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Browsing: Papers of John Adams, Volume 12





Minister to the Netherlands

On 19 April 1782, the seventh anniversary of “the shot heard round the world,” the States General of the Netherlands recognized the United States and admitted John Adams as minister from the United States. Adams, for whom it was a great personal triumph, wrote that it was “the most Signal Epocha, in the History of a Century.” 1 His diplomacy in the Netherlands since his arrival in August 1780 was vindicated.
Volume 12 opens in October 1781, as John Adams slowly regained his strength after a near-fatal illness struck him in August and left him unable to work for almost six weeks.2 His diplomacy apparently had reached a dead end. The States General and its constituent provincial states had not acted on his memorial of 19 April 1781,3 and seemed unlikely to do so in the near future. But the pace quickened when, after consulting with advisors, Adams visited the president of the States General on 9 January 1782 to demand a categorical reply to his memorial.4 A little over three months later, far sooner than Adams or anyone else expected, the States General recognized the United States. A selection of the many petitions from merchants and others supporting Adams’ request and all the resolutions by the provincial states and the States General to recognize the United States and admit Adams as minister appear in this volume.
While the primary focus of volume 12 is John Adams’ effort to convince the Dutch government and nation that their self-interest demanded recognition of the United States, other matters also required Adams’ attention—aid to American prisoners, Congress’ uncontrolled issuance of bills of exchange, the purchase of a building to house the American legation at The Hague, his first official meet• { 16 } ings with members of the Dutch government and the diplomatic corps, submission of a draft treaty of amity and commerce to the States General, renewed efforts to raise a Dutch loan, and a response to Britain’s first tentative inquiries about a peace settlement.
John Adams’ correspondence provides a clear, comprehensive record of his diplomacy in the Netherlands. Particularly important are the letters he exchanged with the newly appointed secretary for foreign affairs, Robert R. Livingston. Livingston’s first letter of 23 October 1781 signaled a decisive change in the conduct of American foreign policy. The new secretary was determined to be an active participant in the formulation and execution of foreign policy and to closely supervise the efforts of American diplomats in Europe. Livingston’s appointment meant that, for the first time, Adams received regular acknowledgments of his letters together with suggested courses of action. Livingston’s criticism of Adams’ seemingly unorthodox diplomacy prompted Adams to mount a spirited defense. From that defense is derived the sometimes pejorative term “militia diplomacy,” for Adams declared that “Your Veterans in Diplomaticks and in Affairs of State consider Us as a kind of Militia.”5 No less important are the letters exchanged by Adams and C. W. F. Dumas, who continued to act as Adams’ agent, translator, and advisor. French reservations about Adams’ diplomacy are brought into sharp focus in his correspondence with the French ambassador at The Hague, the Duc de La Vauguyon. Substantial portions of Adams’ commentary written years later when he published many of his letters in the Boston Patriot are included in the annotation and provide a valuable supplement to his correspondence.
John Adams’ major correspondents in this volume differ little from those in volumes 10 and 11, which also document his tenure in the Netherlands. Edmund Jenings in Brussels remained a source of intelligence on events in England and elsewhere. In the Netherlands, Adams continued to correspond with members of the Patriot or anti-stadholder party, such as François Adriaan Van der Kemp, Joan Derk van der Capellen tot den Pol, Jean Luzac, and Antoine Marie Cerisier. They, together with bankers such as Hendrik Bicker, Nicolaas and Jacob van Staphorst, and Jean de Neufville, advised Adams on how to proceed in pursuit of recognition and a loan. Adams persevered in his efforts to win the hearts and minds of the British, Dutch, and other Europeans to the American cause through { 17 } contributions to various publications, most notably Le politique hollandais and the Gazette d’Amsterdam. Adams missed the presence of his friend and advisor Francis Dana, but Dana was a valuable source of intelligence from his post in St. Petersburg. Other familiar names among Adams’ correspondents are the Marquis de Lafayette, Samuel Adams, John Bondfield, Joshua Johnson, and John Jay.
Adams continued his extensive correspondence with Benjamin Franklin. As in the past, most of their letters dealt with the precarious financial position of the United States in Europe owing to the Continental Congress’ willingness to issue bills of exchange without considering how its diplomats would pay them and France’s increasing reluctance to supply additional funds. But after the North ministry’s fall in March 1782, the focus of their letters increasingly turned to the questions of when and under what conditions Anglo-American peace negotiations could take place. The ensuing correspondence between Adams and Franklin is notable for its forthrightness and makes it clear that the two men differed little regarding the prospects for peace negotiations and the basis upon which they would be undertaken.
In the crisis that followed the British defeat at Yorktown and fall of the North ministry, Thomas Digges and Henry Laurens were dispatched by the earl of Shelburne to the Netherlands to ascertain Adams’ position on negotiations. Adams told both men that he would not and could not act alone and that a negotiated peace was impossible without prior recognition of American independence and the notification of France. Digges, however, informed Shelburne that Adams had implied that a settlement short of independence, which would separate the United States from its ally France, might be possible. This was in accord with the ministry’s hopes, but they were soon dashed by Laurens’ report to Shelburne on his own discussions with Adams.6
As the American representative in the Netherlands, John Adams received proposals and appeals from a variety of correspondents. One such group was composed of American prisoners, both those still in British prisons and those who had escaped penniless to the Continent. Adams was concerned about their plight and aided many of these unfortunates, often out of his own pocket. His assistance to { 18 } one group, sons of Braintree neighbors, brought a sharp letter of rebuke from another prisoner, Isaac Collins, who thought himself slighted.7 As Dutch recognition became a certainty, Adams received a flood of letters requesting his assistance in facilitating trade with and immigration to America, as well as congratulating him on the success of his efforts. One entrepreneur produced gloves made from Dutch and American wool to commemorate the occasion and the editor of a two-volume edition of American constitutions dedicated one of the volumes to John Adams. 8
As April turned into May, John Adams could look back on his accomplishments of the previous year with satisfaction. In April 1781 he had been a private person of no standing, using whatever means were available to pursue a seemingly impossible goal. At the end of April 1782 he was the U.S. minister to the Netherlands, soon to occupy the new American legation at The Hague, a full-fledged member of the diplomatic corps. The States General had received him and he had been presented to the Prince and Princess of Orange. He had submitted a draft treaty of amity and commerce to the States General for its consideration and was making progress towards obtaining a loan. Against formidable opponents, Adams had gained a “Signal Tryumph” for the American cause in the Netherlands, and would forever believe that this triumph represented the pinnacle of his diplomatic career. 9

John Adams and His Letterbooks

During the seven months covered by this volume, John Adams used five Letterbooks numbered 13, 14, 16, 17, and 18, which appear respectively on Reel Nos. 101, 102, 104, 105, and 106 of the Adams Papers microfilm edition. Detailed descriptions of Letterbooks 13 and 14, which contain copies of public and private letters written between 14 August 1780 and 26 April 1782, appear in the Introduction to volumes 9 and 10. Letterbooks 16 and 17, containing mostly official letters written between 8 March 1781 and 29 March 1782, are described in the Introduction to volume 11.10
Letterbook 18 is entitled “Holland Vol. 3.” On its cover Adams { 19 } wrote “No 18. Holland 1782 From March 31. 1782 Paris 1783 From August 10. 1783.” The first 109 pages contain various documents written between 31 March and mid-August 1782 that concern Dutch recognition of the United States and John Adams’ initial undertakings as the American minister at The Hague. Included are letters to the secretary for foreign affairs, the instruments by which the provinces and the States General recognized the United States, and descriptions of the governments of the various provinces. After a gap of 111 blank pages, there is a 40-page section containing letters written between mid-August and 12 October 1782 that concern events in the Netherlands and the impending Anglo-American peace negotiations. The next 55 pages consist of letters written at Amsterdam and Paris between 23 July and 14 September 1783. The final 48 pages of the Letterbook are blank.

Notes on Editorial Method

The editors of the Papers of John Adams are guided by the editorial principles set down in the Notes on Editorial Method in previous volumes, especially volumes 1 (p. xxxi–xxxv), 9 (p. xx–xxiii), and 11 (p. xx–xxi). Three changes in the textual policy, for this and subsequent volumes in the Adams Papers, that incorporate a slightly more literal rendering of the text also should be noted:
Capitalization of proper names and geographical terms follows that in the manuscript.
Abbreviations and contractions are preserved as found throughout the document unless confusion or misunderstanding may result. The ampersand (&) is retained in the form of &c. (for etc.) and in the names of firms; elsewhere it is rendered as and.
Punctuation following all abbreviations and contractions is rendered as in the manuscript.
It should also be noted that volume 12 is the first in which a substantial number of documents in a foreign language other than French have been considered for inclusion. French documents satisfying the general criteria for selectivity in the Papers of John Adams have been routinely translated and printed because John Adams could read French. He could not read Dutch or German, however, leading the editors to consider the basis on which such documents will be included. It has been decided that letters or documents in a language that John Adams could not read must meet one or more of the following conditions: evidence exists that Adams obtained either an English or French translation; he replied or otherwise responded to a letter or document; or the letter or document has an intrinsic value that demands its publication.
Volume 12 of the Papers of John Adams chronicles what was, at least in John Adams’ mind, the most important phase of his diplomatic career. But it is not the only documentary source for that period that is derived from the Adams Papers. The 316 letters and documents printed and 74 items omitted from this volume must be considered in conjunction with the 62 letters for the same period printed in Adams Family Correspondence , 4:223–319. Those letters provide additional information on the progress of John Adams’ efforts in the Netherlands, the actions of Congress, Charles Adams’ return to America on the South Carolina, John Quincy Adams’ residence at St. Petersburg with Francis Dana, and life in the United States during wartime. Abigail Adams remained John Adams’ most important correspondent, but see also the letters he exchanged with John Quincy Adams, Richard Cranch, John Thaxter, William Jackson, Isaac Smith, Cotton Tufts, and Benjamin Waterhouse. Finally, John Adams’ Diary and Autobiography , especially 3:1–5, contains important details on Adams’ activities in the wake of Dutch recognition of the United States, and the Diary of John Quincy Adams , 1:102–124, chronicles the younger Adams’ residence at St. Petersburg with Francis Dana from January through April 1782.
1. To Benjamin Rush, 22 April 1782, below.
2. For an account of JA ’s illness, see JA to Benjamin Franklin, 25 Aug. 1781, note 1 (vol. 11:469–470).
3. Vol. 11:272–282.
4. Address to the president of the States General, [ ante 9 Jan. 1782 ], and note 1, below.
5. To Robert R. Livingston, 21 Feb. 1782, below.
6. For JA ’s conversations with Thomas Digges and Henry Laurens on 21 March and 15 April 1782 respectively, see Thomas Digges’ letter of 2 April 1782, note 1; Henry Laurens’ memorandum of [ post 18 April 1782 ]; and JA ’s letters of 26 March and 16 April 1782 to Benjamin Franklin, all below.
7. From Isaac Collins, March 1782, below.
8. See letters from Felix & Fils and Herman van Bracht of 21 and 30 April respectively, both below.
9. To Livingston, 16 May 1782 ( LbC , Adams Papers).
10. John Adams and His Letterbooks, vol. 9:xix–xx; vol. 11:xx–xxi.
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