Thomas Paine (17371809). The Writings of Thomas Paine. 1906.
The Affair of Silas Deane
To Silas Deane, Esqre.
AFTER1 reading a few lines of your address to the Public in the Pennsylvania Packet of December 6th, I can truly say, that concern got the better of curiosity, and I felt an unwillingness to go through it. Mr. Deane must very well know that I have no interest in, so likewise am I no stranger to, his negotiations and contracts in France, his difference with his colleagues, the reason of his return to America, and the matters which have occurred since. All these are to me familiar things; and while I can but be surprized at the conduct of Mr. Deane, I lament the unnecessary torture he has imprudently occasioned. That disagreements will arise between individuals, even to the perplexity of a State, is nothing new, but that they should be outrageously brought forward, by one whose station abroad should have taught him a delicacy of manners and even an excess of prudence, is something strange. The mind of a living public is quickly alarmed and easily tormented. It not only suffers by the stroke, but is frequently fretted by the cure, and ought therefore to be tenderly dealt with, and never ought to be trifled with. It feels first and reasons afterwards. Its jealousy keeps vibrating between the accused and the accuser, and on a failure of proof always fixes on the latter. Had Mr. Deanes address produced no uneasiness in the body he appeals to, it would have been a sign, not of tranquility, but death: and though it is painful to see it unnecessarily tortured, it is pleasant to contemplate the living cause. Mr. Deane is particularly circumstanced. He has advantages which seldom happen, and when they do happen, ought to be used with the nicest care and strictest honor. He has the opportunity of telling his own tale and there is none to reply to him. Two of the gentlemen he so freely censures are three thousand miles off, and the other two he so freely affronts are Members of Congress; one of them likewise, Col. R. H. Lee, is absent in Virginia; and however painful may be their feelings, they must attend the progressive conduct of the house. No Member in Congress can individually take up the matter without becoming inconsistent, and none of the public understands it sufficiently. With these advantages Mr. Deane ought to be nicely and strictly the gentleman, in his language, his assertions, his insinuations and his facts. He presents himself, as his own evidence, upon his honor, and any misrepresentation or disingenuous trifling in him will be fatal.
Mr. Deane begins his address with a general display of his services in France, and strong insinuations against the Hon. Arthur and William Lee, he brings his complaints down to the time of signing the treaty, and from thence to the fourth of March, when he received the following Order of Congress which he inserts at large:
In Congress, December 8, 1777. Whereas it is of the greatest importance that Congress should at this critical juncture be well informed of the state of affairs in Europe. And whereas Congress have resolved that the Honorable Silas Deane, Esq, be recalled from the Court of France, and have appointed another Commissioner to supply his place there. Ordered, that the Committee for foreign correspondence, write to the Honorable Silas Deane, and direct him to embrace the first opportunity of returning to America, and upon his arrival to repair with all possible dispatch to Congress. Mr. Deane then says and having placed my papers and yours in safety, I left Paris the 30th to embark for my native country, on board that fleet which your great and generous ally sent out for your assistance, in full confidence that I should not be detained on the business I was sent for.2
I am obliged to tell Mr. Deane that this arrangement is somewhat uncandid, for on the reading it, it creates an opinion and likewise carries an appearance that Mr. Deane was only sent for, as the necessary and proper person from whom Congress might obtain a history of their affairs, and learn the character of their foreign Agents, Commissioners and Ambassadors, after which Mr. Deane was to return. Is Mr. Deane so little master of address as not to know that censure may be politely conveyed by an apology? For however Mr. Deane may chuse to represent or misrepresent the matter, the truth is that his contracts and engagements in France, had so involved and embarrassed Congress, that they found it necessary and resolved to recall him, that is ordered him home, to give an account of his own conduct, and likewise to save him from a train of disagreeable consequences, which must have arisen to him had he continued in France. I would not be supposed to insinuate, that he might be thought unsafe, but unfit. There is a certain and necessary association of dignity between the person and the employment which perhaps did not appear when Mr. Deane was considered the Ambassador. His address to the public confirms the justness of this remark. The spirit and language of it differ exceedingly from that cool penetrating judgment and refinement of manners and expression which fits, and is absolutely necessary in, the Plenipotentiary. His censures are coarse and vehement, and when he speaks of himself, he begs, nay almost weeps to be believed.It was the intricacy of Mr. Deanes own official affairs, his multiplied contracts in France before the arrival of Dr. Franklin or any of the other Commissioners; his assuming authorities, and entering into engagements, in the time of his Commercial Agency, for which he had neither commission nor instruction, and the general unsettled state of his accounts, that were among the reasons that produced the motion for recalling and superseding him.Why then does Mr. Deane endeavour to lead the attention of the public to a wrong object, and bury the real reasons, under a tumult of new and perhaps unnecessary suspicions?
Mr. Deane in the beginning of his address to the public says, What I write to you, I would have said to your Representatives, their ears have been shut against me, by an attention to matters, which my respect for them induces me to believe were of more importance.
In this paragraph Mr. Deanes excuse becomes his accuser, and his justification is his offence; for if the greater importance of other matters is supposed and given by himself as a reason, why he was not heard, it is likewise a sufficient reason, why he ought not to have complained that their ears were shut, and a good reason why he ought to have waited a more convenient time. But besides the inconsistency of this charge, there is something in it that will suffer by an inquiry, and I am sorry that Mr. Deanes imprudence has obliged me to mention a circumstance which affects his honour as a gentleman, his reputation as a man. In order to be clearly understood on this head, I am obliged to go back with Mr. Deane to the time of his quitting France on account of his being recalled. I left Paris, says Mr. Deane, on the 30th of March, 1778 to embark for my native country, having placed my papers and yours in safety. Would any body have supposed that a gentleman in the character of a Commercial Agent, and afterwards in that of a public Minister, would return home after seeing himself both recalled and superseded, and not bring with him his papers and vouchers? And why he has done so must appear to every one exceedingly unaccountable. After Mr. Deanes arrival he had two audiences with Congress in August last, in neither of which did he offer the least charge against the gentleman he has so loudly upbraided in his address to the public: neither has he yet accounted for his expenditure of public money, which, as it might have been done by a written state of accounts, might for that reason have been done at any time, and was a part of the business which required an audience.
There is something curiously intricate and evasive in Mr. Deanes saying in his address, that he left France in full confidence that he should not be detained on the business he was sent for. And the only end it can answer to him is to furnish out a present excuse for not producing his papers. Mr. Deane had no right, either from the literal or implied sense of the resolution itself, to suppose that he should return to France in his former public character, or that he was sent for, as he stiles it, on any other personal business than that which related to himself. Mr. Deane must be sensible, if he will but candidly reflect, that as an agent only, he greatly exceeded his line, and embarrassed the Congress, the continent, the army and himself.
Mr. Deanes address to the public is dated Nov.but without any day of the month; and here a new scene of ungenteel evasion opens. On the last day of that month, viz. the 30th, he addressed a letter to Congress signifying his intentions of returning to France, and pressing to have his affairs brought to some conclusion, which, I presume, on account of the absence of his papers could not well be done; therefore Mr. Deanes address to the public must be written before the 30th, and consequently before his letter to Congress, which carries an appearance of its being only a feint in order to make a confused diversion in his favor at the time his affairs should come under consideration.
What favours this opinion, is that on the next day, that is December 1st, and partly in consequence of Mr. Deanes letter to them of the 30th, the Congress entered the following resolution.
In Congress December 1st, 1778.Resolved, That after to-morrow Congress will meet two hours at least each evening, beginning at six oclock, Saturday evening excepted, until the present state of their foreign affairs be fully considered.
As an enquiry into the state of foreign affairs naturally and effectually included all and every part of Mr. Deanes, he was thereupon regularly notified by letter to attend; and on the fourth he wrote again to Congress, acquainting them with his having received that notification and expressed his thanks; yet on the day following, viz. the fifth he published his extraordinary address in the newspapers, which, on account of its unsupported matter, the fury of its language and temper, and its inconsistency with other parts of his conduct, is incompatible with that character (which on account of the station he had been honoured with, and the sense that should have impressed him in consequence thereof) he ought to have maintained.
On the appearance of Mr. Deanes address of the fifth, the public became jealously uneasy, and well they might. They were unacquainted with the train of circumstances that preceded and attended it, and were naturally led to suppose, that Mr. Deane, on account of the station he had filled, must be too much a gentleman to deceive them. It was Mr. Deanes particular fortune to grow into consequence from accident. Sent to France as a Commercial Agent under the appointment of a Committee, he rose as a matter of convenience to the station of a Commissioner of Congress; and with what dignity he might fill out that character, the public will judge from his conduct since; and perhaps be led to substitute convenience as an excuse for the appointment.
A delicacy of difficulties likewise arose in Congress on the appearance of the said address; for setting aside the matter, the irregular manner of it, as a proceeding, was a breach of decency; and as Mr. Deane after being notified to attend an enquiry into foreign affairs, had circumstantially withdrawn from that mode, by appealing to the public, and at the same time said their ears were shut against him, it was therefore given as a reason by some, that to take any notice of Mr. Deane in the interim would look like suppressing his public information, if he had any to give; and consequently would imply dishonour on the House,and that as he had transferred his case to the public, before it had been rejected by the Congress, he ought therefore to be left with the public, till he had done with them and they with him; and that whether his information was true or not, it was an insult on the people, because it was making them the ladder, on which he insulted their representatives, by an unjust complaint of neglect. Others who might anticipate the anxiety of the public, and apprehend discontents would arise from a supposed inattention, were for adopting measures to prevent them, and of consequence inclined to a different line of conduct, and this division of sentiment on what might be supposed the honour of the House, occasioned the then President, Henry Laurens, Esq., who adhered to the former opinion, to resign the chair. The majority on the sentiments was a single vote. In this place I take the liberty of remarking, for the benefit of succeeding generations, that the Honourable President before mentioned, having filled that station for one year in October last, made his resignation of the Presidency at the expiration of the year, lest any example taken from his continuance might have become inconvenient. I have an additional satisfaction in mentioning this useful historical anecdote, because it is done wholly unknown to the gentleman to whom it relates, or to any other gentleman in or out of Congress. He was replaced by a unanimous vote. But to return to my narration
In the Pennsylvania Packet of December 8th, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Esq., brother to the gentleman so rudely treated in Mr. Deanes publication, and the only one now present, put in a short address to the public, requesting a suspension of their judgment till the matter could be fully investigated by those whose immediate business it became: meaning Congress. And Mr. Deane in the paper of the 10th published another note, in which he informs, that the Honorable Congress did, on Saturday morning the 5th instant, assign Monday evening to hear him. But why does Mr. Deane conceal the resolution of Congress of December 1st, in consequence of which he was notified to attend regularly an enquiry into the state of foreign affairs? By so doing, he endeavours to lead the public into a belief that his being heard on Monday was extorted purely in consequence of his address of the 5th, and that otherwise he should not have been heard at all. I presume Congress are anxious to hear him, and to have his accounts arranged and settled; and if this should be the case, why did Mr. Deane leave his papers in France, and now complain that his affairs are not concluded? In the same note Mr. Deane likewise says, that Congress did on that evening, Monday, resolve, that Mr. Deane do report in writing, as soon as may be, his agency of their affairs in Europe, together with any intelligence respecting their foreign affairs which he may judge proper. But why does Mr. Deane omit giving the remaining part of the resolution, which says, That Mr. Deane be informed, that if he has any thing to communicate to Congress in the interim of immediate importance, that he should be heard to-morrow evening. I can see no propriety, in omitting this part, unless Mr. Deane concluded that by publishing it he might put a quick expiration to his credit, by his not being able to give the wondrous information he had threatened in his address. In the conclusion of this note, Mr. Deane likewise says, I therefore conceive that I cannot, with propriety, continue my narrative at present. In the mean time I submit it to the good sense of the public, whether I ought to take any notice of a publication signed Francis Lightfoot Lee, opposed to stubborn and undeniable facts.
Thus far I have compared Mr. Deane with himself, and whether he has been candid or uncandid, consistent or inconsistent, I leave to the judgment of those who read it. Mr. Deane cannot have the least right to think that I am moved by any party difference or personal antipathy. He is a gentleman with whom I never had a syllable of dispute, nor with any other person upon his account. Who are his friends, his connections, or his foes, is wholly indifferent to me, and what I have written will be a secret to everybody till it comes from the press. The convulsion which the public were thrown into by his address will, I hope, justify my taking up a matter in which I should otherwise have been perfectly silent; and whatever may be its fate, my intention is a good one; besides which there was no other person who knew the affair sufficiently, or knowing it, could confidently do it, and yet it was necessary to be done.
I shall now take a short review of what Mr. Deane calls stubborn and undeniable facts. Mr. Deane must be exceedingly unconversant both with terms and ideas, not to distinguish even between a wandering probability and a fact; and between a forced inclination and a proof; for admitting every circumstance of information in Mr. Deanes address to be true, they are still but circumstances, and his deductions from them are hypothetical and inconclusive.
Mr. Deane has involved a gentleman in his unlimited censure, whose fidelity and personal qualities I have been well acquainted with for three years past; and in respect to an absent injured friend, Col. Richard Henry Lee, I will venture to tell Mr. Deane, that in any stile of character in which a gentleman may be spoken of, Mr. Deane would suffer by a comparison. He has one defect which perhaps Mr. Deane is acquainted with, the misfortune of having but one hand.
The charges likewise which he advances against the Honorable Arthur and William Lee, are to me, circumstantial evidences of Mr. Deanes unfitness for a public character; for it is the business of a foreign minister to learn other mens secrets and keep their own. Mr. Deane has given a short history of Mr. Arthur Lee and Dr. Berkenhout in France, and he has brought the last mentioned person again on the stage in America. There is something in this so exceedingly weak, that I am surprised that any one who would be thought a man of sense, should risk his reputation upon such a frivolous tale; for the event of the story, if any can be produced from it, is greatly against himself.
He says that a correspondence took place in France between Dr. Berkenhout and Mr. [Arthur] Lee; that Mr. Lee shewed part of the correspondence to Dr. Franklin and himself; and that in order to give the greater weight to Dr. Berkenhouts remarks he gave them to understand, that Dr. Berkenhout was in the secrets of the British Ministry. What Mr. Deane has related this for, or what he means to infer from it, I cannot understand; for the political inference ought to be, that if Mr. Lee really thought that Dr. Berkenhout was in the secrets of the British Ministry, he was therefore the very person with whom Mr. Lee ought, as an Ambassador, to cultivate a correspondence, and introduce to his colleagues, in order to discover what those secrets were, that they might be transmitted to America; and if Mr. Deane acted otherwise, he unwisely mistook his own character. However, this I can assure Mr. Deane, upon my own knowledge, that more and better information has come from Mr. Lee than ever came from himself; and how or where he got it, is not a subject fit for public enquiry: unless Mr. Deane means to put a stop to all future informations. I can likewise tell Mr. Deane, that Mr. Lee was particularly commissioned by a certain body, and that under every sacred promise of inviolable secrecy, to make discoveries in England, and transmit them. Surely Mr. Deane must have left his discretion with his papers, or he would see the imprudence of his present conduct.
In the course of Mr. Deanes narrative he mentions Dr. Berkenhout again. In September last, says he, I was informed that Dr. Berkenhout, who I have before mentioned, was in gaol in this city. I confess I was surprised, considering what I have already related, that this man should have the audacity to appear in the capital of America. But why did not Mr. Deane confront Dr. Berkenhout while he was here? Why did he not give information to Congress or to the Council before whom he was examined, and by whom he was discharged and sent back for want of evidence against him? Mr. Deane was the only person that knew anything of him, and it looks very unfavorable in him that he was silent when he should have spoke, if he had anything to say, and now he has gone has a great deal to tell, and that about nothing. I immediately, says Mr. Deane, sate myself about the measures which I conceived necessary to investigate his plans and designs. This is indeed a trifling excuse, for it wanted no great deal of setting about, the whole secret as well as the means being with himself, and half an hours information might have been sufficient. What Mr. Deane means by investigating his plans and designs, I cannot understand, unless he intended to have the Doctors nativity cast by a conjurer. Yet this trifling round-about story is one of Mr. Deanes stubborn and undeniable facts. However it is thus far a fact, that Mr. Deane kept it a secret till the man was gone.
He likewise entertains us with a history of what passed at New York between Dr. Berkenhout and Governor Johnstone; but as he must naturally think that his readers must wonder how he came by such knowledge, he prudently supplies the defect by saying that Providence in whom we put our trust, unfolded it to merevealed it, I suppose. As to what Dr. Berkenhout was, or what he came for, is a matter of very little consequence to us. He appeared to be a man of good moral character, of a studious turn of mind, and genteel behaviour, and whether he had whimsically employed himself, or was employed on a foolish errand by others, is a business not worth our enquiring after; he got nothing here, and to send him back was both necessary and civil. He introduced himself to General Maxwell at Elizabeth-Town, as knowing Mr. Arthur Lee; the General wrote a letter of information to Col. R. H. Lee who presented the same to Congress. But it does not appear that Mr. Deane moved in the matter till a considerable time after the Doctor was sent off, and then Mr. Deane put a series of queries in the newspaper to know why he was let go. I little thought at that time that the queries were Mr. Deanes, as they really appeared to me to be the produce of some little mind.
Mr. Deane likewise tells us that Mr. A. Lee was suspected by some of our best friends because of his acquaintance with Lord Shelburne; and perhaps some Mr. Deane in England might find out that Lord Shelburne ought to be suspected because of his acquaintance with Mr. Lee. Mr. Deane appears to me neither to understand characters nor business, or he would not mention Lord Shelburne on such an occasion whose uniform and determined opposition to the Ministry appears to be known to everybody but Mr. Deane.3 Mr. Deane has given us a quotation from a letter [of Arthur Lees] which he never saw, and had it likewise from a gentleman in France who had never seen it, but who had heard it from a correspondent in England to whom it was not sent; and this traditionary story is another of Mr. Deanes stubborn and undeniable facts. But even supposing the quotation to be true, the only inference from it is naturally this, That the sooner England makes peace with America the better it will be for her. Had the intimation been given before the treaty with France was signed, it might have been justly censured, but being given after, it can have but one meaning, and that a clear one. He likewise says, that Charles Fox declared pointedly in the House of Commons, that the treaty between France and America was signed, and as Charles Fox knows Lord Shelburne, and Lord Shelburne Mr. Lee, therefore Mr. Deane infers, as a stubborn and undeniable fact, that Mr. Lee must tell it. Does Mr. Deane know that nothing can be long a secret in a Court, especially where the countries are but twenty miles apart, and that Charles Fox, from his ingratiating manners, is almost universally known in France?
Mr. Deane likewise supposes that William Lee, Esquire continues an Alderman of London, and either himself or some other gentleman since, under the signature of OBSERVATOR, says that he has consulted, on this point, the Royal Kalendar or Annual Register, and finds it true. To consult a Kalendar to find out a name must be a learned consultation indeed. An Alderman of London is neither a place at Court nor a place of profit, and if the city chuses not to expel him, it is a proof they are very good whigs; and this is the only proved fact in Mr. Deanes Address. But there is, through the whole of it, a barbarous, unmanly and unsupported attack on absent characters, which are, perhaps, far superior to his own; an eagerness to create suspicions wherever he can catch an opportunity; an over-strained desire to be believed; and an affected air of giving importance to trifles. He accuses Mr. [Arthur] Lee of incivility to the French nation. Mr. Lee, if I can judge by his writing, is too much both of a scholar and a gentleman to deserve such a censure. He might with great justice complain of Mr. Deanes contracts with individuals; for we are fully sensible, that the gentlemen which have come from France since the arrival of Dr. Franklin and Mr. Lee in that country, are of a different rank to the generality of those with whom Mr. Deane contracted when alone. And this observation will, I believe explain that charge no ways to Mr. Deanes honour.
Upon the whole, I cannot help considering this publication as one of the most irrational performances I ever met with. He seems in it to pay no regard to individual safety, nor cares who he may involve in the consequences of his quarrel. He mentions names without restraint, and stops at no discovery of persons. A public man, in Mr. Deanes former character, ought to be as silent as the grave; for who would trust a person with a secret who shewed such a talent for revealing? Under the pretence of doing good he is doing mischief, and in a tumult of his own creating, will expose and distress himself.
Mr. Deanes Address was calculated to catch several sorts of people: The rash, because they are fond of fiery things; the curious, because they are fond of curiosities; the weak, because they easily believe; the good, because they are unsuspicious; the tory, because it comforts his discontent; the high whig, because he is jealous of his rights; the man of national refinement, because it obscurely hints at national dishonor. The clamor, it is true, has been a popular one, and so far as it is the sign of a living principle, it is pleasant to see it; but when once understood it will amount to nothing, and with the rapidity that it rose it will descend.
P.S.The writer of this has been waited on by a gentleman, whom he supposes, by his conversation, to be a friend of Mr. Deanes, and whom Mr. Deane, but not any other person, is welcome to know whenever he pleases. The gentleman informed the writer, that some persons, whom he did not mention, had threatened most extraordinary violence against him (the writer of this piece) for taking the matter up; the writer asked, what, whether right or wrong? and likewise informed the gentleman, that he had done it solely with a view of putting the public right in a matter which they did not understandthat the threat served to increase the necessity, and was therefore an excitement to his doing it. The gentleman, after expressing his good opinion of, and personal respect for, the writer, withdrew.
Note 1. From the Pennsylvania Packet, December 15, 1778. The recent investigations of MM. Doniol, Delomanie, and others in France, and of Provost Stillé and others in America, concerning Beaumarchais, the subsidies of France to the American Revolution, and the part acted by the American agent in Paris (Deane), render Paines papers on this subject of much historical interest. They have not appeared in any previous collection of Paines works.Editor. [back]
Note 3. Shelburne (afterwards Lord Lansdowne) was the friend of Dr. Priestley. George III. detested Lord Shelburne, whom he described as the Jesuit of Berkeley-Square. When Paine was in England in 17879 Lansdowne was his friend.Editor. [back]