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Browsing: Papers of John Adams, Volume 10

Docno: ADMS-06-10-02-0020-0001-0002-0002

Author: Vergennes, Charles Gravier, Comte de
Recipient: Adams, John
Date: 1780-07-25
Enclosure: The Comte de Vergennes to John Adams: A Translation
Letter written to the Comte de Vergennes by Mr. Adams, 17 July 1780Observations on Mr. Adams' letter of 17 July 1780
1. I should have been very happy . . . to communicate them. I. The reasons which have determined the Comte de Vergennes to give this advice to Mr. Adams are so simple as to appear preemptory: 1. To be concerned with a treaty of commerce before having made peace is to be concerned with decorating a building before laying its foundation. 2. In the situation in which America presently finds herself with regard to England, to announce to that power that its system of tyranny, its cruelties and perfidy, has been forgotten is to display too much weakness, or at least too much simplicity, and invites it to believe that the Americans have an irresistible predilection for England, and to strengthen its opinion that the American patriots will submit through weariness or dread of the preponderant influence of the tories. 3. To propose a commercial treaty, which must be founded on confidence and a union equivalent to an alliance, at a time when the war rages in all its fury and the court of London wishes to ruin or enslave America, is but to give credit to the opinion, which all Europe entertains conformable to the assertions of the English ministers, that the United States incline towards a defection and that they will be faithful to their engagements with France only until such time as Great Britain furnishes a pretext for breaking them.
2. Your excellency will recollect that . . . the court of London. II. One may be furnished with plenipotentiary powers that are eventual without being obliged to disclose beforehand the circumstances under which they may be used. This occurs daily. Mr. Adams is charged with three very distinct commissions: 1. To take part in the future peace negotiations. 2. To conclude a commercial treaty { 39 } with Great Britain. 3. To represent the United States at the court of London. It requires no great stroke of genius to show that these three objects cannot be accomplished simultaneously, nor that the last two cannot serve to advance the first. Before anything else, it is necessary to obtain from England a recognition of American independence, and that recognition must serve as the basis for a peace treaty. Until this is achieved, Mr. Adams cannot talk of a commercial treaty. To propose one while the court of London flatters itself with hopes of subduing America, and to that end is making the most strenuous efforts, would in its eyes propose a chimera, a demarche that it would regard with derision. It would be the same if one were to speak now of a minister plenipotentiary from the United States intended to reside near his Britannic Majesty.
Therefore, the only power which circumstances permit Mr. Adams to announce is that which authorizes him to take a part in the peace negotiation. The other two powers can be of value only after peace is concluded. At least it would be useless to produce them at present and consequently Mr. Adams will not depart from their purpose and nature by concealing them from the court of London. Although the Comte de Vergennes is unacquainted with Mr. Adams' instructions,1 he is persuaded that they are conformable to the foregoing reflections and do not direct him to immediately communicate his powers relative to a treaty of commerce any more than they order him to make a separate peace with Great Britain. This opinion is founded on that which the King's ministry has of the wisdom, prudence and fidelity of Congress.
I think also that . . . to resist them, if hostile. III. One can observe that the English ministry would regard such a communication as ridiculous, so that it would be to willfully delude oneself to expect that it would induce them to enter into negotiations or say anything more than is contained in the resolutions of Parliament: namely that they will listen to and forgive the Americans when they shall have acknowledged their former allegiance. But, at the very least, it would be superfluous to draw from them such a response, for the United States has no need for such an answer to know the present sentiments of the court of London, and even less to prepare with councils and armies to resist them. It is astonishing to speak of preparing councils and armies when the war is raging in all its fury, when it has now lasted nearly six years, and when America has not yet received from England the smallest overture which would permit America to believe that England would consent to its independence.
The english nation . . . sigh for peace. IV. Either the English ministry will make no response or else it will be an insolent one. In the latter case, why should one needlessly expose { 40 } himself to an insult, thereby making himself the laughing stock of all the nations which have not yet recognized the independence of the United States? But there is reason to believe Mr. Adams would receive no answer because the British ministry will not think that it owes one to a man, who assumes a character that the court of London must consider an insult. It should not be forgotten that this court considers all Americans as rebellious subjects. With such an opinion, how could Lord Germaine receive a letter from Mr. Adams styling himself minister plenipotentiary of the United States of North America? How could this English minister bear the mention of a commercial treaty, which can only be made between independent nations?
These observations will convince Mr. Adams that France has no need for his proposed attempt to discover and evaluate the sentiments and intentions of the court of London and that we are already perfectly acquainted with what we ought and may expect from it in the present situation of affairs.
Idem. V. The English ministry's silence or response, whichever may occur, will neither alarm nor arouse the people of England. Without a doubt that people desires peace and an accommodation with America, but one finds that as of yet only some private individuals speak of independence and then more from a spirit of opposition than from conviction. There never has been a single motion made in Parliament tending to grant that independence,2 yet the people have friends and patrons in Parliament. Mr. Adams can judge from this the embarrassment that the announcement of his powers would give the ministry.
Another consideration . . . of my powers. VI. England, as well as the rest of Europe, is perfectly clear regarding the nature of the engagements subsisting between France and the United States. Through this ministry on 13 March 1778, the King declared that he had not secured to himself any exclusive privilege by the Treaty of Commerce of 6 February 1778, and has confirmed this declaration in a writing published by his order, so that Mr. Adams' plenipotentiary powers can disclose nothing new in this regard, either to England or the other powers of Europe. Thus the false opinion which he believes the court of London holds in this matter can be no obstacle to a peace. If any such obstacle did exist, the English ministry, itself, would find the means to remove it, if they were determined to make peace dependent upon it.
There are at present . . . its accomplishment. VII. It is certain that the whole English nation and even the ministers themselves desire peace, but as has already been noted, there has not { 41 } been a single motion made in favor of American independence. Certainly the plenipotentiary powers of Mr. Adams will not change the present situation in this regard and consequently the communication that would be made will neither facilitate nor accelerate the conclusion of peace.
At this Moment . . . digest their plans accordingly. VIII. This reflection is very sensible. It proves that Mr. Adams himself realizes that there are circumstances which may induce him to conceal his powers. The King's ministry thinks that such circumstances will continue until the moment when the English nation shall show a disposition to recognize the independence of the United States. That recognition will not be facilitated by announcing a treaty of commerce, for the English are at present well persuaded that they will have such a treaty with America when they shall judge it proper. They have besides, as Mr. Adams has mentioned in his letter of 19 February, full knowledge of his commission, so that the communication of his powers would teach them nothing new in this regard.
Notwithstanding the supression of . . . to Great-Britain. IX. In answer to this paragraph, there is not an Englishman who is not persuaded that the United States are disposed to grant the advantages of commerce to their former mother country, but it would be a very difficult task to persuade an Englishman or any thinking being that by granting independence in exchange for these advantages the court of London would make an honorable and advantageous peace. If this was the true sentiment of the English people, why have they, for these six years past and without complaining, furnished ruinous subsidies for the subjugation of America?
I am the more confirmed . . . if that was settled. X. The English ministry either seeks peace sincerely or it means only to amuse itself and penetrate the designs of Spain. In the first case, they will express the conditions on which they wish to negotiate. It will then be obliged to disclose its views and demands concerning America. It assuredly will forget nothing which it thinks will forward peace and, upon agreeing to independence, its first care will be to demand equality with France relative to commerce.
If to the contrary, the English ministry means only to amuse Spain, penetrate its designs, and slacken its preparations for war, Mr. Adams should be so good as to do the ministry of Madrid the justice to believe that it will have the necessary sagacity to discover the British designs and have sufficient understanding and prudence to determine the conduct it ought to pursue.
{ 42 }
Idem. XI. If Mr. Adams is as sure of their existence as he is that the English ministry have no inclination to make peace on terms equally suitable to France and America, what good purpose is served by communicating at present, powers which can only be used after the peace? How can Mr. Adams persuade himself that the court of London will be seduced by the lure of a treaty of commerce, while it still manifests a steadfast unwillingness to acknowledge American independence? When Britain shall be disposed to recognize that independence, it will itself propose the conditions on which it thinks proper to grant it, and Mr. Adams may be assured that the article of commerce will not be forgotten. Then will be the proper time for him to produce his plenipotentiary powers. In the mean time, he must work to establish the basis for the negotiations, namely the independence of America, and that can only be effected by carrying on the war with vigor and success.
The content of all or some notes that appeared on this page in the printed volume has been moved to the end of the preceding document.
RCand enclosure (Adams Papers); endorsed by John Thaxter: “M. le Cte. de Vergennes 25th. July 1780 Recd. 26th.”; docketed by CFA: “A Translation published vol. 5. p. 287 Dipl. Correspondence.” CFA refers to Jared Sparks, ed., Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution.
1. While he had not seen JA's copy of the instructions adopted by Congress on 14 Aug. 1779, Vergennes had known of their content since the previous November. See Vergennes' letter of 30 March, note 21 (above).
3. See JA's letter of 26 July, note 5 (below).

Docno: ADMS-06-10-02-0020-0002

Author: Adams, John
Recipient: Vergennes, Charles Gravier, Comte de
Date: 1780-07-26

To the Comte de Vergennes

[salute] Sir

I have recieved the letter which your Excellency did me the honor to write me the twenty fifth of this month.
The sincere respect I entertain for your Excellency's Sentiments would have determined me, upon the least intimation, to have communicated my letter and your Excellency's answer to Congress, and to suspend, until I should recieve orders on their part, all measures { 43 } towards the British Ministry: without2 your Excellency's requisition in the Name of the King.
I shall transmit these papers to Congress, and I doubt not, the Reasons your Excellency has adduced, will be sufficient to induce them to suspend any communication to the British Ministry, as it is undoubtedly their Wisdom, to conduct all such measures in concert with their Allies.3
There is a great body of People in America, as determined as any to support their Independence, and their Alliances, who notwithstanding wish that no measure may be left unattempted by Congress or their Servants to manifest their readiness for Peace, upon such terms as they think honourable and advantageous to all parties. Your Excellency's Arguments, or indeed your Authority, will probably be sufficient to satisfy these People and to justify me, whereas without them I might have been liable to the censure of numbers. For it is most certain that all due deference will be shewn by the People of the United States and their Servants both in and out of Congress, to the sentiments of the Ministry of France.
This deference however by no means extends so far as to agree in all Cases to those sentiments without examination. I cannot therefore agree in the Sentiment, that proposing a Treaty of Peace and Commerce4 is discovering a great deal of weakness, or that the Americans have forgotten the British System of Tyranny, Cruelty or Perfidy, or to invite her to believe the Americans have an irresistible predilection for England, or to fortify her in the opinion that the American Patriots will submit through weariness, or through fear of the preponderant Influence of the Tories.
And so far from thinking it would give credit to the opinion, if there be such an one in all Europe, that the United States incline towards a defection, and that they will not be faithful to their Engagements, it seems to me, on the contrary, that it would discredit the opinion which prevails too much in Europe that there is some secret Treaty between France and the United States, by which the former is entituled to exclusive priviledges in the American Trade.
It is very true, that the Independence of America must be acknowledged before a Treaty of Peace can be made: But the prospect of a free trade with America upon principles of perfect equality and reciprocity, like that between France and the United States, might be a powerful Inducement with the people of England to acknowledge American Independence. Indeed I do not see any other considerable motive that England can ever have to make that Acknowledgment.
{ 44 }
The Congress have given no positive Instructions respecting the time or manner of making these powers known to one Court or another. All this is left at discretion, and to a construction of the Commissions themselves.
It is very certain that all the belligerent Powers are busily occupied every winter in their Councils and preparations for the ensuing Campaign. And it is also certain that the Artifice of the British Ministry in holding up to view every winter some semblance of a design of reconciliation formerly and of Peace latterly, has been a real Engine of hostility against America, equal to a considerable part of the British Army.
Neither the people of America nor Mr. Adams have any the least dread upon their minds of an insolent answer, from one of the British Ministers, nor of the ridicule of those Nations who have not yet acknowledged the Independence of America. No man of any knowledge, justice or humanity in any of those nations, would laugh upon such an occasion: on the contrary he would feel a just indignation against a Minister who should insult a Message so obviously calculated for the good of England and of all Europe, in the present Circumstances of affairs.
I am very much mistaken, for I speak upon Memory, if the Duke of Richmond did not make a motion two years ago, in the House of Lords, and if Mr. Hartley did not make another about a Year ago, which was seconded by Lord North himself in the House of Commons tending to grant Independence to America.5 And it is very certain that a great part of the People of England think that Peace can be had upon no other terms.
It is most clear that the present Ministry will not grant Independence: the only chance of obtaining it is by change of that Ministry. The King is so attached to that Ministry, that he will not change them, until it appears that they have so far lost the Confidence of the People, that their Representatives in Parliament dare no longer to support them: and in the Course of the last winter, the Weight and Sentiments of the People were so considerable as to bring many great Questions nearly to a ballance, and particularly to carry two votes, one against the Increase of the influence of the Crown, and another against the Board of Trade and Plantations, a vote that seemed almost to decide the American Question, and they came within a very few votes of deciding against the American Secretary.6 Now where Parties are approaching so near to a ballance, even a small weight thrown into either Scale, may turn it.
{ 45 }
In my letter of the nineteenth of February7 I said, that my appointment was notorious in America, and that therefore it was probably known to the Court of London, although they had not regular evidence of it. The Question then was more particularly concerning a commission to assist in the pacification. This was published in the American Newspapers in a general way: but I have no reason to think they are particularly informed of these matters, if they were, no evil that I am aware of could result from giving them the information officially. Certainly they have no official information, and it is reported that they deny that they know the nature of Mr. Adams's Commission.
Without any great effort of Genius,8 I think it is easy to demonstrate to any thinking Being, that, by granting American9 Independence, and making a Treaty of Peace, upon principles of perfect Reciprocity, England would in the present circumstances of affairs make an honourable and an advantageous Peace. It would have been more for their honor and advantage never to have made this war against America, it is true: but having made it, all the dishonour and disadvantage there is in it, is indelible: and after thirteen Colonies have been driven to throw off their Government, and annihilate it in every root and branch, becoming independent in fact, maintaining this Independence against a force of sixty thousand men and fifty Ships of War, that would have shaken most of the States of Europe to the very foundation, after maintaining this Independence four Years, and having made an honourable Treaty with the first Power in Europe; after another power had fallen into the war in consequence of the same System; after the voice of mankind had so far declared against the Justice of their Cause, that they could get no Ally; but on the contrary all the maritime Powers are entering into a Confederacy against them upon a point which has been a principal Source of their naval Superiority in Europe: in these Circumstances, the only honourable part they can act is to conform to the opinion of mankind; and the dishonourable and ruinous part for them to act is to continue the War. For the principle, that the People have a right to a form of Government according to their own judgments and inclinations, is in this enlightened Age so well agreed in the World, that it would be thought dishonourable by mankind in general for the English to govern three millions of People against their wills by military force, and this is all they can ever hope for, even supposing, they could bribe and tempt deserters enough from our Army and Apostates from our Cause, to make it impossible for us to carry on the war. This { 46 } however I know to be impossible and that they never will get quiet possession again of the Government of any one whole State in the thirteen, no not for an hour. If England considers further, that America is now known all over Europe to be such a Magazine of raw materials for manufactures, such a Nursery of seamen and such a source of Commerce and naval Power, that it would be dangerous to all the maritime Powers, to suffer any one of them to establish a domination and a Monopoly again in America.
I know there exists in some European minds a prejudice against America, and a jealousy that she will be hurtfull to Europe, and England may place some dependence upon this prejudice and jealousy; but the motions of the maritime Powers begin to convince her, that this jealousy and prejudice do not run so deep as they thought and surely there never was a more groundless prejudice entertained among men, and it must dissipate, as soon as the Subject is considered.
America is a Nation of Husbandmen, planted on a vast Continent of wild uncultivated land. And there is and will be for Centuries no way in which these people can get a living and advance their interests so much as by Agriculture. They can apply themselves to manufactures, only to fill up Interstices of time, in which they cannot labour on their lands, and to Commerce only to carry the produce of their lands the raw materials of manufactures to the European Market.
Europe is a Country whose land is all cultivated nearly to perfection, where the People have no way to advance themselves, but by manufactures and Commerce. Here are two worlds then fitted by God and Nature to benefit each other, one by furnishing raw materials, the other manufactures, and they never can interfere. The number of the States in America; their position and extension over such a great Continent, and their fundamental Constitution that nine States must concur to war, shew that nine of these States never can agree in any foreign war, or any other but for self defence, if they should ever become powerful. But in this case, however disagreable a prospect it may open to Americans, Europe has an everlasting Warranty against their becoming dangerous to her, in the nature of Men, the Nature of her Governments and their position towards one another.
All those Circumstances serve to shew, and the people of England begin to be sensible of it, that Europe will never suffer them to regain their domination and Monopoly, even if the English were able to { 47 } extort a forced Submission. In this situation then the only honourable and advantageous Course for England is to make peace, and open Commerce with America, in perfect consistency with her Independence and her Alliances. The people of England cannot be said to furnish subsidies without murmuring; for it is certain there never was so much murmuring and such radical discontent in that nation or any other, but at the Eve of a Revolution.
I very chearfully agree with your Excellency in opinion, that the Court of Spain has Sagacity enough to penetrate and to defeat the deceitful designs of the English, and am not under other apprehensions from thence, than that the report of a negotiation with Spain, will leave some Impressions in America, where I believe the English Ministry chiefly intend it.
I have already said that from the present British Ministry I expect no Peace. It is for the Nation, and for the change of the Ministry as a step towards Peace that I thought it might have some effect to make the communication, and to satisfy these people in America, who without the most distant thought of departing from their Independence or their Alliances wish still to take every reasonable measure towards peace. Your Excellency's Letter will convince them that my apprehensions were wrong, and your Advice will undoubtedly be followed, as it ought to be, for they cannot promise themselves any Advantage from the communication equivalent to the Inconveniency, of taking a measure of the kind, which ought not to be done but in Concert, against the opinion of the Ministry of France.
I have the Honor to be, with the greatest Respect, Sir, your Excellency's most obedient and most humble Servant
[signed] John Adams
RC in John Thaxter's hand (PCC, No. 84, II, f. 471–482); notation on the first page: “No. 12.” For the presence of this letter in the PCC, see the Editorial Note, 13–29 July (above). LbC (Adams Papers); notations by John Thaxter: “Paris 12th. August 1780. This day Mr. Dana delivered Copies of Mr. Adams's Letters of the 1st. 13th. 17th. 21st. 26th. & 27th. of July to Comte Vergennes, to Dr. Franklin who was to send them by a Gentleman going to L'orient to Capt. J. P. Jones.”; and “Septr. 12th. 1780. Mr. Dana took with him to Amsterdam the duplicates of Mr. Adams's Letters of the 13th. 17th. 21st. 26th. & 27th. of July to the Cte. de Vergennes.” Although this is the last letter from JA to Vergennes to be entered in Lb/JA/11 (Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 99), it is preceded by JA's letter dated 27 July (below, and note 1). For information regarding this Letterbook, see the Introduction, part 2, “John Adams and His Letterbooks.”
1. The views expressed in this letter, as well as in that of 17 July (above), stemmed first from JA's reading of Thomas Pownall's Memorial Addressed to the Sovereigns of Europe, and more directly from his reply to Joseph Galloway's Cool Thoughts. In particular, JA's senti• { 48 } ments regarding Britain's interest in a commercial treaty, the desire of the European nations to end the British monopoly on trade with America, and the absence of any economic threat to Europe from American independence expressed in paragraphs 5–7, 10–12, and 14–18 of this letter should be compared with those in his letter of 16 June to the president of Congress, No. 84 (above), and in Nos. I, V, VI, VII, VIII, XI, and particularly X of “Letters from a Distinguished American,” [ante 14–22 July] (above).
2. In the Letterbook, JA wrote “with,” John Thaxter interlined “out.”
3. For Francis Dana's implementation of JA's promise, in accordance with instructions given before JA's departure for Amsterdam on 27 July, see the Editorial Note, 13–29 July (above) and the descriptive notes to this letter and that from Vergennes of 29 July (below). When copies of the letters of 17, 25, and 26 July were received by Congress on 26 Dec., they were immediately referred to a committee composed of Thomas Burke, John Witherspoon, and James Duane. Its report was adopted on 10 Jan. 1781 and, as JA predicted, indicated Congress' agreement with Vergennes (JCC, 18:1194; 19:41–42). JA was informed by a letter of 10 Jan. that Vergennes' opinion regarding the disclosure and execution of his mission was “well founded.” Having “no expectations from the influence which the people of England may have on the British councils, whatever may be the dispositions of that nation or their magistrates towards these United States; Nor are they of Opinion that a change of Ministers would produce a change of measures, They therefore hope you will be very cautious of admitting your measures to be influenced by presumptions of such events, or their probable consequences” (Adams Papers).
4. The remainder of this paragraph is an indirect quotation, in translation, from sect. I of Vergennes' point by point rebuttal of JA's letter of 17 July enclosed with his of 25 July (both above). In his effort to refute the criticisms contained in the letter of 25 July, JA quotes extensively from that enclosure, but see, in particular, note 8.
5. JA is referring to motions by Charles Lennox, 3d duke of Richmond and Lennox, on 7 April 1778, and David Hartley on 22 June 1779 (Parliamentary Hist., 19:1012–1031; 20: 901–915). Richmond's motion provided for an address to the king calling on him to withdraw all British forces from America. It was in the course of the debate over that motion that William Pitt, 1st earl of Chatham, gave his “dying” speech (see Edmund Jenings' letter of 5 March, note 9, above). Hartley's motion, which was not seconded by Lord North, called for the appointment of a peace commission that could, among other things, agree to a ten-year truce. For JA to refer to these motions is interesting because, while independence might have been the result, neither provided specifically for the granting of independence and both, at some level, foresaw an Anglo-American reconciliation. For Vergennes the references could not have been reassuring, for both motions were intended, at least in part, to dissolve the Franco-American alliance and end the war in America so that Britain could concentrate on its war with France.
6. See JA's letters of 23 and 24 March to the president of Congress, Nos. 23 and 24, and notes 4 and 1 respectively (both above).
8. At this point in the Letterbook is the canceled passage “or any other Talent than common sense.” This paragraph is an effort to refute the third point raised by Vergennes in sect. II of the enclosure to his letter of 25 July (above).
9. At this point in the Letterbook, JA wrote and then canceled “commerce.”
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.