Papers of John Adams, volume 14

Editorial Note
Editorial Note

John Adams had long contemplated the manner in which the history of the American Revolution, and his role in it, should be presented to his own and succeeding generations. Adams' care in preserving his papers and keeping Letterbooks attests to his concern that an accurate record be 166preserved for future historians. Since his return to Europe in late 1779, Adams frequently acted at least as a quasi-historian to educate English and European audiences about the origins and progress of the Revolution. See, for example, his “A Translation of Thomas Pownall's Memorial,” rebuttals of speeches by Henry Seymour Conway and Lord George Germain, “Letters from a Distinguished American,” and 26 letters in reply to Hendrik Calkoen, all of 1780; his 19 April 1781 Memorial to the States General; and four unpublished letters criticizing the Abbé Raynal's Révolution de l’Amérique, written in early 1782 (9:157–221, 321–324, 350–358, 531–588; 10:196–252; 11:272–282; 12:204–213).

Not until January 1783 did Adams systematically set down precisely what a historian needed to do in order to produce an accurate and definitive history of the American Revolution. Adams dined with the Abbé de Mably on 19 December 1782 and again on 5 January 1783. At both meetings the two men discussed Mably's De la manière d’écrire l’histoire (Paris, 1783); at the second meeting, the French author's contemplated history of the American Revolution (JA, D&A, 3:97, 101–102). In that conversation Adams expressed his opinion about such an undertaking, but Mably's inability to understand English and presumably Adams' inability to express himself in French led the Abbé to request Adams to commit his thoughts to writing. Adams likely gave the matter considerable thought, but he apparently did nothing to honor Mably's request until he received a similar appeal from Antoine Marie Cerisier (No. I, below). Cerisier's letter arrived on or about 14 January and Adams immediately replied. In so doing he provided his friend with a guide to the sources that a historian should consult to write an adequate history of the American Revolution as well as the parameters for such a project (No. II, below). The following day, Adams sat down to honor Mably's request and, after copying most of his letter to Cerisier, added an additional three pages to guide the historian (No. III, below). On the 17th Adams again wrote to Mably, there listing his revolutionary writings; however, thinking that it displayed too much vanity, he did not send it (No. V, below). Replies by the Abbé and Jean François Marmontel (Nos. IV, VI, below), who had seen a copy of the 15 January letter, led Adams on 10 March to send Cerisier a copy of his first letter to Mably for publication in Le politique hollandais, below.

Mably and Cerisier caught Adams at an opportune time. He had signed the preliminary peace treaty and expected the definitive treaty to be completed very soon. This meant that American independence had been achieved and it was now time to consider in totality how the Revolution had come about and, perhaps more importantly, how it should be perceived and remembered. Completion of the preliminaries also left Adams with few official tasks to accomplish and the time and inclination to consider the subject in detail. In the process, he could provide his correspondents with as complete an appreciation of the bibliographical and documentary resources as was available anywhere at the time.

If Adams' intention was to discourage Cerisier and Mably—and 167Europeans in general—from attempting histories of the Revolution when they lacked essential documentation available only in America, he succeeded. Neither man undertook the task and Mably wrote to Adams that he had never seriously contemplated it (No. IV, below). But Mably remained interested in America and its institutions and soon produced his Observations sur le gouvernement et les loix des États-Unis d’Amérique, Amsterdam, 1784. Adams felt honored by the work, which took the form of four letters to him, and obtained its publication in Amsterdam, writing to Cerisier for that purpose on 16 October (LbC, APM Reel 107). There he noted that the Observations “is like to be to me, in Particular a distinguished Mark of Respect with Posterity.”

Adams' interest in the historical treatment of the Revolution in general and himself in particular did not diminish over time. This is clear from his publication of the 15 January letter to the Abbé de Mably as a postscript to the first volume of his Defence of the Constitutions in 1787 and as part of a letter written in 1816 to the North American Review. In fact, as the years passed, Adams became increasingly obsessed with using the documents he possessed to correct the historical record. This was the purpose of his autobiography, begun in 1802; the massive and very critical response to Mercy Otis Warren's History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (3 vols., Boston, 1805) that he wrote in 1807 (MHS, Colls., 5th ser., 4:321–491 [1878]); and the 137 letters he published in the Boston Patriot between April 1809 and May 1812 in which he defended himself against Alexander Hamilton's criticism of his Revolutionary-era diplomacy.

I. From Antoine Marie Cerisier, 9 January 1783 Cerisier, Antoine Marie
I. From Antoine Marie Cerisier
Monsieur Amsterdam ce 9 Janvier 1783

Actuellement vous êtes entierement livré au grand interêt des nations. Vous travaillez à rendre à l’univers le-repos que vous n’avez pas pu contribué à lui ôter; les avantages que la liberté Américaine va rendre désormais & pour tous les siecles à l’humanité, compenseront Sans doute les maux éphemeres qu’elle a causés: un philosophe plus subtil que moi vous prouverait peut-être que ces maux sont même actuellement balancés par d’autres biens; nos ardens Républicains lui fourniraient des preuves; & il faut avouer que Si les choses continuent sur le même pied, nous Serons redevables du l’accouvrement de notre liberté, à la valeur des Americains qui ont fait la premiere leveé de boucher contre les ambitieux. Vous ne vous douteriez guere où ce préambule va Se terminer. J’ai pris la liberté d’interrompre les augustes occupations de votre Excellence pour la prier de jeter un regard favorable Sur un Républicain de Hollande 168qui vous avez quelquefois daigné honorer de marques de confiance & d’amitié. Je Suis dans la résolution d’écrire l’histoire de toute cette guerre Américaine. Je crois vous avoir fait part de cette idée; j’ai la plus grande partie des documens qui me Sont nécessaires, quand je parlerai des affaires de France, d’Angleterre & de ce pays: Mr le Duc de la Vauguyon a même daigné me prévenir Sur ce point, en me promettant plusieurs pieces interéssantes, dans les quelles il m’a enjoint de ne pas écrire. Mais les documens les plus importans me doivent arriver de l’Amérique. Vous m’obligeriez infiniment & ce Serait une bonté à ajouter à toutes celles dont je vous Suis déjà redevable, Si vous vouliez me communiquer tout ce qu’il est en votre pouvoir Sur cet article; & m’indiquer les titres des imprimés ou je pourrais trouver des éclaircissemens. Je vous remerci beaucoup pour l’ouvrage de Mr Paine. Je vais le publier en français.1 J’ai fini tous les morceaux où l’on refute The cool Thoughts on American independance.2

En vous Souhaitant tous les Succès que vous avez droit de désirer pour l’avantage de la nation que vous représentez & pour votre bonheur particulier, je prend la liberté de me dire avec le plus profond Respect / Monsieur votre très / humble & / très obeissant / Serviteur

A. M. Cerisier

Vous m’obligeriez beaucoup de m’envoyer au plutôt quelque réponse.

Sir Amsterdam, 9 January 1783

At present all your efforts are devoted to the greater good of nations. You are working to restore to the universe a peace you did nothing to deprive it of; the advantages that American freedom will henceforth and for all time bestow upon humanity will no doubt compensate for the fleeting ills it has caused. A subtler philosopher than I might claim that these ills are even balanced out by other, more positive effects; our ardent republicans would furnish him with proof. It must be admitted that if things go on as they are, we shall owe the birth of our freedom to the Americans who first rose up against the arrogant. You can scarcely suspect where this preamble will lead. I have taken the liberty of interrupting your excellency's august preoccupations to beg you to look favorably on a Dutch republican whom you have sometimes deigned to honor with tokens of confidence and friendship. I am resolved to write the history of this entire American war. I believe that I already apprised you of this idea. I have most of the documents I need, as far as France, England, and this country are concerned; the Duc 169de La Vauguyon has kindly anticipated my needs on this point, promising me several interesting papers, which he instructed me not to mark. But the most important documents will have to come from America. I should be infinitely obliged—and it would be yet another favor to add to all those I already owe you—if you could send me all the information in your power on this subject and suggest titles of books that might enlighten me. Thank you so much for Mr. Paine's work, I will publish it in French.1 I have finished all the pieces refuting The Cool Thoughts on American Independence.2

Wishing you all the success you rightfully desire for the nation you represent, and for your own happiness, I take the liberty of pronouncing myself, with the most profound respect, your very humble and very obedient servant

A. M. Cerisier

I would be greatly indebted for a speedy reply.

RC (Adams Papers); endorsed: “M. A M. Cerisier / 9 Jan. 1783. ansd. 14.”


Presumably this is Thomas Paine's A Letter Addressed to the Abbe Raynal on the Affairs of North-America. In Which the Mistakes in the Abbe's Account of the Revolution of America Are Corrected and Cleared Up (Phila., 1782). Cerisier published extracts from the pamphlet in his Le politique hollandais and later in a 1783 edition at Amsterdam with his own preface and notes (from Cerisier, 26 Feb., note 4, below).


Between 14 Oct. 1782 and 20 Jan. 1783 Cerisier translated and printed selected portions of JA's “Letters from a Distinguished American,” which were originally published in Parker's General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer from 23 Aug. to 26 Dec. 1782. For the origin, publication, and text of the “Letters” as JA's response to Joseph Galloway's Cool Thoughts (London, 1780 [i.e. 1779]), see vol. 9:531–588. For Cerisier's publication of additional numbers of the “Letters,” see his letter of 26 Feb., note 2, below.