Papers of John Adams, volume 11

368 Editorial Note Editorial Note
Editorial Note

Congress adopted three documents 15 June that represented a major victory for French diplomacy and demonstrated the Chevalier de La Luzerne's domination of Congress. In 1779 it had taken Congress several months to devise its peace ultimata and appoint a minister plenipotentiary to carry them out. In 1781 a congressional committee met with La Luzerne on 28 May and within eighteen days Congress voted to accept the Austro-Russian mediation, expand the number of peace negotiators in order to limit John Adams' influence, and entrust France with the ultimate power over the terms of the definitive peace treaty. For detailed accounts of the circumstances leading to Congress' reconsideration of its peace objectives and the process by which it was accomplished, see Stinchcombe, Amer. Rev. and the French Alliance , p. 153–169, and Morris, Peacemakers , p. 210–217.

The proposed mediation of the conflict by Austria and Russia offered the Comte de Vergennes the opportunity to bend Congress' will to the dictates of French foreign policy. If Congress bowed to French demands and accepted the mediation new commissions and instructions for its peace negotiator would be required. In the process either John Adams' powers could be severely curtailed or he could be replaced by someone more amenable to French policy. It is ironic, therefore, that the joint commission to accept the mediation (No. I, below), was the least consequential of the three documents printed here. On the very day that Congress formally approved it, Britain refused the mediation. Moreover, by the time Adams received the new commission in October, he had rejected the mediation, with French concurrence, owing to the uncertain status of the United States at the negotiations. For the origins of the Austro-Russian mediation, see Francis Dana's letter of 25 February, note 3, and John Adams' second letter of 16 May to the president of Congress, and note 1, both above; for Adams' rejection of American participation in the mediation, see his correspondence with Vergennes in July, below.

When La Luzerne met with the committee on 28 May, he disclosed 369portions of a letter from Vergennes dated 9 March. The committee reported that the foreign minister criticized John Adams' efforts to execute his powers as minister plenipotentiary to negotiate an Anglo-American peace. Vergennes believed it “necessary that Congress should draw a line of conduct to that minister of which he might not be allowed to lose sight.” Adams should be allowed “to take no step without the approbation of his Majesty” and, in the execution of his instructions, should be ordered “to receive his directions from the Count de Vergennes” or whomever the principal French negotiator might be. Such instructions were necessary if negotiations were to take place under the mediation of Austria and Russia, for it was imperative that the French and American negotiators present a united front, leaving no hint of conflict for the common enemy to exploit. In any event, Congress needed to act quickly, for although the proffered mediation was “dilatory,” it would not remain so forever. The conference closed with La Luzerne's exhortation to prosecute the war with the utmost vigor in order to avoid a peace based on the territory then occupied by the belligerents or uti posseditis ( JCC , 20:562–569).

The Congress acted with dispatch. On 1 June it sent a circular letter to the states that informed them of the Austro-Russian mediation but warned that a peace founded on uti posseditis was a distinct possibility if the war effort was not pressed with determination. On 8 June, after much debate, Congress agreed to a preliminary form of the instructions in which it accepted the mediation, set down its position regarding boundaries, and required the American negotiator to be guided by French advice. On the 9th, a Saturday, it approved an instruction authorizing a truce if such was necessary, but it rejected a proposal to expand the number of negotiators. On the 11th, after fresh consultations with La Luzerne, Congress amended the instructions to restrict further the latitude of the American negotiator and resolved to expand the number of negotiators, electing John Jay on the 13th and Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and Thomas Jefferson on the 14th (same, 20:585–587, 601, 605–607, 608–610, 611–619, 625–628, 638, 648). For the specific changes made in the course of Congress' deliberations, see the notes to the instructions (No. III), below.

In just over two weeks La Luzerne persuaded Congress to retreat from the peace ultimata it had so laboriously forged in 1779. La Luzerne achieved his victory in part through his skills as a diplomat, but he was dealing with a far different Congress from that which acted in 1779. Six years of war, coupled with Charleston's fall, Cornwallis' southern campaign, British incursions in Virginia, the Franco-American army's inability to act against New York, and the collapse of American finances, all in the previous twelve months, had produced a war-weariness that made Congress amenable to peace on almost any terms. Indeed, by its votes in June 1781, Congress proved willing to eliminate “itself from any prominent role in foreign affairs for the remainder of the Revolution” (Stinchcombe, Amer. Rev. and the French Alliance , p. 169). It would be much more difficult, however, for France to enforce the terms of La Luzerne's victory on John Adams, John 370Jay, and Benjamin Franklin in 1782 when, in the wake of Yorktown and the Battle of the Saints, the British presented them with peace proposals far more favorable than anyone could have expected.

The president of Congress wrote to John Adams on 20 June, below, to inform him of its action and enclosed a set of commissions and instructions. The packet of 20 June went by the same vessel that carried dispatches to Benjamin Franklin and reached Passy on 15 August. Franklin immediately forwarded the packet under a covering letter of 16 August and Adams acknowledged its receipt on the 25th (both below). The president of Congress sent another set of the commissions and instructions under a cover letter of 5 July (Adams Papers), but it is not known when John Adams received it. There are no notations on any of the enclosures to indicate which were sent with each covering letter. The copy of the instructions (No. III, below) printed in this volume is that which John Adams partially deciphered and is now with the covering letter of 5 July in the Adams Papers.

I. Joint Commission to Accept the Mediation of Russia and Austria, 15 June 1781 President of Congress Huntington, Samuel JA Franklin, Benjamin Jefferson, Thomas Jay, John Laurens, Henry I. Joint Commission to Accept the Mediation of Russia and Austria, 15 June 1781 President of Congress Huntington, Samuel Adams, John Franklin, Benjamin Jefferson, Thomas Jay, John Laurens, Henry
I. Joint Commission to Accept the Mediation of Russia and Austria
15 June 1781 1

The united States of America, To all to whom these Presents shall come send Greeting.

Whereas his most Christian Majesty our great and beloved Friend and Ally hath informed us by his Minister Plenipotentiary whom he hath appointed to reside near us, that their Imperial Majesties the Empress of Russia and the Emperor of Germany2 actuated by Sentiments of Humanity and a desire to put a Stop to the Calamities of War, have offered their Mediation to the belligerent Powers in Order to promote Peace.

Now know ye, that We desirous as far as depends upon us to put a Stop to the Effusion of Blood and convince all the Powers of Europe that we wish for nothing more ardently than to terminate the War by a safe and honorable Peace, relying on the Justice of our cause, and persuaded of the Wisdom and Equity of their Imperial Majesties who have so generously interposed their good Offices for promoting so salutary a Measure, have constituted and appointed, And, by these Presents, do constitute and appoint, our trusty and well beloved the Honorable John Adams late a Delegate in Congress from the State of Massachusetts, the honorable Benjamin Franklin our Minister at the Court of France, the honorable John Jay late President of Congress and now our Minister at the Court of Madrid, the honorable Henry Laurens formerly President of Congress and commissioned 371and sent as our Agent to the United Provinces of the Netherlands, and the honorable Thomas Jefferson Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, our Ministers Plenipotentiary, Giving and granting to them, or such of them as shall assemble, or in Case of death, Absence, Indisposition or other Impediment of the others, to any one of them, full Power and Authority in our Name and on our behalf, in Concurrence with his most Christian Majesty to accept in due form the Mediation of their Imperial Majesties the Empress of Russia and the Emperor of Germany.

In Testimony whereof we have caused these Presents to be signed by our President and Sealed with his Seal.

Done at Philadelphia this fifteenth day of June in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Seven hundred and eighty one, and in the fifth Year of our Independence, By the United States in Congress assembled.

Sam Huntington President Attest Chas Thomson secy.

RC (Adams Papers); endorsed: “Commission 15 June 1781, to J. Adams B. Franklin J. Jay H. Laurens T. Jefferson.” This commission was enclosed with the president of Congress' letter of 20 June, below, and is filmed under that date (Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 354).


Although approved on 15 June, the JCC does not contain the final text of the joint commission. For a draft of the commission, see the note inserted by the editors at the reference to its passage ( JCC , 20:655).


This copy of the commission is for Russia because it refers first to the “Empress of Russia.” A second copy of the commission in the Adams Papers, also inclosed with the president of Congress' letter of 20 June, was intended for Austria because it refers to “their Imperial Majesties the Emperor of Germany and the Empress of Russia.”