Unlikely allies, p.30

Unlikely Allies, page 30


Unlikely Allies

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  Deane was buried in an unmarked grave in a churchyard in Deal, England. Fate denied his last wish to return home to the nation he had helped found.



  Was Silas Deane really dead? Only days before Deane left London, an acquaintance thought that Deane had “never looked better.” He had recovered from his long illness, and he seemed optimistic about the future and looked forward to returning home. The suddenness of his death aboard ship left some people wondering whether he had faked his own death so that he could shed his old soiled identity and return with a new one. Others whispered that Deane had committed suicide. Few even suspected that Deane was murdered.

  The circumstances of his demise—his sudden collapse, inability to speak, and quick death—all suggest that Deane might have died from a cerebral hemorrhage. Deane’s undiagnosed illness could have weakened blood vessels, leading to a greater risk of a sudden rupture in the brain. Of course, anyone who drops dead without warning could be a victim of a cerebral hemorrhage, but it may be significant that Dr. Bancroft, who had been prescribing medicine for Deane and who knew Deane’s condition best, did not think that Deane had died from natural causes.

  A few months after Deane’s death, Bancroft wrote to Joseph Priestley, the renowned British scientist, that Deane had been depressed and had committed suicide. Although he was not present at the time of death and had no contact with anyone who was there, Bancroft described the details of Deane’s passing based on Captain Davis’s written account. During Deane’s long illness, Bancroft had prescribed medicine, which was apparently laudanum, a highly addictive opiate derivative commonly prescribed for digestive ailments. Bancroft wrote that Deane had intentionally overdosed on the drug, but this explanation makes no sense. Laudanum, like morphine, causes a gradual lingering death, whereas Deane collapsed suddenly and remained unable to speak until his death four hours later. Bancroft, a well-respected medical authority, surely knew that Deane’s symptoms did not point to an overdose of laudanum.

  Moreover, Deane had not shown any signs of depression or an intention to kill himself. If he had meant to kill himself, why wait until he had borrowed the money from friends for his passage and boarded the ship? Deane was returning home with the acquiescence, if not quite the blessing, of Washington’s administration. He had much to look forward to upon his arrival. In addition to being reunited with his son and siblings, Deane was contemplating two attractive business ventures: the royal governor of Canada had shown interest in Deane’s bold proposal to build a canal from Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence River, and Deane was negotiating with investors about developing land in the Ohio River valley. Nothing in Deane’s letters or manner hinted at the possibility of suicide. This renders Bancroft’s story not only puzzling but suspicious. But why would Bancroft have fabricated facts?

  We know that Bancroft’s love of money exceeded his love of country or friends. Bancroft had served the crown out of greed, not loyalty. He was disloyal even to his British spymasters. For example, he had never fully disclosed to the British that he had known in advance about James Aitken’s plot to burn down the naval yards and had done nothing to stop it. If the British government knew that Bancroft had protected Aitken, it might be grounds for cutting off his generous thousand-pound pension (worth about $185,000 today). Moreover, as a stock speculator, Bancroft made his money by trading on the inside information he obtained through his rich network of social connections. If his British friends knew he had protected Aitken, his social position and his business would have suffered. And Bancroft had an application pending before Parliament for a valuable patent on chemical dyes derived from his research on tropical plants. Everything Bancroft had and hoped to gain depended upon Deane’s silence.

  Could he trust Deane to keep quiet? Bancroft knew that Deane had previously published embarrassing information about the American commissioners and Congress. What if Deane returned to the States and disclosed more information about Bancroft’s role in the Revolution? Even if Deane promised not to disclose Bancroft’s secret service to the American cause, Bancroft could not be sure that whatever was left of Deane’s private papers did not contain some incriminating evidence. Those papers would likely end up in the hands of Congress if Deane pursued his claims for compensation from the U.S. government. After Bancroft failed to dissuade Deane from returning home, there was only one way to protect Bancroft’s secrets.

  Was Bancroft capable of murder? His duplicity was beyond doubt: he befriended Aitken in prison so he could extract information that was then used to hang him; he had put Deane’s life at risk by disclosing his activities to the British government; he had stolen Deane’s correspondence and sold it to the British ambassador; and he conspired to steal the rest of Deane’s papers for sale to Jefferson, all the time lulling Deane into believing that he was Deane’s loyal friend.

  We do not need to speculate on the darkness of Bancroft’s soul. In Bancroft’s novel, Charles Wentworth Esq., one of his characters observes that civilization has instructed men “how to perpetrate fraud and injustice with greater art, secrecy and success,” and that law, rather than discouraging crime, “first created the temptation to evil.” He adds that “no man, who is villain enough to meditate my murder, will be deterred by the punishment of laws, which by secrecy and art he either may, or at least will expect to elude.” In these passages Bancroft reveals a distinct fascination for evil and murder.

  But if Bancroft wanted to murder Deane, how could he have accomplished it at such a distance? Bancroft had prescribed medications for Deane from time to time, and he was an authority on indigenous South American plants and poisons. Bancroft possessed a quantity of curare, which was derived from tropical vines and caused death by sudden asphyxiation. Bancroft left behind a tantalizing clue as to how he might have murdered Deane. In his Essay on the Natural History of Guiana, in South America, he specifically mentions how natives in that country used curare to kill an enemy stealthily. He notes that when a native intends to poison another, he will feign forgiveness for any past grievance and “even repay it with services and acts of friendship, until [he has] destroyed all distrust and apprehension of danger in the destined victim of the vengeance.”

  Before Deane left London, he may well have asked Bancroft to provide him with some medications for his trip. Bancroft would have had the opportunity to mix some poison into the laudanum or other medicine he supplied to Deane. Shortly after boarding the Boston Packet, Deane may have taken something like laudanum to prevent seasickness. That might explain his sudden collapse just as the voyage got under way. In sum, Bancroft had the motive, the opportunity, and the means to poison Deane and make it appear to be a suicide.

  No one at that time would have suspected Bancroft, who was regarded by Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson as a devoted patriot. When Bancroft returned to America for a few months in 1783, he was regaled as a hero of the Revolution. In fact, even then he was working as a spy for the British government. He continued to receive payments as a British spy until his death in 1821. No one suspected Bancroft’s treachery until 1888, when one historian, aptly named Benjamin Franklin Stevens, found Bancroft’s secret correspondence in the files of Lord Auckland of the British Secret Service. Stevens discovered the British foreign minister’s instructions to Bancroft to leave Deane’s papers in a bottle under a certain tree in the Tuileries.

  AFTER CONGRESS abruptly recalled Arthur Lee from Paris in 1779, he returned to Philadelphia to demand a hearing from Congress to clear his name. He found himself in the same awkward position as did Deane. He waited months before Congress would listen to him, and no reasons were given for his recall. Yet Congress would neither clear him of wrongdoing nor thank him for his service. Lee blamed “that old corrupt Serpent” Franklin and his allies in Congress for plotting against him, although there is no evidence that Franklin made any statements against Lee. Members of Congress already had sufficient evidence from Lee’s erratic behavior that
he was unfit for the diplomatic service.

  Lee also submitted a claim for compensation for his time in Paris, but Congress was preoccupied with the war and the falling value of the Continental dollar. In the meantime, Lee needed a job. He sought an appointment as the first secretary of foreign affairs, but the post went to Robert Livingston of New York. This was enough for Lee to charge that New Yorkers were conspiring to seize control of the national government. He had learned nothing about how self-destructive his suspicions were. Lee returned to Virginia, feeling paranoid, dejected, and anxious about his financial circumstances.

  With the help of his family, Lee was elected to Congress at the end of 1781, and he returned to Philadelphia determined to punish his enemies, especially Robert Morris, whom he regarded as Deane’s partner in crime. Lee became the leading opponent of Morris, who as the superintendent of finance was in effect the prime minister of the national government. Lee had himself elected chairman of a committee to oversee Morris’s work as superintendent.

  At the same time, Congress had appointed Thomas Barclay, a partner in Morris’s firm, to conduct an audit of Deane’s claims. Lee feared that Barclay would favor Deane, so Lee preempted Barclay from recommending a generous settlement for Deane by issuing his own report. In 1776, Deane had been promised that his expenses would be covered by Congress and that he would receive a five-percent sales commission on all goods he procured for Congress. Lee’s report denied Deane’s expenses and any sales commissions after he became a commissioner. This formula disallowed the bulk of Deane’s claim, but even Lee had to acknowledge that Deane was owed a substantial amount by Congress. Nevertheless, Lee’s report recommended that Deane should receive less than Lee himself had demanded as compensation for his service as a commissioner.

  Since Congress had already appointed Thomas Barclay to audit Deane’s claims, it ignored Lee’s report. In 1787, Barclay determined that Deane was owed 6,117 pounds (about $918,000 today), far more than Lee’s report had determined. By the time Barclay issued his report, Lee had joined the Board of the Treasury, and he arranged to bury the report without Congress taking action. Lee used his position on the Treasury Board to bully wealthy financiers and merchants from New York and Philadelphia whom he disdained. Like other proto-Jeffersonians, Lee sneered at their ostentatious tastes as evidence that they lacked civic virtue. Men like Deane, Franklin, and Morris were symptoms of a dangerous disease infecting the body politic. Lee’s hostility to mercantile interests reflected a larger ideological struggle against centers of commercial power. He saw these same men seeking to strengthen the national government at the expense of states and agrarian interests.

  Fearing the rise of this new class of men, Lee also opposed the adoption of the Constitution. The debate over the Constitution would divide the Lee-Adams axis. John Adams and his New England allies supported the Constitution and eventually formed the Federalist Party. By contrast, some of Lee’s allies in Congress shared his animosity toward both commerce and national government, and years later, these men would coalesce around Jefferson’s Republican Party. But unlike Lee, Jefferson and the Republicans were rabid Francophiles in the wake of the French Revolution. To the end of his life, Lee’s sympathies remained with Britain and against France. Lee defended the idea of monarchy, looked forward to reestablishing an alliance with Britain, and warned that the French were untrustworthy. As a result of Lee’s pro-British leanings, Congress considered a censure motion against him, and the Virginia Assembly tried to recall him from Congress. Both efforts were defeated by his politically powerful older brothers.

  After Lee left Congress in 1784, Congress appointed him to settle land claims with the Iroquois. He used his position and his influence in Congress to acquire 8,500 acres of Indian land along the Ohio and another 10,000 acres in western Virginia. It must have seemed like poetic justice to Lee that at the end of his public career, he would finally achieve his father’s dream of establishing a vast empire in the Ohio River valley. Ironically, having spent most of the prior sixteen years in public service, Lee died in 1792 with a substantial estate, while Deane, who had entered public service as a wealthy man, died a pauper.

  THE BEINECKE RARE BOOK and Manuscript Library at Yale University still retains Deane’s college essay quoting Cato. The wise man, Deane wrote, should beware of “the deceits of the human heart.” Lee had succeeded in preventing Deane from obtaining any compensation for his public service during Deane’s lifetime. It fell to Deane’s granddaughter, Philura Deane Alden, to petition Congress for payment of the amount long due to Deane. In 1842, after a lengthy examination of all the documents, Congress paid Deane’s heirs $37,000 (about $971,000 today, roughly the same amount originally recommended by Barclay). The congressional report found that “Mr. Deane performed highly important and valuable services for this country.” The committee noted archly that despite Deane’s efforts to settle his accounts, “from causes which it is not deemed necessary to further detail, he was unable to procure their adjustment.” Specifically, Congress criticized Lee’s attempts sixty years earlier to settle Deane’s claims as “erroneous” and a “gross injustice to Mr. Deane.”

  More than a half-century after his death, Deane was at last vindicated.



  By the end of the American Revolution, Beaumarchais had bought and shipped arms and supplies to the Continental Army worth six million livres (about $46 million). Much of this was financed by the French government, expecting to be repaid by Congress, but about one-fifth of the total cost was borrowed by Beaumarchais’s firm on his personal credit. Congress had specifically approved a contract with Beaumarchais’s agent in 1778 for most of these supplies. In addition, both Franklin and Morris, as the superintendent of finance, had signed notes promising to pay Beaumarchais millions of livres. Indeed, Congress had already voted in 1779 to acknowledge its obligation to repay France for all the arms and supplies it had received. Yet, by the war’s end, Congress, urged on by Lee, preferred to think of these arms as a gift from France. The conclusion that no payment was due flew in the face of the repeated assertions from the French government that it had never made such a gift.

  In 1782, under pressure from the French ambassador and at the insistence of Morris, Congress sent Barclay to France to audit Beaumarchais’s claims and reach a settlement. Beaumarchais objected that he had already submitted his claims to Deane, who had audited the account and determined in 1780 that Beaumarchais—on behalf of himself and the French government—was owed 3.6 million livres (about $28 million today). Beaumarchais reluctantly agreed to re-submit hundreds of receipts to Barclay. Yet, even then, no payment was made.

  By this time Beaumarchais was supporting himself, his third wife, Marie-Thérèse, and his daughter, Eugénie, from his plays and his investments. He had recently established a company with the Pèrier brothers to provide water to the city of Paris by means of steam pumps. It was an ingenious and ambitious new venture. Still, Beaumarchais was being pursued relentlessly by the creditors of Rodriguez Hortalez and was forced to beg the French government for assistance to fend off his creditors.

  As Beaumarchais teetered on the brink of insolvency, he was living far beyond his means. Anticipating great wealth from his Paris water company, he was constructing a second mansion in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. For nearly two decades, he wrote to Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, and Jay at different times, imploring them to intervene on his behalf with Congress, but to no avail. A succession of congressional committees was appointed to investigate Beaumarchais’s claims and then disbanded. Congress dawdled and delayed paying off its foreign creditors, and, until his death, Lee did his utmost to thwart any payments to Beaumarchais.

  One of the issues that stymied any resolution of Beaumarchais’s claim was that the French government had acknowledged giving the Americans three million livres in 1776 prior to recognizing the United States. Congress acknowledged that after ratifying the alliance with France it had receiv
ed two million livres from France to purchase arms through Rodriguez Hortalez, but no one knew where the other million livres had gone. For years, France had not wanted to acknowledge publicly that it had violated its treaty commitments with England by giving a million livres to Beaumarchais to purchase arms for the Americans even before it had signed a treaty of alliance. Some members of Congress suspected that Beaumarchais had pocketed the million livres at the expense of the American war effort. That was not the case, but the government of Louis XVI refused to clarify what happened by admitting that France had lied to the British about its role in arming the Americans.

  Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury secretary, reported to Congress in 1789 that the United States owed Beaumarchais 2.28 million livres (roughly $18 million today), and the revolutionary French government disclosed to the Americans that the “missing million livres” had been paid to Beaumarchais to buy arms. The enemies of Deane and Franklin charged that Beaumarchais had lied by not disclosing earlier that he had received one million livres from the French government. This was a completely disingenuous argument to avoid paying Beaumarchais what he was owed. All the money that France had given Beaumarchais had gone to buy arms on the assumption that the Americans would pay it back to Beaumarchais. Beaumarchais could not disclose the secret payment by the French government precisely because it was contrary to France’s stated neutrality at the time. Nevertheless, Beaumarchais’s enemies argued that since the million livres was intended for the United States, Beaumarchais now owed the United States one million livres plus interest. Beaumarchais was denied justice from Congress. Nothing was ever paid to him for all his efforts and expenses.


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