Papers of John Adams, volume 11

Introduction Introduction
Public Diplomacy at the Hague

At the beginning of 1781, John Adams was focused more on securing a loan than on achieving diplomatic recognition of the United States. He had received a commission to raise funds in mid-September 1780 and had strived unsuccessfully to do so for the remainder of the year.1 Early in 1781 he redoubled his efforts and on 1 March contracted with Jean de Neufville & Fils to borrow one million guilders.2 It was soon clear that the Anglo-Dutch war and the refusal of the Dutch Republic to recognize the United States made it impossible to raise such a sum on behalf of the United States; but Adams had done his duty under his commission and, however much the failure might damage his reputation, he believed it was a risk worth taking.3

For John Adams the arrival of his commission and instructions as minister to the Netherlands in mid-March was a call to action. Convinced that Dutch recognition of the United States was the key to obtaining the much needed loan, Adams embarked on the most daring initiative of his diplomatic career. His memorial to the States General dated 19 April, but presented on 4 May, was a passionate, forthright appeal for immediate recognition.4 Adams emphasized the economic and political benefits that would follow from a formal acknowledgment of American independence and left no doubt that failure to act would entail grave risks for the Netherlands. His commentary on the nature of the American Revolution and the origins xviof that “immortal Declaration” of 4 July 1776 made the memorial more than a routine instrument of diplomacy; it offered the Dutch and other Europeans a radical vision of the ordinary citizen's role in determining his or her political fate. Fully as daring as the initiative itself was John Adams' decision to publish the memorial as a pamphlet in English, French, and Dutch in order to ensure that it reached the widest possible audience and prevent the States General from tabling and ignoring it.

John Adams' correspondence provides a clear and comprehensive record of American diplomacy in the Netherlands. This is particularly true of his letters to the president of Congress. Equally important are the many letters that Adams exchanged with C. W. F. Dumas, who acted as his agent, translator, and advisor throughout the period. The correspondence with Dumas and that with the French ambassador, the Duc de La Vauguyon, illuminates both the circumstances that led Adams to present his memorial and French reservations about his initiative. Even more revealing, however, are the comments that Adams made years later when he published many of his letters in the Boston Patriot; his remarks appear here in the annotation.

John Adams' efforts in the Netherlands were not France's major concern in 1781. At the suggestion of Great Britain, Austria and Russia offered to act as mediators of the Anglo-French war, and with the conflict stalemated in the early months of 1781 such an alternative to military victory held some attraction for France. The prospect of mediation moved the Congress in June, at the behest of the French minister, the Chevalier de La Luzerne, to remove John Adams as the sole peace negotiator and transfer his powers to a five-man commission, of which he was the first named member. It also modified its peace ultimata so as to place the United States commissioners firmly under French control.5 But the Comte de Vergennes needed to make a decision about mediation before news of Congress' action could reach Europe and he summoned Adams to Paris in July for consultations. In the resulting correspondence, far more extensive on Adams' part, the American minister argued passionately that the United States was fully and unambiguously independent and sovereign and could not participate in any negotiations unless it was recognized as such beforehand.6 Because he was the only American then authorized xviito negotiate, Adams' arguments played a role in France's decision to reject the mediation, but so too did British intransigence and the improving military situation in the United States.

In late August, soon after his return to the Netherlands from Paris, John Adams fell dangerously ill. He would later write that “My Feet had well nigh Stumbled on the dark mountains.”7 Adams' illness has long piqued the curiosity of his biographers, resulting in much speculation about its nature. The editors of this volume share that curiosity because the illness resulted in a six-week period during which he wrote no letters and did no business. They have concluded that an exact diagnosis, based as it must be on incomplete and imprecise testimony about the nature and progress of the disease, is impossible from a distance of over two hundred years.8

John Adams' correspondents in this volume change little from those in volume 10. Edmund Jenings continued to provide intelligence from England and to serve as a sounding board for Adams' observations on peace negotiations and the progress of his efforts for Dutch recognition and a loan. In the Netherlands Adams corresponded with members of the patriot or anti-stadholder party, most notably François Adriaan Van der Kemp, Joan Derk van der Capellen tot den Pol, Jean Luzac, and Antoine Marie Cerisier. Together with bankers such as Hendrik Bicker, Nicolaas and Jacob van Staphorst, and Jean de Neufville, they advised Adams on how to proceed, both with bankers in Amsterdam, where he lived, and with government officials at The Hague, which he visited frequently. With a missionary's zeal Adams sought to increase European understanding of the United States and the American Revolution through frequent contributions to Antoine Marie Cerisier's Le politique hollandais, the Gazette d'Amsterdam, and, to a lesser degree than previously, the Gazette de Leyde. Adams' friend and official secretary, Francis Dana, was an indispensable source of intelligence and advice, first from Paris and then from St. Petersburg, to which he, as the newly appointed (but never recognized) United States minister, traveled with John Quincy Adams in mid-1781. Adams' other correspondents included familiar names such as Thomas Digges, William Lee, John Bondfield, Jonathan Williams, Joshua Johnson, and John Jay.

Adams' correspondence with Benjamin Franklin was extensive and xviiiimportant throughout the period. Their letters discussed the perilous financial position of the United States in Europe: the problems resulting from John Laurens' efforts to raise money in France and the Netherlands, the fate of the goods left in the Netherlands by Alexander Gillon, the progress of Adams' efforts to raise a Dutch loan, and, perhaps most importantly, the difficulties that Congress caused by irresponsibly issuing bills of exchange without knowing if funds were available to pay them. Indeed, Franklin offered to share Adams' cell should the bills be protested and he be thrown into debtors prison.9 Perhaps the most important conclusion to be drawn from the Adams-Franklin correspondence is how little their views differed regarding the business before them.

The documents included in this volume offer an unparalleled view of John Adams the diplomat. They trace his first efforts to chart a course through the tricky shoals of Dutch politics. They delineate his views of the Dutch nation, the prospects for an Anglo-American peace, the European political situation, and those with whom he came into contact during his quest for recognition. The volume begins with Adams depressed at his failures in 1780 and end with him fighting for his life against the ravages of a debilitating illness. In the interim he laid the groundwork for what he would forever believe to be his greatest diplomatic victory: Dutch recognition of United States independence.

Volume 11 of the Papers of John Adams chronicles nine months of John Adams' diplomatic career. The 332 letters printed, 32 letters calendared, and 82 letters omitted from this volume must be considered in conjunction with the 115 letters for the same period printed in the Adams Family Correspondence , 4:57–223. Those letters provide additional information on Congress' decision to create a five-member peace commission, the voyage of the South Carolina with Charles Adams as a passenger, John Quincy Adams' journey to Russia with Francis Dana, and other important topics. In addition to Abigail Adams, John Adams' most important correspondents are John Quincy Adams, Richard Cranch, John Thaxter, William Jackson (Charles Adams' shipboard guardian), Isaac Smith Sr., and Cotton Tufts. Finally, the Diary and Autobiography of John Adams , especially 2:451–458, contains important details on Adams' activities in the Netherlands, and the Diary of John Quincy Adams, 1:76–101, chronicles the younger Adams' journey to St. Petersburg with Francis Dana.

John Adams and His Letterbooks

John Adams' Letterbooks continue to be of great benefit to the editors of the Papers of John Adams. They were also very useful to John Adams in his lifetime. The editors have used the Letterbooks to reconstruct Adams' correspondence when the recipient's copies of letters have been lost, as well as to trace the drafting process of letters and important documents, such as Adams' memorial of 19 April 1781 to the States General of the Netherlands. John Adams kept Letterbooks in order to retain a record of his diplomatic activities and as a defense against charges by his critics in Congress and elsewhere.10 It was Adams' need to defend and explain his actions that led him in retirement to turn to his Letterbooks as the source both for letters copied into his Autobiography and for those that he published in the Boston Patriot from 1809 to 1811.

For the period covered by this volume, John Adams used four Letterbooks—numbered 13, 14, 16, and 17—that appear respectively on reels 101, 102, 104, and 105 of the Adams Papers microfilm edition. For detailed descriptions of the first two, which contain copies of public and private letters written between 14 August 1780 and 26 April 1782, see the Introduction to volumes 9 and 10.11

Letterbook 16, entitled “Holland Vol. 2,” contains letters and documents for the period from 8 March 1781 to 29 March 1782. All, in one way or another, document Adams' efforts to achieve Dutch recognition of the United States and his own admission as minister. Included are his letters to the president of Congress and to the secretary for foreign affairs, drafts of his memorial of 19 April 1781 and “Requisition Verbale” of 9 January 1782 to the States General, and, as the Dutch decision to recognize the United States drew near, copies of petitions and addresses from various Dutch cities and towns demanding such action.

Letterbook 17 is entitled “Mediation of The Imperial Courts 1781.” The first 33 pages contain copies of letters and documents exchanged with the Comte de Vergennes in July 1781 when Adams visited Paris to confer with the French foreign minister over the Austro-Russian mediation proposal. They are followed by copies of letters, also relating to the mediation, from the French minister at St. Petersburg to Francis Dana, which Dana sent to Adams for his information. Also xxincluded is a loose four-page document dated 10 December 1780 and entitled “List of Letters received by Congress from the Honble. John Adams since the 30th of July last.” The final 133 pages of the Letterbook are blank.

Notes on Editorial Method

With the publication of volume 11 of the Papers of John Adams, Adams Papers volumes will appear singly, rather than in two-volume sets. The editorial apparatus, however, will remain the same. Each volume will begin with an introduction and close with a list of omitted documents and an index. The editors of the series will continue to follow the principles set down in previous volumes, see especially the Notes on Editorial Method in volumes 1 and 9.

Eleven documents written by John Thaxter for John Adams are calendared or printed in volume 11. They include John Thaxter's letters to the president of Congress written at Amsterdam in July 1781 while John Adams was at Paris, and those he wrote for Adams during the latter's illness.12

The use of ciphers and codes by Adams and his correspondents is also noteworthy. The Lovell cipher, first appearing in volume 9, is used in letters from the president of Congress, the Committee for Foreign Affairs, and James Lovell. These letters contain long passages consisting solely of numbers. In accordance with past practice, the editors have replaced the cipher numbers with the deciphered text between double parallel lines.13 Lovell and his contemporaries often made mistakes when enciphering the passages. The most frequent was the failure to take the cipher number from the correct column of numbers in the proper sequence. John Adams recognized such errors and adjusted his decipherment accordingly. The editors, following his lead, have ignored such slips. When words are misspelled, however, or when cipher numbers are omitted, repeated, or entered in no coherent sequence the resulting, sometimes garbled, text is printed within the double parallel lines. When necessary, the editors xxihave consulted retained copies of the letters to supply a coherent decipherment in the notes. The editors have taken a different course in dealing with the code Adams and Dana used in their correspondence in early 1781. Because they employed distinctive code names for individuals, the names have been retained in the printed text and are followed immediately by the plain text equivalents between double parallel lines.14


For JA's commission of 20 June 1780 and its arrival see vol. 9:452–453; for his efforts to raise a loan in 1780, see vol. 10:index.


Contract for a Loan with Jean de Neufville & Fils, 1 March , below. See also the draft contracts of 22 Jan. and ante 2 Feb. and the Plan for the Negotiation of a Dutch Loan, ca. 24 Feb. , all below.


To Jean de Neufville & Fils, 27 March, below. For JA's retrospective justification of his decision to contract with the Neufville firm for the loan, as well as a very critical appraisal of that decision by the Amsterdam mercantile firm of Nicolaas & Jacob van Staphorst, see his letter of 2 Feb. to Jean de Neufville & Fils, note 4, below.


See JA's memorial of 19 April to the States General, and note 1; and his letters of 3 and 7 May to the president of Congress, all below. See also Descriptive List of Illustrations, No. 4, above.


See Commissions and Instructions for Mediation and Peace, 15 June, below; see also Descriptive List of Illustrations, Nos. 6 and 7, above.


The Comte de Vergennes wrote to JA only once, on 18 July; JA wrote to the foreign minister on 7, 13, 16, 18, 19, and 21 July, all below.


To C. W. F. Dumas, 18 Oct. (LbC, Adams Papers).


For an account of JA's illness and various diagnoses that have been proposed, see note 1 to his letter of 25 Aug. to Benjamin Franklin, below.


From Benjamin Franklin, 22 Feb., below.


Vol. 7:427.


“John Adams and His Letterbooks,” vol. 9:xix–xx.


The letters Thaxter wrote to the president of Congress are dated 7 ( 2 first and second ), 10, 13 ( 2 first and second ), 17, and 21 July, all calendared below. Those written during JA's illness are of 30 Aug. to Benjamin Franklin; 10 and 24 Sept. to C. W. F. Dumas; and 19 Sept. to Joseph Reed, all below.


For an example of the treatment of text enciphered with the Lovell cipher, see James Lovell's letter of 2 Jan., below; for an explanation of the cipher, see vol. 9:271–272; Adams Family Correspondence , 4:393–399.


See the code used by John Adams, Francis Dana, and James Searle, ca. 14 Jan. , below, and Descriptive List of Illustrations, No. 1, above; for an example of the treatment of the encoded text, see Francis Dana's letter of 1 Jan., below.