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Browsing: Papers of John Adams, Volume 7


Search for a response to this letter.

Docno: ADMS-06-07-02-0035

Author: Franklin, Benjamin
Author: Lee, Arthur
Author: Adams, John
Author: First Joint Commission at Paris
Recipient: Sartine, Antoine Raymond Jean Gualbert Gabriel de
Date: 1778-09-17

The Commissioners to Gabriel de Sartine

[salute] Sir

We have this Morning the Honour of your Excellencys Letter of the Sixteenth, relative to the french Brigantine the Isabella retaken, by the American Privateer the General Mifflin, from a Guernsey Privateer, after having been Eighty Hours in his Hands.
We have the Honour to agree perfectly, with your Excellency, in your Sentiments of the Justice and Policy of the Principle of Reciprocity between the two Nations, and that this Principle requires that French1 Ships of War or Privateers Should have the Same Advantage <in such> in Cases of Rescues <or> and Recaptures, that the American<s> Privateers enjoy in France.
We are So unfortunate, at present, as to have no Copy of any of the Laws of the United States, relative to such Cases, and are not able to recollect with Precision, the Regulations in any of them:2 But We are informed by Captain McNiell, that by the Law of Massachusetts Bay, if a Vessell is retaken within 24 Hours, one Third goes to the ReCaptors, after twenty four hours, untill 72 hours, one half, after Seventy two Hours, and before 96 Hours, Three Quarters, and after Ninty Six hours the whole.3
All that We have Power to do in this Case, is to convey to Congress a Copy of your Excellencys Letter, and of our Answer,4 and We have { 47 } no dout that Congress will readily recommend to the several States <similar> to make Laws giving to French Privateers, ether the Same Advantages that their own Privateers have in such Cases in their own Ports, or the Same Advantages that the French Privateers injoy in the Ports of this Kingdom, in such Cases, by the Ordinance of the King. And We wish your Excellency would signify to Us, which would probably be most agreable to his Majesty.
If the Case of this Vessell must come before the public Tribunals, upon the Simple Question, whether she was retaken from a Pirate or not, that Tribunal We doubt not will decide, with Impartiality: but We cannot refrain from expressing to your Excellency, that We think the original owner, will be ill advised if he should put himself to this Trouble and Expence.
We presume not to dispute the Wisdom of the ordinance of the King which gives to the Recaptor from a Pirate, only one third; because We know not the Species of Pirates which was then in Contemplation, nor the Motifs to that Regulation. But your Excellency, will permit Us to Observe, that this Regulation is so different from the general Practice and from the Spirit of the Law of Nations, that there is no doubt it ought to receive a Strict Interpretation, and that it is incumbent on the original Proprietor to make it very evident, that the first Captor was a Pirate.
In the Case in Question, the Guernsey Privateer, certainly had a Commission from the King of Great Britain, to cruise against American Vessells at least. But admitting for Argument Sake, that he had no Commission at all. The Question arises, whether the Two Nations of <England an> France and England, are at War or not. And altho there has been no formal Declaration of War on either side, yet there seems to be little doubt that the two Nations have been at actual War at least from the Time of the mutual Recal of Embassadors, if not from the Moment of the British Kings, most Warlike speech to his Parliament.
Now if it is Admitted that the two Nations are at War, We believe it would be without a Precedent in the History of Jurisprudence, to adjudge the Subjects of any Nation to be guilty of Piracy for any Act of Hostility committed at sea against the subjects of another Nation at War.
Such a Principle would for what We see conclude, all the Admirals and other officers of both Nations, guilty of the same offence.
It is not the Want of a Commission as We humbly conceive, that makes a Man guilty of Piracy: But committing Hostilites against human Kind, at least against a Nation not at War.
{ 48 }
Commissions are <the best kind> but one Species of Evidence, that Nations are at War: But there are many other Ways of proving the same Thing.5
Subjects and Citizens, it is true, are forbidden by most civilized Nations to arm Vessells for cruising against even Ennemies, without a Commission from the sovereign: but it is upon Penalty of Confiscation or some other perhaps milder Punishment, not on the Penalties of Piracy.
Moreover, perhaps Prizes made upon Ennemies, by subjects or Citizens without Commission from their sovereigns, may belong to the sovereign not to the Captor, by the Laws of most Nations, but perhaps no Nation ever punished as Pirates their own subjects or Citizens, for making a Prize from an Ennemy without a Commission.
We beg your Excellencys Pardon for detaining you so long, from objects of more Importance, and have the Honour to be
1. The following four words were interlined by Benjamin Franklin for insertion here.
2. For the current and later regulations adopted by congress concerning recaptures, see Sartine's letter of the 16th, note 6 (above).
3. No act passed by the Massachusetts General Court with provisions such as those described by Capt. McNeill has been found. However, “An Act for Amendment of ... 'An Act for Encouraging the Fixing Out Armed Vessels ... ,'” adopted on 13 April 1776 (Mass., Province Laws , 5:476), contained essentially the same language as the resolution on recaptures approved by the Continental Congress on 5 Dec. 1775 (see note 2).
4. The copies were enclosed in the Commissioners' letter of 7 Nov. to the president of the congress (below).
5. The following two paragraphs were written after the closing and marked for insertion at this point.

Docno: ADMS-06-07-02-0036

Author: MacCreery, William
Recipient: Adams, John
Date: 1778-09-17

From William MacCreery

[salute] Dear Sir

I did my self the Honor to write you a few Lines from Nantes about 8 days ago,1 and left it on Monday last. On my arrival here the day before yesterday, I found several Letters from Baltimore for me—the latest dates were the 13th July. They contain nothing new but they—with some Virginia Papers down to the 17th. of the same Month give me much more pleasure and satisfaction than the Copy of a Letter which I saw 'tother day from Mr. Simeon D. to his Brother Silas which was intercepted by the English and publish'd in one of the London Evening Papers.2 I thank God that it does not seem in the least probably by my Accounts that we are to trust in any wise to “the Chapter of accidents for further successes.” On the contrary, the People are much { 49 } more United in that Country than they ever were, the most obstinate Tory being now clearly convinced of the Wickedness and weakness of Great Britain. It is not to me surprizing that a few Men in whatever Station shou'd be call'd to account by Congress. It must be expected that some, out of our many and various characterised leaders will deserve it, and I hope that most Respectable Body will ever be forward in calling to account any and every Person whatever who is or shall be amenable for any Crime or supposed Crime, more espescially when it seems to concern the whole community. I assure you, that the Letter above refer'd to, has given me much uneasiness. It does however, afford me one comforting reflection, that the Americans will see it, and if there be any justice in what it contains respecting them, hope they will coolly reflect upon the impropriety of their conduct, and leave it no more in the power of Man to scandalize them so in Europe. If it be not so, hope the author will be sufficiently frightened to prevent his attempting a thing of the sort in future.
There arrived here last Night a Brigantine with 1[40?] hhds Tobacco from Baltimore. My Letters by her are dated the 20th. July and mention no news. I saw the Captain this morning who tells me they had a very long passage, and cou'd not tell me any thing whatever interesting to you or the Public. Another Prize of the Genl. Mifflin's is arrived here last night from the Baltick. I saw two more of hers at La Rochelle and there is in all about 6 come in for her.
I have the Honor to be with the greatest Respect Dear Sir Your very Humble Servt.
[signed] Will M.Creery
RC (Adams Papers); addressed: “Honorable J. Adams at Passÿ near Paris”; docketed: “Mr. McCreery. ans Sept. 25.”; by CFA : “M. McCreery Septr 17th 1778.”
1. Presumably his letter of 12 Sept. (above).
2. The Deane Papers (2:465–468) contains what is apparently an extract of the intercepted letter, undated and listed as having been “published in Lloyd's Morning Post, August 26, 1778.” The letter deals primarily with Simeon Deane's efforts to expand the Deane brothers' commercial interests, but it also goes into some detail about the opposition to Silas at the Continental Congress, particularly the role of the “two Adams's.” The quotation given by MacCreery below, apparently from the letter as printed in the newspaper, does not appear in the version printed in the Deane Papers , See also Adams Family Correspondence , 3:186–188.