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Silas Deane: Founding Father, spy, and Loyalist?

July 28, 2015 by NCC Staff


This week marks the anniversary of the tragic story of Silas Deane, a Founding Father who was later banned from America and died under mysterious circumstances.

Silas_Deane_400Deane was a key member of the early Continental Congress who was given a task crucial to the young nation’s survival: secure its military and political alliance with France.

In early 1776, Deane went on a trip to “visit” France, and he quickly became a secret agent of sorts. Deane worked to arrange supplies of military arms and supplies from France to the Continental Army.

On July 27, 1776, Deane was writing to Congress about his success in France, saying he had arranged for a line of credit for one million French livres when the United States declared its independence. (Word hadn’t reached France yet about the Americans’ split with the British.)

Later that year, he arranged to have the French supply weapons and materials for 30,000 American troops.

Deane also hired military advisers to help the American cause, such as the Marquis de Lafayette, Casimir Pulaski, and Baron von Steuben.

In 1778, things started to go wrong for Deane, after the alliance between the French and Americans became public in February.

Deane became one of three American commissioners to France, along with Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee. Lee and Deane became rivals, and Franklin also criticized Deane.  The battle was over claims of fiscal irregularities by Deane while on his secret mission.

Deane was recalled to America in 1778 and replaced by John Adams as an emissary to France. Back in the United States, Deane became angry when the French government wouldn’t supply evidence about his financial deals, since it would have revealed France’s role in the American Revolution before 1778.

A frustrated Deane set sail for France to clear his name in 1781, but then a newspaper published letters showing that Deane questioned the Revolution and advocated a reunion with the British.

Effectively banned from America, Deane was stranded in Europe until 1789, when he was about to set sail for back home. Deane then mysteriously died on a docked ship. By various accounts, he killed himself, overdosed, or was poisoned by a fellow former spy.

Eventually, an effort by Deane’s family led to his reputation being restored by Congress in 1841. Since then, he has become a cult figure because of his important role early in the Revolution and his mysterious death.

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