Papers of John Adams, volume 9

To Edmund Jenings, 12 March 1780 JA Jenings, Edmund


To Edmund Jenings, 12 March 1780 Adams, John Jenings, Edmund
To Edmund Jenings
Dear Sir Paris Hotel de Valois Rue de Richelieu March 12 1780

I have to acknowledge the Receipt of three excellent Letters—one of the first, the other of the fifth and the third of the eighth of March. Thank You for the Copy of your Letter to the Pensioner1 and for your dialogue between York and Chatham.

It is undoubtedly the Duty of every Commercial Nation, to make their Flag to be respected in all the Seas and by all the Nations, not by insulting and injuring all others, like Great Britain, but by doing Justice to all others, and by insisting upon Justice from them. But how is Holland to obtain Justice2 from the English, who take a manifest pleasure and pride, in showing her, and all Europe, that they despise her? Holland seems to be as corrupted and unprincipled, as Great Britain, but there is one great difference between them. Great Britain has a terrible naval Force, Holland has next to none. Great Britain has Courage and Confidence in her Power. Holland has none. I don't mean that the Dutch are destitute of personal Courage, but national Courage is a very different thing.

The curious Doctrine of a constitutional Impossibility of acknowledging our Independence is well exposed in your Dialogue. I suppose the Idea was taken from Lord Chatham's dying Speech, when he conjured up the Ghost of the Princess Sophia of Hanover to whose Posterity being Protestants, the Act of Settlement had consecrated the Succession to the Crown, and its Authority over all parts of the Dominions. This was a masterly Stroke of Oratory to be sure, and shows that my Lord Chatham in his last Moments, had not lost the Knowledge of the prejudices in the Character of the English Nation, nor the Arts of Popularity.3 But a more manifest Address to the Passions and Prejudices of the Populace, without the least Attention to the Justice or Policy of the Principle, never fell from a popular Orator ancient or modern. Could my Lord Chatham contend, that the Heirs of the Princess Sophia of Hanover, provided they should 35be protestants, had the Throne and its Prerogatives entailed upon them, to everlasting Ages, over all parts of the British Dominions, let them do what they would, govern without Parliament, lay Taxes without Law dismiss Judges without Faults, suspend Laws, in short do every thing that the Stewarts did, and ten times more yet so long as they were Protestants, could there be no Resistance to their Will, and no Forfeiture of their Right to govern? I said this was a Figure of Rhetoric, employed by his Lordship ad captandum Vulgus.4 I believe so still, but I believe he meant it also ad capitandum Regem, and that he thought, by throwing out this Idea, that he was not for acknowledging our Independence, the King who at that Time was distressed for a Minister able in conducting a War, would call him into the Ministry. I ever lamented this black Spot in a very bright Character. I don't remember any thing in his Lordships Conduct, which seemed to me so suspicious to have proceeded from a perverted Heart, as this Flight. Allowance, however, ought to be made, perhaps he was misunderstood, and would have explained himself fairly, if he had lived.5

I have not seen the Pamphlet intituled Facts, nor that by Lloyd, nor the Examen, should be glad to see all of them. I find a difficulty in getting Pamphlets from England, but I will have a Channel to obtain them, by and by.

I went to Mr. Grand's, as soon as I received yours of the eighth. Mr. Grand, the Father,6 was out, and no other in the House knew any thing of your Letter or Maps or other things. I will speak to the Father the first Opportunity.

Mr. Lee is gone to L'Orient.

What think You of Luck? Had any Gambler ever so much as Rodney? One of our Tories in Boston, or half way Whigs, told me once, God loves that little Island of old England, and the People that live upon it. I suppose he would say now God loves Rodney. I don't draw the same Conclusion from the Successes, that the Island, or the Hero have had. I think it would be Blasphemy to say, that he loves so degenerate and profligate a Race: but I think it more probable, that Heaven has permitted this Series of good Fortune to attend the wicked that the righteous Americans may reflect in Time, and place their Confidence in their own Patience, Fortitude, Performance, political Wisdom and military Talents, under the Protection and Blessing of his Providence.

There are some who believe that if France and Spain had not interposed, America would have been crushed. There are in other 36parts of Europe, I am told, a greater Number who believe, that if it had not been for the Interposition of France and Spain, American Independence would have been acknowledged a Year or two ago. I believe neither the one nor the other. I know the deep Roots of American Independency on one Side of the Water, and I know the deep Roots of the Aversion to it; on the other.

If it was rational to suppose, that the English should succeed in their Design and Endeavour to destroy the Fleets and naval Power of France and Spain, which they are determined to do, if they can, what would be the Consequence? There are long Lists of French and Spanish Ships of the Line, yet to be destroyed, which will cost the English several Campaigns and a long Roll of Millions, and after this they may send sixty thousand Men to America, if they can get them and what then? Why the Glory of baffling, exhausting, beating and taking them will finally be that of the American Yeomanry, whose Numbers have increased every Year, since this War began, as I learnt with Certainty in my late Visit Home, and will increase every Year, in spite of all the Art, Malice, Skill, Valour and Activity of the English, and all their Allies. I hope however that the capricious Goddess, will bestow some of her favours upon France and Spain, and a very few of them would do the Work. If Rodney's Fortune should convince Spain that She is attacking the Bull by the Horns, and France and Spain, that the true System for conducting this War, is by keeping just Force enough in the Channel to protect their Courts and their Trade, and by sending all the rest of their Ships into the American Seas, it will be the best Fortune for the Allies they ever had.

I long to learn Mr. J.s Success at Madrid, and Mr. Laurens's Arrival in Holland, where I will go to see him sometime in the Summer or Fall.7

I have the Honor to be etc.,

John Adams

P.S. Pray can you inform me, what Sums have been annually paid, as Subsidies by France, or England, to the House of Austria, or the King of Prussia, or other Powers, in former Wars?

RC in John Thaxter's hand, with postscript in JA's hand (Adams Papers;) endorsed: “Mr Adams March. 12. 1780.” LbC, with postscript by Thaxter (Adams Papers.)


Jenings included an extract from his letter of 27 Jan. 1780 to the Grand Pensionary of Amsterdam, Engelbert van Berckel, in his letter of 1 March to JA (Adams Papers). Jenings expressed to van Berckel his strong views on the need for the Netherlands to oppose effectively the British navy's assault on its commerce so that its flag would be respected and its neutrality preserved. Jenings supported his argument with a long passage from Baron Ja-37cob Friedrich von Bielfeld's Institutions politiques, The Hague, 1740, on a sovereign state's obligation to compel respect for its flag on the high seas. Jenings told JA that he had “sent to another quarter for publication” both the extract from his letter to van Berckel and a passage regarding British efforts to obtain supremacy on the high seas from Gabriel Bonnot, Abbé de Mably's Des principes des négociations, pour servir d'introduction au droit public de l'Europe, fondé sur les traités, The Hague, 1767, which he included in his letter to JA. For Jenings' quotations from the works of Von Bielfeld and de Mably, as translated by JA, see JA's letter of 12 March to the president of Congress (No. 17, below).


In the Letterbook this sentence originally began “But how is Holland to compel G. B. to do her Justice.”


For the earl of Chatham's alleged doctrine of “constitutional impossibility,” see Jenings' letter of 5 March, and note 9 (above); for Chatham's “dying” speech, see Parliamentary Hist. , 19:1022–1026. In the months prior to Chatham's final speech in the House of Lords on 9 April 1778, shortly before his death on 11 May, there had been much speculation that he would be included in a new cabinet. The deterioration of the military situation in America, particularly the defeat at Saratoga, seemed to make such a course possible despite George III's personal unwillingness to have Chatham serve in any ministerial capacity (O. A. Sherrard, Lord Chatham and America, London, 1958, p. 373–380). It is not surprising that JA would see Chatham's position in his final speech as a product of his well known ambition, intended to ingratiate himself with George III and thus remove any obstacles to his return to power.


That is, to captivate the masses and, in the following sentence, to captivate the King.


The following three paragraphs were set off by parentheses and preceded by the word “Omit” in pencil. “Omit” appears to be in Jenings' hand and may indicate that he sought to have an extract from this letter published. If so, the printed letter has not been found.


Ferdinand Grand and his son, Henry, were Paris bankers, long supporters of the American cause.


After Henry Laurens' capture in Sept. 1780, he was brought to England and did not reach continental Europe until Nov. 1782 (see JA to James Lovell, 19 Feb., note 3, vol. 8:334).

To the President of Congress, No. 17, 12 March 1780 JA Huntington, Samuel President of Congress


To the President of Congress, No. 17, 12 March 1780 Adams, John Huntington, Samuel President of Congress
To the President of Congress, No. 17
Sir Paris Hotel de Valois Ruë de Richelieu March 12th. 1780

It is an Observation made some Years ago by a great Writer of this Nation de Mably,1 that the Project of being sole Master of the Sea, and of commanding all the Commerce, is not less chimerical, nor less ruinous, than that of universal Monarchy, on Land: And it is to be wished, for the Happiness of Europe, that the English may be convinced of this Truth, before they shall have learned it by their own Experience. France has already repeated, several Times, that it was necessary to establish an Equilibrium, a Ballance of Power at Sea: and She has not yet convinced any Body because She is the dominant Power: and because they suspect her, to desire the Abasement of the English, only that, She may domineer the more surely, on the Continent. But if England abuses her Power, and would exercise a kind of Tyranny over Commerce, presently all the States that have Vessels and Sailors, astonished that they had not before believed France, will 38join themselves to her to assist her in avenging her Injuries. Principes des Negotiation. p. 90.

The present Conjuncture of Affairs resembles so exactly the Case that is here put, that it seems to be a literal fulfilment of a Prophecy.

A Domination upon the Sea is so much the more dangerous to other maritime Powers and commercial Nations, as it is more difficult to form Alliances and to combine Forces at Sea, than at Land. For which Reason it is essential, the Sovereign of every commercial State, should make his national Flagg be respected, in all the Seas, and by all the Nations of the World. The English have ever acted upon this Principle, in supporting the Honor of their own Flagg, but of late Years have grown less and less attentive to it as it respects the Honor of other Flaggs. Not content with making their Flagg respectable, they have grown more and more ambitious of making it terrible. Unwilling to do as they would be done by, and to treat other Commercial Nations, as they insisted upon being treated by them, they have grown continually more and more haughty, turbulent and insolent upon the Seas, and are now never satisfied until they have made all other Nations see that they despise them upon that Element.2

It is said by the Baron de Bielfield, that Piracies and Robberies at Sea, are so odious, so atrocious and so destructive to the interests of all the European Nations, that every thing is permitted to repress them. Providence has not granted to any People, an exclusive Empire upon the Seas. To aim at setting up a Master there, to prescribe Laws to other free Nations, is an Outrage to all Europe.3

I have quoted these Authorities, because they contain the true Principle, upon which, as I have ever concieved, the English began this War, and upon which they will assuredly continue it, as long as they can get Men and Money, which will be as long as they shall have Success. They contain also the true Principle of the Conduct of France and Spain, and Holland and all the other Powers of Europe. The Outrages committed upon the Dutch Commerce and the Insults offered to their Flagg ought to be and are alarming to all the Maritime Powers.

The late Successes of the English, will have no Tendency to allay the Fears of these Powers; on the contrary, they will increase the Alarm, by showing the precarious Situation they will all be in, if England should finally succeed, which some of them may perhaps apprehend from the late brilliant Fortune of Admiral Rodney.

One cannot but be struck with the rapid Series of fortunate Incidents for the English, which has been, published here in the Course 39of about three Months that I have been in Europe. The little Affair of Omoa began it; the Repulse at Savannah succeeded with all its Consequences; the Curacao Fleet was next, Langara's fate soon followed, Gibralter was relieved, Don Gaston's Squadron was dispersed by a Storm, and Admiral Rodney had Opportunity to get safe out of Gibralter. The French East India Fleet brings up the Rear.4 There is hardly in History such a Series of Events that no human Wisdom could provide against or foresee: yet after all, the Advantage gained is by no means decisive, altho' no doubt it will raise the Ambition of the English, and in some degree damp the Ardor of their Enemies.

It must not have this Effect however upon America. Let the Maritime Powers of Europe fare as they will, we must be free, and I trust in God we shall be so whatever may be their Fate. The Events of War are uncertain, at Sea more than even at Land. But America has Resources for the final Defence of her Liberties, which Britain will never be able to exhaust, though they should exhaust France and Spain, and it may not impossibly be our hard Fate, but it will be our unfading Glory, finally to turn the Scale of the War, to humble the Pride which is so terrible to the Commercial Nations of Europe, and produce a Ballance of Power upon the Seas. To this End, Americans must be Soldiers and Seamen.

It is proper however, to keep constantly in Sight the Power, against which We have to contend.

The English have in all the Ports of England, in a Condition of actual Service, or at least given out and reported to be so, twenty Ships of the Line. In the Course of the Spring and the Month of June, eight others which are now repairing, and three new ones in the Course of the Year. The whole Squadron for the Channel will be thirty one. The Squadron of Arbuthnot at New York, consists of five —that of Jarvis at the Western Islands is two, including the Dublin, which was detached from Admiral Rodney and is now in bad Condition at Lisbon—one only at Jamaica for the Lion is too far ruined to be counted. The Fleet at the other Islands, joined by the Hector, detached from Rodney, the Triumph and the Intrepid, lately sailed from England, is Nineteen, seven of which at least are in too bad a Condition for actual Service. That of India, including two which serve for Convoys, consists of ten: two of which however are returning to be repaired or condemned. The Lenox, is a Guard Ship in Ireland.

Rodney entered Gibralter with four Spanish Ships of the Line, the Phanix of eighty Guns, the Monarca, the Princessa and the Diligente 40of seventy, besides the Guipuscoa, now the Prince William, of sixty five, which he took with the Convoy on the eighth of January. He entered also with the Shrewsbury of seventy four which joined him from Lisbon. His Squadron must therefore have consisted of twenty four Ships of the Line. If he left the Panther and another at Gibralter he must have gone out with twenty two.5

Whether he is gone with this whole Fleet to the West Indies, or only with part of it, and with what part, is yet undetermined by the Public.

France and Spain however, have a vast Superiority still remaining, which, if it should be ably managed, will easily humble the English: but if it should be unwisely managed, or continue to be as unfortunate as it has been from the Moment of the Comte D'Estaing's sailing from Toulon, will even in this Case last long enough to consume and exhaust their Enemies.6

I have the Honor to inclose the Mercury of France of the eleventh of March, the Hague Gazettes of the sixth and eighth, the Amsterdam Gazette of the seventh and the Leyden of the seventh, and to be with the highest Consideration, Sir, your most obedient and most humble Servant,

John Adams

RC in John Thaxter's hand PCC (, No. 84, I, f. 317–320;) endorsed: “No. 17 Letter from J. Adams March 12. 1780 Read Septr. 11th. present naval power of Great Britain.” LbC (Adams Papers.)


The remainder of this paragraph is a translation of the final paragraph of chap. 6 from Gabriel Bonnot, Abbé de Mably's Des principes des négociations, pour servir d'introduction au droit public de l'Europe, fondé sur les traités, The Hague, 1767, a copy of which is in JA's library at the Boston Public Library ( Catalogue of JA's Library ).


This paragraph and the preceding two paragraphs were included almost verbatim in No. XI of “Letters from a Distinguished American,” ante 14 – 22 July (below).


This paragraph and the second sentence of the preceding paragraph are JA's translations of portions of a passage from Baron Jacob Friedrich von Bielfeld's Institutions politiques, The Hague, 1740 (part 1, chap. 15, sect. 23), contained in Edmund Jenings' letter of 1 March (Adams Papers). Although most of the preceding paragraph is not a direct translation from his work, it is faithful to the substance of von Bielfeld's comments.


The events indicated by JA have all been mentioned in previous letters and dealt with in the annotation, but the time span over which the almost uniformly favorable news reached England is worth noting. The reports concerning the capture of Omoa and the repulse of Estaing at Savannah reached London on 18 and 20 Dec. 1779, respectively, while the reports of Adm. Rodney's departure from Gibraltar and Adm. Digby's capture of several French East Indiamen appeared on 6 March (vol. 8:356, note 4; from Thomas Digges, 7 March, and note 2, above).


JA's account of the current composition and deployment of the British navy and the state of Rodney's fleet, in this and the preceding paragraph, is generally accurate and reflects newspaper reports in February and March.


In the Letterbook, this paragraph was written after the closing and marked for insertion at this point. For the misfortunes that befell Estaing's fleet during its presence in American waters during 1778 and 1779 and the resulting American disappointment, see vols. 7 and 8.