Chapter 4 – Silas Deane’s Mission | France in the Revolution


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    James Breck Perkins headshot.
    James Breck Perkins

    James Breck Perkins (1847–1910) was an American historian notable for his works on French history. Educated at the University of Rochester, he initially practiced law before shifting to writing and public service. Perkins is best known for his comprehensive studies on the French Regency period, particularly in “France Under the Regency,” which examined Philippe d’Orléans’ governance post-Louis XIV. His other significant works include “France Under Louis XV” and “France in the American Revolution.”



      Thus far the colonists had no official representation at the court of France; their national existence had hardly assumed definite form; but in the summer of 1776 an envoy of the new republic arrived at Paris, commissioned to ask for the assistance of France.

      When sporadic disturbances developed into actual war, the colonists at once considered the question of seeking aid from foreign powers. They believed, with good reason, that France would be the most likely of European nations to render assistance; she was powerful, she was rich, and she hated England. Yet it was not without some opposition that the colonists decided to ask succor from the French King., It was a break with all the traditions of the past; many who had been outspoken against England hesitated to seek the aid of a foreign nation against the mother country. Then, too, France and the French had been immemorial objects of dislike, sometimes ripening into hatred. The French had been the allies of bloodthirsty Indians, they had plotted against the peace of the English colonists, they had been bad neighbors, they were denounced as false in character and Papist in faith.

      In September, 1775, a motion was made in Congress that envoys should be sent to France, and this received the active support of John Adams. But he was unable to persuade his associates; in his own phrase, “the resolution was murdered.” The proposition, so Adams wrote, was too much for the nerves of Congress, “the grimaces, the agitations, the convulsions were very great.” (Works of John Adams, i, 199-201.) Even Franklin thought that a virgin state should not go a-suitoring for alliances, an opinion which he found reason to change.

      The progress of events soon did away with any such reluctance. A committee of foreign correspondence was appointed, of which Franklin was made a member, and the visit of Bonvouloir, notwithstanding the guarded expressions of that timid envoy, encouraged its members to believe that France was ready to come to our aid. Accordingly, in March, 1776, it was decided to send Silas Deane to Paris to ask for clothes, arms, provisions, money, and any other assistance that a rich monarchy might extend to a needy republic. His qualifications for the position were of the slightest. He knew no French, he had no diplomatic experience, and in both respects he resembled almost all Americans. But he had some money and lived with a degree of style which, to his simple-minded countrymen, savored of the splendor of foreign courts. Unfortunately the social display in which Deane had indulged in Connecticut did not dazzle the courtiers of Versailles, and, with the best intentions, be succeeded in embarrassing his country and ruining himself.

      His instructions regulated his conduct with much minuteness. He was to assume the character of a merchant, and might even pretend to be satisfying the curiosity which led so many to visit the renowned city of Paris (Deane Papers, i, 123.) But our forefathers did not intend that their agent should waste his time in such occupation. He was directed to see Vergennes as soon as possible, and the words he should use were almost put in his mouth. He was to suggest the advantages France might derive from furnishing assistance to the colonies, and he was to ask for aid on no modest scale; the envoy was to intimate that clothing and arms for twenty-five thousand men, one hundred cannon, and supplies of any sort would be welcome. To pay for these, the colonists would promise to send shiploads of American products, though the prospect of payment might have seemed doubtful even to the most sanguine speculator.

      The inducements for French action were depicted in alluring terms: “If France will join us, in time,” wrote the Secret Committee a little later, “there is no danger but America will soon be established as an Independent Empire, and France, drawing from her the principal part of those sources of wealth and power which formerly flowed into Great Britain, will immediately become the greatest power in Europe.” (Deane Papers, i, 298; letter from Secret Committee of Oct. 1, 1776.)

      If Vergennes should receive these demands coldly, Deane was bidden not to be discouraged: he must ask the minister to reflect further, inform him that the envoy could wait at Paris for a while to receive his orders, and endeavor to ascertain if France would make a formal alliance when the colonies were organized as an independent state. On the whole, in their first essay in diplomacy, our ancestors did not err in asking for too little, or in understating the advantages to the state that should come to their aid.

      Thus instructed, Deane set out on his journey. In March, 1776, he sailed from America and, passing by the Bermudas on his voyage, landed in Spain. By this circuitous route he escaped the English cruisers; he then made his way over the Pyrenees, visited many French cities, and in July, 1776, arrived at Paris.

      On July 17 he was presented to the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, and though the conversation had to be conducted by interpreters, as has been the case with so many American diplomatic representatives since Silas Deane, the interview was satisfactory to both sides. Deane asked the minister to pardon manners that perhaps were ill adapted to the usages of courts, and assured him the colonies would soon declare their independence and become a nation. Vergennes informed him, in words which certainly savored of superciliousness, “that the people and their cause were very respectable in the eyes of all disinterested persons.” Our forefathers, at the beginning of the struggle, were glad if they and their cause could even
      be considered respectable.

      In a conference of two hours, Deane presented the requests of the colonists, and these were received with as much favor as he could have hoped. Forgetting the assurance he had given Lord Stormont a few months earlier, Vergennes now said that while he could not openly permit the shipment of military supplies to the colonists, no obstacle should be put in the way. In conclusion he bade Deane confer in the future with his secretary, Gerard, who understood English and could converse with him with facility (Doniol, i, 494.) Vergennes did not understand English and Deane’s French was very imperfect, even at a later period. “M. Deane,” Beaumarchais wrote some time after this first interview, for fear of spies, “does not open his mouth before the English-speaking people be meets. He must be the most silent man in France, for I defy him to say six consecutive words in French.” (Beaumarchais to Vergennes, Aug. 13, 1776 ; Doniol, i, 501.)

      Deane profited by his friendly reception, and devoted to the interests of his country an amount of zeal for which he received but scanty gratitude, either from his contemporaries or from posterity. His instructions were vague, but in a general way be was to incline the mind of the French ministers towards furnishing aid to the colonists. This task be performed with much earnestness, and his arguments may not have been wholly without influence. No one imagined at that time that, ere many generations had passed away, the American colonists would become a great commercial and manufacturing nation, and that Europe would find in them not only profitable customers but dangerous competitors. Every one overestimated, also, the degree in which their trade would be governed by sentimental considerations, or by any considerations except those of advantage.

      Great Britain, by means of the restrictive laws through which every nation then strove to monopolize trade with its own colonies, had controlled a large portion of the commerce with America. The future was to show that she would still control it, because her former colonists would find it to their advantage to trade with her. But both American representatives and French statesmen believed that, as a result of a political alliance between the two countries, a vast amount of trade which formerly belonged to England would in the future be carried on with France. The advantages of this Deane described in terms which were perhaps more glowing than accurate. He pictured an infinite number of customers who would, in the dim future, be crying out for French goods.

      The families of Americans were larger then than they are now, and Deane prophesied an increase of population that would be in keeping with the increase in wealth. “American planters,” he wrote, “who, from the early age at which their children marry, have generally the pleasure of seeing in their lifetime their descendants doubling their numbers in the third and fourth generations, have also the solid satisfaction of finding the produce of the world they were peopling increase in equal degree.” (Deane Papers, i, 186; Memoir of Aug. 15, 1776)

      This population, so vastly increased in the third and fourth generations, would still, Deane thought, be faithful in its love for the soil, a prophecy which has not been verified. “The production of necessary raw materials for the use of the manufactories and commerce of Europe, as well as the essential ones of bread and provisions for the support of mankind, will in all probability increase for a century to come, in nearly the same ratio as hitherto ; and the aversion of the inhabitants of the United Colonies to the sedentary employments, joined with the charms found in the innocence and simplicity of agriculture in a new country, will cooperate with other motives to induce them to receive from abroad the manufactures of others for the produce of their country. It is impossible for any power to become eminent in commerce, without excelling in manufactures and navigation. America is capable of supporting and increasing both, by her supplies and consumption; attended with this peculiar circumstance, the United Colonies will never, let their increase of population be ever so great, interfere with the powers of Europe, either in their manufactures or commerce, nor, from their situation and climate, can they ever become rivals with the colonies of those powers in America in their staple produce, but, on the contrary, they will (indulged with a free trade to the West India Islands) enable them to extend and enlarge the cultivation of sugar, cotton, coffee, and their other articles, the demand for which yearly increases in Europe, to the greatest possible degree.” (Deane Papers, i, 192.)

      The development of the country soon proved Deane’s arguments to be unfounded. But if Americans have not all been satisfied with the charms found in the innocence and simplicity of agriculture, if the United States have become rivals of the powers of Europe both in manufactures and commerce, Deane was no further wrong in his prophecies than men of greater sagacity who have tried to forecast the future.

      In his early negotiations, Deane was more embarrassed by an excess of would-be friends of America than by any coldness of reception. When Franklin visited Paris some years before, he met a Dr. Dubourg and contracted a considerable intimacy with him. Dubourg translated some of Franklin’s writings into French. He early manifested an active interest, not only in Franklin, but in the welfare of the revolted colonists, and sent long letters to Congress, in which, with much exuberance and a good deal of inaccuracy, he stated the readiness of France to assist them. Naturally enough, Deane was advised, when he should reach Paris as a stranger, to avail himself of the doctor’s counsel in the intricacies of French diplomacy.

      Dubourg was only too willing to give aid; he had already interested himself in obtaining supplies for the colonists, he wished now to be the intermediary between Deane and the French ministry, and to be intrusted with the important operations that were to grow out of their relations. But, in truth, the doctor was a fussy and injudicious man, little trusted by Vergennes, and filled with an overweening desire to make himself prominent in the negotiations between France and the colonists. He was a most excellent person, but his bustling activity and exuberant vanity did not fit him for negotiations which require the faculty of working fast and lying freely.

      When Deane arrived, he at once resorted to Dubourg for aid, and the doctor assumed to take charge of the American envoy and act as his representative with the French ministers; but, in his desire to appear as the best friend of the colonists, Dubourg courted a publicity which was distasteful to his superiors. He had already asked for aid from the French government for his American friends, for arms from the arsenals, and engineers from the army. Vergennes was willing enough to furnish both, but Dubourg proved a most indiscreet agent, so pleased with his activity that he wished all the world to know what he was doing. “One can wink at certain things,” the minister wrote him, “but one cannot authorize them” ; and he bade the doctor pursue his course with greater discretion.

      Vergennes decided, therefore, that Beaumarchais was better fitted for such enterprises, and he recommended Deane to confer with the house of Hortalez and Company, under which name Beaumarchais did business. It was in vain that Dubourg remonstrated against this decision. He accompanied Deane to the minister’s, only to be treated with so little attention that the American envoy saw that he would be better off unaccompanied by his self-constituted adviser. Vergennes wished the part taken by the government to be carefully concealed, but the doctor kept talking of the plans for assisting America, and left his hearers in little doubt as to where the aid would come from. Beaumarchais was ready to point out the mistakes of his rival. “If, while we close the door on one side,” be wrote Vergennes, “the window is opened on the other, surely the secret will escape.” Silence must be imposed on these babblers, he added, who can do nothing themselves and who hinder those who can do something (Beaumarchais to Vergennes, Sept. 21, 1776; Doniol, i, 520.)

      Deane soon discovered that it was not through the doctor’s agency that be could best reach the ear of the French minister. Dubourg, bitterly protesting, was no further heeded, and the task of obtaining and forwarding supplies to the colonists fell into the hands of Beaumarchais. The French minister was ready to furnish assistance to the colonists, but he desired to conceal such enterprises from the vigilant eye of the English ambassador. Deane was accordingly turned over to an intermediary who might pose as a speculator on his own account, but whose action would, in truth, be seconded by the government. We might expect that the man chosen for such an undertaking would be some great merchant or some bold speculator, but Beaumarchais was chiefly known as a famous writer of comedies. The part which he took in our war for independence was so important and so curious that it deserves a careful examination.

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