Papers of John Adams, volume 11

III. Instructions to the Joint Commission to Negotiate a Peace Treaty, 15 June 1781 President of Congress Huntington, Samuel JA Franklin, Benjamin Jefferson, Thomas Jay, John Laurens, Henry


III. Instructions to the Joint Commission to Negotiate a Peace Treaty, 15 June 1781 President of Congress Huntington, Samuel Adams, John Franklin, Benjamin Jefferson, Thomas Jay, John Laurens, Henry
III. Instructions to the Joint Commission to Negotiate a Peace Treaty
15 June 1781

Instructions to the Honble. John Adams Benjamin Franklin John Jay Henry Laurens and Thomas Jefferson ministers plenipotentiary in behalf of the United States to negotiate a Treaty of Peace1


You are hereby authorized and instructed to concur in behalf of these United States with his most Christian Majesty in accepting the Mediation proposed by the Empress of Russia and the Emperor of Germany.2

You are to acceed to no Treaty of Peace which shall not be such as may 1st. effectually secure the Independence and Sovereignty of the thirteen United3 States4 according to the form & effect of the treaties subsisting between the said States & his most Christian Majesty and in which the said treaties shall not be5 ft in their full Force and Validity.

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As to disputed boundaries and 6 other particulars we refer you to the Instructions given to Mr. John Adams dated 14 August 1779 and 18 October 17807 from which you will easily8 the Desires and Expectations of Congress but we think it unsafe at this disdistance to tye you up by absolute and preremptory directions upon any other subject than the two essential Articles abovementioned.9 You are therefore at liberty to secure the Interest of the United States in such manner as circumstances may direct and as the state of the belligerent and disposition of the mediating powers may require. For this purpose you are to make the most candid & confidential communications to thc ministers of 10 our generous Ally the King of France to undertake nothing in the Negotiations for Peace or truce without their knowledge & concurrence & ultimately to govern yourselves by their advice & opinion endeavouring in your whole Conduct11 to make them sensible how much we rely upon his majestys influence for effectual support in every Thing that may be necessary to the present security or future Prosperity of the United States of America.

If a Difficulty should arise in the Course of the Negotiations for Peace from the backwardness of Britain to make a formal acknowledgment of our independence you are at liberty to agree to a trucc or to make such other concessions as may not affect the substance of what we contend for; and provided Great Britain be not left in possession of any part of the thirteen12 States.13

Saml. Huntington President Witnessed this day by Chas Thomson secy.

RC in James Lovell's hand (Adams Papers); endorsed: “Instructions to J. Adams B Franklin J. Jay H. Laurens T. Jefferson”; notation: “Mr. J.A.”; enclosed with the president of Congress' letter of 5 July and filmed under that date (Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 355). JA apparently deciphered only parts of the enciphered text, interlining the letters above Lovell's numbers. These passages are indicated in the notes. Significant differences between the RC and the instructions as adopted by Congress are indicated in the notes.


Compare these instructions with those JA had previously received of 16 Oct. 1779 and 18 Oct. 1780 (JA, Diary and Autobiography, 4:181–183; vol. 10:278–280). See also notes 2, 9, and 14, below.


This instruction survived intact from introduction to adoption, but had no effect because when it reached Europe the Austro-Russian mediation was no longer an option. Its presence, however, indicated a decisive change in the way in which the U.S. would participate in peace negotiations. Unlike JA's instructions of 16 Oct. 1779, the new directions from Congress did not establish as a precondition to negotiations that Great Britain treat with the U.S. as a free and independent country. It was JA's uncertainty about the status of the U.S. at any negotiations conducted under the aegis of Austria and Russia that led him to reject the mediation when he met with the Comte de Vergennes in July, for which see his correspondence with Vergennes, below.

377 3.

This word does not appear in the instructions as adopted by Congress ( JCC , 20:651).


The text in this paragraph to this point represents the only instance in which the instructions were strengthened in the course of the congressional debates. Initially it was joined to the first instruction and read “but to accede to any treaty of peace which may be the result thereof the Austro-Russian mediation in which the independence and sovereignty of the thirteen United States is effectually assured to them” (same, 20:605–606).


JA deciphered all of the enciphered passages in this paragraph to this point. He probably stopped because James Lovell left out the next two cipher numbers. As adopted by Congress the next word should read “left.”


This the only passage that JA deciphered in this paragraph. This is significant because this paragraph is the most important in the instructions, containing as it does the injunction to the peace commissioners that they fully inform the French ministers of the progress of the negotiations and govern themselves by the “advice & opinion” they received therefrom. It may explain why JA did not comment on that aspect of the instructions until after he reached Paris in 1782 to join the negotiations, and it substantiates his assertion in his journal that he had never seen that instruction until he arrived at Paris ( Diary and Autobiography , 3:38).


JA's instructions of 1779 were adopted on 14 Aug., but dated 16 Oct. ( JCC , 14:956–960; JA, Diary and Autobiography , 4:181). Congress issued additional instructions on 18 Oct. 1780, see vol. 10:278–280.


At this point Lovell omitted the word “perceive” ( JCC , 20:651).


This paragraph, to this point, is significant for two reasons. It represents an effort by Congress to avoid revisiting the question of national boundaries, a contentious issue for both interstate and Franco-American relations. On 7 and 8 June proposals to reopen the matter were rejected and the text of the instructions remained virtually the same throughout the debates; the only significant addition was the specific reference to JA's former instructions ( JCC , 20:608–609, 611–613).

Of even more importance, particularly for JA, was the statement that set down independence and the sanctity of the Franco-American treaties as the only ultimata for an Anglo-American peace treaty. This was a striking departure from JA's original instructions, which declared the northern boundary of the U.S. on the Great Lakes and the western boundary on the Mississippi River to be sine qua non for any treaty. This alteration was a severe blow to southern states, particularly Virginia, that claimed land bordering the Mississippi, and it created a sectional conflict because the preservation of U.S. fishing rights on the banks of Newfoundland remained the sine qua non for the Anglo-American commercial treaty for which JA also had received a commission in 1779 (JA, Diary and Autobiography , 4:183–184).


As adopted by Congress, the passage reads “candid and confidential communications upon all subjects to the ministers of” ( JCC , 20:651).


The passage beginning with the word “ultimately” and continuing to this point was inserted on 11 June, following a conference with the Chevalier de La Luzerne (same, 20:625– 627). For a detailed description of that meeting and its results see the Editorial Note, above.


At this point Lovell omitted the word “United” ( JCC , 20:652).


JA deciphered all of the enciphered passages in this paragraph.

JA's original instructions provided for the suspension of hostilities during negotiations on the condition that all British forces be withdrawn from the territory of the United States (JA, Diary and Autobiography , 4:183). In 1780 Congress responded to JA's request for guidance by modifying its position and authorizing a long truce if such would constitute Britain's “virtual relinquishment of the object of the war” (vol. 9:80–83; 10:278–280). This paragraph is a further modification that sets even looser parameters for a truce than the instructions of 1780.