Papers of John Adams, volume 7

Arthur Lee to Benjamin Franklin and John Adams

To Arthur Lee

To the Comte de Vergennes, 11 February 1779 JA Vergennes, Charles Gravier, Comte de To the Comte de Vergennes, 11 February 1779 Adams, John Vergennes, Charles Gravier, Comte de
To the Comte de Vergennes
Sir Passy Feb. 11. 1779

As Your Excellency reads English perfectly well, my first Request is, that you would do me the Favour to read this, without a Translation after which I Submit it to your Excellency to make what Use of it, you shall think proper.

I have hitherto avoided, in my Single Capacity, giving your Excellency, any trouble, by Letter, or Conversation: but the present Emergency demands that I should ask the favour to explain my Sentiments, either by Letter, or in Person. If you will permit a personal Interview, I am persuaded, I can make myself understood: if you prefer a Correspondence, I will lay open my Heart in Writing, before your Excellency.

It is the Address to the People, in America, under the Name of Mr. Silas Deane, that has occasioned, this Boldness, in me.1 It is to me, the most unexpected, and unforeseen Event that has happened. I hope, your Excellency, will not conclude from thence, that I despair of the Commonwealth. Far otherwise. I know that the Body of the People, in the united States stand immoveable against Great Britain: and I hope that this Address of Mr. Deane, (altho it will occasion much Trouble to Individuals) will produce no final Detriment to the common Cause: but on the contrary, that it will occasion, so thorough an Investigation of Several Things, as will correct many Abuses.


It is my indispensible Duty, upon this Occasion to inform your Excellency, without consulting either of my Colleagues,2 that the Honourable Arthur Lee was as long ago as 1770, appointed by the House of Representatives of the Massachusetts Bay, of which I had then the Honour to be a Member, their Agent at the Court of London, in Case of the Death or Absence of Dr. Franklin. This honourable Testimony, was given to Mr. Lee, by an Assembly, in which he had no natural Interest, on Account of his inflexible Attachment to the American Cause, and the Abilities of which he had given many Proofs in its Defence. From that Time, to the Year 1774, he held a constant Correspondence, with several of those Gentlemen, who stood foremost in the Massachusetts Bay, against the Innovations, and illegal Encroachments of Great Britain. This Correspondence I had an opportunity of Seeing, and I assure, your Excellency, from my own Knowledge, that it breathed, the most inflexible Attachment, and the most ardent zeal in the Cause of his Country. From September 1774 to November 1777, I had the Honour to be in Congress and the opportunity to See his Letters to Congress, to their Committees, and to Several of their Individual Members.

That through the whole of both these Periods, he communicated, the most constant, and certain Intelligence, which was received from any Individual within my Knowledge. And since I have had the Honour to be joined with him here, I have ever found in him the same Fidelity and Zeal, and have not a Glimmering of Suspicion, that he ever maintained an improper Correspondence in England or held any Conference or Negociation with any body from thence, without communicating it to your Excellency and to his Colleagues. I am confident therefore, that every Insinuation and Suspicion against him, of Infidelity to the united States or to their Engagements with his Majesty is false and groundless,3 and that they will assuredly be proved to be so , to the Utter Shame and Confusion of all those, who have rashly published them to the World, and particularly of Mr. Deane.4

The two Honourable Brothers of Mr. Lee, who are Members of Congress,5 I have long and intimately known. And of my own Knowledge I can say, that no Men have discovered more Zeal, in Support of the Sovereignty of the united States, and in promoting, from the Beginning a Friendship and Alliance with France. And there is nothing of which I am more firmly perswaded, than that every Insinuation that is thrown out6 to the Disadvantage, of the two M. Lees, in Congress, is groundless.


It would be too tedious, to enter, at present, into a more particular Consideration of that Address, I shall therefore conclude this Letter, already too long, by assuring your Excellency, that I am with the most entire Consideration, your most obedient and most humble Servant7

John Adams

RC (Arch. Aff. Etr., Paris, Corr. Pol., E.-U., vol. 7); docketed: “rece. le 13 fev. M. Adams Se plaint de l'apel au Peuple publié par M. Silas Deanne.” Dft printed: JA, Diary and Autobiography , 2:347–350. The draft is approximately one-third longer than either the recipient's copy or the Letterbook copy (see below) because JA made numerous deletions in the drafting process. It should be compared with the RC as printed here. The recipient's copy and the Letterbook copy contain some text that does not appear in the draft. LbC (Adams Papers); notations: “Sent by a Comis, early in the Morning of the 12. Feb. 1779” and “The next Day after the above Letter was written, and within a few Hours after it was Sent, Dr Winship arrived and not long after him the Aid du Camp of the Marquiss De la Fayette, with Letters, and with Dispatches from Congress, a Letter among the rest to Me, from Messrs. Lee and Lovell of the Committee of foreign affairs 28 Oct. 1778 (above) acquainting me, with the new Commission to Dr. Franklin, and.” Compare this passage with the second paragraph of JA's Diary entry for 12 Feb. ( Diary and Autobiography , 2:353).


The recipient's copy is more reasoned and focused than the draft, but from both it is clear that JA's chief motive for writing was concern over the implications for the conduct of American foreign policy raised by Silas Deane's address “To the Free and Virtuous Citizens of America” (Pennsylvania Packet, 5 Dec. 1778). In his Diary entry of 8 Feb., JA called it “one of the most wicked and abominable Productions that ever sprung from an human Heart” and described Silas Deane as “a wild boar, that ought to be hunted down for the Benefit of Mankind,” the only alternatives being “the Ruin of Mr. Deane, or the Ruin of his Country” ( Diary and Autobiography , 2:345). The depth of JA's anger owed to his belief that such an appeal by a private person over the head of the congress, combined with that body's refusal to censure its author, appeared “like a Dissolution of the Constitution,” well calculated to create in the European mind a perception of the American government as being weak and untrustworthy (same, 2:353). More specifically, the address dramatically called into question the fundamental support of the congress, or significant elements within it, for the French alliance and the war effort as well as its competence to appoint its own representatives.

Although he never showed this letter to him, JA writes in his Diary that he explained to Franklin on 8 Feb. why such an approach to Vergennes seemed to him necessary. It was imperative to know what the chief ministers of the French government thought of Deane's conduct because “if they, and their Representatives in America, were determined to countenance and support by their Influence such Men and Measures in America, it was no matter how soon the Alliance was broke” (same, 2:345). When Deane left France in 1778 he had received testimonials to his conduct from various French officials, including Louis XVI and Vergennes, as well as from Benjamin Franklin, who described him as “an able and faithfull Negotiator” (same, 2:352). JA hoped to convince Vergennes that Franklin had been deceived, but he also wanted to know if the French testimonials indicated support for the views expressed in Deane's address, for then it would indicate, at least in JA's mind, a desire to dictate the foreign policy of another sovereign state.

Had Deane simply criticized congress' foreign policy, it is unlikely that JA's re-404sponse would have been construed as a defense of Arthur Lee's conduct as a Commissioner. No one with whom JA dealt during his first mission is treated more harshly in his Diary than Arthur Lee. On 9 Feb., JA wrote that Lee, “whom I have allowed to be honest, has such a bitter, such a Sour in him, and so few of the nice feelings, that God knows what will be the Consequence to himself and to others.” He had “Confidence in no body,” believing “all Men selfish—And, no Man honest or sincere. This, I fear, is his Creed, from what I have heard him say. I have often in Conversation disputed with him, on this Point.” Finally, Lee “with his privy Council, are evermore, contriving” and “their Contrivances, render many Measures more difficult” (same, 2:346–347). Arthur Lee's reputation became part of the assault on the address because Deane had cast doubt on Lee's loyalty (and that of his brothers William, Richard Henry, and Francis Lightfoot), and on his legitimacy as an appointed executor of the policies set down by the congress. Such “a Contempt of Congress committed in the City where they set, and the Publication of such Accusations in the Face of the Universe, so false and groundless as the most heinous of them appeared to me, ... made too by a Man who had been in high Trust, against two others, who were still so, ... ought to unite every honest and wise Man against him” (same, 2:345). Clearly JA felt compelled to remove any doubts about the authority of the congress or the credibility of its representatives; in so doing, he defended Arthur Lee the Commissioner, not Arthur Lee the man.


In fact, as the Diary entry quoted in note 1 indicates, JA had informed Benjamin Franklin of his intention to approach Vergennes regarding Deane's address. In the draft, however, he stated that he had not shown nor did he intend to show his letter to either of his colleagues because Franklin had allied himself with Deane against Lee. In regard to Franklin, JA held to his plan, but he did provide Lee with a copy on 9 June, eight days before JA sailed from France, in response to Lee's appeal for a testimonial to his loyalty contained in a letter of 5 June (below).


At this point the Letterbook copy originally read “are groundless,” but the “are” is canceled and “is false and” is interlined for insertion.


This passage, so thoroughly canceled in the recipient's copy that it cannot be read independently of another version, is also heavily canceled in the Letterbook, indicating that JA decided that it was inappropriate after the recipient's copy was completed. The final five words, however, are also deleted in the draft. Moreover, in the draft the words “and particularly of Mr. Deane” are followed by a further canceled passage: “who has been so forsaken by his Discretion as to have published to the World many such Insinuations.”


Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee.


At this point the paragraph in the draft continues with “of Mr. R. H. Lees holding improper Intercourse with a Dr. Berkenhout, is a cruel and an infamous Calumny.” The entire paragraph is then canceled. Dr. John Berkenout was a British agent who had known Arthur Lee in London and met Richard Henry Lee when he came to America in 1778. JA's assertions, explicit in the draft and more veiled in the recipient's copy, regarding Richard Henry Lee's conduct, are accurate.


This paragraph does not appear in the draft.