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Browsing: Diary of John Adams, Volume 4

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Docno: ADMS-01-04-02-0001-0001

Author: Adams, John
Date: 1806-12-01
Date: 1777-12

Travels, and Negotiations.1

Quincy December 1. 1806.


When I asked Leave of Congress to make a Visit to my Constituents and my Family in November 1777, it was my intention to decline the next Election, and return to my practice at the Bar.2I had been four Years in Congress, left my Accounts in a very loose condition, my Debtors were failing, the paper Money was depreciating, I was daily loosing the fruits of seventeen Years industry, my family was living on my past Acquisitions which were very moderate, for no Man ever did so much Business for so little profit. My Children were growing up without my care in their Education: and all my <pay> imoluments as a Member of Congress for four Years, had not been sufficient to pay a labouring Man upon my farm. Some of my Friends, who had more compassion for me and my family than others, suggested to me what I knew very well before, that I was loosing a fortune every Year by my Absence. Young Gentlemen who had been Clerks in my Office and others whom I had left in that Character in other Offices were growing rich, for the Prize Causes, and other Controversies had made the profession of a Barrister more lucrative than it ever had been before. I thought therefore that four Years drudgery, and Sacrifice of every thing, were sufficient for my Share of Absence from home and that another might take my place. Upon my Arrival at my home in { 2 } Braintree I soon found that my old Clients had not forgotten me and that new ones had heard enough of me to be ambitious of engaging me in Suits which were depending. I had applications from all quarters in the most important disputes. Among others Coll. Elisha Doane applied to me to go to Portsmouth in New Hampshire, upon the Case of a large Ship and Cargo which had been seized and was to be tried in the Court of Admiralty before Judge Brackett.3At the Tryal of the { 3 } Cause at Portsmouth and while I was speaking in it, Mr. Langdon came in from Phyladelphia and leaning over the Bar whispered to me, that Mr. Deane was recalled, and I was appointed to go to France. As I could scarcely believe the News to be true, and suspected Langdon [to] be sporting with me, it did not disconcert me. As I had never solicited such an Appointment, nor intimated to any one, the smallest inclination for it, the News was altogether unexpected. The only hint I ever had of such a design in Congress was this. After I had mounted my horse for my Journey home Mr. Gerry at Yorktown, came out of the House of Mr. Roberdeau where We lodged together, and said to me, between him and me, that I must go to France. That Mr. Deanes Conduct had been so intollerably bad, as to disgrace himself and his Country and that Congress had no other Way of retrieving the dishonour but by recalling him. I answered that as to recalling Mr. Deane Congress would do as they thought fit, but I entreated him that neither Mr. Gerry nor any one else would think of me for a Successor for I was altogether unqualified for it. Supposing it only a sudden thought of Mr. Gerry and that when he should consider it a moment he would relinquish it, I knew not that I recollected it, again, till Mr. Langdone brought it to remembrance. At Portsmouth Captain Landais was introduced to me, as then lately arrived from France, who gave me an Account of his Voyage with Bougainville round the World and other particulars of his Life. Upon my return to Braintree I found to my infinite Anxiety that Mr. Langdons intelligence was too well founded. Large Packetts from Congress, containing a new Commission to Franklin, Lee and me as Plenipotentiaries to the King of France, with our instructions and other papers, had been left at my { 4 } House, and waited my Arrival. A Letter from the President of Congress informed me of my Appointment, and that the Navy Board in Boston was ordered to fit the Frigate Boston, as soon as possible to carry me to France. It should have been observed before that, in announcing to me the Intelligence of my Appointment, Langdon neither expressed Congratulation nor regret: but I soon afterwards had evidence enough that he lamented Mr. Deanes recall, for he had already formed lucrative connections in France by Mr. Deanes recommendation, particularly with Mr. Le Ray de Chaumont who had shipped Merchandizes to him to sell upon Commission, an Account of which rendered to Chaumont by Langdon, was shewn to me by the former at Passy in 1779, in which allmost the whole Capital was sunk, really or pretendedly, by the depreciation of paper money.
When the Dispatches from Congress were read, the first question was whether I should accept the Commission or return it to Congress. The dangers of the Seas and the Sufferings of a Winter passage, although I had no experience of either, had little Weight with me. The British Men of War, were a more serious Consideration. The News of my Appointment, I had no doubt were known in Rhode Island, where a part of the British Navy and Army then lay, as soon as they were to me, and transmitted to England as soon as possible. I had every reason to expect, that Ships would be ordered to intercept the Boston from Rhode Island and from Hallifax, and that Intelligence would be secretly sent them, as accurately as possible of the time when she was to sail. For there always have been and still are Spies in America as well as in France, England and other Countries. The Consequence of a Capture would be a Lodging in New Gate. For the Spirit of Contempt as well as indignation and vindictive rage, with which the British Government had to that time conducted both the Controversy and the War forbade me to hope for the honor of an Appartment in the Tower as a State Prisoner. As their Act of Parliament would authorise them to try me in England for Treason, and proceed to execution too, I had no doubt they would go to the extent of their power, and practice upon me all the Cruelties of their punishment of Treason. My Family consisting of a dearly beloved Wife and four young Children, excited Sentiments of tenderness, which a Father and a Lover only can conceive, and which no language can express. And my Want of qualifications for the Office was by no means forgotten.
On the other hand my Country was in deep distress and in great danger. Her dearest Interest would be involved in the relations she might form with foreign nations. My own plan of these relations had { 5 } been deliberately formed and fully communicated to Congress, nearly two Years before. The Confidence of my Country was committed to me, without my Solicitation. My Wife who had always encouraged and animated me, in all antecedent dangers and perplexities, did not fail me on this Occasion: But she discovered an inclination to bear me Company with all our Children. This proposal however, she was soon convinced, was too hazardous and imprudent.
It was an Opinion generally prevailing in Boston that the Fisheries were lost forever. Mr. Isaac Smith, who had been more largely concerned in the Cod Fishery than any Man excepting Mr. Hooper and Mr. Lee of Marblehead, had spoken to me on the Subject, and said that whatever should be the termination of the War he knew We should never be allowed to fish again upon the Banks. My Practice as a Barrister in the Counties of Essex, Plymouth and Barnstable had introduced me to more Knowledge both of the Cod and whale fisheries and of their importance both to the commerce and Naval Power of this Country than any other Man possessed, who would be sent abroad if I refused, and this consideration had no small Weight in producing my determination. After much Agitation of mind and a thousand reveries unnecessary to be detailed, I resolved to devote my family and my Life to the Cause, accepted the Appointment and made preparation for the Voyage. A longer time than I expected was required to fit and man the Frigate. The News of my Appointment was whispered about, and General Knox came up to dine with me, at Braintree. The design of his Visit was As I soon perceived to sound me in relation to General Washington. He asked me what my Opinion of him was. I answered with the Utmost Frankness, that I thought him a perfectly honest Man, with an amiable and excellent heart, and the most important Character at that time among Us, for he was the Center of our Union. He asked the question, he said, because, as I was going to Europe it was of importance that the Generals Character should be supported in other Countries. I replied that he might be perfectly at his ease on the Subject for he might depend upon it, that both from principle and Affection, public and private I should do my Utmost to support his Character at all times and in all places, unless something should happen very greatly to alter my Opinion of him, and this I have done from that time to this. I mention this incident, because that insolent Blasphemer of things sacred and transcendent Libeller of all that is good Tom Paine has more than once asserted in Print, the scandalous Lye, that I was one of a Faction in the fall of the Year 1777, against General Washington. It is indeed a disgrace to the moral Character and { 6 } the Understanding of this Age, that this worthless fellow should be believed in any thing. But Impudence and Malice will always find Admirers.4
1. JA inserted this title at some point after he had filled up the first page of the MS with the opening passage of his autobiographical narrative as newly resumed. The next dozen sheets of the MS of Part Two have the title “Travels &c.” or “Travels,” with a date, at the head of each new four-page sheet; thereafter only dates, without captions, appear. In the present text dates are given only at the head of entries.
2. See JA 's Diary entry of 15 Nov. 1777 and note 1 there. The thirteen-month gap (Oct. 1776–Nov. 1777) between Parts One and Two of the Autobiography is very meagerly filled in by occasional Diary entries, but see especially the entry of 15 Sept. 1777 and note 1 there.
3. This was the initial stage of a case that became famous, not merely because it was in and out of the courts for almost eighteen years but because it raised complex and important issues respecting state, confederation, and federal jurisdiction in admiralty law and touched directly on the sensitive issue of state sovereignty—or so the aroused citizens and officials of the State of New Hampshire thought. As JA knew it, the case was that of Penhallow and Treadwell v. Brig Lusanna and Cargo. (By an understandable confusion the vessel's name was sometimes later written as Susanna or Susannah, and it is so found in modern references to the case. But the published notices of the original trial upon libel give it as “Lusannar,” adding only a touch of New England dialect to its correct form; see Portsmouth Freeman's Journal, 15, 29 Nov. 1777.) The Lusanna was owned by the wealthy Cape Cod merchant Elisha Doane and had been recently captured in highly compromising circumstances, after voyages in 1775–1777 from Plymouth to London, from there to Gibraltar, and back to Halifax, by the New Hampshire privateer McClary. Lusanna was brought into Portsmouth, libeled by its captors, and its trial fixed for December in the New Hampshire Maritime Court (established under certain resolves of the Continental Congress, 25 Nov. 1775, in which JA had probably had a part; see entries in his Autobiography, 23, 25 Nov. 1775 vol. 3:346–349, above). This court was presided over by Joshua Brackett, who was both a physician and a judge. JA was engaged to defend Lusanna's owner by Shearjashub Bourne, son-in-law of Doane and the man who, as supercargo, had conducted the vessel's complicated operations during the past two years (Bourne to JA , 6 Dec. 1777, Adams Papers; this letter originally enclosed “a Brief of facts” which has not been found). It was Bourne's contention that the vessel's British papers merely enabled him to masquerade as British, whereas he was really loyal to the American cause while vending whale oil in England and carrying supplies to British garrisons. The parties to the case were persons of some eminence, and the trial attracted a great deal of attention; see JA to AA , 15 Dec. 1777 (Adams Papers; JA-AA, Familiar Letters , p. 325–326); Stiles, Literary Diary , 2:236–239, which contains a vivid record of JA 's conversation during this visit to Portsmouth, together with references to the trial. JA presented his argument on 16 Dec., but the jury (for Congress' resolves recommending the establishment of local prize courts recommended jury trials therein) found for their neighbors the libelants. Thus ended JA 's part in the Lusanna case, because he soon afterward left for Europe. But the Doane party appealed to the New Hampshire Superior Court, which sustained the lower court, and from there to the Court of Appeals established by the Continental Congress in 1780, which in 1783 upset the previous verdicts and found for the Doanes. Through John Sullivan the captors of the Lusanna now appealed directly to Congress, and Thomas Jefferson wrote a report for a special committee that upheld the New Hampshire captors and courts, on the ground that “neither Congress nor any persons deriving authority from them had jurisdiction in the said case.” This report was long and fiercely contested in Congress and in the end not adopted. To skip several stages, the case finally came before the United States Supreme Court, which in 1795 found for representatives of JA 's original client Doane, on the broad ground that when the states yield exclusive powers to the United States the federal power becomes supreme.
JA 's own brief notes on the case in 1777 are among his legal papers (M/JA/6, Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 185). A bulky MS record of the case through 1783 is in DNA:RG 267, Revolutionary War Prize Cases (Microcopy No. 162, Case No. 30, designated in the pamphlet accompanying this microcopy as “Doane et al., Appellants, v. Treadwell and Penhallow, Libellants, and the Brig Susannah"). The captors' appeal to Congress and Jefferson's Report thereon, Jan. 1784, are printed in Jefferson, Papers , 6:447–455. The arguments of counsel and opinions of the justices in the U.S. Supreme Court are in Alexander J. Dallas, Reports of Cases ..., Phila., 1790–1807, 3:54–120. After the Supreme Court's decision had been rendered, an anonymous pamphlet was published that furnished facts concerning the history of the Lusanna and the long course of litigation over it that are not elsewhere in print, put the case of the aggrieved New Hampshire men, and denounced the high court's decision as a miscarriage of justice and an “indignity” to the independence of the State: [John Hale,] Statement of the Cause of the McClary Owners, and Doane & Doane's Administrators ..., Portsmouth, 1795. See also Charles Warren, The Supreme Court in United States History, Boston, 1922, 122–123.
4. Preceding two sentences omitted by CFA in his text. (Attention is called in Part Two of the Autobiography only to the more significant textual omissions and alterations made by CFA in the only text of JA 's Autobiography hitherto published.) The particular attacks by Paine that JA alludes to have not been identified, though Paine had often enough abused JA in print, most recently and perhaps most bitterly in a series of letters “To the Citizens of the United States” published in Washington and Philadelphia newspapers, 1802–1805; see Paine's Complete Works, ed. Philip S. Foner, N.Y., 1945, 2:915–917, 952–957.