Papers of John Adams, volume 16

To Charles Sigourney

John Adams’ Commissionas Minister to Great Britain

Elbridge Gerry to John Adams, 24 February 1785 Gerry, Elbridge Adams, John
From Elbridge Gerry
my dear Mr Adams New York 24th Feby 1785

I informed You a few Days since,1 that Yourself, Mr Chancellor Levingston, & Mr J Rutledge, were in Nomination for the Court of London, since which many Attempts have been made to determine the Choice, & this Morning it was effected & devolves on Yourself. I am happy to give You this Information, both on publick Consideration, & on the Score of Friendship, the former however being on every such important Occasion the predominant principle, in my 527 Mind. at the first balloting You had five, Mr Chancellor four and Mr Rutledge two Votes: And the States were tenacious of their Votes for several Days.2 Temper was however preserved, & produced an Explanation by which it appeared that the southern States were impressed with the Idea, that You being totally averse to the Slave Trade, would not exert Yourself at the Court of London to obtain Restitution of the Negroes taken And detained from them in Violation of the Treaty; & that in negotiating it, You was not so anxious as the other Commissioners respecting the American Debts, & would not, in all probability, be assiduous in executing the Instructions of Congress for discharging the American Merchants from payment of the Interest that accrued during the War, & for postponing the payment of the principal for three Years after the signature of the preliminaries of the peace.3 Whether these were real or ostensible Reasons, It is not in my power to determine, I only state them as what were urged by the States opposed to your Choice.4 I find however that One part of your secret Journal, wherein Mention is made of a Compliment paid You as being “The Washington of the Negotiation” & that a paragraph of one of Your Letters describing the proper Character of the Minister for London, that he should be possessed of the “cardinal Virtues,” compared with other Letters of yours claiming the Appointment, are urged as Traits of a weak passion, to which a Minister ought never to be subject, & as an Evidence that an artful Negotiator may flatter You out of important objects— these your Friends & disinterested persons consider as subtil Devices of Seekers, And their Dependants to supplant You; & every person who knows the Value of an able faithful & indefatigable Minister, who has been long in his Country’s Service & rendered the most essential Services to her Cause considers with Horror such Measures & is happy in defeating them.—5 it is nevertheless my Duty, as a Friend to my Country, to Yourself, & to the Cause of Virtue, to give You confidentially this Information, that Your publick & private Letters may not be in future abused to such unworthy purposes. indeed I think Care is applicable, as it respects some of your Correspondents high in office at Massachusetts.

There You must be sensible are Communications, which nothing could induce me to make, but the Necessity of your co-operating with those who are determined to support You on this Side the Atlantic, in putting a Stop to, or at least in checking such ruinous Intrigues. We are determined to obtain if possible an Act of Congress, 528 that they will not elect any person to publick office, whilst a Member of Congress, nor untill six Months after he shall have been a Member.6

I wish You Success in all your Negotiations & remain with the sincerest Esteem your real Friend & huml Set

E Gerry

N.B. Your Election was finally carried by nine States—

Congress have resolved, that each appointment of a Minister, Secretary to a Legation or Chargé des Affairs, shall be for a Term not exceeding three Years; but this Restriction does not render them incapable of being re-elected7

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


On 14 Feb., above.


On 9 Dec. 1784 it was proposed that Congress appoint a minister to Great Britain, but nothing further was done until 31 Jan. 1785, when it resolved to elect “a Minister plenipotentiary, to represent these States at the court of London” on the following Monday, 7 February. JA and John Rutledge were nominated by David Howell of Rhode Island and Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, respectively. But the election was delayed until 18 Feb., when Robert R. Livingston was nominated by John Beatty of New Jersey. The vote indicated by Gerry was the first of several that resulted in no decision and is described by James Monroe in a 6 March letter to James Madison. According to Monroe, “upon several ballots Adams had 5 votes, Livingston 4 & Rutledge 2, Jersey at length voted for Adams, having previously nominated & voted for Livingston, upon wh. Virga. & Maryld. joined in favr. of Adams & gave him his appointmt.” Monroe noted that the original five votes for JA came from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. As Gerry notes in the first sentence of the postscript, nine of the eleven states present ultimately voted for JA, but as no record of the votes was kept, the identity of the ninth state cannot be determined ( JCC , 27:675; 28:25, 85, 98; Smith, Letters of Delegates , 22:207–208, 228, 248).


The evacuation of slaves and free blacks when British forces departed the United States and the delay in the payment of prewar Anglo-American debts were dealt with in JA’s instructions adopted by Congress on 7 March, below. Those issues as raised here and included in those instructions were reiterations of instructions previously sent to the peace commissioners, which they had found impossible to implement in the face of the British refusal to renegotiate the terms of either the provisional or definitive peace treaties of 1782 and 1783. See, for example, Robert R. Livingston’s letters of 28 and 31 May 1783 and the commissioners’ 17 July letter to David Hartley, to which no reply was received, vol. 14:503–504, 512–514; 15:135–137; see also the 7 May 1784 instructions to the joint commissioners to negotiate European treaties, and note 8, above.


In the left margin, opposite Gerry’s comments on the opposition to JA’s appointment, JA wrote, “These are too gross Arfices to conceal, a Secret Influence, to require much Attention. ‘Neckar est vain et glorieux’ may destroy the greatest Financier and best Minister in France. But Some thing more will be necessary, than ‘il abond trop dans son Sens,’ to destroy, the Small Man here aimed at.” The “Secret Influence” was presumably the Comte de Vergennes’, exercised through his minion in America, François de Barbé-Marbois. JA’s second quotation, which applied to himself, is taken from a much longer passage that Edmund Jenings included in his letter to JA of 14 Nov. 1781. Attributed by JA to Vergennes, the French minister indicated that he placed his confidence in Benjamin Franklin because JA was too much a creature of his emotions (vol. 12:66–67, 96–98, 259).


Gerry’s reference to JA’s “secret Journal” is to JA’s “Peace Journal,” which recounts the negotiation of the 30 Nov. 1782 Anglo-American preliminary peace treaty and was compiled from JA’s diary entries for the period 2 Nov. to 13 Dec. (vol. 14:xviii–xx). The reference to JA as the “Washington” of the 529 negotiations is taken from his Diary entry for 10 November. For its effect when read before Congress in 1783, see JA, D&A , 3:50–51. Gerry’s reference to JA’s description of the attributes necessary for a minister to London is an allusion to JA’s 5 Feb. 1783 letter to the president of Congress, wherein he described the qualifications necessary for the ideal minister to Great Britain, all of which obviously applied to him (vol. 14:242–243, 245).


No such resolution was adopted by Congress. However, on 8 March 1785 the Mass. General Court instructed its delegates to procure a resolution providing that “no Member of Congress shall be appointed to any office, under the States, during the term for which he shall have been elected” (Mass., Acts and Laws , 1784–1785, p. 378–381). The delegation presented the General Court’s justification for such a provision and the proposal itself to Congress on 23 May, at which time it was referred to committee. On 21 July the committee reported a resolution similar to that sought by Massachusetts, but no further action was taken on the matter ( JCC , 28:387–389, 567).


This paragraph was written in the left margin. The resolution, first offered and defeated on 17 Feb., was adopted on the 18th (same, p. 75–77, 82–84).