Unlikely allies, p.28

Unlikely Allies, page 28


Unlikely Allies

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  Even though Deane’s supporters had ultimately triumphed over Lee’s forces, Deane had reason to feel bitter. He tried to console himself that he had at least the confidence of knowing he was in the right. Yet the fact remained that Deane’s life had been shattered. Deane had spent two years abroad waiting for Congress to act while neglecting his own business affairs and family. His finances were dissipated after years of uncompensated public service, during which he had been at risk of kidnapping, arrest, and assassination; for four years he had missed family, friends, and his beloved home in Wethersfield; his reputation was soiled by Lee’s libels. And though he had returned to America with treaties of commerce and alliance, a French fleet, and the first foreign diplomat to recognize Congress, Deane had not received a word of recognition or thanks. Instead, he was offered only a token sum of worthless currency to pay for two years squandered in Philadelphia.

  Franklin, recalling his own ordeal before Parliament in 1775 and believing that Deane, too, had been treated unfairly, offered Deane financial support while Deane struggled to rebuild his business. Deane painstakingly put together all of his financial records for Congress’s auditor. He estimated Congress owed him more than 300,000 livres (about $2.3 million today) for his years of public service and uncompensated expenses. But he doubted that the men who had abused him in Congress would ever pay him.

  Beaumarchais, too, was also having financial difficulties. Despite Congress’s acknowledgment that the arms sales were not a gift, Congress made no effort to pay for them. Deane felt embarrassed that he could do nothing to compel his government to pay their debt to Beaumarchais. Moreover, even if Congress had the will to repay Beaumarchais, the economy was wrecked, and the currency was worthless. All that sustained the American military and government was France’s largesse.

  The Continental Army was again losing more battles than it was winning. While Congress had toyed with Deane’s fate, the Americans had suffered a long succession of defeats, including major losses at Savannah, Augusta, and Charleston, where the Americans lost the entire southern army of 5,400 men. Contrary to expectations, d’Estaing’s fleet had not won a single naval battle. The British had burned Portsmouth and Norfolk in Virginia, as well as Fairfield, Norwalk, and New Haven in Connecticut, and they had sent Indian tribes to terrorize settlements up and down the western frontier. Neither Congress nor most of the military command had proven effective in 1780. Once again, prospects for victory had dimmed.

  Deane had told Congress that “whatever my fate may be, I can never be miserable, on the contrary I shall be essentially happy” knowing the part he had played in the Revolution. Yet after the public and private traumas of the last two years, he suffered from deep depression and anxiety. In this state of mind, Deane poured out his frustration, anger, and worry in his correspondence to friends and family. His language was intemperate, but his concerns, especially regarding the future of the United States, were understandable. Deane’s public trial by fire had brought out in his writing a more reflective tone and a darker voice. Through the spring and summer of 1781, Deane wrote numerous long, thoughtful letters questioning the future of the war and the young republic.

  To his brother Simeon he questioned whether “an independent democratical government” could ever secure to posterity peace, safety, and liberty. “[W]e ought to inquire if any country ever was, for any time, even for one century, at peace, free, and happy, under a democracy?” He could think of no historical precedent. Even if the Revolution was won, what would be the condition of the country, “ravaged and exhausted, our commerce destroyed, an immense internal and foreign debt contracted,” and saddled with the expense of establishing a new government? “Will the inhabitants of America, taught to believe that they fought to exonerate themselves from taxes” happily pay much greater taxes to a new government? To another friend he confessed that he had hoped independence could be won with little difficulty or bloodshed, but “I need not tell you that the hope proved abortive.” Since independence, America had been transformed by removing the “restraints of regular government,” he wrote. “Noisy and designing individuals had risen from the lowest order, and displaced the best and most respectable members of society.” The state governments were weak, and “even in Congress itself reason, patriotism, and justice were but too often vanquished by faction, cabal, and views of private interest.” Deane argued to another delegate that Congress should negotiate a return to Britain. France was “a great loser” on whom America could no longer rely. If the war continued, all Americans could expect at the end was unconditional surrender.

  Perhaps most surprising, Deane had begun to question whether the United States could negotiate with Britain separately, in violation of the treaty of alliance with France, which he had helped to draft. He wrote to Jesse Root, a member of Congress, that France had merely intended at the outset “to assist us just so far as might be absolutely necessary to prevent an accommodation [with Britain].” Initially, while France violated its treaty obligations with Britain, “it does not appear to have ever expected or desired that we should become independent,” and thus, France insisted on secrecy. France continued to harass and arrest American privateers and slowed down the shipments of supplies. France “holds herself at liberty to desert our alliance and independency at the end of an unsuccessful war; and, as the present is not pretended to be a successful war, the inference is plain.” Even after the French agreed to the treaties, Deane argued, there was no reason to think that the changes in policy “were the effect of a regard for our country, any more than the preceding resolution to disown and abandon us had been.”

  IT WAS NOW CLEAR TO DEANE that they had made a terrible error in imagining that they could rely on support from abroad. The Europeans only wanted to use them for their own purposes, but now as Europe headed toward a general war, the Americans would be abandoned. The Americans must find a way to restore relations with the mother country as soon as possible. Deane expressed himself even more bluntly to Major Tallmadge at Washington’s headquarters. If Britain is defeated, Deane wondered, would France and Spain “dictate the law to us also? They certainly will; it is not in the nature of a despotic victorious power to do otherwise.” America was trapped between two great powers like “Scylla on the one hand and Charybdis on the other, and our pilots drunk with the intoxicating ideas of independent sovereignty, madly pushing us into that vortex in which our peace, liberty, and safety will be swallowed up and lost for ever.”

  THE SUN had barely set when Edward Bancroft headed into the Tuileries. Spring had indeed come to Paris, and the evening air was still warm and pungent with the scent of pollen. He found the familiar tree and pushed a thick roll of pages into the bottle. He thought of the smile these pages would bring to the British foreign secretary, Lord Weymouth, and he disappeared before the British agent arrived to retrieve them.



  Paris and London,

  October 1781-September 1789

  The letters, which Deane had written to his friends and brother, somehow found their way into the ink-stained hands of James Rivington, a Loyalist New York publisher “ever ready to serve his King and Country.” It would seem more than a coincidence that all of Deane’s incriminating letters over a four-week period in May 1781 were intercepted at sea. More likely, the letters must have been turned over by someone who would have had access to all of Deane’s correspondence over time—Bancroft.

  In any event, Rivington now had eleven letters in Deane’s handwriting. Rivington was a polished English gentleman whose journalistic standards were shaped entirely by self-interest and who had only an occasional relationship with the truth. On October 24, Rivington began publishing Deane’s letters as a serial in his paper, The Royal Gazette. The series, which ran from October through December of 1781, proved so popular that he republished them as a separate pocket volume entitled Paris Papers for six shillings a copy. Not since d’Eon published some of Louis XV’s diplomatic corre
spondence in 1764 had the world enjoyed such a candid look at the private letters of an important diplomat. All of New York and London were intrigued by the bathetic confessions of an American agent and emissary who gave credence to the claims that Britain was winning the war and who bluntly revealed the deep divisions both within the Congress and between France and America. George III was especially interested in Deane’s call for a reconciliation with the mother country, and he was prepared to offer Deane a substantial bribe to encourage him to influence his friends in Congress.

  Deane, who was in Ghent on personal business, only learned of the possible theft of his letters in late November, when Bancroft wrote to him that the vessel L’Orient had been seized by the British with important letters on board. It was not until late December that Deane heard that all of the incriminating letters he had written from May 10 until June 15 were now in the hands of the publisher. By the time Deane heard this, the letters had already appeared in New York.

  What is curious is that Deane had a premonition that his letters might be intercepted and published. The very day that Rivington announced to the world his intention of publishing Deane’s letters, Deane wrote from Ghent to his brother Barnabas, describing one of his letters:

  It is high time the curtain should be drawn up and that the actors behind the scene should be stripped of all disguise and false appearance, and the catastrophe of the piece should be placed in the full view of every one. I have attempted to do this. I expect to be abused for it, and am sure that I shall not be disappointed; . . . [S]hould that letter have been intercepted by the enemy, my sentiments will become more generally known than I wish for; but in one word be assured that we shall, unless we make peace immediately, become eventually dependant, and that unconditionally, either on France or England.

  Some people charged that Deane conspired to send the letters to Rivington, either directly or through a British agent, for the purposes of persuading the American public it was time to reconcile with Britain. The fact that Deane had already relocated himself in Ghent might support the idea that Deane expected letters to be published. Arguably, Deane tried to make the publication look accidental by writing in the form of letters to friends and family. And the fact that these letters are long and often eloquent suggest that Deane spent time crafting each of them.

  Moreover, there is some evidence in the correspondence of George III that the British government had discussed using Deane to bring about reunion with the colonies. Months before Deane wrote the letters, George III wrote to Lord North, “I think it is perfectly right that Mr. Deane should so far be trusted as to have three thousand pounds in goods for America.” Apparently, Britain was prepared to compensate Deane with trade in goods for his assistance. But the king recognized that Deane was not open to bribery. He added that “giving him particular instructions would be liable to much hazard.” Instead, the king thought that if Deane, acting on his own, could bring “any of the provinces to offer to return to their allegiance on the former foot” that “would be much better” than trying to persuade Congress as a whole.

  Historians have pointed to this letter as proof that Deane acted in concert with Britain in publishing the Paris Papers. But in fact, George III’s letter suggests that whatever scheme the British government intended, Deane acted on his own, and their original plan was abandoned. First, there is no evidence that any compensation was ever provided to Deane. Three thousand pounds (worth more than $500,000 today) would have been an extraordinary sum, and the fact that he was reduced to living like a pauper is proof that if a bribe was ever offered, he refused it. Second, even if Deane had wanted to help the British, by 1781 he was in no position to influence any of the State governments, not even Connecticut’s.

  In July 1781, Lord North sent to the king “several letters which he has received from Mr. Deane, in order to be sent as intercepted letters to America.” The prime minister noted that once the letters would be published Deane would not be able to return to America “without a re-union between Great Britain & the Colonies, & Mr. Deane seems in that respect, to have acted fairly, & to have put himself into his Majesty’s power.” However, Lord North feared that “the letters are written with so much zeal for a reconciliation” that they appeared to be written in concert with the British government.

  The king acknowledged receiving “the intercepted letters from Mr. Deane for America.” Why would the king in a private note to Lord North have referred to these letters as “intercepted” if Deane had intended to send them to Britain? In the same letter the king expressed his disappointment with the content of these letters. He agreed with Lord North that the letters had “too much appearance of being concerted with this country, and therefore not likely to have the effects as if they bore another aspect.”

  If Deane had been acting as a British agent, surely the British government would have given him some instructions as to what to say, or they would have returned them to Deane and asked him to try again. But clearly, Deane was not following instructions. A month later, George III approved the publication of the “intercepted letter from Mr. Deane,” which he again criticized as “too strong in our favour” to be truly effective in influencing American public opinion. For these reasons, it seems clear that Deane acted for his own reasons and not for any benefits promised by the British government.

  If Deane had intended for his opinions to be published, why not write another broadside to the American people, as he had done concerning his tenure as commissioner to France? Why would Deane have intentionally published his private letters and risked exposing his friends and family to embarrassment and guilt by association? And if he intended the letters to be read sequentially, the letters taken as a whole are largely redundant. Moreover, even after Rivington began publishing in late October, Deane continued writing more of the same for months until word reached him of the appearance of the Paris Papers at which point he stopped. If Deane knew the letters critical of France would be published, he would have known that he could not return to France. Yet, when he went to Ghent, he left behind clothes, papers, money, unpaid bills, and his son Jesse. He clearly planned on returning to Paris in a few weeks.

  On balance, it seems more likely that the publication of these letters was not Deane’s intention. He may have realized that someone in Valentinois had been stealing his mail for quite some time, and therefore it was only a matter of time before one of his letters was published. While many of Deane’s friends were disappointed in him for losing faith in the Revolution, the letters show Deane was not afraid to advocate for peace talks without regard for the cost to himself. And it’s equally clear that in spite of Deane’s financial hardship, he never asked for nor received any payment from the British government or Rivington.

  His friend Jeremiah Wadsworth from Hartford wrote Deane in early November, advising him that his letter of June 13 had come to him “in Mr. Rivington’s paper” and expressing the wish that Deane would have “recovered your spirits” and renounced his mistaken opinions. Barnabas worried that his brother Silas would be destroyed by this publication, even if all he said was true. “He has given his enemies just the opportunity they wanted for to ruin him in, and I fear he will loose his friends in France by it.” His brother Simeon, who would gladly have given his life for Silas, despaired that there was nothing he could do to spare his brother from the consequences of his act: “To oppose a torrent is madness.”

  Major Tallmadge wrote Deane from Wethersfield that some of Deane’s “strongest advocates, have become your most inveterate enemies.” He was being called a “traitor” and compared to his old friend Benedict Arnold, who had only recently been exposed as a British spy. Allies in Congress like Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris felt they had been duped by Deane, while Thomas Paine crowed that his worst suspicions of Deane were proved justified.

  Deane feared that he would be sent home from Europe to face charges for treason. The French government was insulted by Deane’s characterization of their motives, regar
dless of their accuracy. Deane was now persona non grata and could not return to France. Only Beaumarchais showed some sympathy for his partner whose judgment had been colored by the abuses he had suffered, but who remained a hero for having forged the alliance with France. “I will always do him the justice to say that he is one of the men who have contributed the most to the alliance of France and the United States,” Beaumarchais wrote.

  Deane wrote a long letter to Franklin, defending his actions in sending the letters. All he was guilty of was expressing his view in private correspondence that “America previous to her dispute with Great Britain was the most free, & happy Country in the World,” and that if America could return to that condition she would be far better off than in an alliance with a powerful French monarch. Deane pointed out that France was not acting from pure motives in supporting the Americans. It was, he wrote,

  absurd, to suppose that the [French] Court was become convinced of the Truth, of the doctrines advanced in Our declaration of Independancy, and by an alliance with America, meant to subscribe to those self evident Truths, of the natural equality of Men, of their inherent, and unalienable rights, of the origin, and sole Object of all civil Government, and to the rights of Subjects to refuse Allegiance, or submission, to a Government, as soon as they judge it to be oppressive.

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