Papers of John Adams, volume 16

To Arthur Lee

From Edmund Jenings

Tristram Dalton to John Adams, 6 April 1784 Dalton, Tristram Adams, John
From Tristram Dalton
Dear Sir Newburyport April 6th. 1784

By my friend Jona Jackson Esqr. who sailed for Ireland and England in Decer last, I did myself the pleasure of writing you fully, under date of the 5th of that month; and on the 26th I had the honor of receiving your Favors of the 8th Septemr preceding— Accept my sincere thanks for the confidential advice therein contained; which has been prudently, & I think very beneficially, communicated—1

Our mutual friend Mr Cranch has forwarded me the two pamphlets, in which Lord Richmond shews a Candor and Openness of opinion, as to the inherent Rights of the people, notwithstanding the Mists & Prejudices of Education and Rank, that few of his Peers will approve of, so far as to put it in practice.2 Such influence has the Crown, by means of the reveñue laws; and the Nobility, by their important place in the present Government of G B., that it is probable the British Nation, as such, would be ruined, ’eré so thorough 111 a reform, as is proposed by Richmond, can be adopted— Our last Advices from Ireland, which indeed are old, do not promise so complete a Reformation in that Kingdom as might be wished—

To leave the almost ruined Kingdom of England, and the expected new one of Ireland, permit me to give you some Account of the State of Politics in this Commonwealth: which I undertake with great diffidence, hoping some abler pen may afford you such advise respectg our public affairs, as you must wish to receive; but which, I find, by former letters, has not been communicated in season—

The General Court of this Commonwealth, after a session of more than nine weeks, was prorogued the 25th March, to the last Tuesday in May— Much public business has been passed on by them in their present sitting—and some very important business omitted, or referred—

The definitive Treaty was communicated by the Governor, with the (enclosed) recommendations of Congress— A Committee of both Houses, consisting of Eleven, were immediately appointed to take the same into Consideration, and report—of which Committee the H’n’ble President of the Senate, and your hble Servant were members.—3

We sit twelve Evenings—and spent the time very industriously & attentively on the important Subject— The Result of the Committee you have in their report enclosed, which Report, by no means, pleased the President, being too liberal; and, as you’ll see, by the minutes thereon, was proposed by the Senate to be referred to the next Session—4 to this reference the House would not agree; neither would the House accept the report; rather owing to two Gentlemen, who had been of the Comee; wandring from the Question, & pressing their arguments for a singular opinion viz. that the Absentees, exceptg such as are mentioned in the fifth Article of the Treaty, had an optional right to become Citizens of the United States, or to remain the Subjects of G Britain— The passions of the Members were raised so high, on this doctrine’s being advanced, that they overlooked the plain purport of the report under Consideration, and rejected it. Nay,—so irritated were They, that when a Quire of printed hand bills, similar to one enclosed, of the doings of the Town of New Haven, were laid on the Table, by the Messenger, delivered him by a Printer’s Devil, he was instantly order’d to take the Person, who delivered them to him, into custody; but not being to be found, the Papers were order’d to be hove in the fire—5


The House, sensible of the necessity of acting on the Subject, chose a Comee— of seven, of their own Body, to take all the papers, relative to the Treaty, into consideration, and report— Copy of their report is herein enclosed for your perusal— This report the Senate proposed also to refer— this produced a Comee— of Conference, and that Comee, reported a bill, which you have also herein enclosed, as it passed into an Act—6 This Step was as far as I supposed possible to be taken at present, and is as far as, I beleive, any State has taken— I shall be happy to find it meets your approbation— The furthest, I presume, that may be taken is to restore those Estates which may have been confiscated, and not sold—

Various Constructions are made of the 5th & 6th Articles of the Treaty— The two Gentlemen aforementioned are to the extent of the liberal; while, on the other extreem, some hold that the 5th Article only relates to the Absentees, and the sixth, in the whole, to those, only, who remained as residents in the United States— I sincerely wish that such measures may be finally adopted by the several States, as may “entitle their Decisions to the Approbation of disinterested Men, and dispassionate Posterity—”7

I am well pleased to find that you and Mr Jay are in the Com̃ission for settling the commercial Treaty with G Britain, & hope it will be extended to those with the several powers of Europe—8

My endeavours have been used to awaken the attention of Persons of influence in New Hampshire, to this important object—and I have corresponded with Mr Gerry, now at Congress, thereon— He writes me under the first of March 84 that “by outlines of a plan before Congress, for arranging our foreign Concerns, including those of Commerce”—“general principles are laid down which will prevent foreign Nations from taking Advantages, more especially of the Carrying Trade—and the business is by the report put into the hands of Messs Adams Franklin & Jay”— “indeed if the measures we have proposed in the Report should be adopted, our Commerce will be on the most extensive liberal and advantageous Footing— Doctor Franklin has, I think, without proper Authority, enter’d on Negotiations, by virtue of obsolete Powers, (as they appear to me) issued soon after his first arrival as a Com̃issioner in Europe— He has formed a Treaty with Sweden, and it is ratified, but I am apt to think you will not see any more effects of his seperate Negotiations— I am sure you will not with my consent—”9

The Commonwealth of Virginia, whose Interest it undoubtedly is to admit, without distinction, all Nations to carry her produce, 113 having but little Navigation belonging to their Citizens, has passed an Act, granting Congress such powers as to enable that Body to counteract the unjustifiable Proclamation of the King of G Britain—or the effects of any Acts of his Parliament which may be particularly levelled at the destruction of the Trade of these States— which Act they forwarded to the several Governments, recommending similar Laws to be passed, on which Condition theirs is to take place— Such jealousy unhappily prevails, in this State, against additional Powers being granted to Congress, that a like bill, with that of Virginia, reported by a Comee of both Houses, was referred to the next Session of the G Court when I hope it may pass—for if full powers of regulating our Commerce with foreign Nations, is not given to Congress, the Trade of the several States will soon be in a distracted Situation—& the sole benefit of it reaped by foreigners— there may be no occasion of granting adequate, perpetual, Powers—but they should have such powers as are sufficient—tho’ they may be limited as to time, untill Tryal is made, when, if approved of, they may be engrafted into the Confederation, or discontinued—or others adopted in their room—10

It is with much concern that I am oblig’d to repeat the melancholy account of the situation of our public Funds— in my former letters I have troubled you with my sentiments, and have no better intelligence to give, at this time, on the Subject—

The general Impost, required by Congress, has been adopted in some States in the whole—by others in part— some have not passed on it,—& One or two have rejected it—while not any general System, for supplying the foederal Chest, is mentioned by any State— A Jealousy gains ground to the Northward that the Monies will not be properly applied— the Office of Financier is reprobated, & Instructions given to the Delegates of this State to endeavour an abolition of it, and an institution of a Board of Treasury, annually to be chosen—from different States—and by rotation— No appearance of settling the public Accounts, on which this Government sup̃ose they are greatly in advance— A very large Sum of old Emission Money in our Treasury, and in the hands of Individuals, beside redeeming our full Share of it, for the redemption of which surplus in our possession, no provision is likely to be made—an entire Silence as to reimbursing the enormous debt incurred in the Penobscot Expedition—are Matters so important that, unless they are settled, will prevent any further Grants or Supplies to Congress— Nay I suspect may cause a Stop in the payment of any more of the £400,000 heretofore 114 granted, of which only £91,000 is yet paid to the Receiver General, & this is more than any other State has paid, in proportion.— What must be the End of this? As I hinted in my last a party seem disposed to heave all into confusion, that their deep laid plans may take place— another party, thorough Republicans, say that this is the time to make a stand, and that the virtues and good sense of the People are so general, that it is possible such measures may be now taken as to prevent the ills of trusting the Aristocratical party with more power, and to place our Union on a stable Basis—11

How much farther can Congress proceed without the public Chest’s being supplied?— where will be our Faith—our Credit—? The Several States might raise their proportions of public Charges in their own way, and with ease, saving thereby their full independence— this neglected, such power must finally be given to Congress, to save the whole, as may be repented of when too late. It appears to me impossible that the U States can continue long, as such, in this unsettled Situation— The Powers of Europe will see & take advantage of it—

Neither has this General Court provided for any revennue to supply their own Treasury. The Country Gentlemen insist that their Constituents cannot bear any more Taxes than are now laid on them—and want to adopt Excises and Duties on every article consumed by the People in the lower Towns— this not being agreed to, nothing was done to supply the Treasury—nor is any money now coming in to pay the Interest of our own consolidated Notes, except what arises from an Impost, and a partial excise which leave a great deficiency— this Neglect in the Legislature occasioned the State Securities to fall 10 per Cent— A little more dear bought experience may bring us to some consistent Conduct or our Independence will prove a Curse instead of a Blessing—

In the enclosed Gazette You have the report of a Committee on the Order of the Cincinnati—which was unanimously accepted by the House—12 Pay the Officers and this Order will be harmless, but if persecution is added to Injustice, in withholding their righteous demands, They may, joyned to other Malcontents, become formidable— The Commutation with the Officers—and the Impost granted to Congress, cause a few County Meetings, but I beleive they will prove of no great Consequence—

I have not had the happiness of seeing Mr Dana since his return from Europe—tho’ I have the pleasure of acquainting you that he 115 has been unanimously elected a Delegate to Congress—agreeably to your wishes—and proceed As soon as his health will permit—having been very unwell since his return to America.

Difference in Sentiments arises between the British in Nova Scotia, and this Governmt—as to the Branch of the River St Croix, designed in the treaty of Peace— We claim the most Eastern— They the more Western—. permit me to ask whither any fixed certain Branch, & which, if either, was precisely ascertained by the Commissioners— I am told a No Line drawn from the Branch claimed by the British will not strike the High Land mentioned in the Treaty—This Matter must be settled and may probably be agitated at the next session of the G Court—. I should be happy to know your Sentiments thereon—13

This Government is renewing their Claims to Lands, Westward of Hudson’s River, not so much with an intent of settling as of ceding them to Congress; New York being disposed to compromise with Congress, by Cession of a part, reserving a handsome Share to themselves: which they are now granting to Settlers on easy Terms—The report of a former Committee on the Subject has been before the Court, and I think is in your hand writing—14

Many Affairs of great importance to each State—and to the U States are before them respectively—Your Assistance is much wanted: tho’ I acquiesce in your continued Absence, as it must be more beneficial to the whole—notwithstanding it deprives me a longer time of the honour of your Company to a Saturday dinner, which you were so kind as to promise me, in a former Letter—15

Speaking of a Saltfish Dinner, reminds me of the rapid Settlement making at Port Roseway in N Scotia—and the Attempts to rob us of the Whale Fishery— If the Alien Duty on Oyle is imposed by Britain, on that catched in Vessels, owned by Citizens of this State, it will infallibly transplant the People of Nantucket to Nova Scotia— I do’n’t doubt you are so fully sensible of this danger as to avert it if possible— I confess that the danger of losing so benificial and necessary a branch of business alarms me—16

You will pardon my imperfect Intelligence, on account of the desire I have to render you any agreeable Service—and permit me to hope such return of advice as you may think of Consequence—

I have taken my leave of the Chair, as Speaker of the House, it being too great a Confinement for my health—and for my private Business—six months nearly of the past year having been employed 116 in that Station— I may be in the G Court the ensuing year, in some Capacity, being anxious to afford my poor assistance, at this critical time—17

Shall I ask the favor of your offering my most respectful Compliments to Mr Jay And his Lady—with Whom I had the Honor of dining at Philada, when He was President of Congress—

My best Wishes and most sincere regards ever attend yourself—being with all sincerity— / Dear Sir / Your affectionate Friend / and most Obt hble Servt

Tristram Dalton

RC (Adams Papers); internal address: “H’n’ble John Adams Esq. / Minister &ca—at the Hague.”


JA’s 8 Sept. 1783 letter to Dalton has not been found, but for Dalton’s letter of 5 Dec., see vol. 15:388–392. JA did not receive that letter until 1 May 1784 and replied to it on the 2d, below.


The two pamphlets, both printed at London in 1783 by JA’s friend John Stockdale, were probably An Authentic Copy of the Duke of Richmond’s Bill for a Parliamentary Reform and A Letter of His Grace the Duke of Richmond, in Answer to the Queries Proposed by a Committee of Correspondence in Ireland, on the Subject of Parliamentary Reform. In his bill, offered at the height of the parliamentary reform movement in 1780, and in his response to the members of the Irish Volunteer Movement, Charles Lennox, 3d Duke of Richmond and Lennox, proposed universal suffrage for all males over the age of eighteen and the election of members of Parliament from districts based on population. By 1792, probably owing to his service in William Pitt’s cabinet since 1784, Lennox’s enthusiasm for parliamentary reform had waned (Alison Gilbert Olson, The Radical Duke: Career and Correspondence of Charles Lennox, Third Duke of Richmond, Oxford, 1961, p. 48–63).


On 12 Feb. John Hancock sent a message to the General Court indicating that the night before he had received from Congress the ratified Anglo-American definitive peace treaty and other documents and was sending them to the legislature for its consideration. Among the documents Hancock received was Congress’ 14 Jan. resolution recommending that the states adhere to the terms of Art. 5 of the treaty respecting the loyalists (vol. 15:248–249; Records of the States: Mass., Senate Journal, A.1a, Reel 16, Unit 2, 4:327; same, House Journal, A.1b, Reel 11, Unit 1, 4:377–378; JCC , 26:30–31). The copy of the resolution sent by Dalton has not been found, but a copy enclosed with the president of Congress’ 14 Jan. letter to the commissioners is with that letter in the Adams Papers (vol. 15:455–456).


The joint committee’s report enclosed by Dalton is dated 16 March and is in the Adams Papers at that date. The committee defined terms, such as “Real British Subjects,” used in Art. 5 of the peace treaty, and then affirmed the legality of the confiscation of the estates of those who had specifically been “called Conspirators” in the act of 30 April 1779 or who had actively supported the war against the United States. But it held out the possibility that the estates of others, who did not fall into those categories, might be restored in the future and declared, “that the laws heretofore made directing and empowering Justices of the peace to commit, to Goal, & the Governor to transport out of the State absentees and others therein mentioned, are nullified by the Treaty, so far as they respect those persons whose estates have not been confiscated, & ought to be so declared by this Legislature.” It was presumably the perception of a lack of rigor toward the loyalists in these final two proposals that led to the report being “referred to the next sitting of the General Court.” But as Dalton indicates (see note 6), the General Court did not wait until the next session to act. For the views of Samuel Adams, president of the Mass. senate, on Congress’ recommendations regarding the peace treaty and the loyalists, see his letter of 16 April 1784, below.


On 8 March the New Haven, Conn., town meeting accepted the report of a 117 committee appointed to consider whether it was proper and expedient to admit as town residents, “persons, who in the course of the late war have adhered to the cause of Great-Britain against these United States, and are of fair characters.” The committee declared that “it is our opinion that, in point of law and constitution, it will be proper to admit, as inhabitants of this town, such persons as are specificated in said vote; but that no persons who have committed unauthorized and lawless plundering and murder, or have waged war against these United States, contrary to the laws and usages of civilized nations, ought on any account to be admitted.” Regarding “the expediency of such a measure,” the committee declared that “no nation, however distinguished for prowess in arms, and success in war, can be considered as truely great, unless it is also distinguished for justice and magnanimity; and no people can, with the least propriety, lay claim to the character of being just, who violate their most solemn treaties, or of being magnanimous who presecute a conquered and submitting enemy: That therefore the present and future national glory of the United States, is deeply concerned in their conduct relative to the persons described in said vote.” Also mentioned as a reason for admitting such people was New Haven’s future commercial prosperity (supplement to the Connecticut Courant, 6 April). An abridged and reordered version of the report appeared in the London Chronicle, 4–6 May.


Neither the report of the House committee enclosed by Dalton nor the act that he apparently also enclosed (from Dalton, 16 June, below) has been found, but on 24 March an act was adopted “for repealing two laws of this state, and for asserting the right of this free and sovereign commonwealth, to expel such aliens as may be dangerous to the peace and good order of government.” In effect, it repealed acts passed in 1778 and 1783 preventing the return to Massachusetts of persons proscribed by name, but then it essentially renewed those acts for anyone who had “left this State, and gone off to, and taken the protection of the government, fleet, or army of Great Britain.” In other words, those who had been proscribed were not to get their property back regardless of any recommendations Congress might make under the terms of the peace treaty (Mass., Acts and Laws , 1782–1783, p. 661–664).


Dalton quotes from the commissioners’ 10 Sept. 1783 letter to the president of Congress. There the commissioners gave an account of their negotiation of the 3 Sept. definitive peace treaty, indicated why it was virtually the same as the preliminary peace treaty of 30 Nov. 1782, and commented on the provisions concerning the loyalists (vol. 15:282–288). An extract from the letter, containing the passage quoted by Dalton, appeared in the Boston Gazette of 5 April 1784. See also Samuel Adams’ use of the quotation in his letter of 16 April, below. Compare the commissioners’ sentiments on the implementation of the definitive treaty’s articles regarding loyalists with JA’s in his letters of 10 Sept. 1783 to Samuel Cooper, William Gordon, Richard Cranch, and Cotton Tufts, vol. 15:273–274, 277–279; AFC , 5:239–242.


Dalton refers to Congress’ 1 May 1783 resolution authorizing JA, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay to negotiate an Anglo-American commercial treaty. It, however, was not implemented, for Congress never issued a formal commission (vol. 15:40).


Elbridge Gerry’s letter to Dalton has not been found, but Dalton answered it on 13 April 1784 (MHi:Elbridge Gerry Papers). There, as in this letter, Dalton indicated his hope that JA and Jay be entrusted with the power to negotiate treaties with European nations. From the quotation provided here, it is likely that Gerry’s letter to Dalton, perhaps in more detail than his to JA of 14 Jan. (vol. 15:447, 449–450), recounted efforts to create a new joint commission to negotiate commercial treaties with the nations of Europe and North Africa. This objective was realized with Congress’ resolution of 7 May, below, which removed the obstacle to the conclusion of treaties in Congress’ 29 Oct. 1783 instructions. According to those instructions, the commissioners could send proposed treaties to Congress for its consideration and revision, but they could not actually negotiate or sign treaties because they lacked plenipotentiary powers, making it virtually impossible for the United States to conclude a treaty with any nation (vol. 15:329, 331, 333). In letters to Gerry of 15 Aug., 5, 6, and 10 Sept., JA urged the creation of such a joint commission, partly to preclude Franklin from acting under his never-rescinded 1776 powers to negotiate treaties with European nations as he had when he negotiated the 1783 Swedish-American treaty and a draft treaty 118 with Portugal (vol. 15:106, 226, 228–230, 257–259, 261–263, 276–277; Miller, Treaties , 2:123–150).


For Virginia’s act of 12 Dec. 1783, see Edmund Jenings’ 24 Feb. 1784 letter, and note 1, above. The Virginia proposal was brought before the General Court on 16 March, but as Dalton indicates it took no action regarding it. By the May session of the General Court, Congress had resolved, on 30 April, to recommend to the states that they empower Congress “for the term of fifteen years, with power to prohibit any goods, wares or merchandize from being imported into or exported from any of the states, in vessels belonging to or navigated by the subjects of any power with whom these states shall not have formed treaties of Commerce.” The resolution also would prohibit the importation of any goods not the production of such countries. On 1 July the General Court enacted a bill virtually identical in language to Congress’ resolution, but with the proviso that the grant of such power to Congress, as in the Virginia act, would not become effective until all of the states had adopted similar laws (Records of the States: Mass., Senate Journal, A.1a, Reel 16, Unit 2, 4:415; JCC , 26:322; Mass., Acts and Laws , 1784–1785, p. 41).


During the war Massachusetts and the other states incurred large debts owing to military expenditures made at the behest of Congress. For Massachusetts the issue was complicated by the expense of the ill-fated 1779 Penobscot expedition, which it undertook unilaterally but against the common foe, and the large sums of worthless continental currency that had flowed into the state’s treasury because the bills retained their value longer in Massachusetts than elsewhere. Like its sister states, Massachusetts wanted Congress to compensate it for its wartime expenditures. Initially there appeared to be little difficulty in differentiating the debt for which Congress would reimburse the states and that for which the states were individually responsible. Thus it was that Congress, on 20 Feb. 1782, adopted an ordinance under which “the proportions to be borne by the several states of the expences of the war, from the commencement thereof until the first day of January, 1782” would be determined. To do so, the superintendant of finance would nominate a commissioner for each state subject to the approval of the state’s legislature or executive. In practice the scheme was unworkable because each state differed in how it had accounted for its expenses, and the definition of authorized and unauthorized expenses (e.g., the Penobscot expedition) varied widely from state to state. When the ordinance failed to resolve the issue, the Continental Congress was forced over the remainder of its life to propose a variety of solutions, none of which were successful. The issue was not finally laid to rest until 1790 when, under the new Constitution, Alexander Hamilton proposed and Congress approved the federal assumption of the states’ debt (Fergusion, Power of the Purse, p. 203–219; JCC , 22:82–86).


The “enclosed Gazette” has not been found, but it was likely the 25 March 1784 Boston Independent Chronicle, which contained the very critical report on the Society of the Cincinnati by a joint committee of the General Court that was read and adopted on 23 March. The committee concluded that “the Cincinnati, is unjustifiable, and if not properly discountenanced, may be dangerous to the peace, liberty and safety of the United States in general, and this Commonwealth in particular.” “Consideration of measures sensible and necessary to be taken, with respect to the Society” was deferred to the next legislative session.


Uncertainty about the border between Nova Scotia and Maine, then part of Massachusetts, as set down in Art. 2 of the definitive peace treaty, resulted from the inaccurate maps used by the American and British negotiators and also because at least three rivers in the disputed area were or had been called the St. Croix. Various efforts were made to resolve the problem, including in Art. 5 of the 1794 Jay Treaty and Art. 5 of the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, but it and other outstanding Anglo-American boundary disputes were not finally settled until 1842 with the signing of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty (vol. 15:246–247; Miller, Treaties , 2:249, 577–578; 4:363–370). For a more detailed explanation of the problem and JA’s account of what occurred at the peace negotiations, see Thomas Cushing’s letter of 16 Aug. 1784 and JA’s reply of 25 Oct., both below.


This is JA’s 1774 report to the General Court on Massachusetts’ boundaries. In that year the General Court appointed JA and James Bowdoin to a committee to prepare a 119 report on the title of Massachusetts to lands claimed by New Hampshire and New York. Nine years later the legislature revisited JA’s report, drawing on the original manuscript, which is now lost. On 18 March 1784 the General Court appointed a commission to meet with a similar group from New York to resolve the boundary line between the two states. On 4 June the appointments were rescinded and a new commission was created (Mass., Acts and Laws , 1782–1783, p. 651–652; 1784–1785, p. 5–6). For a reconstruction of JA’s report and an account of the efforts to settle the long-running boundary dispute between Massachusetts and New York, see vol. 2:22–81.


Not found.


For the loyalist settlement at Port Roseway (now Shelburne), Nova Scotia, see vol. 15:293, 294. For the crisis facing the Nantucket whalers, see the 5 Feb. letter from Alexander and Peleg Coffin Jr., and note 2, above.


At the meeting of the new General Court in May, Dalton once again represented Newburyport in the house of representatives. He was also reelected speaker, but, being absent, Samuel Allyne Otis was elected in his place (Records of the States: Mass., House Journal, A.1b, Reel 11, Unit 2, 5:4, 7).