even if the Lee insinuations were set aside, there remained the Beaumarchais mystery, which no man ever penetrated or could penetrate, until M. de Loménie brought to light the masses of Beaumarchais' papers, which he found, only seven years ago, in a Paris garret. Take out of Deane's case the Beaunmarchais papers, and poor Deane cannot be cleared of conniving at fraud; since, without the testimony of those papers, Beaumarchais' entire claim wears the appearance of being an impudent attempt to cheat Congress of six millions of francs. This claim Deane constantly supported. It was his name which the Hortalez contracts bore, and which gave them authority and importance. I presume that no one ever looked into this complicated affair, previous to the publication of M. de Loménie's work, without deriving an impression, that there must have been a corrupt understanding between Deane and Beaumarchais. I do not wonder, therefore, that Congress was puzzled and distrustful, and knew not either what to believe, or what to do. In censuring Congress for their hesitation and delay, M. de Loménie is unjust. I can declare, that until I had had the pleasure (and a great pleasure it was) of reading his elegantly executed work, I supposed that both Deane and Beaumarchais were dishonest — the one a villain of genius, like Robert Macaire, the other a bungler and tool, like Jacques Strop.

           

            So Mr. Deane had his audience of the honorable Congress, after waiting nearly seven weeks. Then he waited five weeks more, without receiving any intimation of the will of Congress. He wrote to the president, praying him to remind Congress that he awaited their orders. Civil reply, that he, the president, had done so. And still the hapless embassador waited. He waited all that summer. He waited all the succeeding autumn. He wrote to the president of Congress letter after letter; short letters, long letters, exculpatory letters, argumentative letters, imploring letters, beseeching letters. At last, he was directed to prepare a written statement of his conduct in France. He did so, and sent it to Congress. Then more waiting. At length, in an evil hour, forgetting that he had not the wit of Beaumarchais, and that America was not France, he resolved to try Beaumarchais's favorite expedient, and appeal to Public Opinion. Doubtless, Beaumarchais had related to him the singular story of his life — how, when the rich watchmaker or the corrupt magistrate had striven to rob him of his rights, he had transferred his cause to another tribunal, and frustrated nefarious schemes by giving them publicity.

           

            In December, 1778, in a Philadelphia newspaper, Mr. Deane published the fatal narrative, which revealed to all the world, which only a few officials had known before, that the American embassy at Paris was a scene of the bitterest contentions. That Mr. Deane's story was substantially true, that Arthur Lee really was the cause of those contentions, availed him nothing; the educated public saw in his publication a betrayal of an official trust, and the public in general regarded it as the effusion of an angry and detected man. In France, no less than in America, the act was universally condemned; and, particularly, in the official circles, which hitherto had sustained Mr. Deane against his malign and odious adversary. Before adopting the tactics of Beaumarchais, Mr. Deane should have borrowed his pen. It is a true old saying, that he who leaps the hedge of custom for a short cut to his object, should be well mounted. Beaumarchais bestrode a winged and flashing Pegasus; the horse of Silas Deane was only a common nag.

           

            Strange to relate, Deane's publication, which completed the ruin of its author, caused Congress immediately to pay two or three millions of francs to Beaumarchais. Thomas Paine, who, as Secretary to the Foreign Committee, had charge of its papers, replied to Mr. Deane, in the Pennsylvania Packet, and betrayed the authorship of the reply, by entitling it, "Common Sense to the Public on Mr. Deane's Affair." In the course of his article Paine said: "If Mr. Deane, or any other gentleman, will procure an order from Congress to inspect an account in my office, or any of Mr. Deane's friends in Congress will take the trouble of coming themselves, I will give him or them my attendance, and show them, in a hand-writing, which Mr. Deane is well acquainted with, that the supplies he so pompously plumes himself upon, were promised and engaged, and that as a present, before he even arrived in France, and that the part which fell to Mr. Deane, was only to see it done; and how he has performed that service, the public are now acquainted with." Mr. Paine here referred to the message of Arthur Lee, recorded in the summer of 1776, and brought over by Mr. Thomas Story.

           

            Paine's article, which, in effect, charged the King of France with a deliberate violation of a treaty with England, aroused M. Gerard, who well knew how keenly the amiable Louis XVI. would feel such an imputation, and how mischievous the disclosure might prove in future complications. He explained the affair to Mr. Paine in person, assuring him, as he had already assured Congress, that "all the supplies furnished by M. de Beaumarchais to the states, whether merchandise or cannons and military goods, were furnished in the way of commerce, and that the articles which came from the king's magazines and arsenals, were sold to M. de Beaumarchais by the Department of Artillery, and that he has furnished his obligations for the price of those articles." Paine refusing to retract, M. Gerard complained to Congress. That puzzled and distracted body, though they all secretly surmised that M. Gerard spoke only in a diplomatic or Pickwickian sense, resolved unanimously, that "Congress do fully, in the clearest and most explicit manner, disavow" Mr. Paine's publication; and "as they are convinced by indisputable (2) evidence, that the supplies shipped in the Amphitrite, Seine, and Mercury, were not a present, and that his most Christian Majesty, the great and generous ally of these United States, did not preface his alliance with any supplies whatever, sent to America, so they have not authorized the writer of said publication to make any such assertions as are contained therein, but, on the contrary, do highly disapprove of the same.'' (3) And more. After having neglected Beaumarchais for two years and a half, Congress now formally thanked him for his services, (4) and paid him a large part of his claim in long bills. Thomas Paine resigned his office. M. de Francy went home rejoicing.

           

            But all this did not help Silas Deane, who still languished and memorialized in Philadelphia. He waited all the spring and summer of 1779. In August, Congress granted him ten thousand five hundred of their paper dollars, in compensation for the fourteen months' delay. He returned the paper, as being absurdly inadequate. Late in the year, Congress having appointed an American accountant, residing in Paris, to audit the accounts of their envoys in Europe, Mr. Deane crossed the ocean to meet the accountant, and vindicate his claims and his character. On reaching Paris he learned, to his unspeakable dismay, that the gentleman had declined the appointment. Dr. Franklin then proposed appointing, in his stead, Mr. James Searle, who had recently arrived from Philadelphia, commissioned to negotiate a loan in Europe for the State of Pennsylvania; but to him Mr. Deane objected, on the ground that Mr. Searle was his personal enemy. Twelve tedious and miserable months he waited in Paris, imploring Congress, by every opportunity, to appoint another accountant. No answer came to his most just and reasonable petition. At length, however (in March, 1782), an accountant, Mr. Barclay, arrived from America, who proceeded to examine his papers. This gentleman was authorized merely to examine, not to order payment, nor even to pronounce a binding judgment. In his last letter to the President of Congress, dated Ghent, March 17th, 1782, Mr. Deane wrote: "Mr. Barclay, after viewing my accounts, proposed that auditors or arbitrators should be named at Paris, to audit and settle the accounts. I have not the least objection to this, nor shall I have against any person or persons named by Congress, provided they are such as have a competent knowledge of accounts, and are impartial. I am willing either to nominate one part of them, or leave the whole nomination to Dr. Franklin, as Congress shall prefer, or to submit my accounts to the examination of Mr. Barclay alone, provided that he be empowered to take the opinion of disinterested persons on the spot, as to any dubious or uncertain articles, and to make a final close of the affair." (5)

           

            This letter, together with Mr. Barclay's favorable judgment, and Franklin's influence, might have prevailed against the malign activity of the Lees; but, before it came to hand, other letters of Deane were intercepted on the ocean, which showed only too plainly, that his cruel wrongs had, at length, estranged his weak heart, not merely from Congress, but from his country's sacred cause. Upon reading these letters in European papers, Mr. Robert R. Livingston, the head of the Foreign Department, wrote to Dr. Franklin asking whether these letters could be genuine. Franklin replied: "There is no doubt of their being all genuine. His conversation, since his return from America, has, as I have been informed, gone gradually more and more into that style, and at length come to an open vindication of Arnold's conduct; and, within these few days, he has sent me a letter of twenty full pages, recapitulating those letters, and threatening to write and publish an account of the treatment he has received from Congress. He resides at Ghent, is distressed both in mind and circumstances, raves and writes abundance, and I imagine it will end in his going over to join his friend Arnold in England. I had an exceeding good opinion of him when he acted with me, and I believe he was then sincere and hearty in our cause. But he is changed, and his character ruined in his own country and in this, so that I see no other country but England to which he can now retire. He says that we owe him about twelve thousand pounds sterling; and his great complaint is, that we do not settle his accounts and pay him."

           

            "His friend, Arnold." Arnold was a Connecticut man, and he and Deane were early friends. Deane did, at last, join Arnold in England, where he renewed his acquaintance with the traitor, and associated with the traitor's friends. Upon hearing this shocking intelligence, John Jay, who, like Franklin, had stood by Deane in all his misfortunes, took down his portrait from the wall of his study, tore it into pieces, and threw it into the fire. Some time after, when Deane presumed to call upon Mr. Jay, in London, the indignant patriot wrote to reject his proffered civilities, saying, "Every American who gives his hand to Benedict Arnold, in my opinion, pollutes it." (6)

           

            Even after Deane's removal to England, Dr. Franklin did not refuse publicly to testify to the correctness of his conduct while he was in the service of the United States. In justice to the memory of both, I insert the following explicit statement by Dr. Franklin, dated December 18, 1782:

           

            "Certain paragraphs having lately appeared in the English newspapers, importing that Silas Deane, Esq., formerly Agent and Commissioner Plenipotentiary of the United States of America, had some time after his first 'arrival in France, purchased in that kingdom, for the use of his countrymen, thirty thousand muskets; that he gave three livres for each of them, being old condemned arms: that he had them cleaned and vamped up, which cost near three livres more, and that for each of these, he charged and received a louis d'or.' And that he also committed similar frauds, in the purchase of other articles for the use of his country; and Mr. Deane having represented that the said paragraphs are likely to injure him in the opinions of many persons unacquainted with his conduct whilst in public service; I think it my duty, in compliance with his request, to certify and declare, that the paragraphs in question, according to my best knowledge and belief, are entirely false, and that I have never known or suspected any cause to charge the said Silas Deane with any want of probity, in any purchase or bargain whatever made by him for the use or account of the United States."

           

            This was published by Mr, Deane in the pamphlet which he issued in London in 1784, entitled "An Address to the United States of North America."

           

            For a few months the ill-starred Deane basked in the smiles of tory, and, it is said, of royal favor; which is not unlikely, for George III. had Arnold continually at his side, and bestowed upon him the most conspicuous marks of favor. But after the peace Deane was totally neglected. He died at a small country town, a few years later, in extreme poverty.

           

            Such was the unhappy fate of Silas Deane, the first diplomatic agent of the United States. It was not the malignity of Arthur Lee which ruined him, although that was the cause of heavy sorrows and bitter mortifications. Patience, fortitude and tact would have enabled him, at length, to overcome the Lees, and restore both his fortune and his good name. It was Arnold's example, acting upon a mind, not originally strong, exasperated by ill-usage, and weakened by long anxiety, which led him fatally astray.

           

            The reader may be interested to know that, in 1835, forty-five years after the death of Silas Deane, Congress paid his heirs a considerable part of the sum due to them. Mr. Alfred Smith, of the Connecticut Historical Society, having fallen upon a mass of Mr. Deane's papers at Hartford, among which was a complete statement of his case by Deane himself, fortified by convincing testimony, was so struck with the injustice done him, that he advised the family, even at that late day, to apply to Congress for redress. His advice was taken, and Mr. Smith spent a winter in Washington "engineering" the claim. The sum awarded the heirs was thirty-eight thousand dollars. Dr. Franklin's emphatic testimony had much to do with convincing members of Mr. Deane's integrity, and of the justice of the claim.

           


 

 

Notes

           

1. Mr, Deane afterwards defended himself very happily against the assertions and insinuations of Lee's publics letters of the summer of 1778. Take one brief passage, which sums up a long and thorough examination of one of Lee's letters:

            "Mr. Lee asserts:

            "1. That he cannot find any satisfaction as to the expenditures of public money, and says, all we can find is, that millions have been expended, and almost every thing remains to be paid for.

            "It has been proved that Mr. Lee had, when he wrote this letter, an account in his hands of all the expenditures of public money until I left Paris, of the sums paid, and to whom.

            "2. That one hundred thousand livres had been advanced to Mr. Hodge for the purchase of a vessel which cost but three thousand pounds sterling, or seventy-two thousand livres, &c.

            "The truth is, Mr. Hodge did not in the whole receive that sum, and he purchased and fitted out two vessels instead of one.

            "3. Speaking of the contracts, he says: 'You will see that my name is not to the contracts.'

            "The fact is, he was not in France when the principal part of them were made.

            "4. He says there was the greatest profusion and dissipation in the purchases.

            "The clothes are now in use in the army, and a suit complete delivered on board cost but thirty-two or thirty-three shillings sterling, and better clothes no army was ever furnished with.

            "5. He says that Mr. Williams had received near a million of livres without accounting.

            "The truth is, Mr. Lee was privy to the contracts made with Mr. Williams, and signed the orders for the principal part of the money put into his hands by the Commissioners; and when he wrote this letter, he could not be ignorant that Mr. Williams was then adjusting his accounts for a settlement, which was actually made, to the satisfaction of Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams, but a few weeks after.

            "6. Mr. Lee says, 'that the contracts were industriously concealed from him.'

            "His dispute with Mr. Holker. the principal contractor, now the honorable agent of France in America, about the lapels and buttons, and his assisting personally to settle those accounts and afterwards his signing the bills for the payment thereof himself (for the truth of which I freely appeal to Mr. Holker and to M. Grand's account delivered), is a sufficient answer." — Deane Papers, p. 63.

           

2. The reader will note this word, "indisputable." It was, doubtless, used with a full sense of its exact meaning. The solemn asseveration of the French Embassador, was certainly indisputable, but it was far from being convincing.

 

3. Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, x., 263.

           

4. "By express Order of the Congress, sitting at Philadelphia, to M. de Beaumarchais.

            "Sir: — The Congress of the United States of America, grateful for the great efforts you have made in their favor, presents you its thanks, and the assurance of its esteem. It grieves for the misfortunes you have suffered in support of its States. Unfortunate circumstances have prevented the accomplishment of its desires; but it will take the promptest measures for acquitting itself of the debts it has contracted with you.

            "The generous sentiments, and the exalted views, which alone could dictate a conduct such as yours, are your greatest eulogium, and are an honor to your character. While, by your great talents, you have rendered yourself useful to your prince, yon have gained the esteem of this rising republic, and merited the applause of the New World. John Jay, President." — Beaumarchais and his Times, p. 318.

 

5. Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, i., 219.

 

6. "Life of John Jay," ii., 144.

           

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