Papers of John Adams, volume 15

Instructions to the American Peace Commissioners, 29 October 1783 Adams, John American Peace Commissioners
Instructions to the American Peace Commissioners
By The United States in Congress Assembled October 29th. 1783.1

To the Ministers Plenipotentiary of the United States of America, at the Court of Versailles empowered to negociate a Peace, or to any one or more of them.

First. You are instructed and authorised to announce to his Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Germany or to his Ministers the high Sense which the United States in Congress assembled entertain of 330 331his exalted Character and eminent virtues, and their earnest desire to Cultivate his Friendship, and to enter into a Treaty of Amity and Commerce for the mutual advantage of the Subjects of his Imperial Majesty & the Citizens of these United States.2

Secondly. You are Instructed to meet the Advances and encourage the Disposition, of the other Commercial powers of Europe for entering into Treaties of Amity and Commerce with these United States. In Negociations on this subject you will lay it down as a principle, in no case to be deviated from that they shall respectively have for their Basis the mutual Advantage of the contracting Parties on terms of the most perfect equality and reciprocity and not to be repugnant to any of the Treaties already entered into by the United States with France, and other Foreign Powers. That such Treaties shall in the first instance be proposed for a term not exceeding fifteen Years, and shall not be finally conclusive until they shall respectively, have been transmitted to the United States in Congress Assembled for their examination and final directions and that with the draughts or propositions for such Treaties, shall be transmitted all the information which shall come within the knowledge of the said Ministers respecting the same and their Observations after the most mature enquiry on the probable advantages or disadvantages & effects of such Treaties respectively.3

Thirdly. You are instructed to continue to press upon the Ministers of his Danish Majesty the justice of causing satisfaction to be made for the Value of the Ships and Goods Captured by the Alliance Frigate and sent into Bergen, and how essentially it concerns the Honour of the United States that their gallant Citizens should not be deprived of any part of those Prizes which they had so justly acquired by their valour. That as far as Congress have been informed, the estimate of those Prizes at fifty thousand pounds Sterling is not immoderate; that no more however is desired than their true value, after every deduction which shall be thought equitable. That Congress have a sincere disposition to cultivate the friendship of his Danish Majesty and to promote a commercial intercourse between his Subjects and the Citizens of the United States on terms which shall promise mutual advantage to both Nations. That it is therefore the wish of Congress that this claim should still be referred to the equitable disposition of his Danish Majesty in full confidence that the reasonable expectations of the Parties interested will be fully answered; accordingly you are fully authorised and directed after exerting your best endeavours to enforce the said claim 332to the extent it shall appear to you to be well founded, to make abatements if necessary, and ultimately to accept such compensation as his Danish Majesty can be prevailed on to grant.4

Fourthly. You are further instructed to enquire and report to Congress the reasons why the expedition of the Alliance and Bon homme Richard and the Squadron which accompanied them was carried on at the expence and on account of the Court of France? Whether any part of the prophet arising therefrom accrued to the United States; or any of the expence thereof hath been placed to their account? Whether the proceeds of any of the Prizes taken in that expedition and which is due to the American Officers and Seamen employed therein is deposited in Europe, and what amount, where; and in whose hands?5

Fifthly— The acquisition of support to the Independence of the United States having been the primary object of the instructions to our Ministers respecting the Convention of the neutral Maritime Powers for maintaining the freedom of Commerce, you will observe that the necessity of such support is superceded by the Treaties lately entered into for restoring Peace. And although Congress approve of the principles of that Convention, as it was founded on the liberal basis of maintinance of the Rights of Neutral Nations and of the Priviledges of Commerce; yet they are unwilling at this juncture to become a party to a Confederacy which may hereafter too far complicate the interests of the United States with the Politics of Europe, and therefore if such a progress is not already made in this business as may render it dishonourable to recede, it is the desire of Congress, and their instruction to each of the Ministers of the United States at the respective Courts in Europe, that no further measures be taken at present toward the admission of the United States into that Confederacy.6

Sixthly. The Ministers of these United States for negociating a peace with Great Britain are hereby instructed authorised and directed to urge forward the definitive Treaty to a speedy Conclusion and unless there shall be an immediate prospect of obtaining Articles or explanations be beneficial to the United States in addition to the provisional Articles, that they shall agree to adopt the provisional Articles as the Substance of a Definitive Treaty of Peace.

Seventhly. The Minister or Ministers of these United States for Negociating a Peace are hereby instructed to Negociate an explanation of the following Paragraph of the declaration acceded to by them on the 20th of January 1783. relative to Captures viz: “That the 333term should be one month from the Channel and North Sea as far as the Canary Islands inclusively whether in the Ocean or the Mediterranean.”7

Eighthly. Mr. Jay is hereby authorised to direct Mr Carmichael to repair to Paris should Mr. Jay be of opinion that the interest of the United States at the Court of Madrid may not be injured by Mr: Carmichael’s absence; and that Mr: Carmichael carry with him the Books and Vouchers necessary to make a final and compleat settlement of the account of public monies which have passed through the hands of Mr: Jay and himself; and that Mr Barclay attend Mr: Jay and Mr: Carmichael to adjust those Accounts.

Ninthly. Mr: Jay has leave to go to Bath, should he find it necessary for the benefit of his health—8

Cha Thomson secy.

FC in JQA’s hand (Adams Papers); endorsed in JA’s hand: “Copy of / Instructions 29. Oct. 1783.”


JA received these instructions as an enclosure to the president of Congress’ 1 Nov. letter to the commissioners, below, at London on 5 December. He had JQA copy them and then sent the original instructions and the letter on to Benjamin Franklin at Passy (to Franklin, 5 Dec.; to John Jay, 7 Dec., both below).


JA likely saw this instruction and the following one as proceeding from, and expanding on, Congress’ resolution of 1 May authorizing the peace commissioners to negotiate an Anglo-American commercial agreement ( JCC , 24:320–321). In his 5 Dec. letter to Franklin, below, JA indicated his assumption that a commission to that purpose likely was included with a separate packet directed to Franklin. As Franklin indicated in his reply of 10 Dec., below, such was not the case, and in the absence of a commission specifically granting the commissioners plenipotentiary powers to negotiate commercial treaties with Britain and other European nations, the instructions could have no substantive effect beyond encouraging the commissioners to solicit proposals for treaties that might be negotiated when a commission arrived. Congress issued no such commission until 7 May 1784 ( JCC , 26:357–362), but see note 3.


The principal problem with Congress’ directions for negotiating treaties with European nations, which became evident when the negotiation of a Prussian-American treaty began in March 1784, was in the final sentence of the second instruction. As Elbridge Gerry noted in his letter of 14 Jan. 1784, below, the commissioners were permitted to negotiate, but they could not sign a treaty. The unsigned draft agreement had to be sent to Congress for consideration and likely modification. This would lengthen the negotiation process and likely make the conclusion of any treaties impossible. On 22 Dec. 1783 a committee composed of Gerry, Thomas Jefferson, and Hugh Williamson presented a report proposing to supplement and amplify the instructions of 29 October. Among the suggested changes was the proviso “that a Commission be issued to Mr Adams, Mr Franklin, and Mr Jefferson giving powers to them, or the greater part of them to make and receive propositions for such treaties of amity and commerce, and to negotiate and sign the same, transmitting them to Congress for their final ratification.” This provision was included in the commission voted on 7 May 1784 ( JCC , 25:821–825; 26:362). For Gerry’s account of the final resolution of the issue, see his 16 June 1784 letter to JA, Smith, Letters of Delegates , 21:685–687.


This instruction proceeded from Franklin’s letter of 22 July 1783 to Robert R. Livingston in which he referred to his efforts to resolve the dispute with Denmark over prizes taken by the frigate Alliance in the course of the 1779 Bonhomme Richard expedition and sent to Bergen, Norway (then under Danish rule). Bowing to British pressure, Denmark returned the vessels—Betsy, Union, and 334 Charming Polly—to Britain, thus depriving the Alliance’s crew of any prize money. In the years since, Franklin had pressed the American case, arguing that Denmark had acted in violation of the law of nations. He had refused a Danish offer of £10,000 in compensation, believing that the prizes were worth at least £50,000. Nothing came of this effort to resolve the issue nor of another in 1787, in the course of which John Paul Jones was sent on a mission to Copenhagen to negotiate directly with the Danish government. The dispute remained unresolved until the mid-nineteenth century (vol. 9:51; Wharton, Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. , 6:583–584; Morison, John Paul Jones , p. 354–358).


This instruction was also the product of Franklin’s 22 July 1783 letter to Livingston. There he referred to Thomas Barclay’s examination of the European accounts and the unsettled nature of those arising from the 1779 Bonhomme Richard expedition. In fact, except for the frigate Alliance, the French government supplied the vessels and the financing for the undertaking through its agent, Jacques Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont. In 1783 the final unresolved issue was the distribution of prize money, which Chaumont had never paid out, claiming that he was still owed for fitting out the expedition. This led Congress on 1 Nov. to appoint John Paul Jones its agent to solicit, under Franklin’s direction, “for payment and satisfaction to the officers and crews for all prizes taken in Europe under his command.” Jones took three years to resolve the issue to his satisfaction, and in Oct. 1787, Congress, after considering the matter at length, put its final seal on Jones’ settlement (same, p. 182–199, 337–341; Wharton, Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. , 6:585; JCC , 25:787; 32:383–384; 33:556–569, 645–646, 659–664).


For Livingston’s reference to the Armed Neutrality as a “dead letter,” and for the origins of this instruction in a resolution by Congress on 12 June 1783, see vol. 14:512–514; and for JA’s view of the matter, see his 7 July letter to Livingston, and note 3, above.


This question had been raised first in Livingston’s letter to the commissioners of 21 April (vol. 14:437). For the commissioners’ position on the issue, see their letter to Livingston of 18 July, above. No such explanation was obtained.


The eighth and ninth instructions proceeded from Jay’s letters of 1 June and 20 July (Wharton, Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. , 6:464–465, 576). In the first he asked that William Carmichael, his secretary, be ordered to bring the accounts from Madrid to Paris so that Jay and Carmichael could settle the accounts with Barclay. In the second, he noted the poor state of his health and his desire to try “the waters of Bath for a pain in my breast.”

From Edward Bridgen, 1 November 1783 Bridgen, Edward Adams, John
From Edward Bridgen
Sir Pater Noster Row Novr: 1st: 1783

When Mr Oldfield asked me to give him leave to make use of my name when he waited on your Excellency, with a card of invitation to the Revolution Club for Tuesday Next, I did not then know that it was intended not to invite the Whigs at present in Administration, which I think necessary you Sir should be informed of.1

I have the honour to be with great respect / Yr: Excellencys / most obedt: Servant

Edward Bridgen I beg my respectful Compliments to your Son

RC (Adams Papers); internal address: “His Excellency John Adams.”


Oldfield has not been further identified, but the “Revolution Club” was The Society for Commemorating the Revolution in Great Britain. Also called the Revolution Society, it 335met annually on 4 Nov. to commemorate the birthday of William III and his landing at Brixham in 1688 (Roland Thomas, Richard Price, London, 1924, p. 123). In a 5 Nov. 1783 letter to Peter Jay Munro, JQA indicates that John Jay was also invited but that neither he nor JA attended (NNMus). Nevertheless, on 6 Nov. the London Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser reported that “Tuesday [4 Nov.] there was a numerous Meeting of the Revolution Society, at the Paul’s Head, Cateaton-street, to celebrate in commemoration the anniversary of King William the Third. The number were about 300 persons. Sir Watkin Lewes in the Chair, Lord Surrey on his right, and Mr. Adams, a member of the American Congress, on the left. Many loyal toasts were drank. The King, the constitution, and the Rights of the People. After this, Sir Watkin gave, Unanimity with America and Great Britain. It was received with the loudest plaudits. Sir Watkin said that a Member of the American Congress wished to address a few words to the gentlemen present.

“Mr. Adams rose, and in a very few words expressed the desire which the United Colonies had to coincide in every thing that could advance mutual commerce.

“Mr. Adams paid a compliment to the City of London in particular, and expressed his hopes that there might be an eternal bond of friendship between the two countries.

“Dr. Price, Dr. Jebb, and many more were present, and the evening ended as all other public meetings generally do.”

Essentially the same report appeared in the Gazette d’Amsterdam of 14 Nov. and in the Boston Independent Chronicle of 8 Jan. 1784. But when JA reached the Netherlands in mid-January, the Gazette of 16 Jan. reported his arrival and in its brief notice declared “il n’est vrai, comme l’ont annoncé tous les Papiers Anglois, qu’il ait prononcé une Harangue à Londres dans une espece de Club, soi-disant Patriotique. Son Excellence n’a même jamais paru dans ladite Assemblée.” That is, it is not true, as has been announced in all the English papers, that he gave a harangue in London at a sort of club, self-styled Patriotic. His excellency never appeared at the said meeting.