Papers of John Adams, volume 15

From John Wheelock

To Robert R. Livingston

David Hartley to the American Peace Commissioners, 14 June 1783 Hartley, David American Peace Commissioners
David Hartley to the American Peace Commissioners
Gentlemen June 14. 17831

Permit me to address the enclosed Memorial to your Excellencies, and to explain to you my Reasons for So doing.2 It is because many Consequences now at a great Distance, and unforeseen by Us may arise between our two Countries, perhaps from very minute and incidental Transactions, which in their beginnings may be impercepteble and unsuspected as to their future Effects. Our respective Territories are in Vicinity, and therefore We must be inseperable.3 Great-Britain with the British Power in America is the only nation, with whom, by absolute necessity, you must have the most intimate Concerns, either of friendship or hostility. All other nations are three thousand miles distant from you; You may have political Connections with any of these nations, but, with regard to Great-Britain, it must be so. Political Intercourse & Interests will obtrude themselves between our two Countries; because they are the two great powers dividing the Continent of N: America. These matters are not to come into discussion between us now. They are of too much importance either to be involved in, or even glanced at in any present transaction—

Let every eventual principle be kept untouched untill the two nations shall have recovered from the animosities of war. Let them have a pacific interval to consider deliberately of their mutual & combined Interests, and of their engagements with other nations. Let us not, at the outset of a temporary Convention, adopt the severe principle of reducing every transaction, between the two Nations, to the footing of an exact reciprocity alone. Such a principle would cast a Gloom upon conciliatory prospects. America is not restrained from any Conciliation with G:B. by any Treaty with any other Power. The principles of Conciliation would be the most desireable between G:B: & America—and forbearance is the road to Conciliation. After a war of animosities, time should be allowed for recollection. There are all reasonable appearances of conciliatory 29 30disposition, on all sides, which may be perfected in time— Let us not therefore, at such a moment as this, & without the most urgent necessity, establish a morose principle between us. If it were a decided point against amity & conciliation, it wd. be time eno: to talk of partition & strict reciprocity. To presume in favor of Conciliation may help it forward—to presume against it may destroy that Conciliation, which might otherwise have taken place: But, in the present case, there is more than reason to presume Conciliation. I think myself happy that I have it in my power to assure you, from authority, that it is the fundamental principle of the British Councils to establish Amity and Confidence between G:B: & the American States, as a succedaneum for the relation in which they formerly stood, one to the other. The proof of this consists not in words, but in substantial facts. His Britannic Majesty has been graciously pleased to send orders to his Commanders in N: America for the speedy & compleat evacuation of the Territories of the United-States. His Majesty has given orders in Council, on the 14th. of last month, for the admission of American Ships & Cargoes into G:B:, and, on the 6th. inst:, he has given further orders, permitting the importation from America of several Articles, wh: have been usually considered as Manufactures.4 He has likewise provided for the Convenience of American Merchants, who may wish to land Tobacco in G:B: for re-exportation. Upon the same principle, Mr: Fox, the Secy: of State, corresponding with America, has moved for & recd. the leave of the H. of Commons (nem. con.) to bring in a bill that any American Merchants, importing rice into G:B:, may, upon re-exportation, draw back the whole duty paid on its first importation.5 All these Circumstances, put together, undoubtedly form the most indisputable evidence of the disposition which prevails in the British Councils, to give every facility to the Re-establishment of that intercourse, which must be so beneficial to both nations. I am ordered to inform you, that his Majesty entirely approves of the plan of making a temporary Convention for the purposes of restoring immediate Intercourse & Commerce, and more particularly for the purpose of putting off, for a time, the decision of that important Question, how far the British Acts of Navigation ought to be sacrificed to commercial Considerations, drawn from the peculiar Circumstances of the present Crisis—a question which will require much deliberation & very much inquiry before it can be determined. I am sure, Gent. you will see & admit the reasonableness of our proceeding, in such a Case, with deliberation & discretion, 31more especially when these Acts of prudence do not proceed from any motive of coolness or reserve towards you. In the mean time, the temporary Convention may proceed upon principles of real & accomodating Reciprocity. For instance, we agree to put you upon a more favorable than any other nation. We do not ask a rigid reciprocity for this, because we know, by your present subsisting Treaties, it is not in your power to give it to us. We desire only to be put upon the footing of other nations with you & yet we consent that you shall be upon a better footing with us than any other nation— Thus far we must be allowed to be giving something more than reciprocity, and this we do, as I said before; because we are unwilling to ask what you cannot give. Surely it is not unreasonable, nor more than fm. principles of reciprocity we have a right to expect, that you should imitate our Conduct in this particular, & that you should abstain fm. asking things, under the title of exact & literal reciprocity, which you must know, upon the consideration of our case, that we are unable to give. Virtual and substantial reciprocity we are willing to give, literal reciprocity is impossible, as much from your engagements, as from our system of navigation.

If we can agree upon an article of intercourse & commerce, in the nature of a temporary convention, on the Basis of the Memorial, which I had lately the honor of giving to you, bearing date 19. May 1783,6 no time need be lost in finishing this business; but with this explanation, that, altho’ it is proposed that the Commerce between the United States & the British West Indies should be free with regard to their respective productions, yet that we are not bound to admit the importation of West Indian Commodities into Great Britain in American Vessels. Believe me, Gentlemen, that this restriction does not proceed from any invidious disposition towards the American States. It is imposed on the British Ministers by indispensible prudence and necessity, who in the present state of things could not be justified to their own Country in going hastily to such an extent of concession. This point is not to be looked upon, as merely commercial, but as affecting fundamentally the great political System of British Navigation; and you are to consider that the principle, upon which the whole of our proposed temporary convention is to stand, is, that the Commerce between the two Countries is to be revived nearly upon the old footing; but that each Nation is to keep in its own hands the power of making such regulations, respecting Navigation as shall seem fit. I assure you that this point has been discussed, by the Ministers of the British Cabinet, with 32infinite Candor & with every possible disposition of Amity & favor towards your Country; but the more they have enquired upon this Subject, the more they are overborne by the Conviction that the prejudices on this matter (if that is the name these opinions deserve) are so strong, that such a measure, as a relaxation of the Act of Navigation in this instance, never can be taken, but upon such a full & solemn parliameny: enquiry, as it is impossible to go into at this time of the year, & in this stage of the Sessions. I cannot therefore, Gent: help flattering myself that you are so well acquainted with the difficulties which must embarrass an English Administration in a business of this sort, as to endeavour rather to remove, than encrease them, & I am sure such a plan on yr: part wd. ultimately be most conducive to your objects. When an amicable Intercourse is once opened, & when conciliatory Confidence comes to take place of those jealousies, wh: have lately subsisted, you may easily conceive in how different a manner the whole of this matter will be considered. I am confident that this will be the Case, but if it is not, the provisions being only temporary, it will be in the power of the U: States to take up any hostile mode of proceeding, by restraints, prohibitions &c: whenever they may think fit.—

I have made use above of the word prejudices, in speakg: of the principle of the British Act of Navigation. I hope you will accept that term fm. me, as proceeding so far in Compliance towards the future Consideration of the points now between us, as to keep the question open & free for discussion. If G:B: should in any Case throw down the barriers of the act of Navigation towards America, she shd. be very secure against the possible Case of future enmity or Alliance against her. Such Considerations as these lead to objects, far beyond our present scope, or powers: But I must still add one word more upon this article of prejudices. Such prejudices (if they are so) are not confined to Great-Britain— By your commercial Treaty with France, Article 4th. you are only intitled to a European Trade with that Kingdom, & not even, by that Treaty, to any direct Commerce, between their West-India Islands, & the Ports of the American States—much less to the immediate Communication between the French Islands & the Dominions of the Crown of France, in Europe.7

LbC and enclosure (Adams Papers); APM Reel 109. LbC-Tr and enclosure (Adams Papers); APM Reel 103.

33 1.

Hartley wrote this letter after the arrival of new instructions from London clarifying his powers to negotiate. Hartley’s need to consult his superiors stemmed from the commissioners’ reaction to his proposal of 21 May regarding Anglo-American trade. Hartley put forth an agreement by which Anglo-American trade would be returned to its prewar status until a formal commercial treaty could be concluded. The commissioners did not oppose such an arrangement, although their counterproposal, which JA drafted on the 22d, was more explicit about the restoration of the status quo ante bellum. However, they doubted Hartley’s power to conclude such an agreement. Thus later on the 21st, in a note signed by their secretary William Temple Franklin, the commissioners asked Hartley whether he was “sufficiently authorized to agree and subscribe to the Proposition you have made them this Evening, without further Instructions or Information from your Court.” The next morning Hartley told JA that after examining his instructions he thought it necessary to consult the authorities in London and would send a courier for that purpose on the 23d. In the same conversation, JA, reflecting also the views of his colleagues Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, emphasized that if Anglo-American trade was returned to its prewar status it would have to be so in all respects. JA meant that since American trade with Britain would be, as before the war, regulated by the Navigation Acts, there could be no subsequent modification of those acts to the detriment of the United States, as there had been with the Order in Council of 14 May. This was important because by returning to the prewar trading relationship and the application of the Navigation Acts to it, the United States was accepting a system “contrived solely for the Benefit of Great Britain.” This was particularly so regarding trade with the West Indies and the prohibition against American manufactures being exported to England (JA, D&A , 3:123–134; vol. 14:485–486).

Hartley’s letter of 14 June reveals that now he could not agree to the proposal he had made on 21 May. This is confirmed by the absence of any similar offer in his proposals to the commissioners of [19 June], below. The sticking point was the West Indies. Whatever Anglo-American relations might have been in the past, the United States was now a foreign country. To return Anglo-American trade to its prewar status required Britain to permit a foreign country to trade with the islands in contravention of both the letter and the spirit of the Navigation Acts. This explains Hartley’s comments dismissing the need for a perfect reciprocity and recognizing the impossibility of relaxing the Navigation Acts without a “full & solemn parliameny: enquiry”; but see also Henry Laurens’ comments about reciprocity and the delicacy of the Navigation Acts, after discussing the dispatches with Charles James Fox, in his letter to the commissioners, 17 June, below; and for Lord Sheffield’s assertion concerning the United States and the Navigation Acts in Parliament on 15 April, see Edmund Jenings’ letter of 3 June, and note 6, above.

In fact, Hartley’s letter and the lengthy memorial enclosed with it (see note 2) make clear the pointlessness of negotiations for either an Anglo-American commercial treaty or a definitive peace treaty including articles intended to regulate Anglo-American trade. Such negotiations since Hartley’s arrival in April made sense only if the sentiments behind the American Intercourse Bill continued to be those of the Fox-North coalition and Parliament. But on 9 April, Fox effectively killed the American Intercourse Bill by postponing its consideration for four weeks and on the 11th proposed the American Manifest Bill. As introduced the bill removed technical obstacles to trade, notably documentation for ships coming from American ports, but it soon was amended and in its final form contained an authorization for “his Majesty in council . . . to make such regulations, with respect to duties, drawbacks, or otherwise, for carrying on the trade and commerce between . . . Great Britain and . . . the . . . united states, as to his Majesty in council shall appear most expedient and salutary” (23 Geo. III, ch. 39). Initially to remain in effect until 20 Dec., this provision was continued by Parliament until 1797, at which time Jay’s Treaty was in effect (Harlow, Founding of the Second British Empire , 1:459–461). This meant that Parliament, beginning with the issuance of the Orders in Council of 14 May and 6 June (see note 4, below), ceded control of Anglo-American trade to the Privy Council and whatever ministry was in office and, so far as Britain was 34concerned, made a commercial treaty irrelevant. This outcome gave additional credence to JA’s concerns, expressed in numerous letters, over the inability of Congress and the states to formulate and execute a unified and effective policy to regulate trade between the United States and Great Britain. For more on the disparity between Hartley’s inclinations and his powers, see Descriptive List of Illustrations, No. 2, above.


In his lengthy memorial of 1 June (LbCTr, APM Reel 109), Hartley sought to counter the commissioners’ assertion that if an Anglo-American commercial agreement was not concluded and substantial restrictions were not placed on what could be imported into Britain in American ships, American trade would gravitate to nations that would allow such imports (JA, D&A , 3:127). He examined the possibilities for American trade with France, Spain, the Italian and Mediterranean states, the northern powers, and the Netherlands and found them all wanting. Only Great Britain, also a North American power and one with which the Americans shared a long history, offered the new nation the long-term economic and political advantages that it needed as it sought to make its way as a sovereign power. The inclusion of the memorial written in early June with Hartley’s letter of the 14th seems strange, however, because the memorial’s conclusions as to the likelihood or necessity of an Anglo-American agreement are more in tune with Hartley’s proposals in May than with what was possible after the dispatches arrived from London.


The greeting, dateline, and letter to this point are in JA’s hand. The remainder of the letter is in Charles Storer’s hand. The enclosed Hartley memorial is in John Thaxter’s hand.


For the text of the 14 May Order in Council, concerning the import of unmanufactured goods from the United States and the export of British manufactured goods to the United States, see JA, D&A , 3:129–130. For the Order of 6 June, which concerned the import of various American commodities, including tobacco, see Harlow, Founding of the Second British Empire , 1:472. For JA’s retrospective and very critical view of the Orders in Council and their effect on Anglo-American trade, which first appeared in the Boston Patriot of 4 Jan. 1811, see JA, D&A , 3:133–134.


For this bill, 23 Geo. 3, ch. 56, see Harlow, Founding of the Second British Empire , 1:472.


This is the memorial and accompanying observations that Hartley presented to the commissioners on 21 May 1783 and which are included in JA’s Diary under that date (JA, D&A , 3:123–124, 131–134). In the Hartley Papers they are dated 19 May (MiU-C).


See Miller, Treaties , 2:6. Hartley might also have referred to Art. 3 of the Dutch-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce, which also denied American ships access to the colonial trade, for which see vol. 13:351–352.