Papers of John Adams, volume 11

To Benjamin Franklin, 25 August 1781 JA Franklin, Benjamin


To Benjamin Franklin, 25 August 1781 Adams, John Franklin, Benjamin
To Benjamin Franklin
Sir Amsterdam August 25th. 1781 1

Last Evening I recieved your Excellency's Letter of the 16th. of this month, accompanied with a Letter from the President of Congress containing the Commissions You mention.2

You desire to know what Steps have already been taken in this business.3 There has been no Step taken by me, in pursuance of my former Commission, until my late Journey to Paris at the Invitation of the Comte de Vergennes, who communicated to me certain Articles, proposed by the mediating Courts, and desired me to make such Observations upon them, as should occur to me. Accordingly I wrote a Number of Letters to his Excellency of the following Dates, July 13th. inclosing an answer to the Articles, 16th. 18th. 19th. 21st.4 I would readily send You Copies of the Articles and of those Letters, but there are matters in them, which had better not be trusted to go so long a Journey, especially as there is no Necessity for it.

The Comte de Vergennes will readily give You Copies of the Articles and of my Letters, which will prevent all risque.

I am very apprehensive that our new Commission will be as useless as my old one. Congress might very safely I believe permit Us all to go home, if We find no other business5, and stay there some Years: at least until every British Soldier in the United States is killed or captivated. Till then Britain will never think of Peace, but for the purposes of Chicanery.


I see in the Papers, that the British Ambassador at Petersbourg has recieved an Answer from his Court to the Articles.6 What this Answer is, We may conjecture from the King's Speech. Yet the Empress of Russia has made an Insinuation to their high Mightinesses, which deserves Attention. Perhaps You may have seen it: but lest You should not, I will add a Translation of it, which I sent to Congress in the time of it, not having the original at hand.7

“The Affection of the Empress to the Interests of the Republick of the United Provinces, and her desire to see re established, by a prompt Reconciliation, a Peace and good Harmony between the two maritime Powers, have been sufficiently manifested by the Step which she had taken, in offering them her seperate Mediation.

“If She has not had the desired Success, her Imperial Majesty has only been for that Reason the more attentive to search out means capable of conducting her to it. One such mean offers itself in the combined Mediation of the two Imperial Courts, under the Auspices of which it is to be treated at Vienna (il doit être traité a Vienne) of a general Pacification of the Courts actually at War. It is only necessary for the Republick to regulate itself in the same manner. Her Imperial Majesty, by an effect of her friendship for it, imposing upon herself the Task of bringing her Co-mediator into an Agreement, to share with her the Cares and the good Offices, which She has displayed in its favor As soon as it shall please their high Mightinesses to make known their Intentions in this regard to Mr. the Prince de Gallitzin, the Envoy of the Empress at the Hague, charged to make to them the same Insinuation: this last will write of it immediately to the Minister of her Imperial Majesty at Vienna, who will not fail to take with that Court the Arrangements which are prescribed to him, to the end to proceed in this affair by the same formalities, which We have made use of with the other Powers. Her Imperial Majesty flatters herself, that the Republick will recieve this Overture, as a fresh proof of her Benevolence, and of the Attention which She preserves, to cultivate the Ties of that friendship and of that Alliance which subsists between them.”

I must beg the favour of your Excellency to communicate to me whatever You may learn, which has any Connection with this Negotiation, particularly the French, Spanish and British Answers to the Articles, as soon as You can obtain them. In my Situation, it is not likely I shall obtain any Information of Consequence, but from the French Court. Whatever may come to my Knowledge, I will communicate to You without delay.


If Britain persists in her two Preliminaries, as I presume She does, what will be the Consequence? Will the two Imperial Courts permit this great plan, of a Congress at Vienna, which is public and made the common talk of Europe, to become another sublime Bubble, like the armed Neutrality? In what a light will these mediating Courts appear, after having listened to a Proposition of England, so far as to make Propositions themselves, and to refer to them in many public Acts, if Britain refuses to agree to them? and insists upon such Preliminaries as are at least an Insult to France and America, and a kind of Contempt to the common Sense of all Europe.

Upon my word I am weary of such round about and endless Negotiations, as that of the armed Neutrality and this of the Congress at Vienna. I think the Dutch have at last discovered the only effectual Method of Negotiation, that is by fighting the British Fleets, until every Ship is obliged to answer the Signal for renewing the Battle by the signal of distress. There is no Room for British Chicanery in this. If I ever did any good since I was born, it was in stirring up the pure Minds of the Dutchmen, and setting the old Batavian Spirit in motion, after having slept so long. Our dear Country will go fast to sleep, in full Assurance of having News of Peace by Winter, if not by the first Vessel. Allass! what a disappointment they will meet.8 I believe I had better go home and wake up our Countrymen out of their Reveries about Peace. Congress have done very well to join others in the Commission for Peace.9 My Talent, if I have one lies in making War. The Grand Segnior will finish the Proces des trois Rois sooner than the Congress at Vienna will make Peace, unless10 the two Imperial Courts act with Dignity and Consistency upon the occasion, and acknowledge American Independency at once, upon Britain's insisting on her two insolent Preliminaries.

I have the honor to be, Sir, Your most obedient and most humble Servant

John Adams

RC in John Thaxter's hand (PPAmP: Franklin Papers); endorsed: “J. Adams. Augt. 25 1781.” LbC (Adams Papers).


This is the last letter JA wrote until 4 October. During the intervening 39 days he suffered from a “nervous fever of a very malignant kind, and so violent as to deprive me of almost all sensibility for four or five days.” He recovered only through the “wondrous Virtue” of the “all-powerful” Peruvian bark and the ministrations of his faithful secretary John Thaxter and Dr. Nicolaas George Oosterdijk of the University of Leyden's medical faculty (to the president of Congress, 15 Oct., Wharton, ed., Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. , 4:776–779; to C. W. F. Dumas, 18 Oct., LbC, Adams Papers). JA wrote to Benjamin Franklin on 4 Oct. that it was “the first Time that I have taken a Pen in hand to write to any body, having been confined and reduced too low to do any kind of business” (Franklin, Papers , 35:556–558). Not until mid-Nov. did the volume of JA's correspondence approach its pre-470vious levels; on 14 Dec. he informed Francis Dana that he was recovering but remained “weak and lame” (MHi: Dana Family Papers; JA, Works , 7:493–495).

It cannot be said definitively what illness JA suffered from, for any diagnosis done more than two hundred years after the fact must in the end rest largely on speculation. Many of the medical terms current in the eighteenth century are either no longer used or have meanings different from those in JA's day. Dr. Oosterdijk's notes and testimony of his examination are unavailable and JA's own descriptions, those of a layman, lack precision.

The inherent difficulty of diagnosing JA's illness has not deterred some biographers from making the attempt. Peter Shaw, in the Character of John Adams (Chapel Hill, 1976, p. 150–152), and James H. Hutson, in John Adams and the Diplomacy of the American Revolution (Lexington, Ky., 1980, p. 97–98), see JA as mentally unstable, even paranoid, and conclude that his illness was psychosomatic. John Ferling, in John Adams, A Life (Knoxville, 1992, p. 237–238), wrote that JA contracted malaria, a view David McCullough shared in his John Adams (N.Y., 2001, p. 264–266). But Ferling, in an article entitled “John Adams' Health Reconsidered” that he co-authored with Lewis E. Braverman ( WMQ , 3d ser., 55:83–104 [Jan. 1998]), declared that JA was likely a victim of Graves' disease, so that his “behavior was not, as many have thought, the result of problems in his head or his heart, but in his thyroid.”

The editors believe JA's illness was physical and most likely indigenous to the Netherlands. JA wrote to Ferdinand Grand on 12 Oct. (LbC, Adams Papers) that he was the victim of “an Amsterdam Fever, which they call an Introduction to the Freedom of the City,” implying that it was normal for one foreign to Amsterdam to fall ill in the course of acclimating himself to the locale. Indeed, on 5 Oct. Benjamin Franklin wrote: “I hope this Seasoning will be the means of securing your future Health, by accommodating your Constitution to the Air of that Country” (Adams Papers; Franklin, Papers , 35:565–567). And JA later wrote that it was “the destiny of every stranger who goes into Holland to encounter either an intermittent or bilious fever within the two first years” (JA, Corr. in the Boston Patriot , p. 533).

A diagnosis of malaria is attractive because it was endemic to the Netherlands, particularly in North Holland. Physicians would have been familiar with the symptoms and with the prescribed treatment: Peruvian bark or quinine. Moreover, from their reported symptoms it is likely that JA's son CA, his servant Joseph Stephens, and his secretary John Thaxter all suffered from malaria.

But JA's descriptions of his illness are at variance with the classic symptoms of malaria. Malaria is a periodic fever, that is, the victim suffers severe chills and then a fever that reaches a peak and then subsides, only to return two or three days later. In the intervals between the fever, the patient may appear and feel in good health. JA, however, nowhere describes his fever as periodic or “tertian,” as he does CA's in the spring of 1781 ( Adams Family Correspondence , 4:108). Instead, he states that he suffered a high fever of at least five days' duration and was unable to work for well over a month.

JA's repeated statements that he suffered from a “nervous fever” present another possibility. The term “nervous fever” is another name for typhus in medical reference books of the time (Quincy's Lexicon Physico-Medicum, 8th edn., N.Y., 1802; Robert Hooper, A Compendious Medical Dictionary, Boston, 1801; The Philadelphia Medical Dictionary, Phila., 1808). Typhus causes a rapidly rising fever that peaks at 102 to 105 degrees during the first two or three days and is then sustained for another five. In the course of the fever the patient experiences delirium and, on or about the fifth day, a dark red rash of elevated spots appears. Thereafter the fever falls rapidly, assuming that the outcome is favorable (Cambridge World History of Human Disease, ed. Kenneth F. Kiple, N.Y., 1993, p. 1080–1081). The use of Peruvian bark would have reflected contemporary medical practice for typhus, because while quinine was used for malarial fevers, it was used also “for most patients who had been debilitated by continued fevers” (J. Worth Estes, Dictionary of Protopharmacology, Therapeutic Practices, 1700–1850, Canton, Mass., 1990, p. 48). These are approximately the symptoms and the treatment JA described in his letters, particularly those of 9 Oct. to his wife ( Adams Family Correspondence , 4:224), and 15 Oct. to the president of Congress (Wharton, ed., Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. , 4:776–779).

A diagnosis of typhus is intriguing, but no less speculative than others that have been proposed. Ultimately all that can be said is that JA had a serious, debilitating illness in 1781 that severely curtailed his activities for months. Its precise nature is unknown.


From the president of Congress, 20 June, 471above.


At this point in the Letterbook is the following canceled passage: “Upon my first arrival at Paris with a Commission to join in Conference for Peace, I presented a Copy of it to the Comte de Vergennes, and from that Time no one step whatever has been taken by me.” For JA's initial exchange with Vergennes over the original peace commission, see JA, Diary and Autobiography , 4:243–245, 250–254; and vol. 8:320–321, 328, 337, 362–363, 367.


All above.


At this point in the Letterbook is the canceled passage “but makin Peace.”


See JA's first letter of 6 Aug. to the president of Congress, calendared above.


JA included the following translation in his second letter of 16 Aug. to the president of Congress, calendared above. See that letter for JA's comments; for the source of the translation and the document itself, see C. W. F. Dumas' letter of 3 July, and note 1, above.


In the Letterbook JA originally ended the letter at this point, but then canceled his closing, inserted the final sentence of this paragraph, and added a new closing. After further reflection, he wrote the three sentences beginning “I believe” below the new closing and marked it for insertion at this point.


In the Letterbook this sentence ends “who have Some faculties for it.”


At this point in the Letterbook is the canceled passage “of which I have no hope.”

From Winslow Warren, 29 August 1781 Warren, Winslow JA


From Winslow Warren, 29 August 1781 Warren, Winslow Adams, John
From Winslow Warren
Sir Richlieu street Paris Augst. 29 1781

Mr. Mason here has received letters from his Father in Virginia to the 3 of June1 which inform him that at that time the Marquis la Fayette's force consisted of about 4000 men 1200 of which were Continental troops. That he would be joined in few days after that by Genl. Wayne with 12 or 1500 Men which would make his force superiour to Genl. Cornwallis but that the British had so much the advantage over the American troops upon Account of the facility with which they were Enabled to transport their troops from place to place that by the time the Militia had collected to oppose any sudden inroad they had made they had as suddenly reimbarked Carrying with them every thing they Conveniently could and what they could not they with their usual Barbarity Wantonly distroyed and rendered useless. That Very Many of the inhabitants from the highest state of affluence are by this conduct reduced to beggary. He further informs that the Militia have turned out with the Greatest Alacrity at all times but are without Arms or Ammunition for the Greater part of them. But that 1200 of them under Genrl. Muhlenburg had Maintained a desperate Action in an open field with Very Near twice their number for two hours and finally retreated carrying of with them all their wounded, artillery, &c.2 A party of the British had penetrated to Genrl. Washingtons Estate and stripped it of Negroes &c. He discribes the desolated state of the Country were the British are and have been in Very Affecting terms and also of the Countries between Charlestown and the Roanoke to be intirely ruined. He pays the 472highest encomiums to the Military Abilities of Genrl. Greene. He concludes his letter with his wishes to meet his Son soon but he hopes Never to Meet him unless they meet as free Men.

The Continental Currency their—and my Father informs me it is the same in Boston is reduced to the last stage of wretchedness which introduces confusion in Commerce and produces every evil Work. But I immagine you have letters from Boston which give you every information about the Situation of Affairs their—but have taken the Liberty of Giving you some extracts from Mr. Masons letters Not supposing it probable your intelligence was so regular from the Seat of War. Mr. Mason says they want Nothing but Arms and Ammunition and a loan of Money to drive the British intirely from that Country. I will send to your Excellency by Doctr. Faulke some American Papers if I can obtain them. I hope you arrived safe in Amsterdam after an agreable Ride and am with the Highest Respect yr: Excellencys most Obedt: & very Hum: servt:

Winslow Warren

RC (Adams Papers); addressed: “His Excellency Hon: John Adams Esqr: Amsterdam”; endorsed by John Thaxter: “Mr. Winslow Warren 29th. August 1781.” The removal of the seal has resulted in the loss of some text.


For George Mason's letters to his son, George Mason Jr., see The Papers of George Mason, 1725–1792, ed. Robert A. Rutland, 3 vols., Chapel Hill, 1970, 2:689–695. Although Winslow Warren based much of his account on two letters of 3 June, some of his references are to matters that do not appear in those letters, such as the battle the militia fought under Brig. Gen. John Peter Muhlenberg's command, the British sacking of Mt. Vernon, and the statement attributed to Mason that all that was needed to defeat the British was arms and a loan. This makes it likely that one or more additional letters from Mason to his son have not been found.


The Battle of Petersburg occurred on 24 April and matched 1,000 militia, commanded by Brig. Gen. John Peter Muhlenberg, against 2,500 British regulars, commanded by Maj. Gen. William Phillips. The British drove the Americans from the field, but they retreated in an orderly fashion after a spirited resistance (Henry A. Muhlenberg, The Life of Major General Peter Muhlenberg of the Revolutionary Army, Phila., 1849, p. 247–252).