Papers of John Adams, volume 17

To Thomas Jefferson

To William Stephens Smith

From William Stephens Smith, 4 August 1785 Smith, William Stephens Adams, John
From William Stephens Smith
Dr: Sir. Leicester fields August 4th. 1785.

The request I am going to make, will perhaps at the first blush appear singular—this you’ll excuse—If improper—I shall ever acknowledge myself obliged by being candidly told so—and in this, as well as in every other matter, I will chearfully give way to your superior judgement, and regulate my conduct by your advice, as far as you think proper to honour me with it.

If there is a probability of your Excellency’s not having an occasion for me for some time, either for your private concerns or the business of your mission—I would request your permission to take a small tour on the Continent— a general Review of the Prussian Army takes place the latter end of this or the beginning of the next month, I should like to see it— and if you approve of it, I will sett off in the course of the next week—and if not—I shall be happy in the oppertunity of convincing you with what chearfulness, I shall submit to you decision—1 with the highest respect / I am / your Excellency’s / most Obedient / Humble Servt.

W. S. Smith

RC (Adams Papers); internal address: “His Excellency / John Adams / &c &c &c—”


JA agreed to WSS’s request in his reply of 5 Aug., below. At some point, however, he must have regretted letting his secretary go, for WSS’s “small tour” lasted four months, until his return on 5 December. This caused problems for JA, given the volume of his correspondence, particularly from mid-September through early October with that relating to negotiations with the Barbary States (Barbary Negotiations, 12 Sept. – 11 Oct., Editorial Note; to WSS, 19 Sept., both below; AFC , 6:478).

WSS’s Prussian interlude, however, did resolve a dilemma for the Adams family. WSS had courted AA2 since the Adamses’ arrival in London, despite AA’s warning that her daughter was still “under engagements” to Royall Tyler. But just two days after WSS departed for Prussia on a “quiet Journey of the heart in pursuit of those affections,” AA2 broke off her involvement with Tyler. AA notified WSS of AA2’s preference for him in a letter of mid-September but cautioned prudence in his further pursuit of AA2. WSS 301replied on 6 Dec. that he would be cautious and that he was “a little surprized at myself for seeking it at such a distance” ( AFC , 5:xxxix, lx; 6:262, 267, 280, 340, 366, 369, 483).

WSS left London on 9 Aug., bound for Harwich to take passage to Hellevoetsluis, where he arrived on the 11th. He traveled in company with Francisco de Miranda (1750–1816), a Venezuelan soldier and partisan of Latin-American independence whom WSS met during the Revolution ( AFC , 6:267; DNB ). WSS’s travel diary, which AA advised him to keep, appears in English in Archivo del general Miranda, ed. Vicente Dávila and others, 24 vols., Caracas, 1929–1950, 1:354–434. By early September, WSS and Miranda were at Berlin and settled into a daily routine of watching Prussian troop maneuvers in the morning, then exploring the country’s cultural offerings or carousing with other sol diers. WSS wrote that the precision of the troops executing the drills was “superior to panegeric,” but he thought the Prussians did not always deploy their cavalry effectively (same, p. 380, 382–383). He was impressed with Frederick II as a patron of the arts but deemed him an “inconsistent” ruler when he compared “the poverty of his soldier to the luxury of the prince and the sentiments and accomplishments of a philosopher with the actions of a tyrant” (same, p. 377). In late October WSS and Miranda parted, the latter going off to Hungary. WSS returned to London by way of Paris, spending most of November with Thomas Jefferson, who wrote to AA of the “extreme worth” of WSS’s character (from Jefferson, 27 Nov., below; Archivo del general Miranda, p. 433; AFC , 6:463). Upon his arrival in London, WSS resumed his duties as secretary and renewed his courtship of AA2 in earnest ( AFC , 6:478).