Papers of John Adams, volume 9

Editorial Note

II. “Letters from a Distinguished American,” No. 2


In the General Advertiser of 23 Aug., this letter was introduced by the following passage: “The following are the copies of Letters from a distinguished AMERICAN, occasioned by the perusal of 'Cool Thoughts on American Independence.'” In the General Advertiser of 16 Aug. 1782, however, there had been a much more detailed announcement, in the form of a letter, of the “Letters” forthcoming publication. The author, presumably Edmund Jenings, noted that the letters, which were “of no common cast,” had been written prior to the fall of the North ministry in March 1782 in the hope of persuading North to open peace negotiations. The writer then pointed to the recent assumption of power by Lord Shelburne that “has rendered it a matter of considerable doubt whether the frantic struggle to preclude America from the acquisition of peace, and from the enjoyment of independence, will not be speedily revived, must give particular propriety to the publication of these letters. They are written by an American pre-eminent in virtue, experience, and understanding; and of such consequence, at this moment in Europe, that I dare affirm (and I would pledge my life upon the truth of the assertion) that when the Minister of this country shall step forward upon an open, just, and honourable ground, with propositions for a fair and lasting peace, he will find him one of the most willing and one of the most able to accelerate its accomplishment.”

The 16 Aug. letter justifies the publication of the “Letters from a Distinguished American” in mid-1782 and relates them directly to the peace process, but does not fully explain the apprehensions of those wishing to see substantive negotiations begin at once. The fall of the North ministry in March 1782 and its replacement by a new government under the Marquis of Rockingham brought preparations for the inevitable peace negotiations. A rivalry soon developed, however, between Lord Shelburne and Charles James Fox over who would direct the negotiations and resulted in both men sending agents to France to open talks with Benjamin Franklin. This posed a problem because Shelburne had long favored some sort of Anglo-American union that would leave the Americans short of independence, while Fox had consistently favored independence. Rockingham's death in July 1782 brought a new ministry controlled by Shelburne, and Fox's departure from the cabinet. Since Shelburne would now preside over the negotiations there was concern, unwarranted as it turned out, that he would return to the old shibboleth of reconciliation (Morris, Peacemakers , p. 257–286). The “Letters from a Distinguished American” thus were intended to convince Shelburne that such a course was impossible.