The Life of John Adams, by Charles Henry Adams
Editors Note: This is Volume 1 of the 10 Volume “The Works of John Adams”, (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). The author, Charles Henry Adams is John Adams grandson. The copyright for the original text is in the Public Domain because its copyright has expired. The font, formatting, and spelling modernizations of this version of The Works of John Adams, as well as all other Americanist Library and Founders Corner selections are, unless otherwise specified, Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell.
Commission to France—services In Forming a Constitution For Massachusetts—commission to Negotiate Treaties With Great Britain—the Mediation of Russia and Austria—negotiations In Holland.
The embarrassments into which congress had been thrown by the contracts of Silas Deane so incensed that body against him that they determined upon his recall, though his friends proved strong enough to prevent any record on the journal of the precise reason for the act. A few days after Mr. Adams had left York, the selection of a successor in the commission came up for decision. He was nominated by his friend and colleague, Elbridge Gerry. The votes of the States sufficiently indicate the relations of members at this time. New England with Pennsylvania, the Lees, of Virginia, and Laurens, of South Carolina, elected him, whilst New York, North Carolina, Maryland, Georgia, and one Virginian preferred Robert R. Livingston. The news of this event reached him whilst engaged in a cause before the admiralty court at Portsmouth, in New Hampshire. It came accompanied by letters, earnestly pressing his acceptance of the trust. “I am charged,” said James Lovell, then a member of the Committee of Foreign Affairs, “by all those who are truly anxious here for the best prosperity of our affairs in France, to press your acceptance of the commission which has this day been voted you. The great sacrifices which you have made of private happiness have encouraged them to hope that you will not allow the consideration of your partial defect in the language to weigh any thing, when you surmount others of a different nature. Dr. Franklin’s age alarms us. We want one man of inflexible integrity on the embassy.” From the camp at Whitemarsh, whither Mr. Gerry had been sent on a committee, he wrote thus: “I hope to have the concurrence of your lady when I urge the necessity of your accepting your appointment. It is the earnest wish of congress and every friend to America that you determine in the affirmative, and, of consequence, chagrin and disappointment will result from a refusal.” Daniel Roberdeau, the delegate from Pennsylvania, at whose house he had lived whilst at Yorktown, penned the following lines: “I expect a cheerful acquiescence in a call so honorable, which I doubt not will prove a lasting honor to you and your connections, as well as a blessing to these States. I should be sorry for the least hesitation. I will not admit the thought of your refusal of the office, which would occasion a public chagrin.”
The tone of Henry Laurens, then the President, as well as of Richard Henry Lee, was equally urgent. From all which, it may be presumed that Mr Adams had been elected under great uncertainty whether he would consent to take the post. It was not an object of general ambition, inasmuch as it involved no trifling risk of capture on the way. From a regard to this consideration, with the exception of Franklin, no individual, up to this time, had been dispatched from America with a formal diplomatic commission. Such selections as congress had made had been confined to persons, like the Lees and Mr. Izard, living in Europe at the time the troubles began. To Mr. Adams, the question presented by this proposal was of the most serious character. He had returned with the purpose of resuming the practice of his profession at home. The acceptance of this offer would inevitably be fatal to any such idea, as it must take him at once from the scene, and from the ability further to continue the relations with his clients, which thus far, through his various separations, he had sedulously preserved. Above all, it would remove him from his wife and his young children, at a time of peril, in a conflict of doubtful issue. Considerations not stronger than these had deterred Mr. Jefferson from accepting the same place a few months earlier. On the other hand, however, lay the opportunity to promote the system of policy to which he had pledged every thing worth living for at home, through the establishment of relations with foreign countries that might serve as buttresses of independence. And there was, besides, the ambition, natural to every great mind, to labor in an adequate field for its exercise. These considerations fortified by the urgency of his friends, not to permit the question of a choice to be reopened, carried the day. He accepted the appointment, and forthwith made preparations for his embarkation.
Congress had directed one of the best of the few vessels at their command to be fitted out to transport him; but it was two months before she could be got ready, and, in the interval, her destination and the object of the voyage had become generally known. On a boisterous morning of the 13th of February, 1778, the frigate Boston then lying in the roadstead, Captain Samuel Tucker went in his boat to Mount Wollaston, a headland of the town of Braintree, constituting a part of the estate of Mrs. Adams’s maternal uncle, Norton Quincy, at whose house Mr. Adams, attended by his eldest son, John Quincy Adams, a boy of ten years old, were ready, as agreed, to meet him. Here, after an early and a hasty meal, they embarked. Mrs. Adams, not at all daunted by the danger, had proposed to accompany him; but, after mature consideration, it was deemed best that she should not encounter, with three young children, the risks of such a voyage. The “Diary” gives a full description of all that happened; the escape, by superior sailing, from British cruisers on the watch for the frigate; the storm in the Gulf Stream, which shattered the mainmast; the encounter with a British letter-of-marque, and her capture; and, lastly, the anxieties excited in the approach to the British Channel. These events cannot now carry with them associations like those with which Mr. Adams himself, in his later days, used to narrate them. How much he must have thought of the possibility of being immured in the Tower of London, as a rebel, a fate which befell Henry Laurens at a less critical stage in the struggle, may readily be imagined. Such a misfortune was not, however, in reserve for him. He reached Bordeaux in safety, was received with honors, and immediately passed on to Paris, where he arrived on the 8th of April, 1778.
But in the interval that had occurred since the date of his appointment, things had so far changed in Europe, as materially to affect Mr. Adams’s position, and to render his expedition of little utility to his country or to himself. Time, which slowly unveils the curtain from the inner springs of public action, has at last shown that the capitulation of General Burgoyne, with the close of the northern campaign of 1777, substantially determined the struggle; and that the blood, and misery, and devastation, which marked the rest of the war, must be laid to the account of the exaggerated stubbornness of George the Third, stimulating the indomitable haughtiness of the British people. Great, indeed, are the responsibilities of men in power, not simply for their acts, but for their omissions to act, particularly when they use no effort to stem the tide of human passions that course disastrously over the surface of human affairs! France, which had for years, with an eagle-eye, watched the appearance of a fissure in the British empire, but which had been thus far deterred from intruding by the risk of being crushed by a sudden springing back of the parts, no sooner received the news, that a formidable British army had been actually expunged in America, than it snatched at the opportunity to drive home the stroke. Never was a blow so exactly timed. It fell with superadded force by reason of the popular sympathy of all civilized Europe. North, the king’s dependence, cowered under it, and with his colleagues sought safety in retreat. Even the genius of Mansfield, strenuously as he had upheld the royal will, shrunk from further prominence in the contest, and begged for shelter under the robes of the man of all England whom he most bitterly detested, the still unconquered Chatham. Three years before, he had applied to the American quarrel the unsparing words of a Swedish general’s address to his men: “My lads, you see those fellows yonder; if you do not kill them, they will kill you.” Now, he was fain to advise the king to call in the aid of any stronger will, however obnoxious, which might avail to stop the mischief from spreading further.
But even at this moment, it was not Chatham, as he had been in the full glory of the war of 1756, wielding with his single arm the whole thunders of the British power, that he or the king wanted, but Chatham in bonds, as he had been in his latest ministry, giving his great name and greater influence to the prosecution of a policy not his own. Fortunately for that great man, a higher power interfered to save him from a second sacrifice of his fame to the pride of his sovereign and the folly of his nation. Disappointed, but not disheartened, the monarch made a new appeal to the retiring minister not to desert him in the hour of a falling cause. Lord North felt its force, and, with the customary facility of his nature, submitted himself a passive instrument to execute his master’s will. But it is now proved, beyond a doubt, that from that date he himself never anticipated any other termination of the struggle than the substantial concession of all that America had demanded.
The union between France and the United States had been sealed in February, just at the time when Mr. Adams was embarking on his voyage. It was in the form of two treaties, one a commercial agreement, the other an alliance contingent upon the breaking out of hostilities to France on the part of Britain. Neither of them precisely conformed to the plan proposed by Mr. Adams in congress, which, it will be recollected, was confined exclusively to trade, and contemplated extending the offer of free commerce to all non-belligerent nations. The amendments were apparently the suggestions of the French government. That incorporated into the treaty of commerce, which conceded that no duties should be levied on any kind of merchandise exported from the United States, by French subjects, to the French West India Islands, gave more than an equivalent to the privilege obtained of freedom from export duty on molasses brought from those islands to the United States. And although, in practice, it might have enured to the advantage of the Americans, as Mr. Deane’s Connecticut shrewdness was disposed to foretell, it was, on its face, open to the objections urged both by Mr. Lee and Mr. Izard, and was at last very properly eliminated. In the treaty of alliance, the provision which guaranteed to France her possessions in America, in exchange for a guarantee of the territorial integrity of the United States, though felt as of no moment then, carried with it very grave consequences twenty years later, when the relative position of the two nations had become greatly changed. Inconsistent as it was with Mr. Adams’s notions of neutrality in the future contests of Europe, he was in no humor to raise it as an objection to what was in other respects so capital a stroke. Besides, the result relieved him from a sense of further personal responsibility in his mission, and rendered his continuance in France of comparatively small consequence.
Other events very early concurred to make him feel anxious to return. Mr. Deane, who had taken upon himself the active labors of the commission, had left every thing in the utmost disorder. And his friends, including the adventurers who had clustered around him from the day his powers to make contracts were noised abroad, under shelter of the name of Franklin and of the French court, were waging a war of criminations with Arthur and William Lee, Ralph Izard, and the other Americans in France who joined with them. The breach thus created had been much widened by the undisguised distrust entertained by Count de Vergennes of Arthur Lee’s fidelity, a distrust carried to the extraordinary length of demanding the exclusion of Lee from intelligence communicated to his colleagues. That Lee and his friends should have resented this, can cause no surprise. The act was not justified by the evidence the minister had been on the watch to collect, and was submitted to by his colleagues more passively than became them as joint representatives of an independent nation. A similar, but less offensive, attempt of France, made twenty years later, roused the indignation of all America as well against the French authorities as the person unjustly suspected of yielding to their solicitations.
Mr. Adams had no disposition to cherish such animosities. Prepossessed in favor of Arthur Lee, by his associations in congress with his brothers, he, at this time, entertained no ill will to Deane, and had a high regard for Dr. Franklin. It was, therefore, his earnest desire, whilst doing his duty, to steer a neutral course. To this end he limited himself to such labors as he thought would meet the approbation of all alike, and which, very certainly, no one could censure. He strove to introduce method and rigid habits of business into the transactions of the commissioners. He assumed the task of corresponding with the various agents; of procuring a regular system of accountability, and putting a stop to several abuses that had been permitted. The letter-book of the joint commission, which was left in his hands, probably because it had been mainly his work, bears ample evidence of the extent of his industry in this calling. But his observation did not fail to bring him to a conviction, that the little he could do would be of no avail to reach the source of the evils complained of. To remedy them, radical changes would be necessary, and a new division of labor must be made by congress. He wrote letters to Samuel Adams, to Gerry, and to others of his friends, setting forth his ideas, and strenuously urging a separation of the diplomatic from the commercial and purely pecuniary transactions in France. He further recommended that the care of each of these departments should be vested in one individual, with whom the responsibility of action should exclusively abide. This would involve the abolition of the old commission, of which he had been made a member. Dr. Franklin, as a matter of course, would be retained at Paris as sole minister, whilst the consular and other duties would call for the appointment of some new person fitted, by his character and previous life, for the faithful performance of them. These representations, coming in aid of similar ones from Dr. Franklin and others, had their effect upon congress, and the suggestions were adopted with unusual promptness. The old commission of three was annulled. Dr. Franklin was made sole minister at the court of France. Mr. Lee was dispatched to Madrid. Colonel Palfrey was, in course of time, made consul-general, with large powers to settle accounts, an admirable selection not destined by Providence to be fulfilled. But for Mr. Adams no provision was made. He was not informed even of what was expected of him, whether to wait or to return, whether to regard himself as under orders, or as left wholly to shift for himself.
The causes of this singular oversight must be found in the peculiar condition of the congress at this period. Torn to pieces by dissensions in the army, caused, in a great measure, by the foreign officers whom Silas Deane had so improvidently engaged, a new element of discord was thrown in by the return of that gentleman himself, and the consequent transfer to America of those disputes which had raged in the commission at Paris. The numbers of that assembly continued much reduced, seldom exceeding five and twenty, and these were divided into friends of Washington and advocates of Gates, supporters of Deane and allies of the Lees and Izard. Simultaneously with these distractions, the multitudinous cares and anxieties attending the prosecution of the war without legitimate resources, and the maturing of foreign alliances, pressed with increasing weight. It has been the disposition of modern writers, misled by the faultfinding tendencies of those who only saw wherein they failed, to speak of the congress of this period as degenerate. That they who composed it were subject to the passions and infirmities of men, may readily be conceded without detracting from their merit for what they accomplished. All action must be measured by a standard formed by comparing the difficulties in which men are involved with the facilities provided to overcome them. Judging by this test, the handful of men, who struggled through the gloomy period of 1778 and 1779, with little real power, and meeting with crosses and vexations at every turn, nor yet often relieved by brilliant success to cheer them on their way, seem entitled to a much higher share of honors than is likely ever to be awarded to them. If some of them distrusted the capacity, or were fearful of the fidelity, of Washington, that might well be without in any way derogating from their purity of motive or accuracy of judgment. Washington was a new character in the military and moral world, and could be regarded, at this early stage, only by the light of ancient experience. Their representative position carried a responsibility with it, and dictated a caution, very different from any thing belonging to the foreign adventurers, who viewed the contest only as trained military soldiers of fortune. Their endeavors to establish something like a balance of power in the army may, under the precise circumstances, be conceded to have been unfortunate, though it would have required but a little different combination of characters to have earned for it to them the highest degree of credit. If the domestic difficulties were thus perplexing, those which sprang from abroad were not much less so. And, after all, the policy substantially pursued, although subject to the delays and irregularities incident to the action of all assemblies, was wise and judicious. But it cannot be wondered at, that those who suffered serious inconveniences by the want of promptness, should have been little disposed to sink the temporary annoyances to their feelings in the view of distant results, the nature of which they could not possibly understand.
Silas Deane, upon his return, found the friends of Arthur Lee in array to oppose him, and the members of congress generally provoked with him for the troubles occasioned by his contracts with Ducoudray, Deborre, Conway, and others. This had occasioned his recall. He asked to be heard in his defence, and was indulged; but the adverse testimony of Mr. Carmichael, who had likewise returned, and now sat as a delegate from Maryland, was also heard, so that the result was to clear up nothing. Not ready to pronounce judgment at this stage, the consequence was that, in the press of other more urgent matters, Congress laid this business over. But to Mr. Deane, if he could have proved himself clear of censure, this delay was equivalent to a denial of justice. Had he been able at once to produce his vouchers and explain his proceedings, there can be little doubt that his friends would have been strong enough to procure for him an honorable discharge. But owing, perhaps, to their false delicacy, which had obtained a suppression of the true grounds of his recall, he had left Europe without being fully apprised of the nature of the complaints against him, and this he urged as his excuse for neglecting to bring his papers with him, and for asking permission to return to France to collect them. Neither was there any thing unreasonable or implying cause for suspicion in all this, if he had stopped here. But he did not; and his next step materially changed the aspect of his case. It was a bold appeal, from the tribunal to which he had thus far submitted himself, to the people of the country at large, which he printed in the columns of a newspaper. The design of this could have been no other than to bid farewell to reasoning, and to transfer the storm of party passions from the narrow theatre within which they had been thus far confined, to the wide arena of the thirteen States. No open enemy could have devised an expedient better calculated, in the midst of this war, to strike a fatal blow at the confederation. The first consequence was a reply, more strong than discreet, from the hand of Thomas Paine, then in the employ of congress, in which the secret aid received from France, whilst still professing relations of amity to England, was so distinctly betrayed, as to draw down a grave reclamation from Mr. Gérard, the minister of his most Christian majesty. The next was a violent contest in the bosom of congress itself, and the resignation of the place of presiding officer by Henry Laurens, because the majority declined to resent the appeal in a manner befitting his view of their dignity. He was succeeded by John Jay, selected because he was a delegate of New York and the type of a different policy.
In the midst of the commotions thus excited, it can scarcely be wondered at, that Mr. Adams’s situation in France should have been overlooked. Especially as he had been fortunate enough to avoid being involved in the strife. His position was not, however, the less annoying to him. Idleness was ever foreign to his nature, and dependence was his aversion. “I cannot eat pensions and sinecures,” he wrote to his wife, “they would stick in my throat.” He was, therefore, in no mood to listen to Dr. Franklin’s advice, to wait quietly for further orders, and he determined to snatch the earliest opportunity to return home. The Alliance was at Nantes, preparing to sail for America. He had decided to go in that frigate, when the French government interfered to change her destination. They offered, however, as an equivalent, to provide a passage for Mr. Adams in the frigate Sensible, then fitting out to take their new envoy, the Chevalier de la Luzerne. This offer he was obliged to accept, though it cost him a new delay of two months wearily spent between Nantes and Lorient. At last notice came that all was ready. On the 17th of June, 1779, the frigate set sail, bearing Mr. Adams and his son, John Quincy, who had never left him, together with M. de la Luzerne, sent to succeed Mr. Gérard, and a new secretary of legation, Barbé de Marbois. This voyage is too fully described in the “Diary” to be dwelt upon here. It is enough to say that the ship arrived safely at Boston on the 2d of August, and Mr. Adams immediately rejoined his family at Braintree, having been this time absent a little more than seventeen months.
But though restored to home, a relaxation from labor was not in reserve for him. His native State had been, since the arrival of General Gage with the Regulating Act, struggling along under a provisional form of government, which nothing sustained but the general acquiescence of the people. All efforts to replace the old charter of William and Mary, with some original system, had thus far come to nothing. Another attempt was now making, under favorable auspices, to procure a general representation of the people, through a convention of delegates from the respective towns, with the single purpose of devising a plan. The choice of these delegates was taking place just as Mr. Adams arrived, and one week afterwards he was elected by the citizens of Braintree, to represent that town. The convention itself assembled on the first day of the ensuing month, at Cambridge, where Mr. Adams was present at its organization. An outline of the share which he had in preparing and maturing the form of the instrument submitted to their deliberations, is given in the observations prefixed to the first draft of it, in the fourth volume of the present work, where it seemed peculiarly appropriate. Repetition may therefore be dispensed with. But there is one view of the transaction which has been reserved for this place, on account of its importance, not simply in the life of Mr. Adams, but to a comprehension of the political history of Massachusetts ever since.
At the outbreak of the Revolution, in 1774, it has already been remarked that the social system of New England, as developed during more than a century by its town organizations, its schools, and its religious congregations, was considered by the inhabitants of the other colonies, as it was in fact, a great approximation to what some of them at that time denominated levelling, and others now call democracy. Whatever of an opposite tendency existed had clustered around the official agents dispatched from the mother country, or the orders symbolized by the presence of those of the Anglican Church, with whom, according to the satirist,
“Fat bishoprics were still of right divine.”
Wealth was not concentrated, to any extent, in the form of capital. The few, distinguished above their neighbors in this respect, had gained and still held it in trade. Among them but a small number ventured to take the hazards of the Revolution. The remainder disappeared from the scene with the Declaration of Independence, carrying off with them such of their property as they could remove, and abandoning the rest to the chances of the struggle. The towns were not populous, but they contained a hardy, industrious, and moral population, subsisting on the fruits of their labor, mechanical, agricultural, or upon the seas, frugally expended. Boston, the capital, had made little progress in numbers for many years, yet it could not be said to show signs of decay. Its inhabitants, remarkably homogeneous, a characteristic they retained two centuries, were noted for their devotion to popular ideas. The outward manifestation of this was to be found in the town meeting or the body meeting, where all assembled on a perfectly equal footing. And Samuel Adams, the journeyman wireworker, living on perhaps fifty cents earned every week-day, was entitled to his say as freely, though he might not be heard so readily, as his namesake whilst engaged in combining the far different wires of the corresponding committees. Yet this absolute equality of rights must not be confounded in any manner with the appearance of the same thing in the case of the proletaries of the Roman forum. All held some property, however small, which they called their own, and to which they attached a value sufficient to give to their action a tinge of conservatism. And this tinge was more or less deep in proportion to the amount of that property. The effect of the removal of the loyalists was only to expunge a class which answered the nearest to an aristocracy, but it did not erase that gradation of sentiment which will ever make itself felt even in the most democratic communities, so long as social forms shall be maintained, and property be recognized as sacred. There still remained persons holding a wide diversity of sentiments respecting the true principles upon which governments should be constructed, some strongly leaning to notions through which the distinction of ranks in the mother country is yet preserved, whilst others went to the extent of favoring the eradication of them all. Somewhere between these extremes were to be found most of the population. Hence it fell out, that among the delegates returned to the convention were persons representing almost every shade of opinion; and these were not slow to discover their affinities and to form relations with each other, which became permanent in time, and which have ever since exercised great sway in the direction of public affairs.
The most important of these associations had already made itself perceptible in the county of Essex, through the impulse which it had given adverse to the acceptance of the constitution proposed to the people by the legislature of 1778. Not content with a mere rejection, the leading minds had published their views of the proper form that should be substituted, and had set forth as a fundamental proposition that it should strongly reflect the rights of property. On the other hand, from the remoter country districts had come up warm devotees to the Revolution, jealous of all delegated authority, who viewed with distrust the complications of a mixed form of government, and who regretted every departure from the simple idea of vesting barely necessary powers in a single representative assembly. To the former class belonged Theophilus Parsons, now making his first appearance on the stage, John Lowell, and others, whose sentiments were represented in the remarkable pamphlet already alluded to, entitled “The Essex Result.” To the latter leaned Samuel Adams, Thomas Cushing, and, perhaps, the larger number of the clergy of that day. Between these conflicting views, John Adams represented men holding an intermediate position. And here commences the trace of the three forms which opinion usually takes in republican governments, visible more or less through all the subsequent history of the United States. Intimately associated with the popular side in all the preliminary measures for the overthrow of the royal authority, John Adams was not quite prepared to keep up with them in all their notions of reconstruction. His education, his professional studies, and his habits of generalization led him to favor the main features of the British form of government, provided they were modified to suit the wants of a community happily disencumbered of the burden of feudal and ecclesiastical distinctions. Nor yet could he bring himself to accord with the views of the opposite class, who claimed in their publication a preponderating influence for property. The true aim of government, in his idea, was to establish, upon the firmest footing, the rights of all who live under it, giving to no one interest power enough to become aggressive upon the rest, and yet not denying to each a share sufficient for its own protection.
In this spirit he entered the convention, where he was received with a deference due to his reputation for attainments, his public services, and his peculiar position, removed from the local wrangling which had accumulated obstacles to future success from the failure of past efforts. It appears from the testimony of members present, that soon after the opening he was called upon to give his opinions upon government at large, and that he did so in an elaborate speech, said to have been “intended to reconcile the discordant sentiments which prevailed among gentlemen from different parts of the commonwealth, and of different means of information.” No record was made, nor does a trace remain, of this speech. Its effect seems to have been favorable, in giving at once the right tone to the proceedings. The convention immediately adopted two propositions as guides to their labors. The first specified the object of their wishes, which was “to establish a free republic.” The second defined the essence of it to be, “the government of a people by fixed laws of their own making.” Taking this position as their point of departure, the next step was the creation of a committee of thirty-one to mature a draft of an instrument to accomplish the design. This committee, in its turn, delegated the task to a smaller one, which employed Mr. Adams. The result was a form of constitution, preceded by a bill of rights, the leading features of which were his work. This result fell in sufficiently with the views of the Essex men to secure their support, without which it would not have been adopted, whilst it recommended itself to the judgment of the Boston interest so far as to meet the approbation on the one side, of James Bowdoin, and, on the other, of Samuel Adams, both alike indispensable to its success. Here, however, the active service of John Adams, in this department, was to stop. Before the report of the large committee came up to be acted on, he had been summoned to another field of duty, which compelled him to leave his work to be matured by other hands. It is among the recommendations of its quality that it survived this transfer; and growing better by careful handling, and the suggestions of acute professional skill, as well as of sound practical experience, it soon followed him across the ocean in so satisfactory a shape, that he was able, with pride, to lay it before the distrustful as a proof that the task which his countrymen seemed to them rashly to have undertaken, was not at all beyond their ability to execute with success.
Mr. Adams, shortly after reaching home, had closed his mission by the preparation of an elaborate review of the state of the different nations in Europe, so far as it might have a bearing on the interests of the United States. This able paper came in at a moment when its elevated tone, contrasting favorably with the bitter personal controversies among other persons in the foreign service, by which the congress had been distracted, contributed to the decision in his case, which soon afterwards took place. Pressed on all sides by powerful conflicting interests, that body had finally been driven to the necessity of instituting an investigation into the causes of the difficulties which had occurred. The committee charged with this duty, made a report embodying their conclusions in ten propositions, which came up for consideration on the 13th of April, 1779. The main object, embraced in two of these, the fourth and fifth, undoubtedly was, to effect a revocation of all the foreign appointments, with a view to begin anew. They were in the following words:—
“4. That suspicions and animosities have arisen among the said commissioners, which may be highly prejudicial to the honor and interests of these United States.
“5. That the appointments of the said commissioners be vacated, and that new appointments be made.”
The relation which these propositions held to each other is obvious enough; and had congress proceeded to a vote upon the ten as a whole, the effect would have been to vacate every existing commission abroad. Instead of this, they preferred to act upon them separately. The friends of the persons implicated, differing in every other respect, were yet, by a common interest, united in insisting that the name of each one should be passed upon by a distinct vote. In obedience to this requirement, Franklin, Deane, Arthur and William Lee, and Ralph Izard were successively subjected to the ordeal, and all shared the same condemnation. But when the turn of Mr. Adams came, a serious difficulty at once presented itself. In point of fact, he had not merited to be included in the list at all. For during his brief and in some respects compulsory stay in the commission, he had carefully avoided taking a side in the quarrels, and he had labored earnestly, though in vain, to bring the disputants to some sort of understanding. For this course he had received a high parting compliment from the Count de Vergennes; and nobody had thought to censure him but Mr. Izard, whose overzealous interference with the duties of the commission in negotiating a treaty he had felt obliged to repel. To involve him in the condemnation designed for conduct, the greater part of which had taken place before he became a member of the commission, would be in the highest degree unjust. Yet, if he were made an exception, it was clear that the plan of thorough renewal of the foreign service would break down. The friends of Arthur Lee, who were likewise friends of Mr. Adams, and averse to the contemplated reform, were willing to involve both in the common censure with Franklin and Deane, the better to shelter Lee from being singled out as an object of sacrifice. Whilst those who had seldom sympathized with Mr. Adams in his congressional life were ready to acquit him, that they might the more unequivocally point their verdict against Mr. Lee.
Thus came about what seems the paradoxical record of congress, a consequence, not uncommon in legislative bodies, of the operation of secondary motives in perverting the natural and direct determination of public questions. The recall of Dr. Franklin, as the necessary effect of including him in the condemnation, had not been fully contemplated until the question was brought up through the terms of the fifth proposition, and it became indispensable to cast about for a person to succeed him at the French court. The measure was understood to be as unwelcome to Count de Vergennes, anxious to retain Franklin, and more than suspecting the fidelity of Lee, as it certainly was, on every account, utterly inexpedient. Hence, upon a new presentation of the question, it appeared, that instead of a general assent, as before, but seven votes were given in the affirmative. The next name subjected to reconsideration was that of Arthur Lee; and his friends, having changed their votes on the recall of Franklin, now rallied with the more energy against recalling him. Although twenty-two out of thirty-seven of the members are recorded as voting for it, yet, owing to the mode of their distribution, in the respective delegations voting by States, it appeared that but four States approved of it, four were divided, and therefore neutralized, and four were against it. The effect was to keep Lee as minister in Spain, to defeat the adoption of the fifth proposition, and to leave parties pretty much in the state in which they were before the attempt of the committee to draw them out of their embarrassments had been made. In other words, the work was all to be begun over again.
Simultaneously with this agitation, other movements of far greater consequence had been going on in Philadelphia. In July, 1778, M. Gérard, one of the chief clerks in the foreign office at Paris, and the same person who had conducted the negotiation of the treaties with the United States on the part of France, appeared as a minister vested with a commission to represent that court in the United States. His real duty was, to aid in establishing the influence of his country over the councils of America, and to guard against any essential backslidings from the policy marked out by the terms of the alliance. His instructions fixed his attention upon the following objects:—
1. The counteraction of British influence.
2. The ratification of the treaties already executed.
3. The parrying of all applications to France for money.
4. The arrangement of a military coöperation with the French fleet.
5. The defeat of all projects against Canada.
He entered upon the work thus laid out for him with more vivacity than discretion. Had he waited a short time, the better to master the peculiarities of race and of character with which he had to deal, to comprehend more fully the motives of the chief actors, and to accommodate himself to the strange state of things in which he was placed, it would have been better for his country, besides saving him the labor of afterwards removing obstacles which his very precipitation interposed to the ultimate attainment of his desires.1
The first occasion upon which this novel influence was sensibly felt, occurred upon the presentation of a letter by M. Gérard to congress, on the 9th of February, 1779, announcing the offer of Spain to mediate between England and France, and recommending the appointment, on the part of the United States, of some person to reside in Europe clothed with the necessary powers to act in the contingency of Great Britain’s accepting the proposition. This overture was joyfully hailed by congress as an act far more decisive in favor of America than the facts really warranted, and it immediately suggested a line of policy harmonizing with their sanguine expectations rather than with the reality. Two weeks later, a committee, to whom the letter had been referred, made a report, explaining the principles upon which the terms of pacification might be arranged. The ultimatum covered three points only. 1. Independence. 2. The fisheries. 3. The navigation of the Mississippi. For the sake of securing these objects, others were enumerated as matters for negotiation, among which were the acquisition of Nova Scotia on the north and Florida on the south, the East India trade, the slave-trade, the right of settling alien territories, and a reciprocal guarantee of American possessions. Out of all this, nothing was agreeable to the policy of the French cabinet, which desired to confine the American ultimatum to the naked point of substantial independence of Great Britain, and to leave every thing beyond to take the chances of a negotiation. In the earnest desire to obtain the necessary modifications of the American project, M. Gérard gradually suffered himself to be drawn in as a party to the dissensions in congress, until he came habitually to regard those who favored his ideas as the friends of France, and those adverse to them as Tories, secretly devoted to the object of obtaining a separate reconciliation with Great Britain.1
The long struggle which followed this beginning, was the most memorable of all that took place in congress after the question of independence. The main point on which it turned, was the effort to keep the right to the fisheries an ultimatum in the negotiation of any peace. This was a right peculiarly dear to the eastern States, to which they clung with great tenacity. They were, therefore, arrayed in a body in its defence, with Pennsylvania, as usual, on their side, whilst on the other were ranged New York and the four southern States. The latter were not indisposed to favor the demand, so long as they could persist in a like claim for the free navigation of the Mississippi. But this claim proved peculiarly unwelcome to the French government, which saw at once the embarrassment it would make in a negotiation carried on under the mediation of Spain, the very power from which it was to be obtained. M. Gérard left no stone unturned to procure the abandonment of this proposition, and he proved successful. It was determined that, however valuable to the southern country the right in question might be, it was not to be permitted to stand in the way of the establishment of peace. This point once gained, the next was to overpower the resistance of New England to a similar withdrawal on their side. But such was the tenacity of Samuel Adams, Elbridge Gerry, and their friends, that this victory could only be won by making concessions in some other form. Although M. Gérard ultimately prevailed in expunging from the instructions to the minister who should be empowered to negotiate a peace, every limitation beyond the single article of independence and a designated line of boundaries, he could not prevent the establishment of another and independent authority to offer a treaty of commerce to the king of Great Britain, the main condition of which should be the security of the fisheries in exchange for privileges of trade. For obvious, though opposite reasons, all were induced to concur in a proposition that any stipulation affecting this right of fishing must receive the assent of every separate State of the Union before the treaty could become binding; but it most satisfied Massachusetts by securing her against a surrender of it without her consent. In this shape, the claim was not open to objection as constituting a possible bar to the attainment of the great object of the war, national independence. So the French minister was fain, for the moment, to let the measure pass. But it was only a delay, for the purpose of enabling his government the more effectually to annul it in a later stage of the proceedings, as the sequel clearly shows.
Concurrently with this establishment of a diplomatic policy, contingent upon the first symptoms of a disposition in Great Britain to treat, happened the organization by congress of a new mission to Spain. The instructions in this case were to the effect that a further effort should be made to prevail upon that power to come in under the secret provisions of the treaty already made with France for admitting her as a party to its engagements. But if that proposition should be unsatisfactory, then new offers were to be held out to induce her to join the alliance. The main one consisted in the proposal of a guarantee of the Floridas, if she should obtain them by maintaining the war with Great Britain. But a compensation for this was to be gained in the much prized right of navigating the Mississippi down to the sea. An effort was likewise directed to be made to procure a cession of some port on that river below the thirty-first degree of latitude, and likewise the loan of a sum of money. Thus in this case, as in the other, what originally formed one of the proposed ultimata in the negotiation for a general pacification, and might there prove a stumbling-block to all progress, was dexterously transferred to another place, in which the well-understood indisposition of Spain to concede any such privileges as those in question would have no ill effect outside of the negotiation with that single power.
On the whole, M. Gérard seems thus far to have had every reason to be satisfied with the success of his labors. Upon the main point of bringing the United States to be content with independence of Great Britain as the sole condition of a pacification, and leaving every thing else subject to the chances of negotiation, he had been entirely triumphant. If this object, the only and overruling motive for the course of France, for which she had risked a war, could be once secured, she would have no cause to apprehend further embarrassment to herself from the interposition of secondary questions in which she might feel little interest. The mission to Spain was subsidiary to the policy, directed from the first by the Count de Vergennes with extraordinary industry, of involving that power in the combination against Great Britain. And although he now had strong reasons to doubt whether any of the desired concessions would be made to America by her, he saw no danger to his own plans from the failure of the application, and was, therefore, not unwilling that it should be hazarded. The case was otherwise with the proposal to open an avenue to a reconciliation with Great Britain through the offer of commercial advantages, and the revival of the old affiliations of trade. The influence which had carried this point against him was that of the Adamses and the Lees, men whom his agent, M. Gérard, habitually represented as identified with the Tory advocates of Great Britain. One of these men, Arthur Lee, who had already excited in his own mind suspicions of treachery in his place as commissioner to the French court, for which he had gone the length of excluding him from information freely furnished to his colleagues, had been set down as absolutely in league with the British ministry by his more impetuous deputy.
Under these circumstances the question, who should be selected to fill the responsible posts thus created, became one of the greatest importance to France. M. Gérard seems to have exerted his great influence not only to effect the exclusion of Lee, who fell a sacrifice in the conflict of parties, but also to determine the selection of the commissioner for treating of peace, in which he did not succeed so well. There is every reason to believe that at this time his preferences were for Mr. Jay. But Mr. Jay, through his preceding career, had thrown the weight of New York so decidedly in the scale against New England, and he had so generally fallen in with the policy of the southern States and of the French minister, by refusing to insist upon the fisheries as a fundamental principle of national independence, as to rouse in the New England delegates the greatest repugnance to intrusting him with the vital interests of that negotiation. The same uneasiness pointed out John Adams as the only person in whom they could implicitly confide. At the same time, their friendly relations with Arthur Lee’s brothers dictated a resolute opposition on their part to any attempt to supersede him in the position to which he had already been assigned under a former appointment as commissioner to the Spanish court. On the other hand, New York, and a majority of the southern members, anxious to conciliate the French court by creating a new mission to Spain in the place of Arthur Lee’s, were not unwilling to assign Mr. Adams to that place, provided that Mr. Jay could be made agreeable to New England as the agent to execute the more important trust. But New England, acting at that time in unison with Pennsylvania, could not be made to listen to that proposal. The consequence of this triangular contest was a compromise, by which New England obtained the appointment of Mr. Adams, which her delegates deemed of such vital importance, to negotiate with Great Britain, whilst the other party secured the substitution of Mr. Jay for Mr. Lee in the mission to Spain. On the 26th of September, the trial of strength, which terminated this long contest, took place. The issue of two ballots proved the impossibility of either electing Mr. Jay to the peace commission, or of reelecting Mr. Lee to Spain. These points being settled to the satisfaction of all, the next day witnessed a change of policy on each side. Whilst the opposition to Mr. Adams was withdrawn, Mr. Jay was, with similar unanimity, assigned to the court of Spain. It was the victory of New England, determined to have a man upon whose courage she could depend, whose integrity she had never had reason to doubt, and whose firmness would abide the severest trials.
Neither was New England, however unwelcome to her the unavoidable sacrifice of Arthur Lee, at all dissatisfied with the selection made of his successor; for although, from his entrance into public life, Mr. Jay had never been acting in unison with her more impulsive delegates, he had succeeded in earning that degree of respect and confidence from them which honesty of purpose and integrity of life, joined to great abilities, never fail in the long run to command through all the vicissitudes of public life, even from the most imbittered opponents. The only person destined to be disappointed by the issue of this business was M. Gérard, as he very soon had occasion to discover; for he had obtained the removal of Mr. Lee at the expense of the substitution of perhaps the two men of all America upon whom the influences which France could bring to bear to bend their views to her notions of policy would act with the least possible effect. Indeed, throughout his course in America, M. Gérard had fallen into the grievous error of measuring the motives of the leading American statesmen by the corrupted standard with which he had become familiar in the old world. And in denominating one side as devoted to France, and the other as the partisans of England, he had committed equal injustice to the sterling patriotism which inspired both, whatever differences of opinion they might entertain as to the measures most proper to carry it out.
On the 20th of October, Mr. Laurens, the president of congress, transmitted the two commissions; one to negotiate a treaty of peace, the other a treaty of commerce, with Great Britain, whenever the moment should occur at which the sovereign and his subjects should become reconciled to the surrender of what was already irrecoverable. The Chevalier de la Luzerne, the successor of M. Gérard, who had come to America in the same frigate with Mr. Adams, had already addressed a letter of congratulation to him, and had offered him a reconveyance to France in the returning ship. The labors in which he was engaged for his native State, were, of course, brought to a sudden close. Yet he continued to attend the meetings of the convention until two days before he actually embarked. With the single exception of the trust which he had taken so leading a part in imposing upon Washington, no responsibility equal to this had yet devolved upon any single man. It was, to be sure, only contingent; but however far removed the day of its occurrence, little doubt remained even in England that it must come at last. And whenever it should come, the severe test to which it might put both his moral and intellectual qualities, could not escape his anxious observation. Formidable as the task seemed, Mr. Adams viewed it without apprehension. It was in the nature of his spirit to rise with the occasion that happened to call it into action. Responsibility was a thing which he had never courted, but which, when offered, he never shunned. And it is a circumstance worthy to be well noted, that in the repeated instances in which he staked every thing of value to a highminded man upon the issue of his single determination, the result never failed to confirm the correctness of his decision.
On the 13th of November, 1779, Mr. Adams was once more on the deck of The Sensible, and again accompanied by his eldest son. M. de Marbois, on the outward voyage, had been so much impressed by what he saw of this youth, then only ten years old, that he sent his father a special injunction to carry him back, to profit by the advantages of a European education. In addition, he took this time his second son, Charles, Mr. John Thaxter as his private secretary, and quite a numerous retinue of youths, whose parents availed themselves of his protection to get them to Europe. Besides all these was Francis Dana, whom congress had most judiciously selected as secretary to the mission, with some view to employing him ultimately in other responsible capacities abroad. The details of this voyage, the leaky state of the ship, compelling the commander to seek safety in the first Spanish port, and the fatiguing winter journey through Spain, from Ferrol to Paris, are sufficiently given in the “Diary.”1 On the 5th of February, 1780, Mr. Adams reached the French capital, prepared to take up his abode in it until called into active service.
But first of all he felt it proper to address a note to Count de Vergennes, apprising him of his arrival and of the twofold nature of the duties imposed upon him, and soliciting advice as to the fitting course to be taken towards the government of Great Britain. The suggestion, that any course was thought of, seems instantly to have fixed the attention of the minister to the possibility of opening a negotiation through this commercial channel, which might entangle all the threads of his own policy. His answer led to a correspondence, that sowed the seeds of mutual distrust. Mr. Adams felt that he was expected to exercise no discretion of his own, but simply to obey the directions of France, whilst, on the other hand, the count began to suspect that the great object of all his fears, a reconciliation between Great Britain and the colonies, might be placed beyond his power to prevent, if it should happen that the mother country, listening to her interests rather than to her passions, should choose to accept such an overture. As it is material to a clear comprehension of the subsequent transactions to understand the precise position occupied by France at this time, a brief review of her policy will not be wholly out of place.
The diplomacy of England and France during the latter half of the eighteenth century furnishes a striking illustration of the marked contrast in their national character. On the one side is bluntness, amounting occasionally to arrogance, and want of flexibility, redeemed by a general spirit of sincerity and truth, whilst, on the other, is the beauty of courtly persuasion and the skill of adaptation to all the necessities of the occasion, subject to the drawback of disingenuousness and unscrupulous deception. This last characteristic is nowhere more painfully prominent than during the latter years of the reign of Louis the Fifteenth. Remarkable as that period was for the accumulation of troubles which came down with such concentrated force upon the devoted head of his innocent successor, it is in no respect more noted than for the refinements introduced into the direction of the foreign affairs. Not content with the ordinary channels used by the ministers of the crown, the monarch gradually established a secret organization of his own, by which, through agents clothed with no public character, he communicated to his representatives at foreign courts such of his wishes as he preferred to see executed, regardless of the instructions which they might be at the same time receiving from the regular sources. So privately was this systematic deception conducted, that it is asserted neither the prime ministers nor even the more seductive mistresses of the monarch could ever succeed in obtaining a clue to the causes which were constantly occurring to neutralize or to transform their policy. The effect of such a system upon the ambassadors of France at foreign courts could only be to school them in the practice of compounding duplicity. It not only applied to the powers to which they were sent, but still more to those which had sent them. It was to confirm deception as the rule, and to uphold truth only as the exception, reserved for the exclusive benefit of the monarch himself. The tenure of office on such terms was of itself equivalent to the abnegation of any exercise whatever of a moral sense in the execution of a public trust.
In the midst of this complication of things, Gravier de Vergennes spent his early manhood. From obscure beginnings he gradually made his way in the diplomatic service, through thirty years of vicissitudes in the ministerial government, by the aptitude he showed for the successive labors to which he was assigned. During this long period the double instructions were in constant operation. They were used with decided effect to betray the confidence and paralyze the policy of the Duke de Choiseul. But although de Vergennes was formed in this school, and, in a succession of missions, became privy to its lessons, the effect upon his character seems to have been not so much to corrupt it, for his natural disposition remained good to the end, as to blunt his sensibilities, and to narrow the scope of his statesmanship within the circle of French casuistry. Cold, sagacious, absolute in all his sentiments,1 he combined his means with his ends in a manner seldom failing of the desired result, without troubling himself to inquire of the further merits of his policy. Of the enthusiasm characteristic of his nation he had but little. Of the moderation which leads a calm man to prefer a quiet and simple method to a noisy and violent one, he had a great share. But the nature of the means to be used, or the abstract propriety of using them, to him was of little moment. Thus at Constantinople, when his sagacity predicted the disasters that would overwhelm the Turks, as a consequence of the directions of Choiseul to precipitate them into a war with Russia, he nevertheless went on to execute them without remorse, claiming to himself only the credit of saving the whole corruption fund placed at his disposal for the purpose. So, too, in Sweden, torn to pieces by the dissensions of the hats and caps, when Gustavus, under the instigation of France, with the oath of office yet fresh on his lips, planned the overthrow of the liberties of his country he had just sworn to support, Vergennes, dispatched for the purpose of overseeing the operation, coolly fixed the moment at which the plot was put in execution, although after its success he wrote home his opinion of the incompetency of the very man he had thus helped to absolute power. Thirty years of experience in a school of policy, thus purely French, had resulted in making de Vergennes one of the most skilful of her diplomatists. Hence, when the accession of Louis the Sixteenth brought with it a necessity for reorganizing the cabinet, his established reputation at once pointed him out to the young king as a suitable person to direct the foreign affairs.
The moment when this change took place must be regarded as forming an epoch in the history of the civilized world. Louis the Fifteenth terminated a reign of disasters, of reckless profusion, and of unexampled profligacy, just at the period when Lord North was carrying through the British House of Commons the series of measures designed to chastise the refractory colonists, and to make an example of the people of Boston. The new cabinet of France, with the humiliation fresh on their minds, which their country had suffered only eleven years before from the triumphant arrogance of the elder Pitt, soon fixed their attention upon these symptoms of an opportunity for overwhelming retaliation. Behind them rested the wave of continental opinion, seldom favorable to English pride, and now by no means averse to a result that might effectually bring it to a fall. The discontent of the colonies had not been suffered to pass unnoticed by the Duke de Choiseul in the latter days of his ministry, nor had efforts been spared to gain accurate information of the character and designs of the population. But when Louis the Sixteenth ascended the throne, the troubles had gained such a height as at once to demand the settlement of some definite line of policy. Count de Vergennes did not arrive from Sweden to take possession of his new post until the month of July, 1774. The results of the consultations of the new ministry do not make themselves externally visible until November, 1775, when the organization of the secret committee of congress, unquestionably stimulated by the hope of assistance from France, opened three distinct channels of communication with her, through each of which whispers came well calculated to animate resistance. As early as February, 1776, Arthur Lee wrote from London that the exportation from France of arms and ammunition would not be noticed, and that a military leader of the highest reputation would be furnished, if desired. On the 30th of April, M. Dumas, at the Hague, forwarded the minutes of a conference with the French minister at that court, to the effect that his government was deterred from rendering active aid to the colonies only by the fear that the difference was yet not beyond the possibility of reconciliation. And a few days later, Dr. Dubourg, at Paris, having had a confidential interview at Versailles with an intimate friend of the minister Turgot, received an explicit assurance of the deep interest with which the government viewed the struggle, and of their desire to furnish the colonists with money to sustain their resistance, provided that no committal with Great Britain should follow the failure of the enterprise. Thus early are the evidences supplied, from outside of the French cabinet, of the disposition prevailing within it to stimulate the colonies to resistance. This was done at a time when a solemn peace, entered into only twelve years before, was professedly binding both nations, in which the parties had contracted to “give the greatest attention to maintain between themselves and their dominions and subjects a reciprocal friendship and correspondence, without permitting, on either side, any kind of hostilities by sea or by land, to be committed from henceforth, for any cause, or under any pretence whatsoever; and carefully to avoid every thing, which might hereafter prejudice the union happily reëstablished, and give no assistance or protection, directly or indirectly, to those who would cause any prejudice to either of the high contracting parties.” Such is the substance of the first article of the Treaty of Paris of 1763.
This exposition of the absence of good faith in the French ministry towards Great Britain1 is essential to the right comprehension of the subsequent narrative, because it shows that Mr. Adams was not mistaken in his belief of the impolicy of staking the salvation of America upon an implicit confidence in the presence of it. So far as the interests of France and the United States led the same way, there is no cause to doubt that a reliance of the latter on the coöperation of the former could be safely entertained. That these interests would go the length of establishing a total separation between the United States and the mother country, and sustaining the claims of the former to independence, might reasonably be counted on. But beyond that point sprung up a wide variety of questions, upon which no similar identity of interests could be perceived, and where some surer support to confidence became necessary. And here was the place where opinions very naturally diverged. Mr. Adams, with one class, judging from the past, had little trust in the moral integrity of French policy, and was, therefore, anxious to extend the connections of the United States, so as to avoid too exclusive dependence upon French good faith; whilst Dr. Franklin and another class, trying to believe in the existence of that good faith, inclined to regard all efforts to gain support elsewhere as idle and superfluous labor. This difference of sentiment must be kept steadily in mind, in order to retain the thread of the negotiations about to be described.
To an attentive student of the complicated system which has grown out of the mutual relations of the nations of modern Europe, as displayed by the expositions they themselves have made, the last idea that will suggest itself is that of the prevalence of any exalted sentiment or generous emotion. He may see abundant traces of passions, great and small, of extraordinary sagacity, singular abilities in pursuing some desired object, exquisite refinements in policy, and every conceivable variety of craft and stratagem, leavened by a good deal of that narrowest kind of philanthropy which consults the temporal interests of one community of God’s creatures, without regard to the injuries which may be inflicted on the world besides. The great diplomatists, without exception, proceed upon one maxim, which is, to advance their own country in power, regardless, if not at the cost, of every other. The principle upon which the elaborately constructed theory of the balance of power rests, is nothing more than pure selfishness, which, assumed to be the ruling motive of each nation in its particular action, must be jealously guarded against and counteracted by combinations among the rest. The notion that the ministers of Louis the Sixteenth, who had grown gray in the service of this system, in taking the course which they did towards America, could have been actuated by any other than the accepted ideas of their day, or that they shared in the enthusiasm generated in the hearts of the French nation by the sight of brave men struggling for liberty against power, seems entirely out of keeping with any thing that previously happened in their lives, or that marked the rest of their career. The head of the cabinet, the Count de Maurepas, a veteran in the petty intrigues of courts, seldom troubled his mind with abstractions, or indeed with the grave realities around him, further than was indispensable to preserve himself in favor. The ideas of Count de Vergennes had never swerved from the doctrine of his time, which was to maintain France as the centre around which the various European powers were to be kept moving in their respective orbits. Of the remaining members not one was tinged with the notions of the new school in France, unless it were M. Turgot, and he was so much absorbed in executing his projects of reform in the administration of his own particular department, and the restoration of the finances, as to look upon the addition of any novel element to his calculations with aversion rather than good-will. Out of all the persons clothed with power, not one was so likely to be carried away by his emotions as the impressible and good-hearted young sovereign himself; but there is abundant proof to show that he was by no means inclined towards America. He feared to nurse the spirit of insubordination, which terminated so tragically to himself; and whatever may have been the feelings of irresponsible men and women around the court, it does not appear that he or his advisers for him were disposed, at this period, to forget the hint of Joseph of Austria, that “his trade was to rule.”
But in order to establish this point, little need now remains of resort to general reasoning. The facts are sufficiently before the world, upon which a judgment may be definitively made up. It appears that early in the year 1776, Count de Vergennes prepared for the perusal of the king a paper described as “a memoir of considerations relative to the interest which the two powers of France and Spain can have in the agitation going on in the British colonies of North America, and in the results that may ensue.” This paper, after it had been read by Louis, was, by his order, transmitted to M. Turgot, with a request for his opinion, to be given early, in writing; and Count de Vergennes, in executing the order, added the not insignificant suggestion that Spain had already been pressing for, and was then awaiting the issue of his Majesty’s determination.
This happened on the 12th of March. The paper itself precisely corresponds to the character of its author. It deals in no generalization or breadth of views. It limits the nature of the question to the consideration of the effect that a family quarrel, which had fallen out in Great Britain, might have upon the interests of France and Spain. It skilfully sets the possible benefits and dangers flowing to them from it in opposite scales. Among the benefits, it places in bold relief the exhaustion which might ensue from a long continuance of civil war to both sides, as well the victors as the vanquished, as well to the colonies as to the mother country. Among the dangers, it enumerates, on the one hand, the chance of a reconciliation, by which the heated passions of the combatants might be turned into a channel of common wrath against France, and, on the other, the possibility that the American possessions of France and Spain might succumb to the attacks of one party or the other, should the contest end in a separation. Having thus weighed the various probabilities, this remarkable paper concludes with advising—
1. That no overt act likely to incur the dangers pointed out should be hazarded;
2. That total inaction was inexpedient, since it would not protect the two powers from the ill-will of England;
3. That the continuance of the contest, at least for one year, by drawing off a large military force from Europe, would be advantageous;
4. That to secure this object, the British ministry should be lulled into perfect security as to the intentions of the two powers.
From these conclusions, worthy of Machiavel himself, the Count recommended a corresponding line of policy. Great Britain was to be maintained in full assurance of the good disposition of France, whilst, at the same time, arms and money, with munitions of war, should be secretly sent to the Americans. No compacts were to be made, likely to prove any thing against France with her powerful neighbor, in case she should recover her authority in America either by reconciliation or by arms. All that was proposed to be done was to extend sufficient aid to gain a temporary advantage by continuing the war, which was a wiser course than to permit indifference to be construed by either party as fear. Lastly, the duty of the two powers, in any event, was to put themselves on a strong footing, so that they might be prepared to act with effect in case of emergency.
This paper, redolent of the wary diplomacy of the old school rather than of the warmer emotions just then making their way into the popular heart of France, has not yet been laid before the world.1 For a long time its existence was known only by the discovery, in the celebrated iron chest of Louis the Sixteenth, of the response to it, which was invited by that monarch from M. Turgot. That response is by far the most remarkable paper of the two, as indicating a mind of much wider compass, embracing within its grasp many of the remote as well as the immediate consequences of this dispute. In the disposition to moral discrimination, there is but a shade of difference. Agreeing in the general conclusions of his colleague, M. Turgot extended his speculations into future contingencies very much further. Laying it down as certain, that any hostile demonstration against Britain would be the most likely way to accelerate a reconciliation between her and her colonies, which, in its turn, would be a prelude to a joint attack upon the weak and exposed dependencies of the two crowns in America, he expressed unequivocal repugnance to any such measure. The most desirable result he considered to be a long and exhausting contest in America, ending in the victory of Great Britain, but not without the utter ruin of the resources of the refractory colonies. On the other hand, the idea of these colonies succeeding in establishing their independence was to be contemplated as inevitably involving an ultimate abandonment of every political and commercial restraint upon the American dependencies of the other European nations. For this effect it would be well that all of them should begin to prepare themselves. The reflections upon the change of policy proper to meet such a contingency constitute the most luminous portion of the paper. The deductions made from his opinions were not quite accordant with those of Count de Vergennes, though practically they did not differ. He urged that peace should, on no account, be broken. Yet he would not refuse assistance to the colonies such as could be afforded without a palpable violation of neutrality; and he recommended the most effective preparation for whatever events the future might have in store.1
These two memoirs, taken together, furnish a perfect key to the action of the French cabinet during the American Revolution, and set at rest every doubt of the motives which actuated their policy. Sympathy with Americans, as victims of oppression or as champions of liberty, had no share in it whatever. The cardinal principle was what French writers denominate égoisme, pure and undiluted, seeking to fortify itself against the unwelcome preponderance of an arrogant neighbor, by cherishing the germs of permanent discord in his bosom. Yet it should not escape notice, that though these papers agree in utter want of sympathy with the fate of the colonists, one of them regarding their exhaustion, and the other their final subjection, as desirable results, the particulars in which they differ furnish some light on the respective characteristics of the authors. Count de Vergennes sketches a policy of deception and duplicity preparatory to a possible declaration of war, whilst M. Turgot clearly inclines to peace with but a partial violation of the solemn engagements entered into with England. In point of fact, he was sincerely disposed to pacific counsels, not solely on abstract grounds, but because he foresaw the derangement a war would occasion in the finances, which showed even then, in spite of all his care, a startling deficit to the extent of twenty millions of livres per annum.
The result of these consultations was, that the colonists were to be encouraged without in any way committing France openly with Great Britain. But Count de Vergennes was not long in meeting an occasion for extending that encouragement quite as far, to say the least, as was consistent with fidelity to this policy. On the 2d of May, 1776, or less than one month from the date of Turgot’s paper, in a conference with Louis the Sixteenth, which he observed extraordinary precautions to keep secret, he read to him a letter, praying for a grant of one million of livres, to be appropriated to the use of the insurgent colonies through the medium of Caron de Beaumarchais. At the same time he submitted a draft of instructions to that person, which he could not trust to any hands in his bureau, but which he would employ a son, fourteen years old, of tried discretion, to copy for him. This money was to be transmitted under the greatest precautions to give it the semblance of private aid. The count concluded by asking leave to notify the chief of the bureau of foreign affairs in Spain of this proceeding, and to urge him to obtain authority from his sovereign to do the like. The docile Louis granted all he asked. The money accordingly went to stimulate the efforts of the American insurgents. Yet it is important to a right estimate of the character of De Vergennes for truth to remember that in the face of this act, which he could not have forgotten, he, some years later, not only ventured upon a falsehood to the British minister in denying every thing of the kind, but had the audacity to vouch in Dr. Franklin to confirm what he said, thus placing his witness under such difficult circumstances, that even his silence was equivalent to an affirmation of the fraud. Dr. Franklin has himself recorded the occasion, which was in 1782, when Mr. Thomas Grenville came to Paris to confer with the French minister about a peace. It was to Grenville that Count de Vergennes solemnly declared that France had never given the least encouragement to America until long after the breach was made, and independence declared. “There sits Mr. Franklin,” added he, “who knows the fact, and can contradict me, if I do not speak the truth.”1
In the examination of the great movements of the world, it is too much the practice of writers to slide gently over the grave delinquencies of public men, as if by the difficulties of their position they were to be regarded as absolved from the duty of obedience to those fundamental principles of morals universally regarded as binding in private life. The consequence is, that history, instead of teaching purity and exalting excellence, gives its sanction, at least, to equivocation, and palliates the sophistry to which all men, without instigation, are already, by nature, quite too prone. The disposition of Americans to be grateful to France, for the aid which they received in establishing their independence, must not be permitted to drown, in one wave of laudation, all traces of what every Frenchman did towards it. Such a course would place the French cabinet and the French people, Maurepas and Lafayette, on the same general level, when the truth requires that a broad line of discrimination should be drawn between them. With the former, the exclusive intent was to demolish the towering influence of Great Britain. And in following it out, as Count de Vergennes did, with undeniable skill and perseverance, it is only necessary to resort to the evidence he has himself supplied, to understand the extent of the obligation which he has laid upon America.
Three months after the reading of the secret paper already referred to, he read another document, but this time before the council, at which the sovereign presided. The prevailing tendencies of his mind make themselves again sufficiently perceptible. After repeating the axiom of his day, the natural enmity of the two nations, he adroitly dwelt upon the anxiety felt by Great Britain that this unique opportunity of avenging upon her the insults, the outrages, and the treachery which France had so often experienced at her hands, should be suffered to pass unimproved. On the other hand, he enlarged upon the nature of the temptation now presented to wipe out the disgrace of the surprise of 1755, and all its consequent disasters and mortifications, by profiting of the civil war waged three thousand miles from the metropolis, with the forces of England scattered in all directions, to strike a blow which would paralyze for a long time to come all her power to do mischief in Europe.
And here, it cannot be doubted, is to be seen the real motive of the cabinet of Louis the Sixteenth in their American policy. In enumerating its possible benefits, generosity of spirit or sympathy with liberty was not even thought of. It was the cry of vengeance for France, humiliated by the domineering Anglicism of William Pitt,1 and stimulated by the fear that some new cast of the dice might bring down the same or even worse misfortunes, if not anticipated by a skilful use of the present opportunity. Sharing in the idea, almost universal at that day both in Europe and America, which Turgot, however, does not appear to have entertained, that a final separation of the American colonies would forever prostrate Great Britain as a leading power of the world, Count de Vergennes set it down as certain that the attainment of this object, as putting an end to the long rivalry of these contending nations, supplied the true motive for all the exertions of France. He little dreamed of the stunning effect upon herself which was to follow the recoil of her blow. Nor yet was Great Britain less deluded. For the waste, on her side, of hundreds of millions in a hopeless struggle did far more to impair her permanent strength than the loss of her dependencies. The problems of national greatness are not yet all worked out, neither is it very flattering to the pride of man to observe how often results the most opposite to what were expected from his cunningly devised inventions, happen to make his most solemn pretensions to sagacity a mockery and a show.
In the system of Count de Vergennes, two ideas had undisputed predominance. The one, the necessity of preserving an intimate union and cooperation between France and Spain. The other, the duty of precluding the chance of a reunion of the British power, at the cost, to the two crowns, of their American possessions. Had Spain responded as warmly to his appeal as he desired, and as Turgot feared she might, he would not probably have been mistaken in his estimate of the length and expensiveness of the contest, which he proposed to risk. But that country doubted and hesitated until the march of events made a decision unavoidable to France, then drew back, complained of that decision as precipitate, and left her ally to get on as she might alone. Yet in despite of all these discouragements, nothing is more remarkable throughout the struggle than the patient deference manifested by the Count to all the caprices, the narrow ideas, and the vacillation of the Spanish court. In regard to the second point, the Count’s uneasiness had been displayed as early as when the draft of a treaty of commerce, which had been prepared in congress by John Adams, was presented to him by the commissioners as indicating the extent of their proposed relations with France. He received it with extreme surprise, and not without misgivings as to the motives that led to the offer. He expected prayers for assistance, and pledges of unlimited devotion. Dr. Franklin augured, from the reception he gave to him, that however warm the people might be, the ministry would prove cold. And the Count confided to his agent in Spain, the Marquis d’Ossun, his secret belief that the colonies were only playing off a proposed monopoly of their trade as a game by which to rouse the British jealousy of France, and thus wring from the mother country a surrender of independence.1 A week later he had succeeded in sounding the commissioners so far as to see that closer obligations could be obtained. The colonies would consent to guarantee the safety of the West India Islands, and to pledge themselves not to make a peace separate from France. But it was to be remembered that the promises of republics were of little force, when against their interests, and not to be relied upon like the obligations of honor in monarchs.2 These hints, which are found scattered in the confidential dispatches of the French minister, are of the utmost consequence to a right comprehension of the current of all the later negotiations.
Congress, finding that the original propositions had not been warmly received by France, showed themselves quite ready to sanction new ones more likely to conciliate her. They were not aware that they had already touched a chord which was vibrating more forcibly than any other within their reach. They had directed their commissioners to say, that, without some explicit declaration of France in their favor, they could not answer for it that some reunion with the mother country would not, in time, be possible, perhaps unavoidable. This suggestion, fortified by the fear of Lord Chatham’s return to power, and the knowledge of the awkward efforts at reconciliation that were perpetually making by Great Britain, seems to have led to the adoption by the somewhat reluctant monarch of a paper read to him by Count de Vergennes on the 23d of July, 1777, which recommended a more active interference in the dispute.
This paper is most remarkable for the manner in which it meets the objection then commonly raised, that France was creating a power which might in the end become formidable to herself. The Count regarded this fear as chimerical for two reasons. First, the clashing of interests, incidental to such a combination of distinct communities as that of the American States, would always be an obstacle to their rapid growth; and, secondly, if that cause should not be sufficient to check them, a more effective one would gnaw into their prosperity, with the introduction of the vices of Europe. And should neither of these avail, there was left one yet more powerful resource in the retention of Canada, and the adjacent territories on the north, in the hands of Great Britain. The ingenuousness of these cool calculations of misfortunes and disasters to people, whom it was the ostensible purpose to befriend, is not more to be observed than the sagacity thus far developed in making the predictions. But, at any rate, they show most unmistakably the nature of the sentiments entertained. Later events only prove that the policy thus marked out was rigidly adhered to in action. No inducements could be held out strong enough ever to procure any coöperation towards the conquest of Canada. That thorn in the flesh of the colonists, the irritating nature of which the French had too well understood whilst they had the power to use it themselves, was yet to remain to be applied with still more malignant hand by the vengeful spirit of Britain defeated and defied.
All lingering doubts of the permanence of the breach were swept away by the capture of Burgoyne. It was exactly the opportunity for which the French ministry had been watching. They immediately improved it by executing a treaty of commerce, and a treaty of alliance offensive and defensive, contingent upon what was foreseen as inevitable, a British declaration of war.
The other intervening events prior to the establishment of Mr. Adams in his commission with powers to treat with Great Britain both on peace and commerce, have been sufficiently described. It has been shown that the addition of commerce had not been contemplated by the French cabinet in their original plan, and that it was an accidental and unwelcome effect of their success in expunging from the instructions of the minister for peace, conditions deemed likely to stand in the way of a general pacification. Originating with persons designated by his minister, M. Gérard, as secret Tory adherents to Great Britain, it was natural that the suspicions entertained by de Vergennes of the measure, as an entering wedge to reconciliation, should revive. Believing in the possibility that the mother country might, for the sake of perpetuating a commercial monopoly in her own hands, as well as preventing it from falling into those of France, be willing so far to sacrifice her pride as to concede to the colonies the main point of independence; foreseeing likewise the contingency in which France might become the scapegoat of this reconciliation, in case the promises of republican, and therefore uncertain allies should not be proof against the temptation of interest, it was very natural that the proposition of Mr. Adams to open a way to the knowledge of his powers by the British government, should be received by him with the coldest form of rejection. He saw that the treaty of alliance did not absolutely forbid such a step. He was well aware of the general affinities of Mr. Adams with his namesake and the Lees, whom he had been taught to distrust. He had had reason to know Mr. Adams’s kind feeling towards Arthur Lee, of whose relation with Lord Shelburne he had entertained such doubts as to set spies over the minutest actions of his secretary, when sent by Lee to England. All these considerations, backed by a distrust of his power to control Mr. Adams, prompted him at once to put an end to the chances of difficulty by insisting upon the withholding of all knowledge of the second commission from the British government, and, in the mean time, setting in motion in America an agency to procure from congress its revocation. Meanwhile Mr. Adams, in his other capacity, was politely received, and officially acknowledged, in language remarkably guarded, as designated to assist at the conferences for peace whenever they might take place. The caution which dictated the use of this phrase, will be explained in a later stage of the negotiations.
The question proposed to Count de Vergennes having been answered, Mr. Adams contented himself with transmitting copies of the correspondence to congress, not suppressing his own opinion, but submitting with cheerfulness to be overruled. Although without official duties, it was no part of his theory of life to waste time in idleness, if there was a possibility even in a remote form to do something that might be of service to his country. He saw that the people on the continent of Europe were, for the most part, as indeed they yet remain to a surprising degree, unacquainted with the history and resources of the United States, and the merits of their dispute with Great Britain; and that such information as occasionally reached them was received through English sources, by no means to be depended upon, then or since, for their freedom from prejudice and passion. In order to remedy this evil, he directed his labors to the preparation of papers, containing facts and arguments bearing on the American side of the question, for which he obtained currency through the pages of a semi-official magazine, the Mercure de France, conducted under the eye of government, by M. Genet, one of the chief secretaries in the foreign bureau. With this gentleman, the father of the individual afterwards so troublesome to General Washington’s administration, as well as of the lady whose narrative of the domestic life of the fated royal pair has excited so much interest in later times, Madame Campan, he established the most friendly relations. By this channel he hoped to facilitate the diffusion of better notions in the popular mind, without the necessity of annoying the minister by communications necessarily deprived of an official character. The Count, however, learning from his deputy the sources of his information, perhaps not quite liking the connection, showed himself not disinclined to become the direct recipient of it. He instructed M. Genet to assure Mr. Adams that it would always give him pleasure to be supplied by him with intelligence from good sources touching American affairs. This invitation was in some sense equivalent to a direction. Mr. Adams complied with it very readily by furnishing from this time such extracts from private letters and newspapers received from the United States as he thought likely to be acceptable. They were received with thankfulness, and acknowledged with solicitations for more. The minister continued to court this channel of communication until an incident occurred which gave a wholly opposite turn to his mind. He then thought fit to construe as officious the very practice which he had himself originated, and continued so long as it lasted. As this matter has been much misrepresented, and as it had important effects on the later course of Mr. Adams, it is necessary to explain it still more particularly.
Among the communications consequent on this invitation, was one made on the 16th of June, 1780, of an extract of a letter from Mr. Adams’s brother-in-law, Richard Cranch, then a member of the senate of Massachusetts, in which he announced the adoption by that State of a recommendation from the Continental Congress to redeem the continental emissions of paper at the rate of forty dollars for one in silver. This was a little more than one half of the rate of depreciation, at which the bills were actually circulating. In order to meet the charge incurred by this effort, it was added that a tax had been laid, estimated to be sufficient to provide for the share of Massachusetts in the whole emission, in the course of about seven years. Four days later, another packet was sent, which contained a copious extract of a letter written by Mr. Gerry, then a member of the congressional treasury board, explaining the reasons of this movement, as well as of the resolution to pay off the continental loan certificates, according to the value of money at the time they were issued. It was only in the note covering the last of these two papers that Mr. Adams expressed any opinion of his own touching these transactions, and in that he confined himself to the explanation of a distinction between the action of congress on the paper money and on the loan certificates, which that body had neglected to make clear, but which he deemed likely to relieve anxiety in the minds of many, if not all, of the French creditors.
Before the reception of the last extract, and before a word of comment had reached him, Count de Vergennes, who had probably been stimulated by the alarm of some of these creditors, volunteered a reply, though he knew Mr. Adams to be in no way accredited to the court of France, in which he entered into a discussion of the act of congress in question, complained of its injustice to French citizens, and called upon him, upon whom he had no official claim, to use his endeavors to effect a retraction of it by congress, at least so far as to exempt the subjects of France from its operation.
This detail is important, because, in many accounts of these times, Mr. Adams is spoken of as having volunteered a controversy with the French minister, to whom he held no diplomatic relations, a charge to which Count de Vergennes himself gave countenance, when he found some mode of extrication necessary from the embarrassment into which he had incautiously plunged. The facts are, then, that Mr. Adams had been first solicited to furnish the minister with private information, from authentic sources, of what was going on in America; that he had complied from time to time for two months, during which his communications were received with thanks; and that, in doing so, he had seldom ventured the addition of any opinion of his own, up to the date of the argumentative paper addressed to him by the Count himself, complaining of the conduct of the American congress, and requesting him to interfere to effect a change of their policy. This imprudence, which unquestionably that wary minister would never have committed in the face of any representative of the European powers, imposed upon Mr. Adams a delicate responsibility. If he should say nothing at all, his silence might be susceptible of misinterpretation, not less by the minister, who, besides asking for his coöperation, had apprised him of the direct efforts he was about to make at Philadelphia, through his own envoy, M. de la Luzerne, than by congress itself, which might construe it as equivalent to indifference in his duty to them, if not disapprobation of their course. If, on the other hand, he should make any reply, he could not, in giving his reasons for declining the Count’s request, very well escape justifying the action of his government against the charges of bad faith which the Count had not scrupled to insinuate. In truth, Mr. Adams regarded the measure as in itself a wise one, demanded by the necessities of the country, and not really working injustice to the French creditors, to protect whose interests the Count had felt it his duty to interfere. He, therefore, determined upon the preparation of an elaborate paper, explanatory of the situation of the American finances, of the effect of the depreciation of their paper, and of the impossibility of making any such reservations or distinctions as were desired, without working far more injustice than it was likely to correct. In reality, the Count was demanding for French creditors, whose contracts had been all more or less graduated to the current depreciation, to be paid beyond what was equitably their due. This paper, bearing date the 22d of June, though probably sent a few days later, may be found in its proper place in the part of this work devoted to the official correspondence.1 The force of the argument was calculated to apprise the minister of the mistake he had committed, as well as of the spirit of the person with whom he had to deal. He replied by a note, waving further discussion of the merits of the question, and intimating that for the future he should address his remonstrances directly to Philadelphia, where he doubted not that the congress would manifest a far greater preference for France over other nations than seemed to be in the disposition of Mr. Adams. The idea of obligation, as the corollary of dependence, is scarcely veiled even by the usual forms of diplomatic politeness. Whether Count de Vergennes actually expected submission from America, cannot be determined. If he did, he was destined to be disappointed. For congress, to whom Mr. Adams regularly transmitted copies of his correspondence, instead of retreating from their position, deliberately confirmed it, by adopting, on the 12th of December, 1780, an order, formally instructing their committee of foreign affairs “to inform Mr. Adams of the satisfaction which they receive from his industrious attention to the interests and honor of these United States abroad, especially in the transactions communicated to them by his letter.”
One other point must be explained in order to make this narrative complete, and to connect it with subsequent events. Mr. Adams, upon learning from the first letter of Count de Vergennes the nature of the orders to be transmitted to the Chevalier de la Luzerne, far from volunteering any direct address to him, wrote a note to Dr. Franklin, as the accredited minister, stating the intention of the Count, and suggesting to him the expediency of requesting a suspension of the orders at least so long as to furnish an opportunity to show that they were founded in misconception of the facts. This Dr. Franklin probably did, on the 24th of June, in a letter which does not appear to have been published either in the official collection or in any edition of his writings. Count de Vergennes, in acknowledging it six days later, not only declined, with some haughtiness, the request, but, changing his demand of indemnity into an appeal to the gratitude of America for the king’s goodness, called on Franklin to side with him. He further requested that copies of the correspondence should be forwarded to congress by him, fortified by an expression of his disapproval of Mr. Adams’s reasoning. Compelled by this request to take some part, and perhaps a little piqued that Mr. Adams should have acted without consulting him, yet taking no trouble to inquire concerning the origin of the correspondence, Dr. Franklin at once disavowed all disposition to uphold Mr. Adams’s defence of congress, and expressed to the Count his full conviction that that body would, when applied to, at once retrace their steps in favor of the French creditors, at the expense of the Americans.1 Yet he dexterously evaded the duty which the Count had requested him to undertake, of reinforcing his representations to Philadelphia, for the reason that it was needless. On the other hand, he wrote to congress, saying not one word upon the merits of the controversy, which he had declared himself to De Vergennes as not able to understand,2 but complaining of Mr. Adams’s course as an interference with his province, signifying a fundamental disagreement with him in his views of the policy to be observed towards France, and slyly insinuating the expediency of not having more than one minister at the French court. In this letter1 he omitted to insert any such confident opinion of what congress would do, as that expressed in his letter to the Count, nor did he take care to furnish Mr. Adams himself with a copy of the representation of his conduct, which he had felt it his duty to make. He contented himself with incidentally mentioning, two months afterwards, in a letter2 sent by the hands of Mr. Searle to Mr. Adams at Amsterdam, the fact that he had received and forwarded to congress the complaints Count de Vergennes had made of passages, in others of his letters written later, which he also was sorry to see, and adding that, as the vessel had not yet gone which carried the papers, there was still a chance open to him to send some explanations or apology which might efface the impressions made by them. Even this notice must have been delayed in Mr. Searle’s travels, as no acknowledgment of it occurred until after the lapse of nearly two months more, when, in a reply on other subjects, Mr. Adams contented himself with making this brief allusion to it:—
“The correspondence you mention, I transmitted regularly to congress in the season of it, from Paris, and other copies since my arrival in Amsterdam, both without any comments.”
But although Mr. Adams had been left so long unaware of the attack made upon him by Count de Vergennes, and sustained by the representations of Dr. Franklin, fortunately for him he had in congress watchful friends, not disposed to permit him to be sacrificed to the French minister, and strong enough to prevent it. The issue of the experiment was the formal vote of approbation which has already been given. Not long afterwards, Mr. Adams received from them hints of the movement that had been made, and extracts from the letters of De Vergennes and Franklin. It can be no cause of surprise that he should have augured ill of the policy of the French court, so little disposed to tolerate in an American a frank exchange of opinion even upon a topic of secondary importance. Nor yet was the lesson of what he had to expect from Dr. Franklin wholly thrown away. He was to be treated by France as Arthur Lee had been, without a particle of sympathy from him either as a colleague, representing a common country, or a coadjutor in a common cause. The ethics of Franklin permitted of the enjoyment of advantages, obtained at the expense of others, that might come by passively permitting them to happen or even by indirectly promoting them. Through the attractive benevolence which overspreads his writings, is visible a shade of thrift seldom insensible to the profit side of the account, in even the best actions. He is the embodiment of one great class of New England character, as well in his virtues as defects. And unluckily the lustre reflected from the virtues has done a little too much to dazzle the eyes of his countrymen, naturally delighting in his well-earned fame, and prevent all scrutiny of the more doubtful qualities. Yet if rigid moral analysis be not the purpose of historical writing, there is no more value in it than in the fictions of mythological antiquity. The errors of Franklin’s theory of life may be detected almost anywhere in his familiar compositions. They sprang from a defective early education, which made his morality superficial even to laxness, and undermined his religious faith.1 His system resolves itself into the ancient and specious dogma, of honesty the best policy. That nice sense which revolts at wrong for its own sake, and that generosity of spirit which shrinks from participating in the advantages of indirection, however naturally obtained, were not his. If they had been, he would scarcely have consented to become the instrument to transmit the stolen letters of Hutchinson and others to Massachusetts, neither could he have been tempted to write the confession of Polly Baker, still less to betray the levity of such a reason as he gave for disseminating its unworthy sophistry in print.2
These are defects in the life of that great man which it is not wise to palliate or to excuse. They cannot be overlooked in any examination of his personal relations with his contemporaries, pretending to be faithful. It was the sense of the constant presence of what the French call an arrière pensée, which rendered even his taciturnity oppressive to straightforward, outspoken men. Of this class was John Adams, habitually pushing his conversation beyond the line approved by his calmer judgment, and rarely restraining himself to conceal his thoughts. The mental reserves and the calm exterior of the one, and the talkativeness, often carried to indiscretion, with the quick temper, of the other, mingled no better than oil and water. It naturally followed that they sympathized but little, and each in his way was annoying to his associate. Yet it does not appear that any thing had occurred between them before the discovery of this letter of the 9th of August, to effect a serious change in Mr. Adams’s feelings towards his distinguished countryman.1
Neither was the result of this experience calculated to enlarge personal confidence in Count de Vergennes. Mr. Adams now began to entertain those suspicions of his sincerity, which one of his own colleagues in the cabinet, in the portrait of him which he has given to the world with no unfriendly hand, affirms to have been the natural effect of his intercourse with all the representatives of foreign nations who were called to have relations with him.2 On the other hand, the Count unexpectedly discovered in Mr. Adams a tendency to think for himself and a reliance on his own judgment, which augured unfavorably to the power over the joint policy of the two countries, which he wished to retain as much as possible within his own control. Neither did matters long rest here. Other causes of difference soon arose. Mr. Adams was not permitted by him to leave Paris as he desired, and go to Holland, as the issue of the attempts at a pacification in Spain was not yet wholly determined. Once more he felt it his duty to submit to the Count some reasons for thinking that a disclosure of his powers to treat with Great Britain on commerce might be of use. Not that he anticipated any favorable answer from the existing ministry, so much as a reinforcement of the popular discontents now rapidly becoming so great, on account of the disasters of the war, as to threaten a change. But an appeal of this kind had no charms to recommend it to Count de Vergennes. The Gordon riots and the county meetings were not, in his mind, so favorable grounds for calculating the policy of England, even as the singular mission of Richard Cumberland to Madrid. A change of ministry might lead to the very evils he most feared. He regarded the holding out advantages of trade as useless and perhaps worse. They might open a way to a negotiation justifying the minister’s deep-seated dread of what he called the isolation of the United States at the cost of France. That the independence of the United States should be obtained in any other way than through him, would defeat his policy. Hence the answer to Mr. Adams’s reasoning was not only decided but harsh. Taking his propositions paragraph by paragraph, Count de Vergennes commented on them all, and, not content with applying an absolute negative upon all action, he enforced it with a separate note distinctly threatening a direct appeal from his sovereign to congress, in case Mr. Adams should think of disobeying the injunction to keep silence.
The earnestness of this menace was scarcely necessary. Neither was it in keeping with the declaration that the measure in question was simply useless. If a mere work of supererogation, where was the need of so vehement a remonstrance, and so strong a personal threat, to deter from it? For it should be remarked that not an intimation had been given of any intention to persist in acting against the Count’s opinion, so that this intimidating style was gratuitously offensive. It would scarcely have been used to the representative even of a second-rate power of Europe. It sprung from impatience at what he considered the needless obstacles an obstinate American was putting in his way. A course of conciliation and confidence might have cost a little more trouble, but it would have been far more successful. Mr. Adams was the last man to whom threats could carry persuasion. His spirit could not brook the idea that he was to sink into a merely passive instrument of a foreign chief, who might measure the best interests of America only by a standard accommodated to those of Europe. Yet he replied with great moderation, in a letter, which, as setting forth his peculiar ideas, has been reserved for this place.
TO THE COUNT DE VERGENNES.
Paris, 26 July, 1780.
I have received the letter, which your Excellency did me the honor to write me on the 25th of this month.
The sincere respect I entertain for your Excellency’s sentiments would have determined me, upon the least intimation, to have communicated my letter and your answer to congress, and to suspend, until I should receive orders on their part, all measures towards the British ministry, without your Excellency’s requisition in the name of the king.
I shall transmit these papers to congress, and I doubt not the reasons your Excellency has adduced will be sufficient to induce them to suspend any communication to the British ministry, as it is undoubtedly their wisdom to conduct all such measures in concert with their allies.
There is a great body of people in America, as determined as any to support their independence and their alliances, who notwithstanding wish that no measure may be left unattempted by congress or their servants, to manifest their readiness for peace, upon such terms as they think honorable and advantageous to all parties. Your Excellency’s arguments, or indeed your authority, will probably be sufficient to satisfy these people, and to justify me, whereas, without them, I might have been liable to the censure of numbers. For it is most certain, that all due deference will be shown by the people of the United States and their servants, both in and out of congress, to the sentiments of the ministry of France.
This deference, however, by no means extends so far as to agree in all cases to those sentiments without examination. I cannot, therefore, agree in the sentiment, that proposing a treaty of peace and commerce is discovering a great deal of weakness, or that the Americans have forgotten the British system of tyranny, cruelty, or perfidy, or to invite her to believe the Americans have an irresistible predilection for England, or to fortify her in the opinion that the American patriots will submit through weariness, or through fear of the preponderant influence of the Tories.
And so far from thinking it would give credit to the opinion, if there be such a one in all Europe, that the United States incline towards a defection, and that they will not be faithful to their engagements, it seems to me, on the contrary, it would discredit the opinion which prevails too much in Europe, that there is some secret treaty between France and the United States, by which the former is entitled to exclusive privileges in the American trade.
It is very true, that the independence of America must be acknowledged before a treaty of peace can be made. But a prospect of a free trade with America, upon principles of perfect equality and reciprocity, like that between France and the United States, might be a powerful inducement with the people of England to acknowledge American independence. Indeed, I do not see any other considerable motive, that England can ever have to make that acknowledgment. The congress have given no positive instructions respecting the time or manner of making these powers known to one court or another. All this is left at discretion, and to a construction of the commissioners themselves. It is very certain that all the belligerent powers are busily occupied every winter in their councils, and preparations for the ensuing campaign. And it is also certain that the artifice of the British ministry, in holding up to view every winter some semblance of a design of reconciliation formerly, and of peace latterly, has been a real engine of hostility against America, equal to a considerable part of the British army. Neither the people of America, nor Mr. Adams, have the least dread upon their minds of an insolent answer from one of the British ministers, nor of the ridicule of those nations who have not yet acknowledged the independence of America. No man of any knowledge, justice, or humanity, in any of those nations, would laugh upon such an occasion; on the contrary, he would feel a just indignation against a minister who should insult a message so obviously calculated for the good of England, and of all Europe, in the present circumstances of affairs.
I am very much mistaken, for I speak from memory, if the Duke of Richmond did not make a motion two years ago in the House of Lords, and if Mr. Hartley did not make another about a year ago, which was seconded by Lord North himself, in the House of Commons, tending to grant independence to America. And it is very certain that a great part of the people of England think that peace can be had upon no other terms. It is most clear that the present ministry will not grant independence; the only chance of obtaining it, is by change of that ministry. The king is so attached to that ministry that he will not change them, until it appears that they have so far lost the confidence of the people that their representatives in parliament dare no longer to support them, and in the course of the last winter the weight and sentiments of the people were so considerable as to bring many great questions nearly to a balance, and particularly to carry two votes, one against the increase of the influence of the crown, and another against the board of trade and plantations, a vote that seemed almost to decide the American question; and they came within a very few votes of deciding against the American secretary. Now, where parties are approaching so near to a balance, even a small weight, thrown into either scale, may turn it.
In my letter of the 19th of February, I said that my appointment was notorious in America, and that therefore it was probably known to the court of London, although they had not regular evidence of it. The question, then, was more particularly concerning a commission to assist in the pacification. This was published in the American newspapers, in a general way, but I have no reason to think they are particularly informed of these matters; if they were, no evil, that I am aware of, could result from giving them the information officially. Certainly they have no official information, and it is reported they deny that they know the nature of Mr. Adams’s commission.
Without any great effort of genius, I think it is easy to demonstrate to any thinking being, that by granting American independence, and making a treaty of commerce upon principles of perfect reciprocity, England would, in the present circumstances of affairs, make an honorable and an advantageous peace. It would have been more for their honor and advantage never to have made this war against America, it is true; but having made it, all the dishonor and disadvantage there is in it is indelible. And after thirteen colonies have been driven to throw off their government and annihilate it in every root and branch, becoming independent in fact, maintaining this independence against a force of sixty thousand men and fifty ships of war, that would have shaken most of the states of Europe to the very foundation, after maintaining this independence four years, and having made an honorable treaty with the first power in Europe, after another power had fallen into the war in consequence of the same system, after the voice of mankind had so far declared against the justice of their cause, that they can get no ally, but, on the contrary, all the maritime powers are entering into a confederacy against them, upon a point which has been a principal source of their naval superiority in Europe; if England consider further, that America is now known all over Europe to be such a magazine of raw materials for manufactures, such a nursery of seamen, and such a source of commerce and naval power, that it would be dangerous to all the maritime powers to suffer any one of them to establish a domination and a monopoly again in America;—in these circumstances, the only honorable part they can act, is to conform to the opinion of mankind; and the dishonorable and ruinous part for them to act, is to continue the war.
For the principle, that the people have a right to a form of government according to their own judgments and inclinations is, in this enlightened age, so well agreed on in the world, that it would be thought dishonorable by mankind in general for the English to govern three millions of people against their wills by military force; and this is all they can ever hope for, even supposing they could bribe and tempt deserters enough from our army and apostates from our cause to make it impossible for us to carry on the war. This, however, I know to be impossible, and that they never will get quiet possession again of the government of any one whole State in the thirteen; no, not for an hour.
I know there exists, in some European minds, a prejudice against America, and a jealousy that she will be hurtful to Europe, and England may place some dependence upon this prejudice and jealousy; but the motions of the maritime powers begin to convince her, that this jealousy and prejudice do not run so deep as they thought, and surely there never was a more groundless prejudice entertained among men, and it must be dissipated as soon as the subject is considered.
America is a nation of husbandmen, planted on a vast continent of wild, uncultivated land; and there is, and will be for centuries, no way in which these people can get a living, and advance their interest so much as by agriculture. They can apply themselves to manufactures only to fill up interstices of time, in which they cannot labor on their lands, and to commerce only to carry the produce of their lands, the raw materials of manufactures, to the European market. Europe is a country, whose land is all cultivated nearly to perfection, where the people have no way to advance themselves but by manufactures and commerce. Here are two worlds, then, fitted by God and nature to benefit each other, one by furnishing raw materials, the other manufactures, and they can never interfere. The number of the States in America, their position and extension over such a great continent, and their fundamental constitution that nine States must concur to war, show that nine of these States never can agree in any foreign war, or any other war, but for self-defence, if they should ever become powerful. But in this case, however disagreeable a prospect it may open to Americans, Europe has an everlasting warranty against their becoming dangerous to her, in the nature of men, the nature of their governments, and their position towards one another.
All these circumstances serve to show, and the people of England begin to be sensible of it, that Europe will never suffer them to regain their domination and monopoly, even if they were able to extort a forced submission. In this situation, then, the only honorable and advantageous course for England is to make peace and open commerce with America, in perfect consistency with her independence and her alliances. The people of England cannot be said to furnish subsidies without murmuring, for it is certain there never was so much murmuring and such radical discontent, in that nation nor any other, but at the eve of a revolution.
I very cheerfully agree with your Excellency in opinion that the court of Spain has sagacity enough to penetrate and to defeat the deceitful designs of the English, and am not under other apprehensions from thence than that the report of a negotiation with Spain will leave some impressions in America, where I believe the English ministry chiefly intend it. I have already said that from the present British ministry I expect no peace. It is for the nation, and for the change of ministry, as a step towards peace, that I thought it might have some effect to make the communication, and to satisfy those people in America, who, without the most distant thought of departing from their independence or their alliances, wish still to take every reasonable measure towards peace. Your Excellency’s letter will convince them that my apprehensions were wrong, and your advice will undoubtedly be followed, as it ought to be; for they cannot promise themselves any advantage from the communication, equivalent to the inconvenience of taking a measure of this kind separately, which ought to be done but in concert, against the opinion of the ministry of France.
I have the honor to be, &c.,
On a calm review of the relations thus far established between these parties, it appears that Mr. Adams had not yet done a single act in France which was not either in the strict line of his duty, or else had been invited by the minister himself. There might have been an absence of the usual forms of courtesy expected by the habits of court society, and an uncommon tenacity in urging unwelcome opinions. But these deficiencies, admitting them to have existed, seem scarcely to excuse or justify the rough and dictatorial manner resorted to as a check upon them. The tone is that of a master. Mr. Adams, so far from being subdued, was only provoked by it. He was, therefore, led to further measures, the policy of which, however well meant, can scarcely be denominated prudent. Finding himself of no use in Paris, he determined upon going to Holland. He notified the Count of his design. After a detention of a week, waiting for intelligence from Spain, he was permitted to go. But it does not appear that the reason why he should be detained was ever communicated, or that any of the movements attending Cumberland’s attempt at a separate negotiation with Spain were made known to him. Yet indirectly they deeply involved the interests of America. Mr. Adams was not told that Count de Vergennes had proposed a long truce in lieu of an explicit recognition of independence, as a basis of pacification, although Franklin had been consulted and had acquiesced in it. In fact the French cabinet, under the representations of M. Necker, had become profoundly alarmed by the exhaustion of the finances caused by the war. To such an extent was this carried, that Count de Maurepas appears to have ventured, in the month of July, upon some overtures of peace to the British government, the urgent nature of which can be gathered only from the notice of them in a letter of George the Third to Lord North.1 M. Necker’s own secret letter, written some months later to Lord North, earnestly pressing for the truce, has now come to light.2 And even Count de Vergennes himself, who had up to this season resisted Necker’s tendencies, on the 27th of September admitted to the king3 that “no resource was left to France but peace, and that as soon as possible.” At no period during the whole struggle were the interests, if not the independence, of the United States in such danger of being compromised as at this time. Fortunately they were saved by the obstinacy of the British sovereign and the obtuseness of his ministers.
Wholly unconscious of this agitation deep beneath the surface, or of what was meditated by France, on the 27th of July, the day Mr. Adams took his departure from Paris, he did for the first time volunteer a letter, urging, in the strongest terms, a concentration of the naval power of France upon the American seas, as the most effective mode of deciding the fate of the war, as well as a conclusive proof to the people of America that France was sincerely enlisted in their cause. Vigorous as was his plan, and clear the argument, it may be doubted whether, under the circumstances, it would not have been wiser to have omitted this insinuation. It was open to the objection raised by Dr. Franklin, without foundation in the former case, of trenching upon his province, and it was likewise implying a distrust of the French intentions in conducting the war, which, if well founded, it was doing no good to expose. But Mr. Adams had no specific evidence on which to rest the intimation. He was not apprised of what was going on either in Spain or in Great Britain. Neither was he aware of the embarrassments under which Count de Vergennes was laboring from the demands of Spain upon the French navy. In point of fact, his stroke fell just at a moment when it reached more deeply than he had any idea of. It recommended additional exertions, when those already made were beginning to be intolerably burdensome. It urged a prosecution of the war when peace was the cherished thought. The consequence was a decided manifestation of indignation on the part of the Count, by including this letter as a new offence in his complaints to Dr. Franklin, by abruptly closing all avenues to the reception of any more, and by directing measures to be taken at Philadelphia to procure from congress the revocation, at least of one, and possibly of all, of the commissions which had been given to Mr. Adams. The result of these labors will be seen as the narrative proceeds.
The object of Mr. Adams’s journey to Holland was to form an opinion for himself of the probability of obtaining assistance to America from the people of that country. After spending a fortnight at Amsterdam, and conversing with many persons respecting the chances of success in opening a loan, he was led to believe it far more feasible than the turn of events afterwards showed it to be. His opinion he communicated to congress in a letter to the President; but already, six weeks before this, a commission had been sent by congress to him, directing him, in the absence of Mr. Laurens, who had been designated for the duty, but had not yet undertaken it, to make the attempt. Before it arrived, he had already set himself with energy to a preliminary work. He had been strongly impressed with the necessity of disseminating correct information about America. This had led him in Paris to make the exertions through the agency of M. Genet, which have been already alluded to. But when he found himself in Amsterdam, free from the restraints imposed by the French government, and the risk of being regarded as officious by Dr. Franklin, he lost no time in forming connections by which to act upon the public mind in Holland. That country was rich in money, which it was in the habit of freely lending to other nations. But the capitalists were too cautious and shrewd to hazard their funds without having a clear notion of the securities for repayment. The ignorance of the true condition and resources of the United States, of the character of the people and their institutions, was profound and universal. What little intelligence had come to Holland, had been supplied by the English influence then in the ascendant in the government, and was colored by its habitual contempt of the colonial dependencies, and by the vindictive passions elicited by the war. In order to begin a counteraction of this overbearing influence, Mr. Adams sought the acquaintance of literary men and publishers of leading gazettes, quite as much as of the bankers and burgomasters of the town. Among them, the persons with whom he established the most permanent and valuable relations were John Luzac, conductor of the Gazette at Leyden, and Cerisier, who set on foot a magazine entitled the Politique Hollandais. Through the openings thus made, he set before the Dutch nation an abridged French translation of Governor Pownall’s “Memorial to the Sovereigns of Europe,” which he justly regarded as effective testimony from a good quarter to the character of the Americans, and likewise translations of the narratives of Generals Howe and Burgoyne, calculated, as coming from enemies, to give a strong impression of their means of resistance. At the same time, through an American friend at Brussels, he obtained the publication, in a London journal, of many articles, drawn up by himself, and furnishing correct views of American events, which he procured to be republished in the Leyden Gazette, and read with the character of English news.
In addition to this he ventured upon a direct publication of his own, which had its origin in a conversation at a dinner table, with a distinguished lawyer of Amsterdam. It seems that this gentleman, by the name of Calkoen, took the opportunity to address to him a series of questions, involving all the principal points of inquiry touching the history of the people of the United States, their character, and their ability to maintain their stand. But inasmuch as both parties experienced some embarrassment from the want of a common language to explain their meaning so fully as they wished, and as it occurred to Mr. Adams that the information which Mr. Calkoen had sought to obtain would be likely to be useful to many Dutch people, he procured the questions committed to writing, so that he might append a brief but clear answer to each in its order, and give the whole to the press, for the public information. This was accordingly done. Mr. Calkoen was so much pleased with the result, that he not only took pains to communicate the knowledge of it to his circle of acquaintance, but he drew a parallel between the American Revolution and the revolt of the Low Countries, admirably adapted to enlist the sympathies of his countrymen, already excited by the events of the pending struggle. Mr. Adams’s work has been repeatedly published under the title of “Twenty-six Letters upon interesting subjects respecting the Revolution of America,” and is now inserted in the seventh volume of the present collection. A slight examination of it is sufficient to show how exactly it was adapted to supply the wants of the time, and of the place where it was composed, and even at this day it may often be usefully consulted for information in few words as to the events of that period, which can only be obtained by scattered investigations elsewhere.
The reception of the powers to open a loan in the absence of Mr. Laurens, was the signal for Mr. Adams to turn his efforts in that direction. He immediately set about inquiries of the leading brokers in Amsterdam, as to the probability of obtaining the aid of influential houses to effect the object. Whether he could have succeeded, had no adverse circumstances interposed, is doubtful, to say the least. At any rate, the opportunity to know was denied him. Scarcely had he entered on his task, before the news arrived of the capture of Mr. Laurens, and of the discovery of secret papers in his possession, likely to involve Holland in difficulty with Great Britain. The panic among the moneyed men was extreme. A copy had been found of a project of a treaty drawn up between William Lee and M. Van Berckel, the first pensionary of Amsterdam, under the instigation of John de Neufville, a merchant of some activity and influence, neither of them having any authority to negotiate. The British ministry snatched at this as an occasion for the most uncompromising reclamations. As if eager to pounce upon what remained of the decaying commerce of Holland, scarcely an opening was left to her for the possibility of retreat. The States, greatly alarmed, disavowed with earnestness all complicity with the movement of Amsterdam. Not a merchant or banker in the place, of any influence, would venture at such a moment even to appear to know that a person, suspected of being an American agent, was at hand. Fortunately for Mr. Adams, the tone of Great Britain helped him out of his difficulty. So dictatorial was it, as to leave little choice to the wavering Dutchmen between prostration and resistance. For the former they were not yet quite prepared. This was the moment when the influence of France, which had been for some time rising in the councils of that country, was of use to hold up their dubious courage, and with it came the feeling which ultimately enabled Mr. Adams to succeed in his undertaking. But that did not happen for some time. At present, it is enough to say that all thoughts of effecting the desired object were to be laid aside. Yet the labors which Mr. Adams had expended, had not been entirely lost. For he had succeeded in forming connections with a number of active political men and merchants, which, though remaining in abeyance whilst the panic continued, did not fail materially to aid him at the time when concealment ceased to be of use.
During this period, the efforts which Count de Vergennes had threatened to make at Philadelphia against the influence of Mr. Adams, through his minister, the Chevalier de la Luzerne, had been directed with some skill, but with no very marked success. The indiscretion of M. Gérard had fixed deep in the minds of the New England men, whom he had stigmatized for their resistance to his wishes, a suspicion of the motives of France in her conduct of the war, had weakened their confidence in Dr. Franklin, whom they thought too much under the influence of Count de Vergennes, and had confirmed their determination to adhere to Mr. Adams the more stiffly for the very opposition displayed to him. As a consequence, M. de la Luzerne could obtain no concession from congress beyond the passage of a resolution in the mildest terms, intimating to Mr. Adams their concurrence in the Count’s view of the inexpediency of communicating to the court of Great Britain the knowledge of his powers to treat of commerce. Neither did this pass, before new commissions had been showered upon him by the same body. On the 1st of January, 1781, the President transmitted to him the necessary authority to appear as minister plenipotentiary to the United Provinces, with instructions to negotiate a treaty of alliance whenever such a measure should become practicable. This was in the place of Henry Laurens, then held a prisoner in the Tower of London. At the same time another commission was passed, conferring on him authority to sign the Armed Neutrality, then looming up as an important combination, in conjunction with any or all of the northern powers. In truth, the abounding activity of Mr. Adams was far more in unison with the temper of the majority than the repose of Dr. Franklin, with which they were so much dissatisfied as to initiate a special mission in the person of Colonel John Laurens to enforce upon the government of France their urgent need of further pecuniary aid.
No sooner had his new powers reached the hands of Mr. Adams, than he entered upon measures to carry them into effect. He at once drew up and presented a memorial to the States General, announcing himself as authorized on the part of the United States to give in their accession to the Armed Neutrality, and he sent a formal notice of the same to the ministers of France, Russia, Sweden, and Denmark, at the Hague, as well as to M. Van Berckel, the first pensionary of Amsterdam. Not many weeks afterwards, he determined upon the bolder step of presenting to the States General another memorial, directly soliciting to be recognized as minister plenipotentiary of an independent sovereignty. In both these acts he ventured to proceed upon his own responsibility; for the Duke de la Vauguyon, France’s minister at the Hague, whom he consulted, held out little encouragement, and Count de Vergennes once more appealed to congress to check him, recommending this time that he should be put under the instructions of Dr. Franklin. France had no inclination to precipitate Holland into a situation, in which she might become an additional burden in the war, and a new party to consult in the event of a pacification. What was likely to be of use to the United States, by introducing them more firmly into the recognized family of nations, was of little moment to her, who trusted to accomplish her sole aim, the disruption of the British empire, without the aid of any European power except Spain. Hence it became obvious to Mr. Adams, that if any thing was to be done at all, he must rely upon his own energy much more than the coöperation of France. Nor yet was the lesson of caution unheeded by him, who knew the probable consequence to himself of any failure of success. He took no step without full consultation with shrewd men on whom he could rely. Inasmuch as the Stadtholder and his friends were known to be in the interests of Great Britain, it was natural that he should form his relations with the leaders of the opposition. The influence of the court party had been considerably reduced by the unpopularity of Louis of Brunswick, whose power with the Stadtholder was regarded as supreme. And the old popular sympathies, though weakened by the progress of wealth and corruption, retained enough of their energy to associate numbers in resistance to the authority of the favorite, and in aid of the semblance, at least, if not the reality, of liberty. Hence the growth of the patriots at this time, and the natural intimacy with them of Mr. Adams. Moreover, the prospects held out of a new avenue for the declining trade of the country had their effect upon the merchants and manufacturers of the largest and most influential towns. It was with the advice of some of the leaders among these classes, that Mr. Adams ventured upon the presentation of his memorial. Guided by them, he caused it to be translated into two languages, published in various forms, and disseminated as freely as possible throughout the provinces. It was in the nature of an appeal to the popular feeling against the known tendencies of the government. Its effect, which proved important in the end, was not at first perceptible. The States General received it with their customary form, ad referendum; in other words, to refer it to the particular constituencies. An interval followed, in which no progress appeared to be made. But the elements were nevertheless silently working, which brought about, in course of time, the most gratifying success.
In the midst of these labors, a notice came from Count de Vergennes, that Mr. Adams was wanted in Paris. The causes of this summons were utterly unknown to him, for he had not been kept informed of the diplomatic movements in Europe, even though, in fact, they were turning upon the question of the position of the United States, and his own, as their representative. He nevertheless obeyed it at once, and reached Paris on the 6th of July, 1781.
The communications then made to him, although not by any means unreserved, nor calculated to give him the mastery of the complicated negotiations which had gone before, were yet sufficient to impose upon him the necessity of reflecting deeply upon his peculiar line of duty before proceeding further. For the better comprehension of the subject, it will be necessary to go back and take up the thread of the transactions, at the point where it was dropped, when Mr. Adams, in July of the preceding year, left Paris to go to Holland.
So early as 1778, when, at the suggestion of the British government, Spain made repeated offers of mediation between Great Britain and France, in which offers the mission of Mr. Adams had its source, Count de Vergennes drew up a memoir embracing the propositions, which, in his judgment, might be accepted as a basis for a pacification. It is in this paper that is to be found the acquiescence in the Spanish suggestion of a truce for a term of years between the mother country and her colonies, after it had been assented to by Dr. Franklin,1 then sole minister at Paris, but which had not been made known to Mr. Adams, when he entered upon his new office of negotiator in the contingency of a peace. This proposal, which had not then met with any favor from Great Britain, revolted at the smallest indication of the interposition of France between her and her colonies, had been nevertheless revived upon the occasion of Mr. Cumberland’s fruitless mission, still, however, without any communication of the fact to Mr. Adams. But in the latter case, Spain had ventured, without the privity and against the opinion of France, to connect with it the well-known principle of uti possidetis as a basis of negotiation, which materially contributed still further to entangle its details, already sufficiently intricate. Mr. Cumberland’s mission seems to have been shipwrecked, at its outset, on the question, whether the surrender of Gibraltar should be permitted to enter into the negotiation; and the ministry, which never relied on its success, or on the sincerity of Spain, abandoned it for the better-founded prospect held out by the offers obtained from the powers of Austria and of Russia. These offers, after some delays, occasioned by the unreasonable British demand of a dissolution of the alliance between France and the United States, as a first step, assumed the shape of four articles, which were transmitted in a circular, directed to their respective envoys at Madrid, Paris, and London, with instructions to lay them before those courts as a suitable basis of negotiation for the reëstablishment of peace. It was the necessity of replying to them, which made the occasion for calling Mr. Adams to Paris. The answers of Spain and France were already in preparation, and now it became necessary to communicate the facts to the American commissioner, so far as to settle the relation which the United States were to hold to the entire proceeding. Was he to be regarded as a person clothed with diplomatic powers, authorizing him to claim a place as representative of a sovereign nation to treat with Great Britain in the congress which might be assembled under this mediation? Or was he to be considered merely as an agent, to watch over the interests of those he might represent, according as it might suit the other powers to construe them as sovereign or not? It was obvious that upon the determination of this question one way or the other, would depend the chance of making out of this opening a road to negotiation.
But Mr. Adams, though about to be consulted, had been hitherto kept entirely in the dark respecting the movements here described. He knew nothing of the answer, preparing on the part of France, nor was he aware of the dispatch which Count de Vergennes had transmitted to the Chevalier de la Luzerne, as long ago as the 9th of March preceding, proposing that congress should strip him of all discretion in the negotiation, and should direct him to take his orders implicitly from himself, even though those orders might go the length of a concession of geographical limits, of the substitution of a truce for recognized independence, of a surrender of the navigation of the Mississippi, of the fisheries, and, even in the last resort, of a consent to the basis of uti possidetis itself. All that was told him was limited to three articles, separated from the fourth, a material one to him, and also from the context of the proposal, made by the mediating powers; to a communication, for the first time, of the project of a truce; and to the ambiguous intimations of Count de Vergennes and of his secretary, de Rayneval, respecting the necessity of defining his position. These things, taken together and viewed from this distance of time, are all sufficiently intelligible to make the question of what should have been the response on the part of an American minister, one of little difficulty to determine. But Mr. Adams was permitted to see but a very small corner of the picture, nor had he much time to study even that. Yet he decided at once; and with the instinctive sagacity which marks his whole career, his decision was right.
It is essential, however, that this view of the policy of Count de Vergennes should not be misunderstood. It is not meant that, in asking of the United States so wide a latitude of discretion in sacrificing their dearest rights, he was actuated by any wish to make the sacrifices contemplated. In all probability, it would have pleased him better to avoid them. But he felt himself surrounded by difficulties. The war had become very burdensome. France had been drawn in, by the necessity of sustaining the Americans, to make advances far beyond the original calculations. The retirement of M. Necker from the superintendence of the finances had shaken the public confidence in the administration, and aggravated the already burdensome pressure of the demands for the war. The state of Europe threatened other differences, which might at any moment require a diversion of the forces of the nation. Spain, though at last involved in the war, was wavering, capricious, and intractable. It would not do to risk the alienation of two such powers as Austria and Russia, by slighting their offer of mediation, especially if Great Britain should decide to accept it. Under such circumstances, it was of the first importance to him that he should hold as many of the threads of negotiation exclusively in his own hands as possible, and especially that he should run no risk of entanglement, from any obstinacy on the part of the United States, in refusing to concede points of secondary interest to France. These it might become necessary for him to admit among the materials for negotiation, and for an exchange of equivalents. Substantial independence of Great Britain was all that he had ever been determined to gain for them by the war. On that point there was no doubt of his immobility, for the irreparable scission of the British empire made the corner-stone of his policy.
But in the month of July of this year, when action could no longer be deferred, congress had not yet become sufficiently pliant to invest in the Count the great discretionary power which he had solicited, neither had they rescinded the positive instructions first given to Mr. Adams. It was, therefore, not possible to avoid at least the form of consulting him. The manner in which this was done has been explained. It certainly cannot be said to have been of that kind likely to inspire or even to cherish mutual confidence. Mr. Adams could not feel any reliance upon the good faith of the French cabinet, for nothing had been done to make him feel it. Of the disposition of Franklin, as between him and the Count, he had already had an experience too painful to tempt him to appeal to it. Mr. Francis Dana, in whom he had great confidence, and whose opinions accorded with his own, had gone on his mission to St. Petersburg. Nobody else was left in Paris with whom to consult. Great was the responsibility of the reply he was to make. Yet he did not hesitate. When called to decide immediately, his mind always acted with the greatest rapidity. On the very day that the three articles had been communicated to him, he transmitted a copy to the President of congress, with a letter embracing the principles upon which his answer was afterwards made.
The articles were in themselves simple enough. They provided for a wholly separate negotiation for peace between Great Britain and the colonies, without the intervention of France, or even of the mediators, unless these should be solicited to act. No treaty, however, was to be concluded or signed, excepting simultaneously with the execution of a peace between the belligerents for whose interests the mediators were providing. The third article proposed an armistice for one or more years, to accommodate the negotiations, and the maintenance of things as they were on all sides, during the interval that might thus occur.
But there was a fourth article, which Count de Vergennes did not see fit to disclose. It provided, in case of the acceptance of the plan by all the parties, that the belligerents should call upon the mediating courts to open the congress, and that they should, without delay, commission the proper delegates to attend it. The reason for this suppression must be left to be conjectured from the general tendency of that minister’s conduct, which showed distrust of his ability to overrule Mr. Adams’s construction of his own powers. And the fourth article certainly left a great opening for him, if disposed to claim for America an equal position in the congress.
On the 13th of July, being only two days after the reception of the three articles, Mr. Adams communicated to Count de Vergennes his answer. He began by expressing a strong repugnance to any idea of a truce, which involved the continuance of the British forces in America. But, waving this, his decisive objection was aimed against the anomalous position which his country was to be made to occupy in the course of the negotiations. It was to play the part of an insurgent, endeavoring to make terms with a superior power, instead of one sovereignty contracting on equal footing with others. This would place the question of their independence at the mercy of a congress of ministers of the powers of Europe, to which the United States could never give their consent, “because,” as Mr. Adams said, “let that congress determine as it might, their sovereignty, with submission only to Divine Providence, never can, and never will be given up.”
This answer was transmitted to Count de Vergennes with a note, briefly and modestly enough expressing uncertainty as to the direction which the Count proposed to give to it, and doubt if the points had all been fully seized, upon which his opinion had been asked. In either case, Mr. Adams declared himself ready to modify or correct whatever might be regarded as exceptionable. Five days afterwards the Count, misinterpreting the whole spirit of the proposal, sent a reply assuming that Mr. Adams intended to claim directly of the mediators a place in the congress, informing him that there were preliminaries to be adjusted with respect to the United States before he could do so, and closing with something not unlike a menace of the forfeiture of his position in case of his venturing to take any such step. And not satisfied with this, the reply was addressed and franked by the Count himself, to Mr. Adams, as agent of the United States of North America, and not as minister empowered to negotiate a treaty of peace.
Taking no notice either of this ominous proceeding under a government in whose esteem titles were things, or yet of the absence of ordinary courtesy in the tone of the answer, Mr. Adams went on to explain, in three successive letters, of marked ability, his views of the impossibility of an acceptance of this mediation by France, without previously establishing the character of the United States as a party to the negotiation. His arguments, although materially affected by his ignorance of the existence of the fourth article, had their natural operation on the mind of the French minister. Not greatly inclined to welcome the interposition of the mediating powers, and yet anxious to avoid offence by directly declining it, Count de Vergennes drew an answer which the historian of French diplomacy describes as très enveloppée. Whilst he declared that the propositions, as they stood, could not be accepted by France consistently with her dignity, he yet intimated that her objections might be removed, provided the right way were taken to that end. What that way was, the historian does not explain.1 From other sources, it is shown to have been a demand of the prior recognition of the United States, remarkably in accordance with the argument addressed to the Count by Mr. Adams. But Great Britain had already precluded all questions on this point by a haughty rejection of the mediation, because it would permit France to stand between her and the colonies. The imperial courts, not yet discouraged, made one more effort to bring the belligerents to terms. But the only effect of it was to enable the French minister to extricate himself from all his embarrassments by throwing the blame of the failure upon the side of Great Britain. His last paper was not sent until the first of January, 1782. Long before that, Mr. Adams had returned to Holland to resume the tangled thread of his operations there. And thus it was that this great movement, which at one moment looked so ominous to the interests of America, came to an insignificant end.
On the very day that Mr. Adams wrote his last letter to Count de Vergennes, the Committee of Foreign Affairs, through Mr. Lovell, were writing from Philadelphia to tell him of the success of that minister in his persevering effort to procure a revocation of the powers to negotiate a treaty of commerce. The tone of congress had gradually become lowered. The people were suffering from exhaustion by the war; especially so in the Southern States, which had latterly become the theatre of the conflict. Hence a majority of the members, after a sharp struggle, were brought to consent to accept in part the suggestions of the French minister. They very wisely, though not until one attempt had failed, enlarged the commission for negotiating the peace, by joining with Mr. Adams, Dr. Franklin, Mr. Jay, Mr. Jefferson, and Mr. Laurens. This insured a general representation of the interests in the respective States, and a greater probability of acquiescence in any result which might be arrived at. The next step was not so wise. They abandoned every ultimatum of their first instructions excepting the point of independence, and they tied to it a superfluous condition, extorted by the anxieties of the minister, that the treaties with France should, at all events, be preserved. Every thing else was to be left to the discretion of the commissioners.
Had the instructions stopped here, the independent spirit of the country would have been saved; and here they were intended by the committee that drew them to stop. But France was not satisfied, and required more. At the instigation of M. de la Luzerne, the words directing their ministers “to use their own judgment and prudence in securing the interest of the United States” were erased, and the words “ultimately to govern themselves by the advice and opinion of the French minister” were introduced, as amendments. The decision showed the influence of Massachusetts to be in the wane. Even New Hampshire, under the guidance of John Sullivan, deserted her, and Pennsylvania was no better than neutral. Massachusetts stood out in opposition, sustained only by Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware. The attitude of Virginia was no longer what it had been when the Lees were in hearty union and cooperation with the Adamses. The Lees had come under reproach for their friendship to Massachusetts, and less kindly spirits had taken their places. The pressure of the war was upon her, and she consented to the greatest humiliation of the national pride recorded in the nation’s annals. Even those members who voted for it felt ashamed, and repeatedly attempted to expunge it afterwards. But the record, because once made, was permitted to remain by those who offered nothing to excuse it. They had placed the power over peace in the hands of the French minister, limiting it in only those particulars in which the interests of the two nations were identical. Every thing else was left at the mercy of a negotiation between three European powers having primary interests of their own, some of which conflicted with those of the United States. That the latter were saved through other guardianship than that of the French court from the necessity of making great sacrifices, the issue, it is believed, will clearly show.
Much of this intelligence, when it finally reached Mr. Adams, was little calculated to give vigor to his exertions. The only portion of it which afforded him relief, was that relating to the enlargement of the peace commission. To a friend, who addressed an inquiry to him under an impression that the news might be disagreeable, he instantly replied, in confidence:—
“The great transaction you allude to is this. A new commission for peace. J. Adams, B. Franklin, H. Laurens, J. Jay, and T. Jefferson, are the ministers. I do not see that this is any trial at all of spirit and fortitude. It is more honorable than before, and much more easy. I assure you it has been a great comfort to me. The measure is right. It is more respectful to the powers of Europe concerned, and more likely to give satisfaction in America.”
But, as a counterpoise to this, came what was of a very painful character to him. He had, previously to this time, been receiving impressions more and more unfavorable to the policy of Count de Vergennes. He had himself been treated by him with any thing rather than confidence. He thought he saw a disposition on his part to grasp the control of all the interests of America in the negotiations. He had occasion to feel that his own efforts had been opposed in Holland. He knew that Mr. Jay had made no progress in Spain. He received letters from his friend and secretary, Francis Dana, who had gone upon a mission of adventure to Russia, which convinced him of the existence of the same policy at St. Petersburg. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the Count did apprehend a possibility that support given in other quarters to America might tend to obstruct the negotiations, by introducing new and possibly discordant elements, even if it should not raise the demands of the Americans to an inconvenient height. His experience had likewise taught him the difficulty of pacifying the obstinate yet greedy imbecility of Spain. Under such complicated embarrassments it is not at all to be wondered at that he should aim, so far as he could, to control all the elements of a pacification. But what was wise in him to desire, it might not be so wise in others to concede. Considering that the fisheries were a rival interest on one side, and the western limits were obviously a point of jealousy on the part of Spain; considering, too, that France at no time had shown the smallest disposition to favor America in either case, it was not deemed by Mr. Adams discreet or prudent to place the absolute disposal of these questions in her hands. It does not appear, however, that he received a copy of the new instructions so early as the other intelligence; and when he did, it was at a time that he was so deeply engaged in pursuing his great object at the Hague as to render every other consideration subordinate to his success there.
Affairs in Holland were rapidly coming to a crisis. England, disappointed in not subduing the resistance in that country by arrogance, had proceeded to execute her threats by a declaration of war. The Dutch opposition, well enough disposed to exertion in the defence of the country, was neutralized by the secret indifference, if not treachery, of the Stadtholder, and the insufficient support rendered by France. For the latter power it was not desirable to go further than to secure from the secondary States a harmony in sentiment and neutrality in action. The effort of Mr. Adams to rouse the popular feeling, by awakening sympathy with the American cause, seemed to Count de Vergennes as idle as it was foreign from a strict diplomatic policy. He had scouted it when proposed by him to be used as an engine in Great Britain, in connection with the treaty of commerce. He scouted it now in Holland. By his instigations at Philadelphia, Mr. Livingston, then become the foreign secretary of congress, had been charged with the duty of remonstrating with Mr. Adams upon his course. Dr. Franklin, whose own system had ever been that of a masterly inactivity, and exclusive reliance upon France, contented himself with treating it with a little quiet sarcasm. The consequence was, that Mr. Adams went on in the path he had chosen, alone, with no advantage of assistance or encouragement from his natural friends, and animated solely by his own energy and judgment.
Two events just now came in, however, to exercise no unimportant influence upon his operations. One of them was the capitulation of Lord Cornwallis, the official account of which was transmitted directly to Mr. Adams by General Washington. The other was the arrival of still another commission, and instructions from congress to propose to the States General a treaty of triple alliance between France, Holland, and the United States. This measure had been initiated by Mr. Adams in a suggestion made to the Duke de la Vauguyon, the French envoy at the Hague, who had thought so well of it as to recommend it to the notice of his government. Count de Vergennes saw its value as an expedient with which to counteract the acceptance by Great Britain of the offer of Russia to mediate between herself and Holland, of the effects of which upon the doubting and divided counsels of the latter country he was apprehensive. But when Mr. Adams, clothed with his new powers, proposed to the Duke de la Vauguyon to go forward in a public manner, either jointly or separately, as the latter might think most advisable, he was constantly put off with the excuse that no instructions had yet been received. Not mistaking the drift of this delay, Mr. Adams felt that no alternative was left but utter inaction or a further advance upon his own responsibility. He determined upon going forward alone.
Throughout this period the situation of Holland was peculiar. For more than a century her general policy had been to cherish the closest relations with Great Britain, and to hold France as her natural and most formidable enemy. Whatever might have been the recommendations to this course, when first commenced under the auspices of William the Third, there can be no question that, as it continued, the weaker country gradually contracted habits of dependence on her commercial rival, under which her weight in the scale of nations steadily declined. The most palpable proof of it is to be found in the substitution, for the original relations of alliance, of something more like those of master and servant. The British envoy at the Hague, Sir Joseph Yorke, during his thirty years’ residence, had so habituated the people to his dictatorial tone, that, however arrogant or unreasonable his demands, they were scarcely received with surprise. The Stadtholder, a man of vacillating purpose, directed by a favorite incompetent and selfish, and relying for his support upon his hereditary family influence among the people of the lesser States, accommodated his policy to the English, not so much from any expectation of advantage to the country, as from a sense of the need of support against the opposition of what was left of the famous old party of the republic, that of the De Witts and De Ruyter, in the commercial cities. The members of that party still cherished the ancient memories of the national freedom, though they were without the vigor necessary to raise it into a present reality. They required something to lean upon, some material prop, before they could summon any heart for a struggle. France stood ready to furnish, at least, the semblance of sympathy with liberty,1 and rather than have no aid from without, they were content to take it, without narrowly scanning its genuineness. Hence the resuscitation of what was called the popular party at this time.
But it may be doubted whether all that France would have been willing to risk in this adventure could have met with much success, had not Great Britain, with the singular wantonness which marks every step of her action during this period, labored as if determined to throw the whole game into her hands. The choice was not given to Holland even to remain neutral. As if bent upon driving the commerce of that country to ruin, whatever they might do, Britain magnified the causes of offence which its chief city had given, at the same time that she demanded of the government, controlled by her own friends, a reparation which she must have known it was not in their power to obtain for her. Instead of resorting to kindness and conciliation, which, in the nervous uneasiness of the moneyed interest, would probably have secured a great extent of concession as an alternative to the hazards of war, she seemed rather to seek to avoid the means which might have made the last resort unnecessary. If such a policy was prompted, as has been sometimes suggested, by mere eagerness for plunder, by the desire to pounce upon the rich entrepôt of Eustatia, and to cripple still further the declining commerce of the Dutch, little more can be needed to complete the evidence touching the spirit of the counsels which had brought on the whole contest. But this, perhaps, would be too harsh a judgment. Great Britain has generally been overbearing, but she is seldom mercenary. Even the caustic Frederick charged her only with an overweening confidence in the power of her guineas to gain all her objects through others. The more probable conclusion is, that it was the triumph of 1763 which had nourished the haughty and uncompromising temper that ultimately concentrated against her the feelings of the continent, and made her mortifications, in 1783, the cause of mutual congratulation among all the nations of Europe.
Another, and perhaps a still stronger reason may have tempted Great Britain to declare war against the Dutch. She well knew the country to be torn by contending factions, and she may have hoped to stimulate the Stadtholder and his friends to a degree of energy which might establish his preponderance, and completely crush the power of his opponents. If such was indeed the expectation, the result sufficiently proves its folly. For instead of inspiring the Orange party with vigor, the effect was, on the contrary, to revive, for a brief period, some sparks of the spirit which had animated the resistance to the Spanish dominion, and to paralyze the court. This spirit it had become the interest of France to cherish, but not by any means to the extent which those impelled by it desired. To engage Holland vigorously in the war, might involve the obligation of continuing it solely for her sake beyond the moment when the objects for which it had been commenced could be gained to France. But the ardor of the popular leaders, stimulated by the vehemence of opposition to the Stadtholder’s party, however it might be viewed by France, could appear to a representative of the United States in no other light than as furnishing a blessed opportunity, to be improved as far as possible, for the benefit of his struggling country. To this end he had labored to establish relations with the chiefs, and had preferred their advice to that of the French minister. Conceiving it of the first importance to obtain, if possible, an acknowledgment of the independence of the United States by the Dutch, he made up his mind to push for it, even though France, viewing it from a European position, should regard it as of no moment. Hence it was rather with the acquiescence than the full approval of the Duke de Vauguyon, that, in consonance with the suggestions of leading patriots, and especially the bold Van der Capellen, he made up his mind to take a daring step, which might indeed accomplish his great object, but which, on the other hand, if it failed, would inevitably, for the time, detract seriously from his reputation, and render the chances of success, afterwards, more desperate than ever.
Every thing having been accordingly arranged, on the 8th of January, 1782, Mr. Adams commenced a series of formal visits, in person, to the chief officers, and the deputies of each city, in the States General, at the Hague, in which he respectfully reminded them of the memorial he had addressed to them, asking for the recognition of his country, to which he had not yet received any reply. He then stated the object of his visit to be to demand a categorical answer, in order that he might transmit it, without delay, to his government. He was received with the same general form of reply in every instance, but with greater or less kindliness, according as the members sympathized with his object or otherwise. All of them pleaded the absence of instructions, without which they were not competent to act, but promised to transmit his demand to their respective constituencies in order to hasten them. There can be little doubt that the movement was a signal for invigorating the agitation already set in motion in the various parts of the confederacy. Neither was it long in producing visible results. In the complicated system of government then established, more nearly approximating an aristocracy than any other known form, although the people had small powers of absolute control, their municipal organizations furnished extraordinary facilities of directing opinion with force upon the constituent bodies. It was by this agency that the cause of America was now to be advanced. In many of the great towns, such as Leyden, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Haerlem, Utrecht, Zwol, petitions were gotten up, setting forth, at more or less length, reasons why the provincial States, to which they respectively belonged, should be instructed early to declare in favor of granting Mr. Adams’s demand. The anxiety with which he watched the progress of these movements, may be gathered from his correspondence with Mr. C. W. F. Dumas, through whom, as familiar with the Dutch, French, and English languages, and, moreover, as a zealous coadjutor, all the communications with the actors were carried on. Even under the waning influence of the Stadtholder, the idea of soon carrying the point with seven States, the separate assent of each of whom was indispensable to success, could scarcely be entertained. Yet such was the activity and earnestness displayed, and so strongly had the current set against the Orange party, not unreasonably suspected of crippling the national resources in the war for the sake of aiding Great Britain, that every obstacle was quickly swept away.
Only seven weeks after Mr. Adams’s formal demand, the States of Friesland adopted a resolution, instructing their delegates in the States General to accede to it. The announcement of this decision seems to have given a great impetus to the action of the delegates of the other States at the Hague. As city declared itself after city in the wealthy province of Holland, it became certain, before another month elapsed, that incomparably the most powerful State of the confederacy would range herself on the same side. Zealand and Overyssel were not long in following, and in the same week of April the three other States, Groningen, Utrecht, and Guelderland, declared themselves. No sooner was the decision of the last State received than the States General proceeded to act. And thus it happened that on the 19th of April, exactly one year from the date of Mr. Adams’s first memorial, an anniversary otherwise memorable in the commencement of the American struggle, the delegates, having received their instructions, directed, unanimously, the following record to be placed on their journals:—
“Deliberated by resumption upon the address and the ulterior address made by Mr. Adams, the 4th of May, 1781, and the 9th of January of the current year, to the President of the Assembly of their High Mightinesses, to present to their High Mightinesses his letters of credence, in the name of the United States of North America, and by which ulterior address the said Mr. Adams has demanded a categorical answer, to the end to be able to acquaint his constituents thereof; it has been thought fit and resolved that Mr. Adams shall be admitted and acknowledged in quality of envoy of the United States of North America to their High Mightinesses, as he is admitted and acknowledged by the present.”
Three days after the adoption of this resolution, Mr. Adams was introduced to the Stadtholder; and the next day, to the States General, as the accredited minister of the new nation, the United States of America; after which the Duke de la Vauguyon made a formal entertainment for the ministers representing the other European States, and Mr. Adams was there presented to each of them as a new and recognized member of the corps diplomatique at the Hague.
Such was the fortunate termination of this venturous undertaking. The struggle had been severe. It had begun under circumstances of extreme discouragement, and had been carried on with little aid from any external quarter. The capture of Mr. Laurens, and the consequences of his failure to destroy his secret papers, in involving the Dutch in the war, which had roused so strong a feeling of aversion to Mr. Adams and his errand as almost to endanger him at Amsterdam, had gradually given way under a reaction which Great Britain had done the most to bring on. His activity had formed the literary connections, through which alone an opening could be made for him, a stranger equally to the language and manners of the people, to reach their ears or their hearts. He had judged rightly, at the outset, that it was in their sympathy with a brave nation struggling for liberty, as their own ancestors had done for forty long years against the oppressions of Spain, that the true road lay to success. The coöperation of France was but a formal aid, effective so far as it went, but never based upon any other than strictly European views of policy. Indeed, it is among the most curious portions of this history that nearly coincident with the hour of his triumph came those dispatches from Mr. Livingston, already alluded to as instigated by France, which disapproved the course of action he had felt it his duty to adopt.
Considering all these things, with the steady opposition manifested by the Stadtholder, and by all the English influence up to this period paramount in Holland, this may be justly regarded, not simply as the third moral trial, but, what Mr. Adams himself always regarded it, as the greatest success of his life. If he appears to have now and then boasted of it in his correspondence more than was quite seemly, at least it was not without some justification. He felt, what is probably true, that no one would be likely to understand or appreciate the labors and the anxieties he had gone through, the steadfastness with which he had followed his object, alike unmindful of the objections of the cautious, the hesitation of the timid, the doubts of the lukewarm, and the stratagems of the hostile. It is this quality which marks Mr. Adams’s career as a statesman through all its various phases with the stamp of greatness. In the arts of indirection, the mere management and manœuvring of politics or diplomacy, he never had the smallest skill; but in the faculty of combining means with judgment and energy so as to attain the public end he had in view, down to the close of his public life, he showed himself a master. And nowhere is this made to appear more strikingly than in his correspondence with M. Dumas and others through whom he acted during the period now under consideration in Holland. After it was all over, he wrote to his wife at home, briefly contrasting the difficulties experienced in the only two countries in which America had as yet been successful, in the following terms:—
“The embassy here has done great things. It has not merely tempted a natural rival, and an imbittered, inveterate, hereditary enemy to assist a little against Great Britain, but it has torn from her bosom a constant, faithful friend and ally of a hundred years’ duration. It has not only prevailed with a minister or an absolute court to fall in with the national prejudice, but without money, without friends, and in opposition to mean intrigue, it has carried its cause, by the still small voice of reason and persuasion, triumphantly against the uninterrupted opposition of family connections, court influence, and aristocratical despotism.”
His labors were not intermitted by this event, for he entered forthwith upon measures likely to render it of the most service to America. This was the favorable moment for resuming his conferences with bankers and capitalists, and he improved it. So long as the recognition of the United States had remained in doubt, even though the current of events had been removing more and more every prospect of the reëstablishment of the authority of Great Britain, there was little heart among the moneyed men to undertake, or the people at large to second any pecuniary advances. But now that the States General had decided to give countenance to the new nation, Mr. Adams felt the difference, in the reception of offers from several of the most responsible houses in Holland to undertake a loan. It is needless to go into the details of the negotiations that followed. The papers that relate to them are most of them given in the volumes of this work devoted to the official correspondence. It is enough here to say that through the activity of three houses, Messrs. Willink, Van Staphorst, and De la Lande & Fynje, a sum of five millions of guilders was obtained, at a moment when it was of essential service in maintaining the overstrained credit of the United States.
Nor yet did this beneficial interposition of Holland stop with the first loan. When America, at the close of seven years of war, was exhausted, and gasping for breath, the funds which she was enabled, for a time, to draw from this source were most opportune to keep her from sinking altogether. France, to whom alone she had been able to look for aid in the early stages of the contest, was beginning to give signs of the distress which resulted so deplorably afterwards. From the date of the first successful loan until Mr. Adams returned to America, in 1788, he kept up his relations with the bankers of Amsterdam, and through them succeeded in procuring successive advances, which carried his country safely over the interval of disorder previous to the consolidation of the federal government. This great step, once taken, soon rendered further assistance unnecessary. The people began to gather up their resources, and to pour, almost without an effort, into the coffers of the treasury sufficient sums to pay their Dutch friends an ample compensation for the confidence they had been willing to extend in their hour of need. And in witnessing this process, no one enjoyed a more unmingled satisfaction than Mr. Adams. To him who had done so much to persuade the Dutchmen to trust the honor of his countrymen, the sense that these had redeemed all the pledges he ventured to give for them, was even more gratifying to his pride than if he had been acquitting a personal obligation of his own.
Neither did another great measure linger long unexecuted. On the very day that Mr. Adams was received by the States General, he presented a memorial, stating that he was authorized by his government to propose a treaty of amity and commerce between the two republics, and soliciting the nomination of some person or persons on the part of the States with full powers to treat. That body acceded to the request at once, and appointed a committee before whom Mr. Adams laid a project which he had prepared, in conformity with the instructions he had received from congress. So slow, however, were the forms of transacting business under the system of that cautious people that, notwithstanding the trifling nature of the obstacles in the way of a perfect agreement, nearly five months elapsed before the negotiations were concluded, and nearly another month passed before the treaties were ready for execution. At last, on the 7th of October, 1782, the last hand was put to the papers, and Mr. Adams had the satisfaction of sending Mr. Livingston for ratification the second alliance entered into by the United States as a sovereign power. The two events, of the recognition of the United States, and of the signature of a treaty with them, were deemed of such interest that an artist in Holland thought them worthy of being commemorated by the execution of two medals, the designs upon which have been engraved, and will be found in the seventh and eighth volumes of the present work.
Such is the history of the negotiation in Holland. A history which, whether we consider the difficulties to be vanquished, the means at his disposal, the energy and perseverance to be exerted or the prudence to be exercised to the attainment of the end, places Mr. Adams at once in the first class of diplomatists. The fact that it was executed on one of the lesser theatres of Europe, and was productive of only limited effects, does not in any way detract from the merits of the execution. Justly was it denominated by one who had spent his life in the diplomatic service, a “grand coup.” And it deserved the more to be called so, because it was not struck by the modes often resorted to in courts. There were no arts or disguises, no flattery or fawning, no profligacy or corruption put in use to further the result. It was an honest victory of principle gained by skilfully enlisting in a just cause the confidence and sympathy of a nation. And it was won by a man who up to the fortieth year of his life had scarcely crossed the borders of the small province in America within which he was born, and who had had no opportunities to profit of those lessons on the radiant theatres of the world, which even the republican poet of England was willing to admit, in his time, to be
“Best school of best experience, quickest insight
In all things that to greatest actions lead.”
Considering these circumstances, in connection with the fact that Mr. Adams was placed at once in the face of many of the most experienced and adroit statesmen in Europe, who viewed all his proceedings with distrust, if not disapprobation, although this event, if measured by its consequences, may not claim in itself so important a place in history as some others in which he took a decisive part, yet, as being the most exclusively the result of his own labors, it well merits to be ranked, in the way he ranked it, as the greatest triumph of his life.
[1 ]The introduction to the French translation of Botta’s History of the War of Independence, written by L. de Sevelinges, appears to have been founded on a faithful study of the private papers of M. Gérard, and it doubtless draws from that source the statements of opinions as well as of facts.
[1 ]Had not M. Gérard happily surrendered his place early to a more conciliatory man, he would have created the same sort of divisions which M. Genet labored not without success to introduce many years later. The testimony of General Lafayette, whose motives were incomparably higher, is conclusive on this point. Memoires, &c. tom. iv. p. 130.
[1 ]Works, vol. iii. pp. 229-258.
[1 ]Droz styles him “partisan de la monarchie absolue” in connection with one of his first ministerial acts, advising against the recall of the parliaments. Règne de Louis XVI. tom. i. p. 149. See also Jefferson, who, rather liking him, chose to charge to age what was more certainly due to temperament and education united. Writings, edited by H. A. Washington, vol. ii. pp. 108-9.
[1 ]Count de Vergennes is clearly condemned on this point by French writers in all other respects disposed to eulogize him. Flassan, Diplomatie Française, tom. vii. p. 151. Marbois, Histoire de la Louisiane, pp. 153-154.
[1 ]By the kindness of Mr. Sparks, the writer has been permitted to examine a copy of this document, as well as of others used in the course of this analysis of French policy, which were obtained by him from the archives of France. His obligation to Mr. Sparks for this great service has been elsewhere more fully acknowledged.
[1 ]The conclusions of this memoir were first published in the remarkable book, entitled “Politique de tous les Cabinets de l’Europe,” an attentive study of which is indispensable to the knowledge of French policy during the last century. The whole memoir is now found in every edition of the author’s works.
[1 ]These words are quoted by Dr. Franklin in his journal, without a word of comment. Writings, edited by Mr. Sparks, vol. ix. p. 274. The audacity of the falsehood is not exceeded even by the deliberate denial of the family compact made by the Count de Bussy to Lord Chatham. The latter is described by Flassan as a “mensonge politique,” just as if, when the intent to deceive exists, a lie could change its character from the superaddition of an epithet.
[1 ]Speaking, long afterwards, of the treaty of 1783, Count de Vergennes uses these words: “Elle a effacé la tache de celle de 1763.”
[1 ]Letter to the Marquis d’Ossun, 6 January, 1777.
[2 ]Letter to the same, 12 January, 1777. In these sentiments, the Count departs widely from the ideas of Machiavel, who devotes a chapter to the proof of the contrary. Discorsi sopra la prima deca di T. Livio, lib. 1. c. lix.
[1 ]Vol. vi. p. 193.
[1 ]B. Franklin to Count de Vergennes, 10 July, 1780. The case is put hypothetically, it is true, but the moral abandonment of the position of congress is just the same as if it had been directly stated.
[2 ]Surely, Dr. Franklin’s powerful mind was fully competent at least to form an opinion upon the clear reasoning of Mr. Adams.
[1 ]B. Franklin to the President of Congress, 9 August, 1780.
[2 ]B. Franklin to John Adams, 8 October, 1780, in the 7th volume of the present work, p. 314. It is not either in the Diplomatic Correspondence of the Revolution, or in the editions of Franklin’s works.
[1 ]That is, the living principle that infuses itself into the essence of a man’s character. It is not mere benevolence, though, in the popular mind, the two ideas are often confounded. On this subject some pure light may be obtained from an analysis in the North American Review, ascribed to a capable and impartial judge, the late Professor Andrews Norton. Vol. vii. pp. 289-300.
[2 ]Writings of Jefferson, edited by H. A. Washington. Vol. viii. p. 502.
It should be remembered, that though the act was done in youth, the reason was assigned in advanced age.
[1 ]These remarks have not been made without a careful study of the characters of both these prominent men, and an endeavor to lay aside every consideration of a secondary nature, in the search after truth. Mr. Adams’s own views of this letter of the 9th of August, and of his relations with Dr. Franklin, have been so fully given by himself in the course of his publications made in the Boston Patriot, that further direct notice of them may be dispensed with. The extract in the Appendix to the present volume (B) contains a full statement of his side of the question.
[2 ]Si l’on se permit de lui faire quelques reproches, le plus fondé m’a toujours paru être de ne pouvoir inspirer la confiance, et d’avoir, sous des dehors très simples, conservé un air d’adresse et de souplesse, qui pouvait faire douter de la franchise de son caractère, et devait mettre en défiance les ministres étrangers qui eurent à traiter avec lui.
Memoires de M. le Prince de Montbarey, tom. ii. p. 114.
[1 ]The King to Lord North, 31 July, 1780, in the Appendix to Brougham’s Statesmen of the Time of George the Third.
[2 ]1 December, 1780. It is found in the same Appendix.
[3 ]Quoted from the French archives, by Flassan, tom. vii. p. 364.
[1 ]Sevelinges’s Introduction to the French Translation of Botta’s History. Tom. i. p. 34.
[1 ]Flassan, tom. vii. p. 317. The answer translated is in the Diplomatic Correspondence of the Revolution, vol. xi. p. 33. An extract was obtained by Mr. Adams, through Mr. Dana, whilst in Russia, together with copies of the later papers. They may be found in the Appendix to the seventh volume of the present work.
[1 ]“Les amis de la France devaient toujours crier la liberté.” Flassan describes this as the policy of the court of Versailles under Louis the Fifteenth. From that quarter it was a cry and nothing else, as well in Holland as in America.