JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Wednesday, October 28, 2009


I would say it was the nastiest letter ever written by Ben Franklin (that we know of). On April 4, 1778, Franklin dipped his bitter pen in his own long simmering sense of moral outrage 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.”

Future historians would invent the story that Franklin was revered at the French Court because on his first appeareance he had fortotten his wig, and appeared bare headed. If it happened this would have been a social faux pas. But it was not the old man's bare head that made set the French court all a tremble with excitment, and inspired his nickname as "the child of nature". Each winter's morning in his rented house the 70 year old man sat for half an hour reading the newspapers before an open window, stark naked. During the summer months he sat in the garden reading the papers, absolument nu. His sophisticated Parisian neighbors were electrified, while their poor children recieved an unvarnished American education. You had to travel no small distance to offend the morals of such a man as Ben Franklin.

The object of Franklin's naked bitterness was Arthur Lee, 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 dared to add, "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 he professed to love, the American Revolution. And the man he hated the most was Silas Deane.

Deane was a lawyer/merchant from Connecticut who had been dispatched by the Continental Congress in 1776 to buy guns from the French. There were three men in the deligation, Deane, Ben Franklin and the pus filled Mr. Lee.  Clearly, Arthur Lee felt that he was more qualifed to negotiate than either the geriatic nudist or the country bumpkin. And, in truth, Deane's only qualification was that he was very smart and rich enough to buy the desperatly needed muskets while Congress dithered, and he carried a letter of introduction from Ben Franklin to a friend of Franklin's living in England, Dr. Edward Bancroft.

When Silas Deane arrived home from France in 1778 he brought with him a treaty pledging French military and financial aid for the American Revolution. It had primarily been negotiated by Franklin. The French found Mr. Lee to be a stuck-up pain in the derriere. Accompaning Dean was a French Ambassador,  the first to America, M. Gerard. He didn't think very much of Msr. Lee either.

Deane rightly expected to be received as a hero bearing gifts. Instead he was treated like a traitor and grilled about the last packet of letters the Congress had received from the American delegation in France.

When those boxes of secret dispatches, which had arrived via the same boat carrying Deane and the treaty and the ambassador, were opened, they were found to contain nothing but blank pages. Clearly whoever had penitrated the American security arraingments must have been rushed, as they had no had time to laboriously copy the dispatches before replacing them.  And by not replacing them the British agents had made a much bigger impression than the theft itself.  But, alas, the Congress of 1778 was no brighter then the Congress of 2009.  Congressional paranoia took flight. And it was a darned impressive bird. The ship’s captain was jailed and questioned.

When it finally occured to the investigators that the one group of people with plenty of time to laboriously copy the dispatches and replace them would have been members of the ship's crew, stuck on board during the six week voyage from France with nothing to do but paperwork, the captain was released. But in any legislative body the level of intelligence is usually in indirect proportion to the position of authority. So as soon as the Captain was released the senior members of Congress ordered his re-arrest.

But it was obvious to Mr. Deane that certain members of the Congress now suspected him of being a British spy. It was also obvous to Deane that they had been encouraged in their suspicion by his fellow diplomat in Paris, Arthur Lee.

Lee even alleged in private letters to friends in Congress that Deane might have destroyed the dispatches because the dispatches contained letters accusing Deane of profiteering. Such letters, if they existed, would have come most likely from the posioned pen held by Arthur Lee.  So why bother to steal these anti-Deane dispatches, since obviously, Lee was free to write more? But Lee even went further, to hint that “Dr. Franklin himself…was privy to the abstraction of the dispatches.” So, now we have ask why Franklin would have stolen them? And a moment of logical thought will dismiss such naked accusations against Ben. And yet there were members of Congress who were convinced that a grand conspiracy was at work here, a plot to betray the nation and insult the character of... Arthur Lee. It was insane, of course, the kind of loopy idiotic illogic that only the brain of a politician, and an elected poltician at that, would believe. But the Congress of 1778 was just as jammed packed with such psychotics as the Congress of 2009.

The special Congressional hearing listened skeptically to Deane’s spur of the moment defense. He claimed the account books which would have disproven the charges of his profiteering were in France. He would have brought them but he had no idea they would be demanded. Deane was then forced to wait for Congress to issue him further instructions and re-embursment for the money he had spent on muskets which were already killing British soldiers. The instructions - and the money - never came.

Finally, short of funds (which by itself should have disproved the charge of profiteering), Deane did something foolish. He went public. In December 1778 he published his defense - 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”(ibid). 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, 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.”  Bluntly, that was not true. Paine was merely repeating a lie which 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. And more importantly, if the supplies had really been promised and assigned to America before Mr. Deane had even arrived in France, as Paine claimed, then the King of France, Louis XVI, had lied when he publically assured the British and the Spanish that he was not helping the Americans prior to 1778. Worse, Louis had violated the Treaty of Paris signed in 1763, which had ended The Seven Years War (known as the French and 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. Roality does not like being called things like that.

The brand new French ambassador, M. Gerard, was enraged. He demanded an explanation. The Congress, recognizing they had been put out on a limb by Mr. Paine (and by Mr. Lee, although they didn't seem to have realized that, yet), 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 to create and succor. Following a logic which would have been instantly understandable by any member of a local Parents' Teachers' Association, Paine's friends in Congress blamed Silas Deane for Paines' stupidity in believing Lee. 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; by whom it was not clear. Dejected and angry, Deane swore he would never return to America. He moved to London, where he re-newed his connections to Dr. Edward Bancroft, and struck up a friendship with that other disabused American patriot, Benidict Arnold. That friendship did nothing to help Deanes' cause in America.

In the summer of 1780 Deane unloaded, in 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 in print just after the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781.

It was a nasty case of very bad timing. The public reaction was so negative that Deane's dreams of returning to America had to be put on hold for another eight years. He spent the last month of his life preparing for that voyage. But he died (in September 1789) before his ship could sail, and he was buried in England.

In his obituary published by a London newspaper Silas Deane received the final defense he should have received from the American Congress. “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 ever gave any 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 anyway. He was defeated. Arthur Lee died "embittered" on his 500 acre farm in Virginia in December of 1792.

It was not until 1835 that Congress finally acknowledged the debts Silas Dean had incurred in helping to create 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 a post script; 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", had been the sloppy bookeeping and slipshod security arraingments of the pompous and the paranoid Mr. Auther Lee of Virginia. The conduit who took advantage of his failure was Dr. Edward Bancroft, recomended by Ben  Franklin.
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