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Saturday, March 14, 2009

AN UNPAID DEBT

I would say it was the nastiest letter ever written by Ben Franklin (that we know of). On April 4, 1778, Franklin dipped his pen in his own long suffering wounds to write, “I saw your jealous, malignant and quarrelsome temper which was daily manifesting itself against Mr. Deane, and almost every other person you had dealings with.”

The object of this bitterness was Arthur Lee (above), youngest son of the powerful Lee family of Virginia, the man whom George Trevelyan described as “… the assassin of other men’s reputations and careers ..." Mr. Trevelayn added, "The best that can be said of Arthur Lee is, that in his personal dealings with the colleagues he was seeking to ruin, he made no pretence of friendship…and his attitude toward his brother envoys was to the last degree, hostile and insulting.” (pp 455-456 “The American Revolution Part III” Longmans Green & Co. 1907.) This man Lee was so filled with hate and bile that he almost destroyed the thing professed to love, the American Revolution.When Silas Deane arrived from France, carrying a treaty pledging French military and financial aid for the American Revolution, as personified by the French Ambassador to the new nation, M. Gerard, Deane was rightly expecting to be received as a hero. Instead he was treated like a traitor and grilled about the last packet of letters the Congress had received from the American delegation to France. When those secret dispatches had arrived in America in January of 1778 they had contained nothing but blank pages. Obviously the actual dispatches had been stolen and bare pages substituted; and Congressional paranoia set in. The ship’s captain was jailed and questioned and jailed again.
But just as obvious to Mr. Deane was that the members of the Congress now suspected him, and had been encouraged in that suspicion by Deane’s fellow diplomat in Paris, Arthur Lee. Lee had alleged in private letters to friends in Congress that Deane might have destroyed the dispatches because they contained letters accusing Deane of profiteering. But Lee even went further, to hint that “Dr. Franklin himself…was privy to the abstraction of the dispatches.”
The Congress listened skeptically to Deane’s spur of the moment defense. The account books that would have disproven the charges of his profiteering were in France. Deane was then forced to wait for Congress to issue him further instructions and reembursment. They - and it - never came. Finally, short of funds (which should have disproved the charge of profiteering), Deane did something foolish. He went public. In December 1778 he published his defense - in a pamphlet, "An Address to the Free and Independent Citizens of the United States" - in which he identified the problem in Paris as Mr. Arthur Lee. He also reminded the public of all the weapons and supplies he had bought in France for the American army with his own money, and for which the Congress had not yet repaid him.The public reaction in America was immediate and vicious. “The educated public saw in his (Deanes’) publication a betrayal of an official trust, and the public regarded it as effusion of an angry and detected man”. The public now joined the members of the Congress in believing Silas Deane of theft and betrayal.
No less a powerful voice for America than Thomas Paine (above), the author of “Common Sense”, and now serving as Secretary to the Foreign Committee of Congress, came to Arthur Lee's defense in a Philadelphia newspaper. He wrote that the supplies, “which Mr. Deane…so pompously plumes himself upon, were promised and engaged… before he even arrived in France.” Paine was merely repeating a charge that Arthur Lee had made back in 1776 in his private letters to relatives and allies in America. But that one sentence came close to unraveling the entire American Revolution.The British were thrilled with Paine's story because for the first time the Americans had revealed a rift within their own ranks. But more importantly, if the supplies had really been promised and assigned to America before Mr. Deane had arrived in France, then the King of France, Louis XVI (above), had lied when he publically assured the British and the Spanish that he was not helping the Americans prior to 1778. Worse, he had violated the Treaty of Paris of 1763, which had ended The Seven Years War (known as the French & Indian War in America.) To call the French King a liar and say he had violated a standing treaty was to say that his word was worthless.The brand new French ambassador, M. Gerard, was enraged and demanded an explanation. The Congress, recognizing they had been put out on a limb by Mr. Paine (and by Mr. Lee, although they never seemed to have realized that), beat a hasty retreat and announced that “…his most Christian Majesty…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…but, on the contrary, do highly disapprove of the same." Congress also recalled what was left of the Paris delegation, both Franklin and Lee. They were replaced with one man, Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Paine was forced to resign his post, and became estranged from the revolution he had helped so much. His friends in Congress blamed Silas Deane for this. And Mr. Deane, who had first been maligned and smeared by Arthur Lee, and then had been accused and maligned by Thomas Paine and his allies in Congress, also found himself estranged from his American Revolution.Deane returned to Paris, intending to obtain his account books to prove his loyalty to the cause. But the books had been destroyed. Dejected and angry, Deane moved to London where he became friends with that other disabused American patriot, Benidict Arnold. That friendship did nothing to help Deanes' cause in America.
In the summer of 1780 Deane wrote a letter to his family suggesting that America would never win the war and should think about negotiating with the British to be accepted back into the empire. The ship carrying Deane’s letters was captured by an American privateer and Deane’s letters were published in a Conneticut newspaper, appearing just after the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781. It was a nasty case of very bad timing.Deane always dreamed of returning to America, and the last month of his life was spent preparing for the voyage. But he died (in September 1789) before his ship could sail. In his obituary published in a London newspaper Silas Deane received his final defense. “Having (been)accused of embezzling large sums of money entrusted to his care…Mr. Deane sought an asylum in this country, where his habits of life …penurious in the extreme, amply refuted the malevolence of his enemies. So reduced, indeed, was this gentleman, who was supposed to have embezzled upwards of 100,000 pounds sterling,...that he experienced all the horrors of the most abject poverty in the capital of England, and has for the last few months been almost in danger of starving.”And what about Arthur Lee, the source of all this venom? After the war Arthur Lee was elected to congress and for the first time his friends and allies got an up close view of him in action. They found him so “…perpetually indignant, paranoid, self-centered, and often confused” that his fellow Virginians, Jefferson and Washington, avoided all contact with him. I wonder if any of them gave thought to how they had depended on this man in their judgement of Silas Deane? Evidently not. Arthur Lee opposed the new American Constitution and after losing that fight he ran for a seat in the new congress. He was defeated. Arthur Lee died "embittered" on his 500 acre farm in Virginia in December, 1792.It was not until 1835 that Congress finally acknowledged the debts Silas Dean had incurred in defending America. Hs surviving family was paid $38,000 (the equivalent of almost a million dollars today). It was generally admitted that this was but a fraction of the money Silas Deane had spent in helping to create our nation. Thank you, Silas; for whatever it is worth.
And it was not until recently that letters from various English and French sources revealed that the true source of the leak in the American ministry in Paris, the real "snake in the grass" was the sloppy bookeeping and security arraingments of the pompous, paranoid Mr. Auther Lee of Virginia.


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