Papers of John Adams, volume 14

From Robert R. Livingston, 19 December 1782 Livingston, Robert R. Adams, John
From Robert R. Livingston
No: 14: Sir Philadelphia, 19th December 1782

The enclosed Letter for Mr Dana you will open & peruse—it may possibly contain information that may be of use to you which it will be unnecessary to repeat here—1 I mentioned in my last Mr Jefferson's appointment, I have the pleasure of adding now that I have received an account from him of his acceptance of the place—2 He will be here in the course of ten or twelve days & sail with Count de Rochambeau, who proposes to return to France— The French Troops have embarked with the Marquis de Vaudreuil, & are to sail 139for the West Indies, unless they Should receive counter orders by a frigate which is now in the river— Her Letters are not yet come up, as She unfortunately run on shore at Dover it is yet uncertain whether She will be saved—3 The great political question which at present engages the attention of Congress, is the means of providing for the payment of the public debts, or at least establishing such funds for the regular discharge of the interest as may set their creditors at ease as to their capitals— It was imagined that a duty of five per cent upon all imports would afford a fund adequate to this— Congress accordingly recommended it to the several states to impose the duty They have all complied except Rhode Island, her refusal renders the other laws nugatory, as they contain clauses suspending their operation till the measure is generally adopted— Congress are about to send down a Committee to endeavour to prevail upon Rhode Island to comply with a measure that they deem so essential to public credit—4 It is extremely difficult in a Country So little used to taxes as ours is, to lay them directly—& almost impossible to impose them so equally as not to render them too oppressive on some members of the community, while others contribute little or nothing— This difficulty is encreased by the continual change of property in this Country, & by the small proportion the income bears to the value of lands.

By a short Letter just received from Mr Jay, it appears that England has at length Swallowed the bitter pill, & agreed to treat with the “thirteen United states of America”— I am still at a loss to account for this commission's being directed to Mr Oswald, while Mr Fitzherbert's continues in force, or is that revoked? I will not trouble myself with guesses as I must receive dispatches to day which will explain the mystery, if either Mr Franklin or Mr Jay have kept their words with me.5

I have the honor to be, sir / with great regard & esteem / Your most obedient / & most humble servant

RR Livingston

RC and enclosures (Adams Papers); internal address: “Honble. John Adams—”; endorsed by John Thaxter: “No. 14. / Secy. Livingston / 19. Decr. 1782.” For the enclosures, see note 1. Dupl (Adams Papers).


This is likely Livingston's letter of 17 Dec. in which he, because of the “difficulty of conveying letters” to Dana, provided a lengthy summary of events over the past year, but no copy has been found in the Adams Papers (Wharton, Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. , 6:144–149). However, filed with Livingston's 19 Dec. letter in the Adams Papers are four documents: (1) Livingston's letter of 29 May to Dana concerning the Asgill affair; (2) Congress’ 27 May resolution instructing Dana not to present his letters of credence until he had been recognized in his official capacity; (3) Congress’ 18 Nov. resolution appointing Thomas Barclay to settle accounts in Europe; and (4) Congress’ 3 Dec. 140resolution to accept Livingston's resignation but continue him in office until 19 Dec. when a new secretary was to be chosen (same, 5:446–447; JCC , 22:301; 23:728–730, 759). The first two documents were more likely enclosed with Livingston's letter to JA of 29 May (vol. 13:84–85). There is no indication of how or when the third and fourth documents were received.


Livingston's last was of 18 Nov., above. For Jefferson's mission, see note 2 to that letter.


The 26-gun French frigate Danaé, which sailed from Rochefort on 8 Nov., was saved after running aground during a snowstorm (Smith, Letters of Delegates , 19:494; Dull, French Navy and Amer. Independence , p. 356).


On 3 Feb. 1781, Congress adopted a 5 percent impost on goods imported into the United States. Support for the tax grew as the financial situation of the nation declined; by the end of 1782 all states but Rhode Island had approved the levy, the revenue from which would have significantly strengthened the power of the government in Philadelphia. As a result, on 6 Dec. Congress resolved to send a delegation to Rhode Island to urge upon the state the “absolute necessity” of complying with the tax. The delegation, composed of Samuel Osgood, Thomas Mifflin, and Abner Nash, set off but returned when it learned that Virginia had reconsidered and now rejected the tax. Virginia's defection sounded the death knell for the impost of 1781 ( JCC , 19:110–113, 23:770–772; E. James Ferguson, The Power of the Purse, Chapel Hill, N.C., 1961, p. 116–117, 152–153).


The difference was that Alleyne Fitzherbert's commission of 24 July authorized him to negotiate with France, the Netherlands, and “all Princes and states whom it may concern,” while Richard Oswald's commission of 21 Sept. permitted him to negotiate with the “United States of America” (vol. 13:243–244, 249, 483–485). Since neither Benjamin Franklin nor John Jay would negotiate with a British representative not specifically authorized to deal with the United States, Oswald was the only person with whom they would negotiate. See, for example, the letters to Livingston from Jay and Franklin of 13 and 14 Oct., respectively, which reached Congress on 23 Dec. (Wharton, Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. , 5:809, 811–812; PCC, No. 185, III, f. 50).

Henry Laurens’ Account of a Conversation with John Adams on the Peace Negotiations, 19 December 1782 Laurens, Henry
Henry Laurens’ Account of a Conversation with John Adams on the Peace Negotiations
Thursday 19th. Decem 1782—

Waited on Mr. Adams this Morning & after our conversation on Mr. Bridgen's affair as related in P. S. of a Letter to him.1 We entered upon the topic of our late preliminaries, I repeated my apprehensions of our having done wrong. Mr. Adams persevered in his old opinion & in censuring Count de Vergennes upon whom he said the whole blame would fall, he had been a greater Enemy to the United States than even the British Ministry that if his conduct was explained to the Court of France he was sure, the Count could not possibly hold his place

I replied “that maybe for aught I know but tis certain our Instructions have been broken & so far he has an advantage over us” Mr. A. replied, “they were very foolish & unfortunate Instructions I dare say of his procuring by a small majority in Congress.”—2 then grew very warm & a little inconsistent, said the Court of France in his real belief never wished for our Independce they had never asked as 141if they did they had assisted America only from hand to mouth as it were but never as if they wished her to be Independt. & much more in the same strain chiefly angry repetition— “But that's not the whole said I Congress have pledged themselves to the World in their Resolve of the 4th. October last, in which they solemnly promise not even to discuss propositions from the Court of London without the confidence & concurrence of France, this has been published in Philadelphia, in New York & in many of the London News Papers—Mr. A. said he not seen it. I promised to send it to him.—3 I asked Mr. A. pray Sir how came we by that Letter of Monsr. Marbois? I had it said he from Mr Jay— this being an indirect & unsatisfactory answer, I asked again— You can tell me Sir how Mr. Jay came by it—he paused a moment & replied Mr. Jay can best answer that question here a profound silence ensued, in about a minute Mr. Adams said, I suppose he got it from the English Commissioners, they intercepted the Letter.4

these indirect answers shew a want of confidence on the part of Mr. Adams who is not ignorant of a tittle. I took my leave.

MS (ScL [ScU]:Kendall Coll.).


Laurens is presumably referring to his postscript of 19 Dec. to his 18 Dec. letter to Edward Bridgen (Laurens, Papers , 16:88–90.). At issue was JA's decision to write separately to Robert R. Livingston on 14 Dec. concerning Bridgen's proposal to supply Congress with copper blanks for coins rather than to send the proposal as an enclosure to a joint letter from the commissioners. For JA's second letter of the 14 Dec. and the commissioners’ letter of 20 Dec., both enclosing Bridgen's proposal but neither of them printed here, see JA's first letter of 14 Dec. to Livingston, note 1, above.


From this point to the following dash, Laurens’ comment is written in the left margin and marked for insertion at this point.


On 4 Oct. Congress resolved that the United States would “inviolably adhere to the treaty of alliance with his Most Christian Majesty, and conclude neither a seperate peace or truce with Great Britain” and that it would “not enter into the discussion of any overtures for pacification, but in confidence and in concert with his Most Christian Majesty.” Congress ordered that the resolutions be sent to Benjamin Franklin and its other ministers in Europe and that they be published, which it itself did as a broadside ( JCC , 23:637–639, 887; Evans, No. 17761).

The resolutions were also published in virtually all American newspapers, including the Pennsylvania Gazette of 9 Oct. and the Boston Independent Chronicle of 24 October. In London they appeared on 19 Nov. in the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser and Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser and on the following day in Parker's General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer. Elsewhere, it appeared in the Gazette d’Amsterdam of 19 Nov. and in the Gazette de France of 29 November. Copies of the 4 Oct. resolutions are in MHi:John Adams, Embassy MSS, but there is no indication as to when or how JA received them.


This is François de Barbé-Marbois’ letter of 13 March 1782 to the Comte de Vergennes, in which the secretary of the French legation at Philadelphia criticized American efforts to obtain fishing rights off Newfoundland in an Anglo-American peace settlement. Barbé-Marbois offered arguments for Vergennes’ use in combating the American pretensions and censured Samuel Adams as the leader of the group supporting American access to the fisheries (Wharton, Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. , 5:238–241). The British intercepted the letter, deciphered it, and supplied it to John Jay, 142who enclosed a copy with his letter of 18 Sept. to Robert R. Livingston. Jay's letter reached Congress on 24 Dec., leading to an unsuccessful effort to rescind the portion of the commissioners’ instructions requiring them to follow the advice of France in the peace negotiations (Morris, Peacemakers , p. 324–325; JCC , 23:870–874).

JA also sent a copy of the Barbé-Marbois letter to Congress, enclosing it with the 8 Nov. letter he originally intended for Livingston but instead sent to Jonathan Jackson, above. For Jay and JA the letter reinforced their view of the competing American and French interests over the exact terms of an Anglo-American peace settlement and justified their determination to negotiate separately from France.

Although Laurens in this account indicates doubts about the authenticity of the intercepted letter, JA had none, citing it as clear evidence of French duplicity in letters to Thomas McKean, James Warren, and Robert R. Livingston of 6 Feb., 20 March, and 25 May 1783, respectively, all below. In addition, he printed Barbé-Marbois’ letter and devoted considerable space to a commentary on it in his contributions to the Boston Patriot, 17–24 Aug. 1811, a portion of which was reprinted by CFA in JA, Works , 1:669–674.