The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

“More fool than Knave”: Dr. George Logan and the Logan Act

Over the last few weeks the Logan Act, a bill passed by Congress and signed by President John Adams in late January 1799 has been widely discussed in the national news. Here at the Adams Papers, work has just begun on Adams Family Correspondence, volume 13, in which Dr. George Logan, whose actions provoked this legislation, is a major topic of conversation for the Adamses on both sides of the Atlantic.

In September 1798, tensions between France and the United States were running high. The specter of war loomed large as the revelation of France’s bribery attempt in the XYZ Affair and continued attacks on American vessels led to a buildup of American armed and naval forces with growing chants of “millions for defense, but not a sixpence for tribute.” It was in this climate that from their place in Berlin, John Quincy and Thomas Boylston Adams reported on the arrival of Logan in Europe. John Quincy detailed that Logan was claiming to be an envoy representing the Democratic-Republican Party, which opposed John Adams’s administration. At first refused a passport into France, Logan continued to represent himself as officially representing the United States while waiting in the Netherlands, and was eventually granted permission to enter France and given audiences with members of the French government to discuss the differences between the two nations. Thomas summarized his views on Logan—“a villain & a traitor to his Country.”

After Logan returned to the United States in November, he met with President Adams to discuss what he had learned from his meetings with the French government and to convince Adams that the French had peaceful intentions. Abigail’s nephew, William Smith Shaw, serving as John’s secretary, reported to the First Lady, who had remained in Quincy: “[Logan] then said, that he had just come from France and that he had the pleasure to inform the president that the directory had altered their conduct respecting America and had become more pacifick. Why then, said the president, have they not repealed their decrees against our commerce? here Logan stammered and said they were making preparations to do it.” John next asked if Logan believed that France would faithfully maintain a new treaty with the US, and he answered affirmatively claiming “the firm and united conduct of the Americans had proved to the directory the impolicy of their conduct.” Shaw reported that this response made John “burst into a broad laugh.” Adams continued his questioning, as Logan became increasingly uncomfortable until he “seemed to want some lurking place like the Turtle to draw in his head and to hide his face.” From this report, Abigail ultimately concluded in a letter to her husband that Logan was “more fool than Knave.”

Whether fool or knave, hero or villain, the Federalist controlled Congress had no patience with his meddling and passed the act prohibiting unauthorized private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments on behalf of the United States. The law has been in force ever since.


permalink | Published: Wednesday, 1 April, 2015, 1:00 AM