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Browsing: Papers of John Adams, Volume 9


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Docno: ADMS-06-09-02-0282-0002

Author: Adams, John
Recipient: Franklin, Benjamin
Date: 1780-06-26

To Benjamin Franklin

[salute] Sir

I have read over all the Papers in the Bundle left with me, numbered to thirty seven. I have also read the three Queries stated to me.
These Queries I apprehend can legally be answered only by Con• { 476 } gress or a Court Martial; and therefore it would be improper in me to give any answer to them because the Papers will appear before Congress or a Court Martial; who can judge of them better than I. They will also hear Captain Landais which I cannot do. My Opinion therefore would have no Weight either before the one or the other Tribunal or supposing it to be admitted to be read and to have any Weight it ought not to be given, because I cannot be legally either a Witness or a Judge.
I cannot however think that the Instructions of the Navy Board to Captain Landais to obey the orders of the Minister Plenipotentiary, contain Authority to remove him, without his Consent,1 from the Command of a Ship committed to him by Congress, because the Navy Board themselves had not as I apprehend such Authority.
Since those Instructions were given, as I was informed at Boston, Congress have given to the Navy Board Power, upon any Misbehaviour of an Officer, to suspend him, stating to Congress at the same Time a regular Charge against him. But I do not find among these Papers such Authority given to any Body in Europe, nor do I find that any regular Charge against Captain Landais has been stated to Congress.2
There has seldom if ever been in France a sufficient Number of Officers at a time to constitute a Court Martial, and our Code of Admiralty Laws is so inadequate to the Government of Frigates for any Length of Time in Europe, that it is presumed Congress in future will either omit to put Frigates under any direction in Europe, or make some Additions to the Laws of the Admiralty adapted to such Cases—for there is an End of all Order, Discipline and Decency, when disputes arise and there is no Tribunal to decide them, and when Crimes are committed or alledged, and there is no Authority to try or to punish them.3
I have not observed among these Papers any clear Evidence of Captain Landais Consent to leave the Command of the Ship and therefore upon the whole, rather than bring the present disputes about the Alliance to any critical and dangerous decision here, where the Law is so much at a loose and there can be no legal Tribunal to decide, I should think your Excellency would be most likely to be justified in pursuing the mildest measures, by transmitting all the Papers and Evidence to Congress or the Navy Board for a Trial by a Court Martial and ordering the commanding Officer of the Alliance with the Stores and Convoy as soon as possible to America.4
{ 477 }
I give this opinion to your Excellency, to make what use of it you think proper.5
I have the Honour to be, with great Respect, sir your most obedient and humble servant.
[signed] John Adams
RC in John Thaxter's hand except for the date, final paragraph, and signature (PPAmP: Franklin Papers); endorsed: “June 26 1780. Answer to Queries. recd 11 1/2 a.m. June 26. John Adams.” In the Franklin Papers the recipient's copy is accompanied by an MS containing the three questions put to JA by Franklin. This may have been the draft from which the copy received by JA was made ([ante 26 June], above). Dft, with date in John Thaxter's hand (Adams Papers); endorsed: “My Answer to Dr. F's Queries.” LbC in John Thaxter's hand (Adams Papers).
1. In the draft the preceding three words were interlined.
2. For Pierre Landais' orders of Dec. 1778, mentioned in this and the previous paragraph, see Franklin's letter of [ante 26 June] (above). JA is correct that no authorization had been given to any person in Europe to suspend or remove a naval officer from his command by any act of Congress and that no formal charges had been lodged against Landais in America. However, congressional resolutions adopted in May and Aug. 1778, prior to the orders issued to Landais, had authorized the Navy Boards to institute courts of inquiry and courts-martial to deal with the loss of naval vessels and other infractions and to suspend the accused officer from command (JCC, 11: 469–471, 814).
3. For JA's further thoughts regarding the regulation of the navy and his recommendations to Congress, see his letter of 29 June to the president of Congress (No. 88, below).
4. JA's recommendation here likely resulted in Franklin's letter of 27 June, addressed “To the commanding Officer for the Time being of the Frigate Alliance, belonging to the United States of North America,” ordering Landais to take on board the Alliance the supplies awaiting transport and to carry them to Philadelphia (PCC, No. 193, f. 667). No letter has been found, however, from Benjamin Franklin to anyone in America enclosing the documents that were sent to JA for his examination. Indeed, the court-martial leading to Landais' expulsion from the navy resulted from his actions during the return of the Alliance to America, not his earlier conduct during the engagement between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis or his displacement of John Paul Jones as captain of the Alliance.
5. In the draft, which does not contain the final closing paragraph, this sentence was followed by the following canceled passage “I shall not communicate it to any Body on Board the Alliance, or elsewhere, not even to Congress.”
Cite web page as: Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed.C. James Taylor. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2014.
http://www.masshist.org/apde2/