Papers of John Adams, volume 17

From Mercy Otis Warren

To John Trumbull

To Elbridge Gerry, 28 April 1785 Adams, John Gerry, Elbridge
To Elbridge Gerry
My dear Sir Auteuil near Paris April 28. 1785

Your Letter of the 24 of February was this morning put into my Hand. That which you refer to as informing me, that Mr Livingston was in nomination with Mr Rutledge and me, I have not yet received.1

Of all the Letters I ever received in my Life, excepting one from Mr Osgood, this is perhaps the most friendly and faithfull and lays me under the greatest Obligations. I rejoice in the Explanation that took Place, and it is my duty to Say Something upon Some of the Particulars.2

1. It is very true that I have little Admiration of the Philosophical Philanthropy or Equity of the Slave Trade. This Defect however has never prevented, nor will ever prevent me from doing all in my Power to obtain Restitution of the Negroes taken from the Southern States and detained from them in violation of the Treaty. I am not conscious that any Philosophical Speculations Upon this Subject, have ever influenced my Conduct in this Respect, nor do I See that they ought to enter into this Business

2 In negotiating the Treaty, I was not Sensible, nor do I now remember that any of my Colleagues were more anxious than myself respecting the American Debts. There was no difference of Sentiment among Us, upon this head that I can recollect. We were all Sensible of the hardship upon many Individuals, but it was so much a Point with the British, and a point that would have appeared in the Eyes of the World So much to our disadvantage, to have stood out upon, that We all thought alike upon the Subject. We have long Since done what depended upon Us, and all, for any Thing that I know with equal Assiduity, but We can get no Answer because, as I Suppose the British Ministry are determined not to treat here. if you Send a Minister to St. James’s, he must have an Answer. what it will be, I know not, although I am apprehensive it will be difficult to 67obtain the Interposition of Government in the matter of the Debts, it is clear to me, that the delay desired and proposed, will be at least as Advantageous to the British Creditors as to the American Debtors, and if Government cannot be prevailed with to Stipulate, I hope they may be convinced of the Necessity of the Measures taken by the States, and not treat them or consider them as Breaches of the Treaty, and that the Creditors may be quieted. in the Case of the Negroes it is clear, that they ought to restore every one of them or pay his full Value.

3. I know pretty well the old Characters in Massachusetts, and am not apprehensive of committing any very material Mistake by misplacing Confidence, there.— if I conjecture, who you mean I have written to them only, in answer to Letters from them containing usefull Information, and professing Friendship I cannot well avoid answering Letters, but I have not, made any confidential Communications, that I know of, improperly. I have before received hints of Caution from others, and am obliged to you for yours.3

But my Friend, there is a deeper and broader difficulty. There has been a System of Politicks in America, as well as in Europe different from yours, Mr Jays, Mr Jeffersons and mine. there have been times when, I, with all my Faults, was considered as the only dangerous Obstacle in the Way of that System, altho they are now convinced there were others as inflexible and more able. There is now too a military Spirit of Ambition and of Chivalry which I dare Say I am suspected to dislike as much as the Slave Trade. instead of wondering that I am attacked, I only wonder that more Serious at least more plausible Objections have not been found against me. I dont perceive that any Instances have been quoted, in which any artfull Negotiator has flattered me, out of any Object important or unimportant. I am glad the Explanation took place and am obliged to the Gentlemen for their Candour in expressing their Objections and Apprehensions: but I must Say, if I really had the weak Passion, I know how to gratify it instead of putting it in their power by my Negligence of little Things, to mortify it.4 I know perfectly well the Way and have learn’d it from the greatest Masters and Models of obtaining the Influence of Ministers of State and even of Princes to gratify it. nay I have known the Way to have obtained Medals and Statues, Ribbons and Votes of Gratitude, and these I think are the Objects of the weak Passion, instead of Reproaches, Censures and Abuses.

The Gentlemen who were placed in Competition with me are 68Characters of great Worth, and I should neither have felt an Envy or Resentment, if either had been appointed altho any Man who knows the History of my former Appointments, must be Sensible, that it would have been improper even for the public Service, that I should have remained in Europe, if I had not been appointed either to London or Versailles. a former Congress had been deceived into the Injustice of marking my Coat with a Stain for Conduct which merited a Statue, and I have been from that moment determined, it Should be wiped out, or that I would throw off their Livery forever.5 accordingly altho I dont know that I have claimed the Appointment to London, I have demanded to go home, if this Appointment or another Superiour to it was not given to me, nor Shall I blush in this Age or the next, in this World or the other for this determination. in truth I have not cared a Farthing, since the Peace whether I went home or remained in Europe. I have for some time intended to come home at the Expiration of our present Commissions as it is, I Shall probably come home next Spring in a manner more agreable to my feelings. if I do not see a Probability of doing Something worth staing for no Man can wish me to stay, and if I should be so happy as to arrange Affairs to tolerable Satisfaction no Man I hope would wish to refuse me leave to come home, either for a full do, or upon Congé, for no Swiss was ever more homesick than I.6 an Arrangement with England to mutual Satisfaction So as to prevent War, and consequently prevent the military Gentlemen from erecting an European System among Us, is all that remains in Europe near my heart. and I am perswaded that a Settlement with Spain, harmony with France, and Agreement with all the other Courts & Nations of Europe would follow it, of Course. This done, the sooner I get home the better: for altho I am perswaded You must have Ministers, for many Years with Several Courts I assure you I dont desire nor intend to be long one of them.

our Friend the Marquis, whom I love, altho I fear he has, been instrumental of introducing bad Fashions among Us, informs me that Mr Smith is appointed Secretary of Legation to London. This Gentleman is to me a total Stranger. an Aid de Camp and a Knight of Cincinnatus, a Correspondent of the Marquis and his brother Humphreys, I see the Necessity of his being a prudent Man, and of my being so too. But he shall be treated by me with all the Kindness and Attention, that becomes the Relation between Us. Humphreys has all the qualifications for his Office which can be expected from 69an Aid du Camp & a Knight of Cincinnatus. His Genius Taste, and Knowledge are distinguished and his heart is excellent.

I am my dear sir with every senti / ment of Esteem your Fried & humble / sert

John Adams

RC (NHi:Gilder Lehrman Coll., on deposit); internal address: “Hon. Mr Gerry.”; endorsed: “Autuiel Lettr / His Exy J. Adams / Esqr 28h Apr / 1785 / ansd Aug 3d”; notation: “Rutledge / Son / Commerce / Lonchamps / [. . .].” LbC (Adams Papers); APM Reel 107. Note that of the topics listed at the end of the endorsement, only the first pertains to this letter; the others were dealt with in JA’s letter of 25 April that Gerry received at the same time.


For Gerry’s letters of 14 and 24 Feb., see vol. 16:520–522, 526–529. JA’s belief that he had not received a letter resulted from Gerry’s statement in his 24 Feb. letter that “I informed You a few Days since, that Yourself, Mr Chancellor Levingston, & Mr J Rutledge, were in Nomination for the Court of London.” Gerry was referring to his 14 Feb. letter, but there he mentioned only John Rutledge.


JA likely refers to Samuel Osgood’s 7 Dec. 1783 letter in which Osgood chronicled the proceedings of Congress during his years as a member of the Mass. delegation, particularly regarding its conduct of foreign policy and treatment of JA (vol. 15:398–414). Gerry’s letter of 24 Feb. 1785 brought Osgood’s letter to mind because Gerry described Congress’ deliberations over the selection of a minister to Great Britain and went into considerable detail concerning the objections of several of the state delegations to JA’s appointment. JA replies specifically to those objections in the first two numbered paragraphs that follow, but see also his response to the charge that he was possessed of a “weak passion” in the fourth paragraph below, and note 4.


In his 24 Feb. letter Gerry warned JA to be careful in letters to “some of your Correspondents high in office at Massachusetts,” but he did not identify the individuals. In a letter of 15 March 1784, however, AA warned JA about his correspondence, specifically mentioning James Sullivan, former judge and sometime member of the Mass. house of representatives, and Tristram Dalton, speaker of the same. She had been told that the first was not JA’s “Friend,” while the second communicated JA’s letters to people “not to be trusted” and wanted “prudence” ( AFC , 5:308).


In his 24 Feb. 1785 letter, Gerry noted that during the debates over the appointment of a minister much had been made of passages from JA’s “Peace Journal” and his 5 Feb. 1783 letter to the president of Congress (JA, D&A , 3:50; vol. 14:242–243). In the “Journal” JA asserted that he had been described as “le Washington de la Negotiation,” and in the letter, obviously describing himself, he set down the attributes of the ideal minister to Britain. JA’s opponents saw them as indicating “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” (vol. 16:527). From JA’s comments in this letter and his longer, more impassioned response in his unsent 2 May 1785 letter to Gerry, below, it is clear that JA considered such an assertion about him as a diplomat to be the most serious, scurrilous, and unjustified charge that could possibly be brought against him.


JA refers to Congress’ actions in June and July 1781. In the first instance his 1779 commission to conclude an Anglo-American peace treaty was superseded by the creation of a joint commission composed of himself, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay. In the second, his concurrent commission to negotiate an Anglo-American commercial treaty was revoked. Both actions stemmed from France’s dissatisfaction with JA’s efforts to execute his 1779 commissions and its desire to reduce, if not eliminate, his power and influence.

But in so far as his appointment as minister to Great Britain was concerned, it was the revocation of his commission to conclude the commercial treaty that is most relevant. JA believed, and so informed Congress in Feb. 1783, that his appointment to negotiate a commercial treaty effectively 70made him de facto minister to Great Britain. If, therefore, Congress did not select him as its minister to the Court of St. James whenever it chose to make such an appointment, he would have no choice but to refuse further public service (vols. 11:368–370, 434–435; 14:243–244, 245). At approximately the same time, and using language similar to that in this letter to Gerry, JA wrote to AA that “the Revocation of my Commission to make a Treaty of Commerce with G. Britain without assigning any Reason, is an affront to me and a Stain upon my Character that I will not wear one Moment longer than is indispensably necessary for the public Good. And therefore I will come home, whether my Resignation is accepted or not, unless my Honour is restored. This can be but one Way, in Europe, and that is by Sending me a Renewal of the Commission” ( AFC , 5:88–89).


For previous references by JA to homesickness as a characteristic of the Swiss, see vol. 14:373, 374.