Papers of John Adams, volume 16

Editorial Note
Editorial Note

The Prussian-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce was concluded on 10 September 1785. But negotiations began on 10 November 1784 when the American commissioners submitted a draft treaty to the Baron von Thulemeier, Prussian minister at The Hague, and were, for all intents and purposes, completed on 14 March 1785 when the commissioners sent their response to Prussian proposals for alterations in the commissioners’ text.


The proposed treaty with Prussia was the commissioners’ first exercise of their plenipotentiary powers to negotiate and sign treaties with European nations. On 8 October 1784 Thulemeier wrote to the commissioners to acknowledge their letter of 9 September notifying him of their new commission (both above). Thulemeier indicated Prussia’s willingness to negotiate a treaty and noted that he had received full powers to conclude an agreement. Thulemeier assumed in his letter that negotiations would resume on the draft treaty that he had sent to John Adams on 9 April (above). Those negotiations were broken off owing to the commissioners’ need to submit the draft to Congress because they lacked the power to negotiate and sign a treaty. But such was not to be the case.

Instead the commissioners wrote to Thulemeier on 10 November and enclosed a new draft, based not on the earlier Prussian proposal but on a model treaty drafted by Thomas Jefferson (Nos. I and II, below). In substance the new draft differed only slightly from Thulemeier’s of April, but there were alterations. The most notable were the omission of the earlier draft’s Articles 3 and 4, which dealt specifically with Prussian concerns, and the inclusion of Articles 13 and 23, which were wholly new. Moreover, the April draft was founded on the 1783 Swedish-American treaty, but Jefferson’s model, intended originally for a never-to-be-concluded Danish-American treaty, was based on a variety of sources. These included drafts of a Danish-American treaty exchanged by Benjamin Franklin and Ernst Frederik von Walterstorff in 1783; the commercial treaties concluded in 1778, 1782, and 1783 with France, the Netherlands, and Sweden; a 1783 draft of a never-completed commercial treaty with Portugal; and the commissioners’ instructions of 7 May 1784. For a detailed examination of Jefferson’s composition of and his sources for the model treaty, see Jefferson, Papers , 7:463–490.

The Prussian diplomat received the new draft on 26 November, made a French translation, and by 10 December had sent it off to the foreign ministry in Berlin (No. IV, below). Had the negotiations over Thulemeier’s April draft been renewed, the treaty would likely have been concluded very quickly since the Americans had proposed few changes to that document. But complications were introduced when an entirely new document was offered for consideration, which Thulemeier attributed to the commissioners’ new instructions and the Prussians viewed as a “contre-project.” This was particularly so regarding the omission of Articles 3 and 4 of the earlier draft, but there was also an apparent conflict between the American and Prussian views of commercial relations. This was evident from Thulemeier’s letter to the commissioners of 24 January 1785, with which he enclosed his French translation of the treaty with the Prussian foreign ministry’s suggestions for changes in the treaty provisions (No. VI, below). In a letter of the same date to Adams, Thulemeier indicated the necessity of the Americans’ agreeing to the principal Prussian reservations if a treaty was to be concluded, confidential advice that Adams relayed to his colleagues (Nos. V and VII, below). Even allowing for the resolution of the 375 Prussian-American differences and the fact that the commissioners were in France and Thulemeier was in the Netherlands, the negotiations proceeded expeditiously. On 14 March the commissioners sent off their response to the Prussian proposals (No. VIII, below) and on 3 May, after consulting with his superiors, Thulemeier informed the commissioners that the two sides were in agreement over the treaty’s final form and it only remained for the Americans to transcribe an English version of the agreed upon text so that he could prepare a French translation for final review in Berlin. Franklin and Jefferson—Adams by then had gone to London—did so on 26 May, and after arrangements were made for the treaty’s signature at Paris, Passy, London, and The Hague, the agreement was finally concluded on 10 September when Thulemeier signed at The Hague (Jefferson, Papers , 8:134–135, 165–166; Miller, Treaties , 2:162–184).

Some explanation is required regarding the documents as printed below and the nature of their annotation. The English text of the draft treaty is derived from the copy made by David Humphreys and included in the Letterbook that he kept for the commissioners. The French translation accompanying it was enclosed by Thulemeier in his letter of 24 January. There it was placed side by side with the Prussian “Observations,” the treaty in the left column, the “Observations” in the right column. The editors decided that in presenting the treaty material the need for clarity required that the English and French texts be printed together and that the Prussian “Observations” should appear with Thulemeier’s letter of 24 January, with which they were enclosed. In annotating the treaty the editors have indicated where significant changes were made, resulting either from the Prussian proposals or from the commissioners’ response. However, for the justification or explanation of the alterations that either did or did not take place, see the Prussian and American commentaries on the treaty, Nos. VI and VIII, below.

I. The American Commissioners to the Baron von Thulemeier, 10 November 1784 American Commissioners Adams, John Franklin, Benjamin Jefferson, Thomas Thulemeier, Friedrich Wilhelm, Baron von
I. The American Commissioners to the Baron von Thulemeier
Sir Passy Novr 10th. 1784.

We received the Letter your Excellency did us the honour of writing to us the 8th Ulto. together with the copy of your full powers to treat with us. Mr Adams had as you suppose, preserved a copy of the project of a Treaty that had been concerted between your Excellency & him; but having by instruction from the Congress our Sovereign certain new articles to propose in all our Treaties with European powers, which articles if agreed to would render some of those heretofore in use unnecessary & judging also that some change in the order, by bringing together what relates to the same subject, 376 would render the whole more clear; we have made a new draft of the Project, adding the new articles, & send it herewith for your consideration.

Those new articles are the 13th. & the 23d. The first contains its own reasons, to wit, the prevention of difficulties & misunderstandings heretofore constantly arising with regard to merchandise called contraband in time of war. In support of the other, we offer a few reasons contained in a separate paper1 to which we shall only add here, that the article being in favour of humanity, by softening & diminishing the calamities of war; we think it will be honourable to the first powers who agree to it, & more particularly so to His Majesty the King of Prussia, if he whose subjects are known to be so well defended by his power & abilities, as to make the stipulation of any favour for them during war unnecessary, should be the foremost in setting the example of agreeing to such an article. The part too which engages not to commission privateers nor make prize of merchant ships, will we think show the disinterestedness of the United States, since their situation is suited to prey with ease on the rich commerce of Europe with the West Indies, which must pass before their doors, while their own consisting of lumber & provisions is of so little value, as that the loss in that kind of war is vastly inferior to the profit, which was demonstrated in their late contest with Britain, whose mighty fleets were insufficient to protect their trade from the depredations of a people as able & expert Seamen as themselves.

With regard to the manner of conducting this negotiation, we think it may continue to be by Letters, till the articles are agreed on, after which, as the many affairs we have on hand make it inconvenient for us to leave Paris, we shall be glad to receive you here, or if that should not be suitable for you, to meet you in any intermediate place that you may nominate.

We send herewith the copy of our commission, and are with great respect.— Sir / Your most obedient & most hble. Servants

John Adams. B. Franklin. T. Jefferson

FC in David Humphreys’ hand (PCC, No. 116, f. 91–93).


An asterisk at this point refers to David Humphreys’ note at the bottom of the next page: “N.B. *See the seperate Paper alluded to, page.” The reference is to the commissioners’ memorandum regarding Art. 23, No. III, below.