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Silas Deane: Our man in Paris

Carol Sommer

Publication: The Day

Published April 21. 2013 4:00AM

I took an armchair journey to Paris via Silas Deane Road in Ledyard and Silas Deane Highway in Wethersfield, thanks to the suggestion of a reader who thought Silas Deane would make a good subject.

Along the way I met quite a cast of characters: Silas, America's first diplomat; his mudslinging rival, a French playwright; and a double agent. Attention Steven Spielberg!

Silas, a wealthy Wethersfield merchant, seemed an odd choice for the secret mission to secure French support for the Revolution. He was the son of a Ledyard blacksmith and spent most of his life within Connecticut borders and didn't know a word of French.

However, in other ways the choice made sense. Silas was a member of the Committee of Correspondence and delegate to the Continental Congress. In 1775 he'd shown leadership by helping finance the seizure of Fort Ticonderoga, and he'd procured the Alfred, the first ship of the Continental Navy. Another plus was that his business activities could serve as cover for the real goals.

But Silas also faced serious problems. He was leaving behind a sickly wife and child, he would be incommunicado for months at a time, and he could be hanged for treason if detained by the English.

Once in Paris Silas immediately began negotiations with the French foreign minister. He was assisted by political insider and playwright Caron de Beaumarchais. (Beaumarchais was the author of "The Marriage of Figaro" and "The Barber of Seville.")

It wasn't going to be easy; Louis XVI was reluctant to support a cause that would violate his treaty with England and risk a war that France couldn't afford.

Silas found Paris crawling with British spies. Not fooled by his pose as a merchant, undercover agents dogged his steps so relentlessly he frequently changed apartments to elude them. The city was filled with intrigue and it was hard to know whom to trust. One person Silas shouldn't have trusted was his colleague and confidante, Edward Bancroft, a double agent.

Another handicap was the isolating effect of 18th-century communications. News of the Declaration of Independence didn't reach Silas until mid-November 1776, and on a sad personal note, he received word of his wife's death four months after the fact.

Finally, in spite of frustrating, dangerous complications, Silas and Beaumarchais were able to organize eight shipments of arms to the colonies. These supplies reenergized the war and made possible the watershed victory at Saratoga. Silas also authorized the commissions of officers like the Marquis de Lafayette and Baron von Steuben. In 1778 Silas, along with Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee, negotiated the treaty which officially declared France a U.S. ally. These achievements helped save the revolution.

Now here's the dark side. Arthur Lee, who'd been appointed by Congress to work with Benjamin Franklin and Silas, was jealous of Silas. He spread rumors about his conduct in Paris, including the allegation that Silas had misused funds for his own profit. The financial accusations were especially blatant falsehoods. Silas had spent his own money and impoverished himself in the process, but Lee's attacks led to Silas' recall from France.

The destruction of Silas' reputation was complete when some of his private letters expressing disillusionment with the revolution were leaked to the press, perhaps by his treacherous friend, Edward Bancroft. Silas was branded a traitor.

In 1789 after years in exile in Europe, Silas died, possibly at the hands of Bancroft, aboard a ship bound for America. He's buried near London in an unmarked grave.

Although Congress exonerated Silas posthumously, it's hard to put a positive spin on a story where the hero loses his wife, his fortune and his reputation. Perhaps the lesson is that today's disgrace may be vindicated somewhere down the road.

And speaking of roads, we remember Silas by street signs and an elegant Wethersfield museum, but I think this forgotten Founding Father deserves much more.

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