Papers of John Adams, volume 10

From William Lee

From Edmund Jenings

To the President of Congress, No. 33, 28 December 1780 JA President of Congress Huntington, Samuel To the President of Congress, No. 33, 28 December 1780 Adams, John President of Congress Huntington, Samuel
To the President of Congress, No. 33
Duplicate Sir Amsterdam December 28th 17801

The Dutch say that the English are acting the part of the Sailor, having quarrelled with three others as stout as himself, and got his Bones broke and his Eyes beat out in the Squabble, challenged four more to fight him at the same time, that he might have it in his Power to make it up with all seven, with Honour.

If the English are not actuated by the same blind and vindictive Passions, which have governed them so many Years, it is impossible to see through their Policy. I think it is impossible they should be ignorant of the Articles of Confederation of the Neutral Powers: these Articles, as I am informed, warrant to all the Neutral Powers their Treaties with England, and stipulate that if either is attacked after the twentieth of November last it shall be made a Common Cause.

If the English should issue Letters of Marque against the Dutch, the States General will not immediately issue Letters of Marque in return; but will represent the Facts to the Congress at Petersbourg and demand the benefit of the Treaty of Armed Neutrality, and all the Powers who are Parties to that Confederation will join in demanding of England Restitution, and, in Case of Refusal, will jointly issue Letters of Marque and Reprisal.2

The political Machine, that is now in Motion, is so vast, and comprehends so many Nations, whose Interests are not easy to adjust, that it is perhaps impossible for the human Understanding to foresee what Events may occur to disturb it. But at present there is no unfavourable appearance from any Quarter. We are in hourly Expectation of interesting News from the English, French and Spanish Fleets, from Petersbourg, from London and the Hague, and especially from North America. Every Wheel and Spring in the whole political System of Europe, would have its Motions rapidly accelerated by certain News from America of any decisive Advantage obtained over Cornwallis in South Carolina, so true it is that America is the very Centre and Axis of the whole.

The Death of the Empress Queen,3 it is generally thought, will make no Alteration in the System of Europe: yet it is possible that 443after some time there may be Changes—none, however, which can be hurtfull to Us.

I have the Honour to be, with the greatest Respect, Sir, your most obedient and most humble Servant

John Adams

Dupl in John Thaxter's hand (PCC, No. 84, II, f. 349–351); docketed: “Letter Decr. 28. 1780 John Adams Read Novr. 19. 1781.”


The original of this letter was intercepted and printed in the New York Mercury extraordinary of 19 April 1781, and then was reprinted in other papers, including the Pennsylvania Gazette of 2 May and the Boston Gazette of 28 May 1781. For AA's comments on this letter as printed in the Boston Gazette, see her letter of 28 May to JA ( Adams Family Correspondence , 4:141–142).


JA's hope, expressed in this and the preceding paragraph, that the threat of sanctions by the League of Armed Neutrality would be sufficient to preserve Dutch neutrality had already been overtaken by events. With its Manifesto of 20 Dec., Britain had declared war. While it blamed the outbreak of hostilities on Amsterdam's negotiation of the Lee-Neufville treaty, the war directly resulted from the Dutch decision of 20 Nov. to accede to the armed neutrality. With regard to reprisals, JA states the general sense of the conventions establishing the armed neutrality that Russia had already concluded with Denmark and Sweden. But it was one thing for the Dutch to appeal for assistance as a neutral, and quite another to do so as a belligerent, even a reluctant one. After 20 Dec. any concerted effort by the neutral powers—Sweden and Denmark, but most importantly, Russia—to use their naval forces to protect Dutch commerce against British depredations under the terms of the armed neutrality would result in a naval war with Britain. That was an outcome for which those powers were not prepared (De Madariaga, Armed Neutrality of 1780 , p. 289–293, 307–312; but see also JA's letter to the president of Congress, 25 Nov., No. 22, and note 2; and from Thomas Digges, 22 Dec., and note 2, both above).


Maria Theresa of Austria had died on 29 Nov. (Hoefer, Nouv. biog. générale ).