Does anyone think the current number of Congressional investigations of scandal is unprecedented? Or that “pleading the Fifth” to avoid self-incrimination in a Congressional hearing is a recent phenomenon? Look no further than the Lee-Deane affair during the American Revolution for one of the best examples of what can happen during fact-finding investigations by Congress.
Arthur Lee, the youngest son of Thomas Lee of Stratford, was appointed a commissioner to France in December 1776 to work with Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane to seek supplies and arms for the American colonies in their fight for independence from Britain. Lee soon suspected Deane of disloyalty and of using his position to gain financially from military assignments and commercial contracts in partnership with Robert Morris. Deane had associated himself with dubious characters, including Edward Bancroft, later found to be a British spy. Arthur Lee did not remain silent about his suspicions, and a Congressional investigation ensued after Arthur’s older brother, Richard Henry Lee, and his allies urged Deane’s dismissal as commissioner and an investigation of his activities in 1778. Recalled to America, Deane proceeded to feed false information to members of Congress and the Pennsylvania Packet newspaper about Arthur and his brother William, also in Europe to assist the American cause. It wasn’t long before the scandal was raging in the newspapers and Congress was split into pro-Deane and pro-Lee camps.
While Robert Morris and M. Clarkson (aide-de-camp to Gen. Benedict Arnold) defended Deane against accusations of disloyalty, Arthur Lee’s brothers Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot were equally engaged in opposition. The Lees were joined by Thomas Paine, acting Secretary of Foreign Affairs, who described Deane’s testimony before Congress in August 1778: “When Mr. Deane had his two audiences with Congress in August last, he objected, or his friends for him, against his answering to questions that might be asked him, and the ground upon which the objection was made, was, because a man could not legally be compelled to answer questions that might tend to criminate himself…” The powerful Congressional pull of Gouverneur Morris, the reluctance of Franklin to believe that he was being duped by a friend, and the pro-British faction in America combined to infuriate certain members of Congress and to discredit the Lees. Henry Laurens, President of the Continental Congress, resigned in disgust because Congress would not censure Deane. In 1779, Arthur Lee was recalled from his post in Europe and Richard Henry Lee resigned his seat in Congress.
Silas Deane sailed back to Europe, presumably for gathering papers to prove his innocence; however, he never returned to America and died later under suspicious circumstances. Arthur Lee never forgave Franklin for his ill-judged support of Deane and Bancroft, and Lee never forgot Deane’s attempts to damage his reputation.
Does truth win out in the end?
For many years afterward, Deane’s family, friends and supporters worked to rectify what they thought was an injustice to Deane, even convincing Congress to appropriate money to Deane’s descendants in 1842. When the secret letters of George III [The correspondence of King George the Third with Lord North from 1768 to 1783] were published in 1867 and the British Secret Service records opened in 1889, they confirmed what the Lees and others had suspected—that Silas Deane had been a traitor to America. However, the truth was bittersweet because the damage had already been done and the incident was long past. There were few champions for persons wronged in a scandal nearly a century before. The Lee-Deane affair was old news and even today many historians are not aware of the damning evidence against Deane.
Perhaps the words of Samuel Adams sum up Arthur Lee’s fate: “. . . the historian will, in some future time, draw forth the proofs of his patriotism, and unprejudiced posterity will acknowledge that Arthur Lee has borne a great share in defending and establishing the liberties of America.”