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Silas Deane’s Role in the Creation of the Continental Navy
Silas Deane (see portrait), John Adams (see portrait) and George Washington (see portrait) were three heroes of the Revolution who were keenly aware of the need for a government-owned and operated naval/marine force for the Revolutionary War. In the early years of that long, eight- year conflict, vessels were being rented or borrowed from private owners to defend the New England coast or to try to capture British ships. It has been recorded that George Washington himself at one point chartered a ship that he hoped would capture a British ship to get much-needed supplies for the continental soldiers. But this process was not efficient or cost effective. It quickly became evident that the colonies needed a real naval force of their own.

Establishing a navy was the responsibility of the Continental Congress. With George Washington no longer a member of Congress after he was appointed head of the continental army, it was left to other members to tackle the naval issue. John Adams was appointed to be the head of the Naval Committee and Silas Deane was named a member. Shortly after Deane was appointed to the Naval Committee, however, he was removed as a representative of Connecticut. But even though he was no longer an official congressman, his skill in naval affairs was respected so greatly by the members, that he was asked to remain in Philadelphia with orders from the committee to form a navy (Docs. 15 and 16).

The Naval Committee did not meet during the regularly scheduled daytime sessions of the Continental Congress. In his autobiography, John Adams writes that as soon as the committee was formed in October of 1775 it

“…immediately procured a room in a public house and agreed to meet every evening at six o’clock, in order to dispatch this business with all possible cerlerity (sic)…”

(John Adams, vol. 3, p. 9)

There can be found references to this committee working until close to midnight. Mention of poetry, wine, and rum were also found. George Washington was kept informed of the Committee progress and seemed anxious to have a true navy in place as quickly as possible.

Deane had always been a vigorous endorser of a strong navy (Doc. 68). We can assume that his background as a merchant from a Connecticut town on the busy Connecticut River, coupled with the fact that his wife was from a very prominent family in the maritime trade along the Long Island coast of Connecticut made him a very valuable member of the Naval Committee. He was already hard at work trying to have a ship built before his official instructions came down from the Committee on November 17, 1775 (Doc. 69 and Doc. 15). There were eventually eight vessels procured by Deane and other committee members. The first was the ALFRED out of New London, with Deane’s brother-in-law Dudley Saltonstall as captain, which was ready to set sail at the end of December 1775, barely two months after being ordered to be built and armed. This naval activity on Deane’s part got him dubbed “The Father of the Revolutionary Marine” by at least one naval historian (Middlebrook, p. 244).

Another assignment that Deane carried out at this time (the fall of 1775) was to write a draft for the first rules and regulations of the Continental Navy. The Connecticut Historical Society has in its library (Silas Deane Paper’s, Memorial Oversize Box 3 Folder 35, 10/30/75, No. 18) a copy of Deane’s original hand written draft and the book Naval Documents edited by William Bell Clark has a typed transcription of that work (pp. 649-62). The document’s date, October 30, 1775, can be called the date of the beginning of the Continental Navy (Doc. 70). The first three pages of that document are entitled “Estimate for Fitting Out Warships for a Three Months Cruise,” also computed by Deane, showing his expertise in the entire field of shipping and naval matters.

At about this time, early 1776, Silas Deane continued to impress his comrades from the Second Continental Congress as he was appointed to go to France as a secret representative (Docs. 17 and 19) so his work for the Naval Committee was officially over. But careful reading of his vast correspondence can pick up on his continued interest in naval affairs (Doc. 71).

Besides Deane writing about the navy, you should also see some words to Deane from others about that navy. We will conclude by offering you the chance to read a letter from the Revolutionary War’s most famous naval hero, John Paul Jones (see signature). On February 26, 1778 (Doc. 72), Captain Jones wrote to the Honorable Silas Deane to describe his ship, the RANGER, receiving the very first official recognition of an American war vessel by a French war vessel, LA MOTTE PIQUET. This letter from Jones speaks not only to Deane’s interest in the affairs of the Continental Navy, but also to Deane’s great accomplishment of being instrumental in the signing of the Treaty of Alliance between France and the colonies not three weeks earlier on February 8, 1778 (see: Lesson on Deane’s biography). This treaty (http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/diplomacy/france/fr1788-2.htm) allowed France to come to the aid of the colonies resulting in the formation of the United States.

 

 



Silas Deane


John Adams


George Washington


Rules of the Navy

 
           
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