Papers of John Adams, volume 3

135 Editorial Note Editorial Note
Editorial Note

In the fall of 1775 Adams worked in the congress to the point of exhaustion; by December he asked permission to leave to restore his energies. He served on thirteen committees, and judging from the fragmentary evidence that has been found, he gave full measure. He was not exaggerating when he told Mercy Warren he was “engaged in constant Business. . . . Every Body is engaged all Day in Congress and all the Morning and evening in Committees.” The workday began at seven in the morning and ended at ten at night (JA to Mercy Warren, 25 Nov., below). Adams' intense activity contradicts the assessment of Benjamin Rush, who saw Adams as a man shunned because of the intemperate remarks about Dickinson disclosed in the intercepted letter (JA to James Warren, 24 July, note 6, above).

Adams arrived in Philadelphia on 12 September, just in time for the official opening for business the next day. Actually, the congress had tried to begin on the 5th, but for lack of a quorum had had to wait eight days for enough members to arrive. In contrast to the preceding spring, Adams found time to record in some detail debates taking place during one month's period, 23 September through 21 October ( Diary and Autobiography , 2:178–180, 183–187, 188–217). Among the subjects discussed were the mode of dispensing supplies to soldiers, the gunpowder contract with the firm of Willing & Morris, the wisdom of arresting royal officers and shutting down the royal postal service, the mode of appointment of officers, and, most important, the desirability of modifying the Continental Association by opening the ports and encouraging trade and the establishment of an American fleet.

Although Adams records the positions of many of his colleagues on these issues, he records his views only twice: as making a motion to consult Washington and as making a point of order (same, 2:185, 198). It is mainly from his letters to close friends and associates, James Warren in particular, that one must learn where he stood. And these are not wholly satisfactory, for the congress continued to operate under a rule of secrecy that was reaffirmed on 9 November. Adams and other members at that time signed a formal statement carrying a penalty of expulsion and condemnation as an enemy to American liberties for divulging congressional secrets without authorization (Jefferson, Papers , 1:252–253; photostat 136of MS in MHi). Another source for Adams' positions is his recollections written down in 1805 in his Autobiography, but the evidence is plain that with the lapse of time his memory, even when stimulated by research in the Journals of the congress, confused the facts, and hindsight caused him to claim more than he should have.

In later years Adams was proudest of his contribution to the establishment of an American navy. His pride was justified, despite his oversimplifications. The naming of a committee on 5 October to plan for the interception of two British vessels carrying arms and ammunition to Canada was the first congressional step toward creating a navy ( JCC , 3:277). Adams is the only source for identifying the makeup of the three-man committee, but his recollection was not disputed by his correspondent and former colleague John Langdon (JA, Works , 10:27, 28). Besides himself, the committee was composed of Langdon and Silas Deane. Seen now as a first step, the committee was not considered as such then, and much was to occur before the congress clearly saw where it was heading. No great effort was required to turn Adams' mind to the possibilities the sea offered. He had grown up on the coast, his legal business had acquainted him with merchants and seamen, and he got letters from Josiah Quincy urging upon him schemes for bottling up shipping in Boston harbor (Quincy to JA, 11 July, above, and 22 Sept., 25 Oct., both below). Yet he was not appointed to the committee named on 13 October to prepare an estimate of the expense of fitting out and contracting for two armed vessels for the purpose of the interception. He was not called upon until this new committee was enlarged by four on 30 October and ordered to fit out two additional ships. The enlarged committee gradually became known as the Naval Committee, not to be confused with a standing committee of later origin called the Marine Committee. The membership of the Naval Committee included Silas Deane, John Langdon, Stephen Hopkins, Christopher Gadsden, Joseph Hewes, Richard Henry Lee, and John Adams ( JCC , 3:293–294, 311–312; Burnett, ed., Letters of Members , 1:217, note, 273, note).

Any account of the emergence of a Continental navy that confines itself to the actions of the congress overlooks the independent action of General Washington, who before word of armed vessels was received from the congress had set about hiring several to intercept British transports supplying Boston (Clark, Washington's Navy , p. 3–17). One can argue, of course, that a real navy could be the creation only of the congress, but certainly Washington saw the need for action at sea given the situation he found—a besieged town supplied through its harbor. A recent scholar would go back even further to find the origin of a Continental navy—back to the congressional resolution of 18 July 1775 which urged each colony to fit out armed vessels for its own defense. In so resolving, the congress may have been swayed by the action of Massachusetts' Third Provincial Congress, which on 7 June appointed a committee to consider the feasibility of arming small vessels to cruise along the coast to protect trade and 137annoy enemies (Raymond G. O'Connor, “Second Commentary” in Maritime Dimensions of the American Revolution, Washington, 1977, P. 27; Mass. Provincial Congress, Jours. , p. 308–309).

Formal proposals for an American fleet actually came to Philadelphia from Rhode Island on 3 October and provoked vigorous debate (JA, Diary and Autobiography , 2:198–199, 201). As the instructions from that colony put it, the best way to achieve peace based upon constitutional principles was to fight a “just and necessary war . . . to a happy issue,” and an American fleet would greatly contribute to that end ( JCC , 3:274). Although in the ensuing debate Adams does not record anything he said beyond his raising a point of order, he unquestionably supported the establishment of a fleet, and probably from the first. According to Samuel Ward, the initial attitude of many members was that a fleet was “perfectly chimerical,” but opinions gradually changed until a favorable vote was achieved to create a committee made up of one delegate from each colony that was charged with “furnishing these colonies with a naval armament” (Burnett, ed., Letters of Members , 1:256; JCC , 3:420). This was the Marine Committee, named on 11 December and reconstituted on the 14th, that Adams in his Autobiography confused with the Naval Committee, and that gradually absorbed the functions of the other.

By 11 December, however, Adams had departed from Philadelphia. Still, he had been able to advance the cause of a navy through his membership on the Naval Committee. His duties involved him in recruiting likely men to serve as officers, a responsibility that caused him to write to correspondents for suggestions. (For his list of possibilities, see Diary and Autobiography , 2:221.) The Naval Committee was ordered to prepare commissions, to purchase ship supplies, to engage With Captain Stone for the seizure or destruction of Lord Dunmore's fleet, and to see to it that ships violating the nonexportation agreement were detained ( JCC , 3:316, 392–393, 395–396, 406). This committee prepared Rules for the Regulation of the Navy of the United Colonies (No. VIII, below), which continued in use under the Constitution. These were adapted by Adams mainly from existing British regulations, but listing them in formal fashion with a care for the needs of the colonies was an argument that a naval service would be no casual or temporary thing. The congress was making a commitment not unlike that made when it decided to remodel the army. John Adams' industry gave the congress a nudge.

The accompanying documents and calendared item reflect the work of those committees for which some evidence exists of JA's role in their deliberations and reports or in which he had a particular interest. Following these is a synopsis of his membership on committees for which there is no record of his influence on their actions. The listing gives the names of members in the order in which they appear in the Journal, the responsibilities assigned, and the dates, locations, and authorship, when known, of reports and subsequent resolutions.

The weeks Adams spent in Philadelphia in the fall of 1775 were try-138ing ones. Important decisions whose consequences could not be fully foreseen pressed for action. Although Adams stood with those who saw no hope of reconciliation, he did not minimize the dangers of the course on which America was embarked. He was bold in his recommendations, but he sought constantly the nourishment he could get from the letters of those in Massachusetts. Occasionally, he even had to explain to them why the colonies could not press on faster. He operated always within the political realities that confronted him in the congress.

I. Resolutions of the Congress on Intercepting British Vessels, 5 October 1775 JA Continental Congress I. Resolutions of the Congress on Intercepting British Vessels, 5 October 1775 Adams, John Continental Congress
I. Resolutions of the Congress on Intercepting British Vessels
Thursday, October 5, 1775

Resolved,1 That a letter be sent by Express to Genl Washington, to inform him, that they Congress having received certain intelligence of the sailing of two north country built Brigs, of no force, from England, on the 11 of August last, loaded with arms, powder, and other stores, for Quebec, without a convoy, which it being of importance to intercept, that he apply to the council of Massachusetts bay, for the two armed vessels in their service, and despatch the same,2 with a sufficient number of people, stores, &c. particularly a number of oars, in order, if possible, to intercept said two Brigs and their cargoes, and secure the same for the use of the continent; Also, any other transports laden with ammunition, cloathing, or other stores, for the use of the ministerial army or navy in America, and secure them in the most convenient places for the purpose abovementioned; that he give the commander or commanders such instructions as are necessary, as also proper encouragement to the marines and seamen, that shall be sent on this enterprize, which instructions, &c., are to be delivered to the commander or commanders sealed up, with orders not to open the same until out of sight of land, on account of secresy.

That a letter be wrote to said honble council, to put said vessels under the General's command and direction, and to furnish him instantly with every necessary in their power, at the expence of the Continent.

Also that the General be directed to employ said vessels and others, if he judge necessary, to effect the purposes aforesd; informing the General that the Rhode Island and Connecticut vessels of force will be sent directly after them to their assistance.

That a letter be wrote to Govr Cooke, informing him of the above, and desiring him to despatch one or both the armed vessels of the 139 image colony of Rhode Island on the same service, and that he take the precautions abovementioned.3

Also that a letter be wrote to Govr Trumbull, requesting of him the largest vessel in the service of the colony of Connecticut, to be sent on the enterprize aforesaid, acquainting him with the above particulars, and recommending the same precautions.4

That the encouragement recommended by this Congress to be given shall be, on this occasion, that the master, officers and seamen, shall be intitled to one half of the value of the prizes by them taken, the wages they receive from the respective colonies notwithstanding.5

That the said ships and vessels of war to be on the continental risque and pay, during their being so employed.

Reprinted from ( JCC , 3:278–279); Dft not found.


These resolutions grew out of the report (not found) of a committee appointed on 5 Oct., which, according to JA, was composed of himself, Silas Deane, and John Langdon. The Journals do not give the names of the members (same, 3:277). As JA recalled the episode, the question of whether to try intercepting the ships caused sharp debate, for the attempt was thought by some to be imprudent and potentially destructive of the morals of American seamen because it might put their minds upon plunder. JA and others argued that success would bring needed supplies and would be an encouraging stroke at the enemy. JA added that it would be the beginning of “a System of maritime and naval Opperations.” Because he wrote these recollections long after the event (in 1805) and because he showed some confusion about his own role at this early stage in bringing naval operations into being, one must be cautious about accepting JA's account. He says nothing about his contribution to the report which led to these resolutions ( Diary and Autobiography , 3:342–343).


Actually Washington had decided on recruiting two armed vessels before he received these orders from the congress (Instructions to Col. John Glover and Stephen Moylan, 4 Oct., Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, 4:6–7). For the outcome, see Benjamin Hichborn to JA, 25 Nov., note 9 (below).


The published records of Rhode Island do not give the colony's action on the request of the congress.


For the action taken by Connecticut, see Conn. Colonial Records , 15:131.


“On the margin of the ‘corrected Journal’ the words ‘2. this particularly’ were written against this paragraph” (ed. Worthington C. Ford's note).