Silas Deane's career began with one of those rags-to-riches stories so much appreciated in American folklore. In fact, Deane might have made a lasting place for himself in the history texts, except that his career ended with an equally dramatic riches-to-rags story.
— James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle
You know his ambition… his desire of making a Fortune… You also know his Art and Enterprise. Such Characters are often useful, altho always to be carefully watched and contracted, specially in such a government as ours.
— John Adams writing of Silas Deane
The over-achieving son of an ambitious Connecticut blacksmith, Silas Deane was by turns a graduate of Yale, a teacher/law student, merchant, politician, and the first "minister plenipotentiary" from the rebelling British colonies of North America to the Kingdom of France. By the time he died in 1789, aged fifty-one, he had long since experienced a complete reversal of his fortunes: for the final decade of his life Deane remained a discredited pauper, hounded by scandal, plagued by declining health, and eventually forgotten by history. A puzzling turn of events for a man who racked up success after success during the early years of his life.
And yet nothing about Silas Deane is more puzzling than the manner of his death.
After graduating from Yale in 1758, Deane supported himself by teaching school while simultaneously studying law. One of his pupils from this period, a tavern-keeper's son named Edward Bancroft, figures prominently in the final years of his life, first as Deane's secretary during his negotiations with the French over the question of a possible alliance with the rebellious colonies against the British, and later as his benefactor: one of the few people who would advance the penniless Deane money.
Bancroft was Deane's pupil for only a brief amount of time (he ran away to sea), but the two remained friends, and when Deane needed a private secretary to assist in negotiations with the French, he contacted Bancroft, now a physician and scientist of some note, then living in London, and invited him to come work for the American delegation which by then consisted of three men: Deane, Benjamin Franklin, and the dour William Lee.
But more on Bancroft and the American diplomatic mission to France in a bit.
After being admitted to the bar in 1761, Deane briefly practiced law in Hartford, Connecticut, before eventually moving to the town of Wethersfield, where he married Mehitable Webb, the wealthy widow of a merchant, took over the family business, and built a big new house next door to the one where his wife and her children had lived with her first husband. His wife gave him a son, Jesse, in 1764, and died herself not long afterward, in 1767.
|On the left is Deane House, the house Silas Deane had built for his new family. On the right is Webb House, the one his widow had lived in with her children during her marriage to her first husband.|
Deane remarried, this time to the wealthy and politically-connected granddaughter of a former governor of Connecticut, and decided to go into politics. When the first Continental Congress was convened, Deane found himself a member of the delegation appointed by the Connecticut legislature to attend.
However, Deane was not without his enemies, especially those who envied him his wealth and the swift rise in his political fortunes, and he was not selected to return to Congress the following year. Instead, members of Congress approached Deane about acting as minister to France, and securing badly needed military supplies for the Revolutionary cause.
Deane agreed, departed immediately for Paris, and began throwing quite a bit of his own money around trying to raise more money, and secure a treaty of alliance with France. By the time he called on Bancroft to join him from London, Deane had spent a considerable sum of his own private fortune on this mission for which he drew no salary.
And at this point things began to go south.
|Franklin shortly after arriving in France in 1777|
Not surprisingly, Arthur Lee took a distinct dislike to ever-on-the-make Deane, who, in addition to working on an alliance with the French, was also attempting to line up investors in a possible canal linking Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence River, and a scheme to secure steam engines of the type he had seen being used in England a use them in American grist mills.
To complicate matters, negotiations with the French slowed down, likely due in no small part to the fact that Bancroft, whom Deane trusted implicitly, was in fact a British spy. Every Sunday for well over a year Bancroft would drop a parcel containing his weekly reports of the progress of Franco-American relations into a hollow tree in the Tuileries Gardens, whence it was retrieved by another British agent and posted to London.
|The Disagreeable Arthur Lee|
When Deane returned to America he had not been apprised of the nature of the recall. He had come back from France on a French warship, accompanied by the first French ambassador to the United States—treaty secured. As a result he had left his account books in Paris, and was left to defend himself without the documentation of his considerable expenses.
Things went downhill from there. After a long, public and ugly back-and-forth, both in congressional session and in the press, Congress rebuffed Deane's requests for reimbursement, and he returned to France a much poorer man than he had been, thoroughly embittered by the experience.
Shortly before Cornwallis' hugely consequential surrender to Washington's Continental/French forces at Yorktown in 1781, letters written by Deane to friends back in America—in which he denounced the Congress and suggested the best course of action for Americans might be to patch things up with Britain—fell into the hands of Sir Henry Clinton, the commander of British forces in New York City. Within days they had been published by a Tory newspaper in that city.
Now unwelcome in America, and with France getting too hot for him, Deane moved to Ghent, in Belgium and spent his time drinking and importuning old friends and acquaintances for money. This continued until 1789, when Deane decided enough time had passed that he might be able to restore both his reputation and his fortune at home.
He went to London, where he visited Bancroft (who continued to supply him with money) and the American painter John Trumbull. From there Deane booked passage to America on the Boston Packet in September. The ship departed London, but soon ran into fierce winds and laid to in order to make necessary repairs.
During a stroll around the deck with the ship's captain, Deane suddenly became violently ill. The captain put him to bed, where he soon died.
As recently as 1787 Deane had been bedridden by a protracted bout of ill health, so not much was made of his death by the British authorities who investigated it. He was buried in Kent, and for them that was the end of the matter.
In American circles the rumor ran riot that Deane might have been a suicide, what with his poor fortunes and shattered reputation. Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine both referenced the event and the possibility of suicide in their correspondence.
Deane's fortunes were eventually posthumously restored. in 1841 Congress paid $37,000 to Deane's granddaughter as compensation for his expenses, along with admitting that the process by which his claims had been initially denied was rushed, shoddy and unprofessional.
As for Deane's death: natural causes? Suicide? Absent an exhumation and an autopsy, who can say what really happened here.
However, in 1959 historian Julian Boyd advanced a theory that Deane was, in fact, murdered. The most likely suspect? Deane's old pupil and secretary, Edward Bancroft.
|The Duplicitous Edward Bancroft|
Because when Bancroft ran away to sea, he washed up in Barbados. While there he took a position as a surgeon for one of the sugar plantations on the island.
During his sojourn there Bancroft learned quite a bit about the science surrounding textile dyes. It was how he would make his name later. The plantation owner took a liking to Bancroft and sent him all over the Caribbean as his representative. During that time Bancroft became an expert in the making of dyes, and set about perfecting the process.
He also became an expert on poisons. While in Surinam he came in contact with native peoples who tipped their arrows with all manner of nasty concoctions. And Bancroft took notes. More than that, he touched on the subject in a book he wrote about his travels in the Caribbean.
As Boyd's theory went, Deane managed to work out the fact that Bancroft was a spy. Bancroft, by now drawing a hefty pension from the British government in exchange for his efforts in its behalf during the Revolution, also hoped to be awarded a lucrative patent for his dyeing process.
Said patent might not be forthcoming in the event of Bancroft being unmasked as a spy. And Bancroft saw Deane on his final day in London. Oh, and the initial source of all of those rumors about Deane committing suicide? You guessed it. Edward Bancroft. Apparently he spread the word far and wide.
So...natural causes? Suicide? Murder? History is mute on the subject.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments!
See you in two weeks!