Papers of John Adams, volume 18

From Matthew Robinson-Morris

From Jan van Heukelom & Zoon

[ 25 April 1786 ]
Editorial Note

There were three attempts in the mid-1780s to negotiate a Portuguese-American commercial treaty; all failed, and only the third resulted in a final treaty ready for signature. The first was undertaken by Benjamin Franklin in 1783, and although he submitted a draft treaty to Congress after negotiations with Vicente, Conde de Sousa Coutinho, the Portuguese ambassador to France, the effort came to nothing when Congress took no action (Franklin, Papers , 40:123–132, 360–361). The second effort began following the 1784 creation of the joint commission to negotiate commercial treaties with the nations of Europe and North Africa composed of John Adams, Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. In September 1784 the commissioners informed the Conde de Sousa Coutinho of their new powers and in November sent the Portuguese ambassador a draft treaty virtually identical to the draft Prussian-American treaty recently sent to the Prussian minister at The Hague. The draft Portuguese-American treaty was sent to 257 Lisbon, but nothing came of it because Portugal’s interest in an agreement had waned, although it was willing to exchange agents with the United States so as to better determine the interests of the two nations (vols. 16:193–202, 207–209, 320, 377–387, 429–430, 437–438, 591; 17:503–504; Jefferson, Papers , 7:419–420, 580). The third attempt at a treaty began in November 1785 when Luiz Pinto de Balsamão, the Portuguese envoy extraordinary and minister to Britain, informed Adams that Portugal wished to conclude a treaty but had decided that negotiations should take place in London rather than Paris (vol. 17:567, 568–569). It is this third and final effort that is represented in the [25 April 1786] treaty printed below.

On 5 November 1785, Adams wrote virtually identical letters to John Jay and Jefferson, informing them of the Portuguese decision and his discussions with Pinto de Balsamão about a treaty and Portuguese-American trade. In his 27 November reply, Jefferson indicated his enthusiasm for negotiating at London rather than Paris and offered his own thoughts regarding trade and treaty provisions (same, 17:568–574, 609–614; Jefferson, Papers , 9:18–22). Adams likely received Jefferson’s letter, carried by William Stephens Smith, on or about 5 December, the day Smith returned to London from his extended tour of the continent ( AFC , 6:478).

There is little documentary evidence concerning the negotiations, and, with the exception of the final treaty itself, most of the existing documents are undated. This leaves much open to conjecture, but what is known is that Adams and Jefferson began negotiations with Pinto de Balsamão shortly after Jefferson’s arrival in London on 11 March 1786 and were largely finished by 6 April, when the Portuguese minister wrote to Adams requesting a date for a final conference (Adams Papers). It seems likely, however, that Adams prepared the ground for the final negotiations between early November 1785 and Jefferson’s arrival in March 1786.

In December 1785, with Jefferson’s 27 November letter in hand and Smith resuming his duties as secretary, it seems probable that Adams had a draft Portuguese-American treaty prepared (Jefferson, Papers , 9:412–423). He probably had Smith copy from his Letterbook the draft Anglo-American treaty of amity and commerce, the commissioners’ most recent draft treaty, which had been enclosed with an 8 July 1785 letter from Franklin and Jefferson and was presented to the Marquis of Carmarthen on 29 July (vol. 17:225–236, 280–282). The only significant changes between the two drafts were the substitution of “Her Majesty the Queen of Portugal” for “his Britannic Majesty” and the insertion of a blank space in Article 3 to include the names of places outside Portugal’s European possessions, such as the Azores, Madeira, and the Cape Verde islands, with which the United States could trade. Presumably two copies were made, one for Pinto de Balsamão and the other for the commissioners’ reference.

John Adams likely gave the draft to the Portuguese minister in December 1785, but nothing further happened until 21 February 1786. On or about that date Pinto de Balsamão received full powers to negotiate (to Jay, 26 Feb., and note 2, above; AFC , 7:71–72). And also on that day Adams wrote 258 to Jefferson, above, asking him to come to London to complete the treaty. Prior to Jefferson’s arrival in London it seems likely that the newly empowered minister sent Adams his “Observations sur le Traité D’Amitie et de Commerce,” which Adams translated (Jefferson, Papers, 9:424–426).

Soon after Jefferson’s arrival the commissioners met with the minister and negotiations began in earnest. As the commissioners’ written reply to Pinto de Balsamão “Observations” indicates, several of the issues raised by the Portuguese were settled at that first meeting (same, 9:426–432). There is no indication as to when the commissioners’ reply was presented to Pinto de Balsamão, but it is clear that the commissioners were concerned about two issues: the flour and grain trade and the treatment of contraband. The commissioners’ response regarding the first issue stemmed from Adams’ conversations with Pinto de Balsamão in early November 1785 and was a rebuttal of a policy prohibiting the importation of flour to protect Portuguese flour mills set down in an extract of a letter to Pinto de Balsamão from the Portuguese foreign minister received by Adams in February 1786 (to Jay, 26 Feb., and note 2, above). With regard to the second issue, the commissioners proposed omitting, as was the case in the Prussian-American treaty and the draft Anglo-American treaty, a specific list of contraband goods that could be seized whenever found. As is evident from Articles 3 and 12 in the final Portuguese-American treaty, below, the commissioners were unable to achieve their objective in either case.

When Pinto de Balsamão wrote to John Adams on 6 April 1786, requesting a date for a final conference and suggesting 8, 10, or 11 April (Adams Papers), Adams and Jefferson were away on their tour of English gardens. It is not known when the final meeting occurred, but it was decisive. At that meeting Pinto de Balsamão proposed a revision of Article 11 concerning “Liberty of Conscience”; a list of contraband to be included in Article 12; the deletion of Article 13; and a new article regarding the entry of vessels of war into the waters of each party that became Article 25 of the final treaty (Jefferson, Papers , 9:432–433). It should be noted that Article 13 was not deleted, but rather revised, for which see note 6 to the treaty, below.

All that remained was to prepare the text of the final treaty in two columns, one in Portuguese, the other in English. With respect to this there is a curious document in the Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress. In the Papers of Thomas Jefferson (vol. 9:421) it is described as a “PrC in a clerk’s hand.” With four exceptions (for which see notes 2, 6, 8, and 9 to the 25 April treaty, below) this document is likely a text prepared by the commissioners following their final meeting with Pinto de Balsamão and intended to be given to the copyist who prepared the fair copy of the final treaty. However, this particular copy is in the hand of Henry Adams, probably made while he was doing research at the Library of Congress in the 1870s and 1880s for his History of the United States. It is possible that the copy is Adams’ amalgam of the changes made in the course of the negotiations, but it is more likely a copy of a document that has not been found.

Jefferson wrote to Jay on 23 April that “the conferences with the 259 minister of Portugal have been drawn to a greater length than I expected. However, every thing is now agreed and the treaty will be ready for signature the day after tomorrow” (Jefferson, Papers , 9:402). In their letter to Jay of 25 April, above, the commissioners stated, “we propose to execute the treaty, and hope to receive the Counterpart executed by the Chevalier De Pinto, before our Commission expires.” Thus it was, according to Abigail Adams 2d, that on 25 April “Mr Jefferson and Pappa went after dinner to the Chevalier de Pintos to put their Names to the Treaty with Portugal” ( AFC , 7:153). Only Jefferson actually signed the treaty because he was leaving London the following day. John Adams and Pinto de Balsamão did not sign because of the need to await Lisbon’s final approval of the treaty and the authorization for its minister to sign the agreement. The authorization never came, and thus the treaty never went into effect. It was not until 1840, 54 years later, that the United States and Portugal would finally conclude a “Treaty of Commerce and Navigation” (Miller, Treaties , 4:295–324).