Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Silas Deane and the Corrective Lens

During a recent exchange, Brigitte noted that our memories of the past filter out most of the ugly and the bad. Not always, to be sure, but on average. Such a conversation causes one to look back to check—and yes! So true. I was reminded of this again this morning. A mutual friend of ours purchased a plate produced by the D’Arceau-Limoges, a big name in fancy porcelain. It commemorates Lafayette signing a contract to serve in the American forces in  December of 1776. Present as a witness is Silas Deane, an American diplomat of the newly forged Republic—and Baron Kalb, another French officer and the first recruited by Deane. Our friend asked us to translate the French text on the plate into English—in course of which I became aware of the solemnity of this occasion, as rendered by collective memory, and of Silas Deane himself.

Collective memory recalls the gallant Lafayette—and several other French officers—gallantly serving to help the new Republic achieve its independence from Britain—and Silas Deane as the agent who did his high-level recruiting in France. And, as they say, the rest is history.

But real life as it happens is always much more problematic. Deane was effective, but in part because he promised each officer he recruited very high rank. The French recruits, once here, did not get along either with each other or with the Americans. Here a quote from Baron de Kalb (source):

On the whole, I have annoyances to bear, of which you can hardly form a conception. One of them is the mutual jealousy of almost all the French officers, particularly against those of higher rank than the rest. These people think of nothing but their incessant intrigues and backbitings. They hate each other like the bitterest enemies, and endeavor to injure each other wherever an opportunity offers. I have given up their society, and very seldom see them. La Fayette is the sole exception; I always meet him with the same cordiality and the same pleasure. He is an excellent young man, and we are good friends.... La Fayette is much liked, he is on the best of terms with Washington.

Deane was a wretched record-keeper and careless in money matters. After his recall from France, he was tried for misdemeanors, eventually turned against the new nation that he had served, and went to live in England and in the Netherlands.

The correcting lens of memory, itself once more corrected, brings us what we always experience in the here and now: a pretty kettle of fish. But memory reminds us how we should treat the never-ending failures of our nature: with benign neglect.

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