Six years ago I was writing a book with that title on the history of international law in U.S. courts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The challenge was trying to make that book interesting to a wider audience.
I was looking for a vignette to open the book that would capture the improvisational quality of foreign policy at the time of the founding of the republic. The Founding Fathers had to invent American diplomacy on a clean slate. That’s when I discovered the story of Silas Deane.
Silas Deane was one of the more obscure Founding Fathers. He owned a dry goods store in Wethersfield, Connecticut. He had never left Connecticut in his life. He knew nothing about diplomacy, and he couldn’t speak a word of French, but Ben Franklin decided to send Deane on a secret mission in 1775 to persuade Louis XVI to arm the Americans against the British. Franklin thought that Deane was so improbable the British spies would never suspect him.
I was puzzled as to how Deane succeeded in obtaining all of the arms, ammunition, uniforms, tents, boots, hats, and blankets for an army of 30,000 men without the benefit of any credentials or cash. So I looked for a good book about Deane, but there weren’t any.
In frustration I phoned a friend of mine, David Kahn, who was the executive director of the Connecticut Historical Society at the time. I thought David could tell me how to find Deane’s letters or diaries. Perhaps there was a website or a Library of Congress publication or some other service to help my research.
To my astonishment David replied, “we own Deane’s papers.” Just a few weeks earlier David by chance had run into Deane’s papers, which were in several boxes stored away in the basement of the Connecticut Historical Society. If he hadn’t known about Deane’s papers, I would never have found them on my own.
I flew to Hartford, where coincidentally the papers were kept in a building 1000 yards from where I used to teach at the University of Connecticut Law School. I opened these boxes for the first time since who knows when and discovered letters to or from Franklin, Louis XVI, Washington, Jay, Adams, and many other Founding Fathers. The tale that they told was an incredible story of courage, patriotism, betrayal, treason, corruption, and murder. I was hooked.
I wrote a new introduction to my book, “Pirates, Slaves and Indians,” and I showed it to my sister. She told me “forget about pirates, slaves and Indians and write this book.” So I did.
I hope you like it.
If you like reading this blog, check out my new book, UNLIKELY ALLIES.