fbpx Skip to content

Stay Up to Date!

Zip Code
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

The Complicated Life of Silas Deane

In the pantheon of American Revolutionary War patriots, Connecticut native Silas Deane is relatively unknown — despite a highway connecting Rocky Hill and Wethersfield named in his honor.  

Yet historian George L. Clark in Silas Deane: A Connecticut Leader in the American Revolution (published in 1913) proposed that Deane was “prominent and influential in the movements leading to the Revolution,” and described him as “one of the most efficient of the men of the Revolution.” 

In truth, Deane’s arguably most significant contribution was as a diplomat (along with Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee) to France for the Continental Congress. He proved instrumental in securing the alliance between the colonies and the French government, which led to the eventual British defeat, and thereby, the founding of the United States.  

However, toward the end of his life, Deane was accused of being — and then considered — a traitor to the American cause, much like Connecticut’s infamous state son, Benedict Arnold. As noted by Connecticut History, “His early achievements lost their luster, however, after Deane was recalled to face a protracted, rancorous battle with Congress over his financial dealings.” 

Although Congress exonerated Deane several decades after his untimely death, his life and legacy remains complicated, if not sullied, by the charges. Nevertheless, Deane played a not inconsiderable role in shaping early America’s foreign relations with the Old World and thus its standing as a new nation. 

This is the story of Connecticut’s Revolutionary War hero. 

A Blacksmith’s Son to a Revolutionary 

The son of a blacksmith, Silas Deane was born on Christmas Eve 1737, in Groton. He excelled in school, graduating from Yale in 1758 on a full scholarship, and then studied law, gaining entry to the bar in 1761.  

At the urging of his fellow Yale classmates, the young man moved to the mercantile town of Wethersfield, which at the time was “an important distribution center for the interior portion of the Connecticut River valley,” particularly in the West Indian trade, luxury items — like glass, ceramics, cutlery and books — and the red onion industry, according to the Wethersfield Historical Society. (Notably, residents paid a tax to build a Congregational Church on Main Street in the “form of onions,” as the historical society recounts).  

Within a few years, Deane forged a friendship with and later married Mehitabel Webb, the widow of a “prosperous merchant Joseph Webb,” as noted by Connecticut History. Not only did the marriage come with five step-children — and later their son, Jesse — but it also launched Deane in a new direction, away from law and toward business. 

Deane was a quick learner, becoming one of the wealthiest merchants in Connecticut. His profitable shop (that he took over from Webb) “kept a large variety of goods: flour, molasses, sugar, rope, knives, Barcelona handkerchiefs, sieves, fustian, buttons,” according to Clark’s biography. The business connected him with other prominent figures in colonial Connecticut — and thus thrusted him into the burgeoning political animus toward the British Parliament’s levying of unpopular mercantile taxes, such as the Sugar Act (1764), Stamp Act (1765) and the Townshend Acts (1767). As summarized by Clark, “The three river towns, Hartford, Wethersfield, Windsor, held from an early date advanced views concerning the principles which led to the Revolution.”  

Deane’s first foray into politics came in 1768, nearly a year after Mehitabel’s death, when he was elected to the Connecticut General Assembly. The following December, in 1769, he was appointed to the Wethersfield Committee of Correspondence, “which [was] tasked with organizing and coordinating the non-importation efforts of the community,” according to Elizabeth Covart’s “Silas Deane, Forgotten Patriot.” That same year, Deane married Elizabeth Saltonstall Evards, who was a “socially well-connected and rich widow, who also happened to be the granddaughter of a former Connecticut governor,” Covart writes. 

His proclivity for marrying well, along with his natural drive to excel, quickly raised Deane’s profile in the colony, so much so he was appointed to other important committees like the Connecticut Committee of Correspondence in 1773. By the time the American Revolution was sparked by the “shot heard around the world” in the battles of Lexington and Concord, April 19, 1775, Deane’s reputation was solidified as a well-established and enthusiastic patriot.  

It is no surprise then that in 1774, the blacksmith’s son was selected as one of Connecticut’s three delegates — along with Roger Sherman and Eliphalet Dyer — to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. As a delegate, Deane served on “40 committees, being especially effective on the naval committee and as chairman of ways and means,” according to the Connecticut Historical Society Museum & Library. As Covart notes, he befriended many of his fellow delegates with his “amiable personality, keen intelligence, strong work ethic, and a forgiving nature” (although he and Sherman did not get along). Yet arguably Deane’s “most important” friendship was with Benjamin Franklin, who later nominated him to serve as America’s first diplomat, as the Wethersfield Historical Society states. 

Deane also served as a representative to the Second Continental Congress, which began its session on May 10, 1775. In the earlier hours on the same day, the American cause achieved its “first offensive victory” with the capture of Britain’s Fort Ticonderoga in New York, led by Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys and Connecticut’s Benedict Arnold, according to American Battlefield Trust.  

Though he was not at the battle, Deane’s efforts proved instrumental in the victory, as he secured the essential funding and supplies for the American forces and even “convinced his fellow committee members that Connecticut should coordinate” the effort against the fort, according to Covart. The successful capture and seizure of arms at the fort “gave Deane some prestige in Congress,” as Clark’s biography notes, and the nickname “Ticonderoga.” 

In a letter to his wife Elizabeth, dated July 20, 1775, he reflected on his life’s mission as a patriot:  

  My principles are (the eye of my God knows them, and the most envious eye of man or the bitterest tongue of slander cannot find anything in my political conduct to contradict them) to sacrifice all lesser considerations to the service of the whole, and in this tempestuous season to throw cheerfully overboard private fortune, private emolument, even my life, if the ship, with the jewel Liberty, may be safe. This being my line of conduct, I have calmness of mind which more than balances my external troubles, of which I have not a few. 

Deane continued his contributions to America’s founding by serving on various committees, procuring military supplies for Gen. George Washington’s army, and formulating the rules for a continental navy and purchasing its first vessel in October 1775, according to Clark’s biography.  

Even after much success, as Connecticut History describes, his frosty relationship with Sherman and support for Israel Putnam’s position in the military as a major general over Daniel Wooster spelled the end of Deanes service as a delegate. The General Assembly declined his appointment to a third term. 

Still, other Continental Congressmen, like Franklin, “feared losing a colleague who had a lot to offer,” according to Covart. Longing for foreign support, particularly from France, Deane was seen as having the tenacity and mercantile wherewithal to secure the much-needed aid, even though he barely could speak “six consecutive words in French,” as later recalled by Pierre Beaumarchais — a French arms-dealer for the American cause. 

Nevertheless, Deane accepted the Secret Committee of Congress’ proposition in January 1776; he was to secure “clothing and arms for twenty-five thousand men, with a suitable quantity of ammunition and a hundred field-pieces,” as well as “great quantities of linens and woolens with other articles” for trade with Native American tribes, according to Clark. In March, he set sail on his unofficial, secret trip under the “guise of a commercial agent,” according to Connecticut History. The mission’s magnitude was not lost on Deane, who wrote to his frail wife: 

“The present object is great: I am about to enter on the great state of Europe, and the consideration of getting myself well established weighs me down, without the addition of more tender scenes; but I am ‘Safe in the hand of the protecting Power, who ruled my natal, and must fix my mortal hour.’ …May God Almighty protect you safe through the vicissitudes of time.”

He would never see his wife alive again, as Elizabeth died in 1777. 

Envoy to France 

Deane arrived in Paris sometime between June and July 1776, escaping British ships by sailing to the Bermudas, then to Spain. Prior to his arrival and without his foreknowledge, the French were already aiding the American cause; however, Deane’s main contacts in France were to be French Foreign Minister Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes and Beaumarchais.  

He officially met Vergennes for a two-hour interview on July 17. As Clark describes, the French were “eager to know more about the colonies” and Deane was “anxious to learn how the contemplated Declaration of Independence would be received in Europe.” (He would not receive a copy of the document until November 16 that year, a month after it was reported in the French newspapers.) The initial meeting went well enough — Vergennes explained that France “could not openly encourage the shipping of warlike stores, but no obstruction of any kind would be given; that Deane was to have a free hand to carry on any kind of commerce in the kingdom under the protection of the police” and himself, according to Clark.  

Vergennes’ enthusiasm for the revolution was stoked by the prospects of a split crippling Britain so “that she could no longer disturb France,” and his belief that “the independence of the colonies would greatly advance the commerce of France,” as Clark describes. It should also be noted that republican ideals were finding support in the country, like with Beaumarchais — but that would meet an ugly end during the French Revolution more than a decade later.  

Ten days after his meeting with Vergennes, Deane wrote to Congress saying he had “arranged for a line of credit for one million French livres when the United States declared its independence,” as noted by The National Constitution Center. While his inexperience in French aristocratic circles (and the language itself) often embarrassed him, Deane still persevered; but other challenges presented themselves. As he shared with the Committee of Correspondence in an August 16, 1776, letter: 

Were it possible, I would attempt to paint to you the heartrending anxiety I have suffered in this time through a total want of intelligence; my arrival here, my name, my lodgings, and many other particulars have been reported to the British administration. …and the city swarms with Englishmen, and as money purchases everything in this country, I have had, and still have, a most difficult task to avoid their machinations. …I must again remind you of my situation here: the bills designed for my use are protested, and expenses rising fast in consequence of the business on my hands. That quantity of stores to be shipped will amount to a large sum; the very charge of them will be great, for which I am the only responsible person.”

Still, Deane carried on his mission with Vergennes and Beaumarchais’ help, purchasing and coordinating the shipment of military supplies for 30,000 soldiers, while keeping America in “good standing with the French government,” according to Covart. Though he was not instructed to do so, Deane proved vital in commissioning foreign officers to support the American Revolution, including the Marquis de Lafayette, Casimir Pulaski, the Baron de Kalb and Baron von Steuben. Some of the officers irritated American leaders — which would later hurt Deane’s reputation.  

By March 1777, Deane’s efforts supplied the Continental Army with more than a thousand barrels of gunpowder, 52 cannon and 12,000 muskets on ships that sailed to Portsmouth, N.H., and Massachusetts, according to “Silas Deane: Forlorn and Forgotten Patriot” by Jimmy Dick.  

In December 1776, Deane would no longer be the lone American in France: the Continental Congress arranged a three-person commission to open formal negotiations with France. Along with Deane, since he was already in France, Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin (who was well-regarded in the French court and arguably the most famous American of his age) and Arthur Lee of Virginia, who was also in Europe. Much like his relationship with Roger Sherman, Deane and Lee’s relationship was a contentious one.  The latter took his frustration out in letters to his brothers, who both served in Congress. He accused Deane — and Franklin — of “pocketing funds and profiting from the conflict,” according to Dick’s biography. These accusations eventually ruined Deanes reputation in the eyes of Congress.  

The main difficulty Deane, Franklin and Lee encountered in achieving a formal alliance between the Americans and French government was the latter’s hesitation in backing an unproven army. The Continental Army needed a victory, which it finally achieved in the Battle of Saratoga in late 1777 (Benedict Arnold was hailed as a hero for his actions during the fighting). With Vergennes agreeing to open assistance, Deane, Franklin and Lee signed the Treaty of Alliance and a Treaty of Amity and Commerce on Feb. 6, 1778. The terms of the treaties were as followed, according to the U.S. Department of the State’s Office of the Historian: 

“The Treaty of Alliance contained the provisions the U.S. commissioners had originally requested, but also included a clause forbidding either country to make a separate peace with Britain, as well as a secret clause allowing for Spain, or other European powers, to enter into the alliance. Spain officially entered the war on June 21, 1779. The Treaty of Amity and Commerce promoted trade between the United States and France and recognized the United States as an independent nation.”

In March, the three Americans were “formally presented to King Louis XVI as their nation’s representatives in a ceremony,” as noted by Connecticut History.  

This marked the last high point in Deane’s storied career, which even then was not an entirely positive moment for the Connecticut native. Had it ended here, perhaps he would not have been a “forgotten” patriot as several historians have described him. But Lee’s accusations — driven by jealousy as historians and Beaumarchais suggest — became too damaging to ignore; Deane’s military commissions, given without congressional authorization, frustrated Congress to the point where they ordered his recall just two weeks prior to the ceremony with the French king.  

Both the French and Franklin wished Lee had been recalled instead. Nevertheless, Beaumarchais assured Deane that “you cannot be guilty in the eyes of Congress”; Vergennes wrote to the diplomat that the king was “desirous of giving you a personal testimony of his satisfaction with your conduct.” Meanwhile, Franklin also defended him, writing to Congress on March 31, 1778: 

“My colleague, Mr. Deane, being recalled by Congress, and no reasons given that yet appeared here, it is apprehended to be the effect of some misrepresentations from an enemy or two at Paris and at Nantes. I have no doubt that he will be able to clearly to justify himself; but having lived intimately with him more than fifteen months, the greatest part of the time in the same house, and a constant witness of his public conduct, I cannot avoid giving this testimony, though unasked, that I esteem him a faithful, active, and able minister, who to my knowledge has done in various ways great and important services to his country, whose interests I wish may always be every one in her employ be as much and as efficiently promoted.” 

The supportive voices, however, would not be enough.  

‘A Forgotten Patriot’ 

On July 10, 1778, Deane arrived in Philadelphia, and two days later, requested an immediate interview with the Continental Congress to clear his name. The opportunity would not come for another month, until mid-August. While in the city, he stayed with his friend, Benedict Arnold.  

As Connecticut History describes, Deane was “on the defensive,” having left France “without reconciling his financial accounts, leaving him vulnerable to charges of profiteering lodged against him by Lee’s allies.” To make matters worse, however, Deane could “not prove that he had not profited from the arms shipments or monies loaned by the French government to purchase arms” due to France’s desire to “conceal the aide they had given the Americans prior to the signing of the alliance,” according to Dick’s biography.  

After two hearings in August, Congress slow-walked granting Deane another opportunity, to the point where he penned a defense of his conduct in the Pennsylvania Packet titled “Address of Silas Deane to the Free and Virtuous Citizens of America.” In this article, published in November 1778, he gave an account of his dealings in Europe and the “many bickerings” between himself and Arthur Lee. He also accused his detractors of giving “universal disgust to the nation whose assistance we solicited.”  

Additionally, Deane tried to reassure readers of his honorable service to the American cause, and even presented a warning, writing:   

“Now, then, my countrymen, let me state in short my reasons for giving you these facts. I have thought ever since the violences and despotism of Great Britain first drove the dispute to the issue of arms, that an alliance with France was for your real interest and happiness. I was, as far as in me lay, a willing instrument to promote it. I now see, what I have suspected, a design to lead you into a breach of your national faith and honor, and thereby most probably, to the eventual loss of that liberty, which you have purchased at so great an expense of blood and treasure. …whilst I reverence your unsuspecting confidence, I would inculcate on your minds the artifices of your foes, and lead you to beware, and on your guard.” 

Deane’s aim was to return to France to collect the financial records necessary to prove his innocence. In August 1779, Congress granted his request; by July 1780, Deane was again on European soil; while his reputation had not suffered in Paris, he was “discouraged, depressed, and broke,” according to Covart.  As his friend Beaumarchais described, “I am the only person to whom he has entirely confided, and he shows bitterness that borders on something worse.” The bitterness was compounded due to the Continental Congress failure to pay back any of the considerable fortune Deane had fronted. He verged on the brink of financial ruin. To stave off complete bankruptcy, he moved to Ghent, Belgium in 1781, with the hopes of “start[ing] a new business venture, but few opportunities materialized,” as Covart notes.  

In this despondent state, Deane sealed his reputation with his contemporaries as hostile to the American Revolution. Between May and June 1781, Deane vented his frustration with an inept Congress and the Continental Army in letters to his relatives and friends, writing, “I find that an independent democratical [sic] government is not equal to the securing of the peace, liberty, and safety of a continent like America,” and “Will the country flourish more under independency, than while connected with Great Britain?” He even suggested “put[ting] an end to the calamities of the country,” and questioned the war’s continuation. Additionally, the letters express a fear that if the American Revolution failed, the country’s economics would suffer greatly. For a man who spent years as a merchant, this fear may have been most pressing considering his impoverished financial status. 

Although these sentiments run counter to those of a once enthusiastic patriot, Clark argues that they are the “cry of a desponding man, not of a traitor.” Yet Deane’s opinions were not kept private as intended — as the British intercepted and published the letters in London newspapers in 1782. As Covart states, he thus became a “persona non grata in the United States.” His role in the American Revolution was over.  

For the rest of his life, Deane lived in Europe, moving to London in March 1783, despite not wanting to give “further advantage to his enemies,” according to Clark. (The American Revolution would officially end on September 3 that year with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.) However, his reputation was further sullied when he and his old friend, Benedict Arnold — who at that point was an outright traitor — met, though Deane reportedly “told Arnold to leave him alone,” Covart states. Nevertheless, after the reported visit, Deane’s remaining political allies severed ties with him.  

Deane was practically isolated. A man neither a country nor political friends — a far cry from the connections, prominence and esteem he once enjoyed. In the stress of these latter years, his health suffered. Still, he had his relatives like his brother Barnabas, who urged Deane to return to Connecticut. Feeling the environment safe, he accepted the request and boarded a ship on Sept. 23, 1789. However, at 10 a.m., while walking the quarter deck, he complained to the captain that he did not feel well. He was taken to the cabin where he died a few hours later. While there have been conspiracies that he was poisoned, more likely his body could no longer withstand his bouts with prior illnesses and overall weakness.       

He was buried in an unmarked grave in Deal, England.  

Deane’s legacy would have remained tarnished had it not been for his granddaughter, Philaura Deane Alden, who “petitioned Congress to finish its audit of her grandfather’s account,” according to Covart. In the end, the U.S. Congress found Deane was falsely accused of mismanaging funds, adding that he had “acted honorably” — and the family received payment owed, totaling $37,000. 

In the end, Deane’s reputation may have been rehabilitated, but his pessimism about the American Revolution, driven by Lee’s accusations that effectively extinguished his livelihood and patriotic fervor, complicates his legacy — hence his status as “forgotten.” 

However, Deane was not a traitor in the sense that he sold secrets to the British or even aided them (which a lesser man might have done, considering his treatment by the Continental Congress). His diplomacy, organizational skills and expert ability to procure military supplies and funding were unquestionably instrumental at various turning points throughout the war. In fact, one could argue, he engineered those turning points in America’s favor.  

Today, his home still stands in Wethersfield, and it is a National Historic Landmark. One can only marvel at how Deane rose from obscurity as a blacksmith’s son to the heights of American Revolution back to near obscurity. 

Hopefully, this piece shines a new light on his work, and pulls him out of the shadows of history, so he is no longer forgotten. 

Till next time — 

Your Yankee Doodle Dandy, 

Andy Fowler 

What neat history do you have in your town? Send it to yours truly and I may end up highlighting it in a future edition of ‘Hidden in the Oak.’ Please encourage others to follow and subscribe to our newsletters and podcast, ‘Y CT Matters.’     

This “Hidden in the Oak” edition was inspired by Yankee Institute’s move to Silas Deane Highway in Wethersfield. Yes we’re moving! To continue supporting our work (along with this historical newsletter) please use the new address below:  

915 Silas Deane Highway 

Second Floor, Suite 2 

Wethersfield, CT 06109 




Andrew Fowler

Andrew Fowler joined Yankee Institute in July 2022 after four years in the communications department for the Knights of Columbus international headquarters in New Haven. In that span, he managed the organization’s social media accounts and wrote for the company’s various publications, including COLUMBIA magazine, which is delivered to nearly two million members. Additionally, he is the curator of the Blessed Michael McGivney Pilgrimage Center’s online exhibit “K of C Baseball: An American Story,” that explores the intricate ties between the organization and the growth of the national pastime. He was also a production assistant for MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and the 2016 Dinesh D’Souza film, “Hillary’s America.” Andrew currently serves on the Milford Board of Education. He is an avid runner and basketball fan, cinephile, and an aspiring musician and author. He graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2015.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *