Early in the American Revolution,Silas Deane worked without salary and spent much of his own money persuading the French to send guns, ships and other supplies to the patriots. For his efforts he was called a traitor and a spy, treated shabbily by the Continental Congress, driven into poverty and maligned throughout history.
Thomas Schaeper, professor of history of St. Bonaventure University, has unraveled the mystery of Silas Deane and the unfortunate confluence of betrayal, jealousy, bad timing and even worse scholarship that ruined his reputation.
Schaeper’s sleuthing took him to dozens of archives and libraries in Britain, France and the United States, where he pored over dusty, worm-eaten manuscripts that tell the story of who Silas Deane really was – and how historians have got him so wrong for so long.
In the process, Schaeper wrote a book about a key figure in the life of Silas Deane: his friend Edward Bancroft, a British spy who has also been misrepresented as a traitor and a villain.
Silas Deane in France
Silas Deane was the first U.S. diplomat, a valuable servant to the cause of independence, Schaeper said in an interview. “He was not a crook,” Schaeper said.
Silas Deane was born Dec. 24, 1737 in Groton, Conn., a blacksmith’s son, and graduated from Yale in 1758. He became a lawyer and a Connecticut delegate to the Continental Congress.
Early in 1776, the Congress sent him, alone, to France to persuade the French government to send soldiers, guns and money in support of the American Revolution. Silas Deane managed to get informal support from France, including ships, arms, surplus military supplies and officers like the Marquis de Lafayette.
A few months later, Silas Deane was joined by Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee. They negotiated the Treaty of Alliance, which promised France’s military support and was signed on Feb. 6, 1778.
Nobody Liked Arthur Lee
“Arthur Lee is really the villain in this piece,” said Schaeper. “Even his biographers agree, nobody liked him.”
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.
Lee sent letters to his brothers saying Silas Deane misappropriated funds for his own use. Then came the first thing historians get wrong about Silas Deane, according to Schaeper: Early in 1778, Deane received a letter from the Continental Congress asking him to return to Philadelphia.
“It didn’t say why,” said Schaeper. “Deane just thought they wanted a general report.”
Silas Deane, unaware of the charges against him, arranged transportation and sailed back to Philadelphia, leaving his papers behind.
He walked into a whirlwind. The Continental Congress was bitterly divided in half over the alliance with France, over independence from Britain and, now, over Silas Deane.
But charges weren’t formally brought against him. Nothing was decided, and the controversy dragged on for a year. Silas Deane argued he was due money because he got so much help from France for the war.
Then Deane made a mistake. “He’s not a saint, he has a temper,” said Schaeper. He published an emotional defense of himself. It was violent, said Schaeper, and even his friends said he shouldn’t have done it.
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.
Message In A Bottle
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 unfairly reviled as a despicable traitor.
Bancroft was a spy, not a traitor, said Schaeper. He was born in Westfield, Mass., in 1745. 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, 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. Schaeper said 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 Sicker
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.
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 turned against him, thinking he was a traitor.
Deane turned to Bancroft, of all people. He wrote to him, saying, "I hope you don’t desert me."
“There’s no doubt at all that Deane didn’t know that Bancroft was a spy,” said Schaeper.
Still Another Nail
It was a historian in the 1950s who really, really got it wrong about Silas Deane, said Schaeper. The historian argued that 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 Deane to reveal he’d been a spy, according to the historian.
It is true that shortly after the ship to America set sail, Silas Deane suffered convulsions and died on Sept. 23, 1789.
Here’s what really happened, said Schaeper: Silas Deane moved to London in 1783, where he spent the last six years of his life getting poorer and sicker. Finally his health improved enough for him to return to America to try to start a new business. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage aboard the ship, according to physicians who studied his symptoms before he died.
There are several problems with the theory of poisoning, Schaeper said. One is that Silas Deane didn’t know Bancroft was a spy. Another is that the kind of poison Bancroft knew about has to be injected directly into the bloodstream. “You can drink a substantial amount of it and not die,” he said.
Thoma Schaeper's book, Edward Bancroft: Scientist, Author, Spy, can be purchased through Amazon.com. This story was updated in 2017.