Papers of John Adams, volume 16

The Duke of Dorset to the American Commissioners, 26 March 1785 Dorset, John Frederick Sackville, third Duke of American Commissioners
The Duke of Dorset to the American Commissioners
Gentlemen, Paris 26th. March 1785.

Having communicated to my Court the readiness you express’d in your Letter to me of the 9th. of December to remove to London for the purpose of treating upon such points as may materially concern the Interests both political & commercial of Great Britain & America, and having at the same time represented that you declared yourselves to be fully authorized & empowered to negotiate— I have been in answer thereto, instructed to learn from you, Gentlemen, what is the real nature of the Powers with which you are invested; whether you are merely commission’d by Congress, or whether you have receiv’d seperate Powers from the respective States. A Committee of North American Merchants have waited upon His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to Express how anxiously they wish to be inform’d upon this subject, repeated experience having taught them in particular, as well as the Public in general how little the authority of Congress could avail in any respect, where the Interests of any one individual State was even concern’d, and particularly so, where the concerns of that particular State might be suppos’d to militate against such resolutions as Congress might think proper to adopt.

The apparent determination of the respective States to regulate their own seperate Interests renders it absolutely necessary, towards forming a permanent system of commerce that my Court should be inform’d how far the Commissioners can be duly authorized to enter into any engagements with Great Britain which it may not be in the power of any one of the States to render totally fruitless & ineffectual.—1

I have the honor to be, / Gentlemen / with great truth / Your Most obedient humble Servant


RC (PCC, No. 86, f. 203–206); internal address: “Messrs. Adams, Franklin & Jefferson / &c &c &c—”; endorsed: “Paris March 26. 1785 / from / The Duke of Dorset”; notation: “No. 6.” FC (Adams Papers).


The British ambassador’s inquiry is of a piece with the issues raised in Charles Storer’s conversation with a “Mr. Petree,” which Storer recounts in his letter of [22] March, above, and which JA comments on in his reply to Storer of the 28th, below. The commissioners enclosed Dorset’s letter in theirs of 13 April to John Jay. There they indicated that “new information and instructions from Congress as to our affairs with the British court” were expected, so that with respect “to the doubts they pretend and the information they ask with respect to the powers of Congress” the commissioners did not believe themselves competent to respond “till we see whether we receive by this conveyance any new instructions” (Jefferson, Papers , 8:80–83). The commissioners did not respond to Dorset’s letter until 16 May, and then it was to formally announce JA’s appointment as minister to Great Britain, which obviated the need for further discussions of the powers of the commissioners to negotiate (same, p. 153).

John Adams to Charles Storer, 28 March 1785 Adams, John Storer, Charles
To Charles Storer
Dear Sir Auteuil March 28. 1785

I have this moment received your Letter dated this month.1 your Letters always give me Pleasure, although the circumstances of the times have forbidden me, to enter into any particular Details with you or any one else, upon public affairs.— I am joined with others, and have doubts both of Delicacy and Prudence, if not of right, whether I may communicate Opinions, Reasonings or even Facts without their Knowledge and consent. We are to treat with the British Court, not the Royal Exchange, and whatever veneration I might have, for this last Assembly I Should be thought a mal-adroit Ambassador, if I might be there quoted, for Things which had not been represented at St. James’s.— Besides I Should look Still more unwise if it Should appear that Merchants were employed to pump out of me my Sentiments by Ministers behind the Sceene.

I have a well grounded Faith in your Steadiness and Discretion and Shall ever be obliged to you for your Letters, but must be excused from entering into confidential Correspondence, any further than I can see a Safety in it.

You may however affirm roundly and with perfect Truth, that the Disinclination to treat, is not in America, nor in the American Ministers. We have Full Powers to treat and conclude, which We made known to the British Ministry, through Mr Heartly. instead of being authorised to treat with Us, he was recall’d. We then repeated the Communication through the Duke of Dorsett. We were answered by a refusal to treat here, and an Invitation or rather a Proposition that the United States Should Send a Minister to St. James’s. We replied 579 to this, that We would transmit the Proposition to Congress, and in the mean time were ready to go in Person with our Plein pouvoir if that were agreable to them. This Offer has not been accepted. It can hardly be Said that We have waited for an Invitation. We have rather invited ourselves. I dont See what more We could have done unless We had all three flewn over in an Air Balloon, alighted at Lord Carmarthaens House pour demander a diner, of his Lordship.

You have penetrated the true Motive of the Aversion of the British Ministry, a dread of engaging in an unpopular Business, rather than a Wish to profit from the monopoly of our carrying Trade to the W. Indies, or to Strengthen the Adventurers in the Whale Fishery. A Dancer on a Slackrope, Shudders at the Opening of a Door against him, lest a Blast of Air Should rush in and blow him over. Ireland and India are already blowing a Storm.

I wish however that Congress would Send a Minister to England, and if he Should not Succeed, the World will Soon See that Congress have authority to make navigation Acts.

The Powers of Congress to treat, were never disputed by France, Spain, Holland Sweeden, Prussia or any other Power. They have express Power to make Treaties of Commerce, by an Article of the Confederation, which you may read. There is it is true a limitation. But it would be easier to get a Navigation Act passed by each of the thirteen States, than to get this Limitation taken off. and if British Ministers or Merchants would decline treating upon this Pretext they are Still as weak as they have been these twenty Years, with only two Short Intervals.

Yours affectionately

John Adams

RC (Adams Papers); internal address: “Mr Storer.”; endorsed: “J. A. Esqr: to C: S— / 28th. March. 1785.” LbC (Adams Papers); APM Reel 107.


Of [22] March, above.