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Letter from Silas Deane to the Committee of Secret Correspondence of Congress



Paris, August 18, 1776.

I wrote you every material occurrence to the time of my leaving Bordeaux, and sent duplicates by Captains Palmer, Bunker, and Seaver, one of which you will undoubtedly have received before this comes to hand. I left that city on the last of June, and arrived here on the Saturday following, having carefully attended to everything in the manufacturing or commercial towns in my way, which, indeed, are neither numerous nor of great consequence. I spent at Angouleme a day in viewing what, as to manufactures alone, deserves attention on the journey, the foundry for cannon, where the greatest part of those used in the Kingdom are manufactured. The cannon are cast solid, after which they are put as in a turner' s lathe, and bored out, and the outside smoothed and turned at pleasure. They can bore and complete a twelve-pounder in one day in each lathe, which takes four men only to work. The workmen freely showed me every part of their furnace and foundry.

On Monday after my arrival I waited on my bankers, and found that Mr˙ Bancroft had arrived the same day with me, Mr˙ Thomas Morris and M˙ Venzonals about ten days before. I waited on M˙ Dubourg, and delivered him Dr˙ Franklin' s letter, which gave the good gentleman the most sincere and real pleasure.

Penet, on his arrival in Paris, waited on M˙ Dubourg, showed him a copy of his contract with the Committee of Congress, and told him he had letters from Dr˙ Franklin to him, but had left them on the road, or at Rotterdam, through fear of a search. He told M˙ Dubourg, to whom he was a perfect stranger, so many particular circumstances, that he could not doubt of his sincerity, and in consequence he embarked in his affairs to a large amount. Five or six weeks have now passed without the arrival of the letters said to be left on the road. Arms, powder, &c˙, to a large amount were in readiness, when my arrival gave him confidence that I would take the burden off him, as he doubted not that my credentials would be explicit. I saw immediately the arrangement of the whole, and that M˙ Penet had returned to France (copy of the contract excepted) almost as empty-handed as he came to Philadelphia, yet had found means to collect a very considerable quantity of stores, part of which he had actually shipped. This circumstance gave me hopes; yet I found that it would now be expected I should become responsible for the articles, which embarrassed me much, since to detain them would be quite disagreeable, and to step out of my own line and involve myself with Messrs˙ Plairne and Penet' s contract would be equally so.

Penet had somehow got intelligence of my being in France, and that I was expected at Paris; he therefore waited for me, and I saw him the next day at my hotel, when he complained of want of remittances, and desired me to pledge my credit for the stores, which I waived in the best manner I could, for I saw the consequences might involve me in many difficulties, and frustrate my greater designs. I therefore told him I would certify to the merchants, if necessary, that the Congress would pay for whatever stores they would credit them with, and in the mean time advised him to proceed strictly agreeable to the letter of the contract, and I was positive that the Congress would fulfil their part of it. I finally satisfied both him and M˙ Dubourg, and he departed for Nantes, to ship the goods the next day. I must do him the justice that is his due: he has been indefatigable in the business, his heart seems to be entirely in it, and I believe him honest; but his connexions, either commercial or political, are not, of themselves, equal to such an undertaking, but the cause he was employed in had in a great measure, I found, supplied this deficiency, which was to me a favourable appearance.

Dubourg told me that the Ministers would not see me, as they meant to be quite secret in any countenance they


gave the United Colonies, and that my arrival in France was already known in London, in consequence of which Lord Stormont arrived express but a few days before, and had applied to the Court on the subject. I showed him my commission, and told him I was determined to apply, for every circumstance, in my opinion, was favourable instead of otherwise. On this he wrote a letter to Count de Vergennes, asking liberty to introduce me the Thursday following; on which day I went to Versailles, and though the letter had not been delivered to his Excellency, yet he gave us immediate admission. Fortunately his chief Secretary spoke English well, by which means I had an opportunity of conversing freely with him on the subject of my commission for two hours, and was attentively and favourably heard by him, and was asked many questions, which shows that the American disputes had been, and still were, a principal object of attention. I pursued nearly the line marked out by my instructions, stating the importance of the American commerce, and the advantages Great Britain had received from a monopoly of it; that all intercourse ceasing between the two countries, the Colonies had considered where they might dispose of that produce which they necessarily had so large a surplus of, and receive for their raw or first materials the various manufactures they wanted; that they first turned their eyes on France, as the best country in Europe for them to be connected with in commerce; that I was purchasing a large quantity of manufactures for which I expected to pay the money, and that I should want a quantity of military stores, for which remittances would be made; that I doubted not the Colonies had before this declared Independency, and that I should soon receive instructions in consequence more full and explicit; that in the mean time they were very anxious to know how such a declaration would be received by the Powers in Europe, particularly by France, and whether in such case an Ambassador would be received from them, &c. To which he replied, that the importance of the American commerce was well known, and that no country could so well supply the Colonies, and in return receive their produce, as France; it was, therefore, the interest of both to have the most free and uninterrupted intercourse, for which reason the Court had ordered their ports to be kept open, and equally free to America as to Britain; that, considering the good understanding between the two Courts of Versailles and London, they could not openly encourage the shipping of warlike stores, but no obstruction of any kind would be given; if there should, as the custom-houses were not fully in their secrets in this matter, such obstructions should be removed on the first application; that I must consider myself perfectly free to carry on any kind of commerce in the kingdom which any subject of any other State in the world might, as the Court had resolved their ports should be equally free to both parties; that I was under his immediate protection, and should I meet with any difficulty, either from their police, with the rules of which he supposed me unacquainted, or from any other quarter, I had but to apply to him, and everything should be settled; that as to Independency, it was an event in the womb of time, and it would be highly improper for him to say anything on that subject until it had actually taken place; meantime be informed me that the British Ambassador knew of my arrival, and therefore advised me not to associate with Englishmen more than I was from necessity obliged, as he doubted not I should have many spies on my conduct.

I then told him the precautions I had taken and should persevere in, in coming from Bermuda, and that I did not mean in publick to pass for other than a merchant from that Island, on speculation, during the present cessation of commerce in America; but at the same time I told his Excellency that I was well assured it was known in London that I was coming long before I arrived at Paris, and I doubted not they conjectured my errand, but at the same time I should take every precaution in my power; and most sincerely thanked him for his protection and assistance so generously offered, which he might depend I would never abuse. He was pleased with my having come by Bermuda, and passing as an inhabitant of that Island, and said, if questioned, he should speak of me in that character. He then asked me many questions with respect to the Colonies; but what he seemed most to want to. be assured of, was their ability to subsist without their fisheries, and under the interruption of their commerce. To this I replied in this manner: that


the fisheries were never carried on but by a part of the Colonies, and by them, not so much as a means of subsistence as of commerce; that the fishery failing, those formerly employed in them turned part to agriculture and part to the army and navy; that our commerce must for some time be in a great measure suspended, but that the greater part of our importations were far from being necessaries of life, consequently we should not suffer under the want of them, whilst it was not wealth or luxuries that we were contending for; that our commerce ceasing, it would be out of the power of our enemies to support themselves on our plunder, and on the other hand, our ships, as privateers, might harass their commerce without a possibility of their retaliating; that I hoped to see a considerable marine force in the Colonies, and that, joined to the impossibility of Britain' s guarding so extensive a coast, would preserve some of our commerce, until it should be thought an object deserving the protection of other Powers.

After many questions on this subject, he put this, in which I thought he seemed interested, — whether, if the Colonies declare an Independency, they would not differ among themselves? To this I replied, that the greatest harmony had as yet subsisted, and I had no grounds to doubt it in future; that the common danger, which first drove them into measures which must end in such a declaration, would subsist, and that alone was sufficient to ensure their union.

He then desired me to give his Secretary my address, and said, though he should be glad to see me often, yet, as matters were circumstanced, his house was too publick a place, but that I might put the same confidence in his Secretary as himself, to whom I might apply for advice and direction, but that whenever anything of importance occurred I need but inform him, and he would see me; but on common occasions, I must address the Secretary, which would be every way more convenient, as he understood the English language well, and was a person in whom the greatest confidence could be placed.

Having settled the mode of intercourse, I expressed the sense I had of his Excellency' s politeness, and the generous protection he had given me; and on parting said, if my commission or the mode of introducing the subject were out of the usual course, I must rely on his goodness to make allowances for a new-formed people, in circumstances altogether unprecedented, and for their agent wholly unacquainted with Courts. To which he replied, that the people and their cause were very respectable in the eyes of all disinterested persons, and that the interview had been agreeable.

After this I returned to Paris with M˙ Dubourg, whose zeal for the American cause led him to draw the most favourable consequences from this beginning. The next day, while from home, I was informed that Count Laureguais had inquired out my lodgings, immediately after which he asked leave to go for England, which was refused him by the Court. The same day I was informed that Sir Hans Stanley and Sir Charles Jenkinson, who I knew were at Bordeaux when I left it, were in France for the sole purpose of inquiring what agents were here from the Colonies, and what commerce or other negotiation between them and the Colonies were carrying on. This alarmed my friends, and as I had agreed for other lodgings, to which I was next day to remove, M˙ Dubourg advised me to secrete both my lodgings and name. I told him that the Count Laurcguais' s conduct appeared mysterious, yet I could never think of keeping myself secret, for though I should not seek these gentlemen, nor throw myself purposely in their way, yet I must think it an ill compliment to Count Vergennes to suppose, after what had passed, that I was not on as good and safe footing in France as they or any other gentleman could be. However, his uneasiness made him write to the Count what he had advised, who returned for answer, that such a step was both unnecessary and impolitick, as it would only strengthen suspicions by giving everything an air of mystery, while there was not the least occasion for it.

The next day I had a fresh conference with M˙ Dubourg, who brought me a number of memorials from officers and engineers offering their services in America; some of whom, I believe, deserve the utmost encouragement; but more of this hereafter. While I was casting in my mind how best to improve the present favourable crisis for supplying the Colonies, M˙ Beaumarchais made proposals for procuring whatever should be wanted, but in such a manner as was


understood by M˙ Dubourg to amount to a monopoly, which indeed was not his only objection, for M˙ Beaumarchais, though confessedly a man of abilities, had always been a man of pleasure and never of business; but as he was recommended by Count Vergennes,Dubourg could not avoid noticing him, but immediately expostulated with the Count in a letter, which brought on embarrassments no way favourable, and I saw that M˙ Dubourg was so far from seconding the views of his superior in this manoeuvre, that he was, with the best intentions in the world, in danger of counteracting his own wishes, the extent of which were, to obtain the supplies of merchants and manufacturers on the credit of the Colonies, in which the strictest punctuality and most scrupulous exactness would be necessary, and which, under the present difficulties of remittance, I feared would not be lived up to.

As I had learned that in the late reform of the French Army, they had shifted their arms for those of a lighter kind, the heavy ones, most of which were the same as new, to the amount of seventy or eighty thousand, lay useless in magazines, with other military stores, in some such proportion, I apprehended it no way impossible to come at a supply from hence, through the agency of some merchant, without the Ministry being concerned in the matter. In such case the merchant would be accountable to the Ministry, and the Colonies to the merchant, by which means a greater time of payment might be given, and more allowance in case of our being disappointed. With this in view I went to Versailles on Wednesday, the 17th, and waited on M˙ Gerard, First Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and presented to him the enclosed memorial, which led to a very particular conversation on the affairs of America, and which I turned finally on this subject; to which he would not then give me any immediate answer, but promised me one in a day or two. Returning to town I found Messrs˙ Dubourg and Beaumarchais had a misunderstanding, the latter giving out that he could effect everything we wished for, and the former, from the known circumstances of M˙ Beaumarchais, and his known carelessness in money matters, suspecting he could procure nothing, and the more so as he promised so largely. They parted much displeased with each other, and M˙ Beaumarchais went directly to Versailles. On M˙ Dubourg' s coming and informing me what had passed, I immediately wrote to M˙ Gerard the enclosed letter, and in return was desired to come with M˙ Dubourg the next morning to Versailles.

We went, as desired, and after explaining many things to M˙ Gerard, had a conference with his Excellency, from whom I had fresh assurances of the utmost freedom and protection in their ports and on their coasts; that, in one word, I might rely on whatever Monsieur Beaumarchais should engage in the commercial way of supplies, which, indeed, was all I wished for, as I was on the safe side of the question, viz: on the receiving part. I communicated to his Excellency that clause of my instructions for procuring arms, &c˙, of which he asked a copy. I then informed him, that I considered the present as a most critical juncture of American affairs, that the campaign would undoubtedly be carried far into the winter, that supplies now shipped might arrive very seasonably in the fall to enable the Colonies to hold out the present campaign. He replied, that no delay should be made by any obstruction of any officer, or others of the customs or police. He then told me that the Count Laureguais was, perhaps, a well meaning man, but not sufficiently discreet for such purposes as this; that Mr˙ Lee, (meaning Mr˙ Arthur Lee, of London,) had confided, he feared, too much in him, and wished me to caution him on the subject, and that if I would write to him, he would enclose it in a letter of his, by a courier that evening. I most readily embraced this safe way of corresponding, and sent a letter I had before written, with an addition on this subject, a copy of which is enclosed. I have thus given you the heads of my negotiation to this time, July 20th, and will not take up your time in making remarks on it, and the prospects before me, which are obvious; but inform you of the plan I mean to pursue, in the execution of my commission, and hint some methods, by which I think I may be enabled to complete every part of it to your satisfaction, and the relief of my country, which is all my wish, and the extent of my most ambitious hopes. I go on the supposition of an actual unconditional independency, without which little can be effected publickly; with it, almost everything we can wish for.


It is by no means probable that Europe will long remain in a state of peace; the disputes between Portugal and Spain are on the point of producing an open rupture; the former relies on England; the latter will look to this kingdom, and has already applied to this Court on the subject. Nothing but the division of Poland has taken the King of Prussia' s attention off from the injustice done him by Great Britain at the close of the last war. He has now completed his part of that extraordinary work, and I am well informed, listens with pleasure to the dispute between the United Colonies and Great Britain. He is ambitious of becoming a maritime Power, and is already in possession of the capital ports on the Baltick; but without commerce it is impossible to effect the design, and no commerce can put him so directly in the road as the American. The consumption of coffee, sugar, and other West India productions, increases fast in the north of Europe, and it must be his interest, at least, to supply his own dominions. In case of a war in Europe, France, Spain and Prussia might be brought into one interest, and the Emperor of Germany is too closely connected with his Majesty of France to take part against them, after which Great Britain, having her whole force employed in America, there could be nothing on the one hand to prevent Spain and France from reducing Portugal to a submission to the former, nor from Prussia and France subduing and incorporating into their own dominions Hanover, and the other little mercenary Electorates, which lie between them, and which for several centuries have been one principal cause of every war that has happened in Europe.

With respect to Russia, it is as closely allied to Prussia, as to Great Britain, and may be expected to be master in the contest. Denmark and Sweden are a balance for each other, and opposites. Not to enlarge on this plan at present, I have only to suggest, that an application to the King of Prussia will do no harm, and may be attended with good and great consequences; the Prussian Ambassador at this Court and at that of London may be sounded on the subject. But my powers and instructions are so limited, that I can by no means take such a step; yet when I see Great Britain exerting her whole force, and that of her Allies, and courting every Power in Europe to aid her, I can but wish she may be counteracted in her own system, and by having employ found for her in Europe, bring her to leave America in peace; and I think myself bound in duty to hint at what to me seems the most probable means. Dr˙ Bancroft was full with me in this opinion. M˙ Chaumont, a very wealthy person, and Intendant for providing clothes, &c˙, &c˙, for the French Army, has offered me a credit on account of the Colonies, to the amount of one million of livres, which I have accepted. I have in treaty another credit, which, joined to this, will purchase the articles directed in my instructions. The credit will be until May next, before which I hope remittances will be made. I have purchased of said M˙ Chaumont a quantity of saltpetre, at ten sous, or five and one-fourth per cent˙, in order that Captain Morgan might not return empty. As soon as I have given the orders for despatching him, and settled some other matters here, I design for Dunkirk, to ship the Indian goods, which I hope may arrive in season for the winter supply; though I leave you to consider my situation, with only about six or seven thousand pounds to complete a contract of forty, and the bills for my private expenses being protested, obliged to support myself out of that capital, which I labour to do with all the economy in my power.

Dr˙ Bancroft is returned to London, and by him I wrote to Monsieur Garnier, and agreed on a mode of correspondence. I think your remittances in armed vessels will be much the best method; and I have ordered Captain Morgan' s sloop to be armed, and should she arrive safe, recommend him, as one I am confident will serve the Colonies with great zeal and fidelity; and I have had some experience of the goodness of his temper and his abilities. Mr˙ Seymour, his mate, is also deserving of encouragement, as a good seaman and of undaunted resolution.

I am not without hopes of obtaining liberty for the armed vessels of the United Colonies to dispose of their prizes in the ports of this Kingdom, and also for arming and fitting out vessels of war directly from hence, but I will not venture on this until I see what effect my last memoir may have; the substance of which is, to show the danger to France and


Spain, if they permit Great Britain to keep so enormous a force in America, and to recover the dominion of the Colonies; also how fully it is in their power to prevent it, and by that means deprive Great Britain of the principal source of her wealth and force, even without hazarding a war of any consequence in point of danger.

This memoir, which takes several sheets, I am unable to send you a copy of, as I have no one to assist me, and must make out several copies for the persons to whom they are to be delivered. I was directed to apply for arms and clothes for twenty-five thousand men, and for one hundred field-pieces, with ammunition and stores in proportion. This I wished to get of the Ministry direct, but they evaded it, and I am now in treaty for procuring them through the agency of M˙ Chaumont and M˙ Beaumarchais, on a credit of eight months, from the time of their delivery. If I effect this, as I undoubtedly shall, I must rely on the remittances being made this fall and winter without fail, or the credit of the Colonies must suffer. If I can get the arms out of the magazines, and the field-pieces here, I hope for a much longer credit; but if we send to Sweden for the brass cannon, the credit will not be lengthened beyond that. Some new improvements have lately been made in this branch, consequently the cannon now manufactured will be preferable to those of former construction. Some Engineers here assert, that iron is preferable to brass, that is, wrought iron, out of which the pieces may be made lighter, and to a better purpose. Considering the want of these pieces, and the plenty of iron in America, the experiment might, I think, be made without delay. I am still in hopes of procuring admission of the article of tobacco directly from America, but the Farmers-General will not offer equivalent to the risk.

Without intelligence from April to this time, leaves me quite uncertain and extremely anxious about the line of conduct now pursuing by Congress, and consequently I cannot, without further intelligence and instructions, proceed in my negotiation either with safety or honour. The resolution of Congress of the 15th of May, is not considered by the Ministry as a Declaration of Independence, but only a previous step, and until this decisive step is taken, I can do little more to any purpose. This taken, I dare pledge myself, the United Colonies may obtain all the countenance and assistance they wish for, in the most open and publick manner, and the most unlimited credit with the merchants of this Kingdom; I must therefore urge this measure, if not already taken, and that the Declaration be in the most full and explicit terms.

Merchants here would speculate deeply in the American trade, could they be insured at any premium within bounds. I wish to know if offices are already open, and I would suggest that if the Congress would take the insurance under their own direction, it would give it such a proportionably greater credit, that supplies would most certainly be obtained in plenty. I shall be able to procure a private interview with the Spanish Ambassador, and shall present him my memorial, and am in a train which I think will carry it quite to the fountain head.

Thus I have in a minute, possibly a tedious, detail, mentioned everything material on my mind, which has occurred since my arrival, and submit the whole to the wisdom and candour of the honourable Congress, observing that I had gone to the extent of my instructions; and though I have been successful beyond my expectations, yet I have but been labouring principally to set certain great wheels in motion, which still want something more decisive on my part, and I am confident of all that is wanting to set them so effectually moving as to roll the burden and calamities of war from our doors back with aggravated ruin on its authors, which, if I can be the means of effecting, the world may bestow the rest of its honours on whom it pleases; I shall be contented, the extent of my most ambitious hopes thus accomplished.

I have now to urge a survey with respect to the contents of this letter. More that is said in Congress transpires and crosses the Atlantick than you conceive of; more than I can account for, without having uncharitable thoughts of individuals, still without fixing them on any one. I have written a short letter to Mr˙ Jay on common affairs, and have enclosed one to M˙ Longueville, which I pray may be forwarded; the letter is from his friends here, who have heard of his being a prisoner somewhere in America. M˙ Dubourg


has continued to render me every assistance in his power; to be particular would swell this letter beyond all bounds; his abilities and connexions are of the first style in this Kingdom, and his zeal for the cause of the United Colonies is to be described only by saying that at times it is in danger of urging him beyond both; in short, I am every way deeply indebted to him: personally, for bringing me acquainted with agreeable persons of rank and character; and on account of my honoured constituents, for assisting me to make such a favourable beginning and progress, in my business. I know not how affluent he may be, but as he has really for some time devoted himself to assist in this negotiation, I am confident something honourable will be thought of for him. I have complimented him by asking of him his portrait to be sent to his and my friends in America, in my private capacity, mentioning our mutual friend Dr˙ Franklin. This I found so agreeable, that I am confident some such distinction would be more acceptable than more lucrative rewards. Dr˙ took pains to collect all the political publications of the last year for me and brought them with him; he was at considerable expense in his journey. I sent him from Bordeaux a bill of thirty pounds, and paid his expenses in my lodgings here; at parting, I desired him to keep an account, and when the money was expended to inform me. This gentleman is certainly capable of giving as good, if not the best, intelligence of any man in Great Britain, as he is closely connected with the most respectable of the minority in both Houses, not particularly obnoxious to the majority, and for his abilities, they are too well known to Dr˙ Franklin to need any attempt to do them justice in a letter.

I am, with the highest esteem and respect for the Honourable Congress and their Committee of Secret Correspondence, &c˙,