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Browsing: Papers of John Adams, Volume 9

Docno: ADMS-06-09-02-0054

Author: Adams, John
Recipient: Huntington, Samuel
Recipient: President of Congress
Date: 1780-03-23

To the President of Congress, No. 23

[salute] Sir

I have the Honor to inclose the English Papers of the eleventh thirteenth and fourteenth of March. The Courier de L'Europe and the Hague, Leiden and Amsterdam Gazettes.
We are in hourly Expectation of great News from Holland, Ireland, England, Spain, and above all from America and the West Indies. I have not a Letter from America, since I left it, except one from my Family of the tenth of December;1 and indeed, although several Vessels have arrived, I can hear of no Letters or News.2
By the English Papers Congress will percieve the violent Fermentation in England, which has arisen to such an Height, as to produce a Congress3 in Fact, and it will soon be so in Name. The Proceedings in the House of Commons on the fourteenth, which were terminated by a Resolution of the Committee of the whole House, to abolish the Board of Trade and Plantations, carried against the Ministry after a very long and warm Debate by a Majority of Eight Voices,4 is not only the most extraordinary Vote which has passed in the present Reign, but it leads to very extensive Consequences.
I believe it is very true, that this Board has been the true Cause of the Quarrel of Great Britain against the Colonies, and therefore may be considered as a natural Object of national Resentment; but a { 81 } Resentment of this kind alone, would not probably have produced this Effect.
Whether it is the near Approach of an Election, that has intimidated the Members of the House of Commons; or whether the Committees, Petitions, Associations and Congress have alarmed them; or whether the Nation is convinced that America is indeed lost forever, and consequently that the Board will in future be useless, I dont know.
Be this as it may, the English Nation, and even the Irish and Scotch Nations—all parts of the World will draw this Inference from it, that even in the Opinion of the House of Commons America is lost. The free and virtuous Citizens of America,5 and even the slavish and vicious, if there are any still remaining of this Character, under the Denomination of Tories, must be convinced by this Vote, passed in the Heyday of their Joy for the Sucesses of Admiral Rodney's Fleet, that the House of Commons despair of ever regaining America. The Nations, subject to the House of Bourbon, cannot fail to put the same Interpretation upon this Transaction. Holland, and all the Northern Powers, with the Empress of Russia at their Head, who are all greatly irritated against England for their late Violences against the innocent Commerce of Neutral Powers, will draw the same Consequences. The Politicians of Great Britain are too enlightened in the History of Nations, and the Rise and Progress of Causes and Effects in the political World, not to see that all these Bodies of People will, in Consequence of this Vote, consider the Colonies as given up for lost by the House of Commons; and they are too well instructed not to know the important Consequences that follow, from having such points as these, thus settled among the Nations. I cannot therefore but consider this Vote, and the other respecting the Secretary of State for the American Department, which arose almost to a Ballance as a most important Declaration of the Sense of the Nation.
The first probable Consequence of it, will be one further Attempt, by offering some specious Terms, which they know we cannot in Justice, in Honor, in Conscience accept, to deceive seduce and divide America, throw all into Confusion there, and by this Means gain an Opportunity to govern.
There is nothing more astonishing than the Inconsistencies of the Patriots in England. Those, who are most violent against the Ministry, are not for making Peace with France and Spain, but they wish to allure America into a seperate Peace, and persuade her to join them against the House of Bourbon. One would think it impossible, that { 82 } one Man of Sense in the World could seriously believe, that we could thus basely violate our Faith, thus unreasonably quarrel with our best Friends, thus madly attach ourselves to our bitterest Enemies. But thus it is.
Sir George Saville threw out in the House, that he wished to carry home to his Constituents the News of an Accommodation with America, and Mr David Hartley has given Notice of his Intention to make a Motion relative to Us.6 But I confess I have no Expectations. Mr Hartley's Motions and Speeches have never made any great Fortune in the House, nor been much attended to; from whence I conclude, if the present great Leaders of Opposition in the House, were seriously disposed to do any thing towards a Pacification, which we could attend to, they would not suffer Mr. Hartley to have the Honor of making the Motion.
The Heads of many People run upon a Truce with America, and Mr. Hartley's Motion may tend this Way: but a Truce with America cannot be made without a Peace with France and Spain; and would America accept of such a Truce? Give Great Britain time to encroach and fortify upon all our Frontiers? To send Emissaries into the States and sow the Seeds of Discord? To rise out of her present exhausted and ruined Condition? Suffer France and Spain to relax? Wait for Alterations by the Deaths of Princes, or the Changes in the Characters of Princes or Ministers in the System of Europe? I ask these Questions, that Congress may give me Instructions if they think necessary. At present I dont believe that my Powers are sufficient to agree to a Truce, if it was proposed; nor do I believe it would be for our Interest or Safety to agree to it, if I had. I dont mean however to give any decided Opinion upon such a great Question, in this hasty Letter. I am open to Conviction, and shall obey the Instructions of Congress with the most perfect Respect.7

[salute] I have the Honor to be, with the Greatest Respect & Esteem, Sir, your most obedient, and most humble Servant,

[signed] John Adams
RC in John Thaxter's hand (PCC, No. 84, I, f. 345–348); endorsed: “Letter from honb J Adams Paris March 23. 1780 Read July 24. 1780 Referred to com of foreign Affairs to report Aug 3d. 1780 Quire as to a Truce Referred to M Lovell, M McKean, M Henry, M Madison, M Scott.” LbC (Adams Papers;) notation: “No. 23d delivered Coll. Fleury 24th. March 1780.”
2. This and the following six paragraphs were published in various American newspapers, including the Pennsylvania Gazette of 26 July and the Boston Gazette of 7 August.
3. JA is referring to the meeting of delegates from various county and city associations at London's St. Alban's Tavern between 11 and 20 March. On 29 Feb. circular letters signed by Christopher Wyvill, the driving force be• { 83 } hind the association movement, were sent to county and municipal associations calling on them to send delegates to a meeting for the purpose of discussing a plan of association. This assembly, attended by representatives from only eleven counties and four cities, agreed to recommend the formation of a general association that would strive to promote economical reform, diminish the Crown's influence, add at least 100 county members to the House of Commons, and institute annual parliaments. The general association envisioned by Wyvill and proposed by the St. Alban's meeting never materialized, largely because of the ideological gap between the relatively conservative members of the county associations and the radicals controlling the counterpart organizations in the cities, most notably London. The county members strongly supported economical reform, but were much less interested in parliamentary reform, particularly the institution of annual parliaments. When it became clear that the radicals in and about London saw the cause of parliamentary reform as of equal if not greater importance than control of expenditures, the willingness of the county associations to join an umbrella organization diminished (Ian R. Christie, Wilkes, Wyvill and Reform, London, 1962, p. 89–95, 99–115).
4. The abolition of the Board of Trade formed part of Edmund Burke's economical reform bill. The debate on the provision began on 13 March and ended the next morning at quarter past two with the vote reported by JA (Parliamentary Hist., 21:233–278). The victory marked the high tide of support for Burke's proposal, which was finally nullified when the entire bill was withdrawn.
5. The phrase was taken from the title of Silas Deane's address “To the Free and Virtuous Citizens of America” (Pennsylvania Packet, 5 Dec. 1778), which JA saw as “one of the most wicked and abominable Productions that ever sprung from an human Heart” (JA, Diary and Autobiography, 2:345). Believing that the address undermined the ability of Congress and its representatives in Europe to conduct foreign policy, JA had even written to Vergennes on 11 Feb. 1779 in an effort to counteract its effects (vol. 7:401; 8: index).
6. For the statements by Saville and Hartley, see Edmund Jenings' letter of 18 March, and note 10 (above).
7. As the endorsement indicates, this letter was read on 24 July and referred to the Committee for Foreign Affairs. On 3 Aug., however, the letter was transferred to another committee, composed of James Lovell, Thomas McKean, John Henry Jr., James Madison, and John Morin Scott, that had been formed on 1 Aug. to consider JA's letter of 24 March (No. 24, below; JCC, 17:654, 691, 685). Additional instructions regarding a truce were adopted by Congress on 18 Oct., and received by Francis Dana at Paris on or about 10 Jan. 1781, but may not have reached JA until mid-April. For the delay, see the descriptive note to the instructions of 18 Oct. (below).

Docno: ADMS-06-09-02-0055

Author: Adams, John
Recipient: Huntington, Samuel
Recipient: President of Congress
Date: 1780-03-24

To the President of Congress, No. 24

[salute] Sir

Mr. Burke's Bill not being as yet public, we are not yet informed of the Extent of it. But as it already appears, that it strikes at the Department of Secretary of State for America, at the Board of Trade, there seems to be little Reason to doubt that it goes further and strikes at the American Board of Commissioners, at all the American Judges of Admiralty, Governors of Provinces, Secretaries and Custom House Officers of all Denominations—at least if this should not be found to be a part of the Bill, there are stronger Reasons if possible for abolishing this whole System of Iniquity, together with all the Pensions granted to the Refugees from America, than even for taking { 84 } away the Board of Trade; and from several late Paragraphs in the Papers, and from Mr. Fox's severe Observations in the House of Commons upon Governor Hutchinson, calling him in Substance, “The Firebrand” that lighted up all the Fire between the two Countries, it seems pretty clear, that it is in Contemplation to take away all these Salaries and Pensions.1
If such a Measure should take place, exiled as these persons are from the Country which gave them Birth, but which they most ungratefully have endeavoured to enslave, they will become melancholy Monuments of divine Vengeance against such unnatural and impious Behaviour.
Nevertheless, as these Persons are numerous, and have some Friends, in England as well as in America, where they had once much Property, there is a probability, I think, that whenever or wherever Negotiations for Peace may be commenced, they and their Estates now almost universally confiscated, will not be forgotten: but much Pains and Art will be employed to stipulate for them in the Treaty, both a Restoration of their Property, and a Right to return as Citizens of the States to which they formerly belonged. It is very possible, however, that before a Treaty shall be made, or even Negotiations commenced, these Gentlemen will become so unpopular and odious, that the People of England would be pleased with their Sufferings and Punishment: but it is most probable that the Court will not abandon them very easily.
I should therefore be very happy to have the explicit Instructions of Congress upon this Head, whether I am to agree, in any Case whatsoever, to an Article which shall admit either of their Return, or the Restoration of their forfeited Estates. There are Sentiments of Humanity and of Forgiveness which plead on one Side, there are Reasons of State and political Motives, among which the danger of admitting such mischievous Persons as Citizens is not the least considerable, which argue on the other. I shall obey the Instructions of Congress with the utmost pleasure; or if for any Reasons they choose to leave it at Discretion, if I should ever have the Opportunity, I shall determine it, without listening to any Passions of my own of Compassion or Resentment according to my best Judgment of the public Good.
There is another Point of very great Importance, which I am persuaded will be aimed at by the English Ministers, I am sure it will by the People of England, whenever Terms of Peace shall be talked of. For facilitating the Return of Commerce, they will wish to have { 85 } it stipulated by the Treaty, that the Subjects of Great Britain shall have the Rights of Citizens in America, and the Citizens of the United States the Rights of Subjects in the British Dominions. Some of the Consequences of such an Agreement to them and to Us, are obvious, and very important: but they are so numerous, and it is so difficult to determine, whether the Benefits or Inconveniences prevail, that I should be sorry to have so great a Question left to my determination: if however, contrary to my Inclinations, it should fall to my Lot to decide it, without Instructions, it shall be decided according to my Conscience and the best Lights I have.2

[salute] I have the Honor to be, with a Sincere Attachment, Sir, your most obedient and most humble Servant,

[signed] John Adams
RC in John Thaxter's hand (PCC, No. 84, I, f. 349–351); endorsed: “No. 24 Letter from John Adams Esqr March 24th: 1780 receivd July 31st: 1780 Two Points for Instructions Read <J> Aug 1. Referred to M Lovell M McKean M Henry M Madison M Scott.” LbC (Adams Papers.)
1. Edmund Burke's economical reform bill abolished the third secretary of state, for the colonies, and the Board of Trade and Plantations, but it did not seek to examine or eliminate existing pensions, only to reduce the funds available for future pensions. On 2 March, during the debates over whether to consider Burke's bill on that day or postpone it until the following Wednesday, Charles James Fox reportedly declared that “he hoped, that as the thirteen colonies were now actually lost, . . . the public was to have a great saving, and he hoped to hear that the pensions given to the American governors would be discontinued, and particularly that granted to governor Hutchinson, who had been the fore-runner and very firebrand of the rebellion on the other side of the Atlantic” (Parliamentary Hist., 21:111–112, 118–122, 153; Ian R. Christie, Wilkes, Wyvill and Reform, London, 1962, p. 87–88).
2. For Congress' additional instructions to JA in response to his questions, see its resolution of 18 Oct. (below), and JA's letter of 23 March to the president of Congress, and note 7 (No. 23, above).
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, 2018.