Papers of John Adams, volume 18


To Wilhem & Jan Willink and Nicolaas & Jacob van Staphorst

To John Adams from the Marquis de Lafayette, 9 January 1786 Lafayette, Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Adams, John
From the Marquis de Lafayette
Extract To Mr. Adams— Paris. January. 9. 1785 [1786] 1

I present You with my New Year Good Wishes so far as to conform ourselves to the European Calendar; for altho’ my Sentiments 92 for You are the same Every Day. Yet dont I think it right in us to mention any Day as the beginning of the Year but the blessed 4th. of July.

Mr. Barret’s Business is coming on pretty well; he has made a Six Years Contract with Mr. Sangraine for the Sum of four hundred Thousand Livres a year & would not carry it further—in order to give to the other Merchants an Opportunity to do business on their own account. Mr. Sangraines Consumption amounts to an annual Sum of one Million of Livres and I dont doubt but that Three Millions of Livres worth may be easily sold in France, which is as comfortable to the Nantucket people as a Settlement at Shelburne Town in Nova Scotia. Two Things remain to be settled the one to have this Six Years Contract authorised by Government; the other to see what can be done for the following Years. I am sure Mr. Jefferson will find in the Ministry a good Disposition to encourage an Exchange Trade. The last time I saw the Controleur General, he had received Complaints from the French Wale Company, upon which he expatiated not a little; but as they cant furnish more than a very small part of our Consumption, France must for a pretty long time at least, get foreign Oil; & that of New England indeed smells better than that of Great Britain.

Mr. Barret has entered into a Partnership with Messrs. le Couteux, who have promised to accept Bills for any American Goods from any American State that will be sent to Mr. Barret, so that the Connection will extend to every part of the Continent & Remittances will be made in French Goods, under the Inspection of Mr Barret, who is to sail by the next packet, fix his Correspondences, and return with the first Cargo of Oil, in order to settle in Paris.2

The Article of Spermacetti Candles may go a great Length: Samples have been sent by some of my Friends in Boston: Mr Jefferson Mr Barret & myself are of Opinion the best way will be to bring the Materials here, make the Candles to the Taste of the people & see how they will take. We have been for three Days fixing Pins into them to measure their Duration & conclude it may become an Article for Remittances of a pretty great Value.

Mr. Tracy’s naval Stores Plan is going on & I don’t doubt but what a Contract will take place.3 It is the avowed Opinion of the Brittish Navy that American Timber is good for Nothing, which affected me the more as I know it to be quite disinterested; But am happy to find those Prejudices are dying away in France, so far at least as respects live Oak, Red Cedar, Knees;4 and a few Experiments will also 93 restabilitate the Masts: Officers are sent for that purpose to the Eastward, & I hope my Friend Mr. Brook Mr Barret and others will contract for an Envoice of Timber. In the mean while I am desired to ask General Green for   5 Thousand Cubit feet of live Oak as an Experiment, & an Officer is sent to Georgia to contract with him on a large Scale.6 American Pitch is acknowledged to be excellent & a certain Quantity is asked for as a farther Experiment. Pot Ash too has been tried & is far superior to any other.

It seems to me there may be given in this Country a Vent for a Million Sterling worth of American Produce; that to be paid in french Goods, & I wish a preference may be given to natural productions, or useful Manufactures, over the extravagant Trinkets of Fashion & Luxury. When a solid exchange Trade is well fixed then is time for a bounded Credit to take place. If Great Britain is complaining of her Losses she may blame her Ministers who while they had sent their Goods to America took great Care that Every Door be shut against Remittances, evincing an equal Wisdom with one, who after he had exchanged a Watch for a Bank bill, would contrive while he is locking it in his pocket book, very cunningly to let it slip into the Fire.7

I find by the American Papers that Sir Robert Herries had proposed furnishing the Farm with Tobacco, which is very kind indeed considering the Trouble he would have to go & fetch it. Upon this Affair of Tobacco Mr. Jefferson has wrote a Letter which is a Master-Piece.8 As this Government is very friendly disposed, I wish a Committee might be appointed to examine Article by Article the Means of Remittance that America has to dispute with the forme Generale upon every selfish or prejudiced Trial, to facilitate Exportations from America into France and level every Obstacle that attends the French Goods from the Manufacturing Place to the Vessel wherein they are embarked: In a Word, to benefit both Trades, and bend together both Nations on the Basis of mutual Advantages. Such a measure I think, would be of immense Profit to either of the two Countries, and many good Things could also be added on the East India Trade.

Brant, the Indian is, I am told, in England. It would seem to be a very ingenious Plan for Great Brittain to pursue, while they are losing their Mercantile Interest in America, for the Sake of some few Furr Merchants, or rather of a few petty Officers in Canada, also to give themselves all the political Disadvantages of a War with the United States, so far at least as to alienate every Mind, and cut off 94 every Hope of a good Understanding; and that for the Sake of a few Scalps! What Obligations, my dear Sir, are we laid under to British Councils, not only in the Course of, but still after the Revolution, which they have so well prepared, encouraged, hastened, consolidated, and are now bringing to Perfection.

I have two Favors to beg of You: The one is to find out what remains of Fothergill’s Works on the Slavery of Negroes, and to send me every Thing that has been written in England about the Means to discourage it: I would like to add the several Laws passed in America for a gradual Enfranchisement of those injured People:9 My second Request is, for You to get acquainted with a Mr. Howard, who has travelled all over Europe to enquire into, and has written an excellent Book to amend, the State of Prisons.10 I have a great Desire to be honored with his Correspondence.

la Fayette.

MS in two unknown hands (MiU-C:Sydney Papers); docketed: “Paris, January 9. 1786. / Extract of a Letter from / the Marquis de la Fayette / to John Adams Esqr. / Recd. January 15. 1786.”


JA mentions receiving this letter in his 21 Jan. reply, below, but the RC has not been found. This is probably because he enclosed it with his 22 Jan. letter to Rufus King, below, indicating there that he intended it for circulation but had no time to copy it. The “Extract” printed here is among the papers of Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney, the British home secretary. This may mean that Lafayette’s letter was opened and copied at the post office prior to JA’s receiving it. If so, it would not have been the first time, for in JA’s 13 Dec. 1785 letter to Lafayette, above, he indicated that the marquis’ 30 Nov. letter had been opened, but he was “glad of it, because … I shall at least have the Pleasure to think we teaze them a little.”

This extract likely does not contain all of the material contained in the RC, for which see note 7, below. This seems indicated because while JA’s 21 Jan. 1786 reply, below, is virtually a point by point response to Lafayette’s comments and queries as they appear in the extract, he also responds to matters not appearing there but likely included in the RC, for which see note 2 to JA’s reply.


For Nathaniel Barrett’s own report on his progress, see his 29 Jan. letter, below.


For the efforts by the Newburyport merchant Nathaniel Tracy, with JA’s assistance, to obtain a contract to supply masts to the French Navy, see vol. 16:444–446, 460–461, 462. Tracy ultimately obtained a contract to supply masts, but the poor quality of the first cargo resulted in its cancellation and confirmed the French view of the poor quality of American naval stores.


Live oaks were the major source of “Knees,” naturally shaped timbers that were widely used in the construction of wooden ships.


MS has an ellipsis at this point.


Gen. Nathanael Greene wrote to the Marquis de Castries, French minister of marine, on 1 June 1785, proposing to sell the French Navy live oak from his holdings on Cumberland Island, Ga. Lafayette acted as Greene’s agent and on 29 Dec. wrote to Greene, indicating that the French government had asked him “to apply to you for an assortment of thousand Cubit feet of green oack.” However, nothing came of this prior to Greene’s death in June 1786 (Greene, Papers , 13:532–533, 639–640).


The remainder of the letter, including the docketing, is in the second unknown hand. It should be noted, however, that the text written in the first hand comprises approximately two and one half pages of the letter. The text in the second hand begins a page and a half later, with the intervening space being blank, with what amounts to an ellipsis running through the blank space at an angle.

95 8.

Sir Robert Herries (1730–1815) was a London merchant and former M.P. for Dumfriesshire who was heavily involved in the tobacco trade (Namier and Brooke, House of Commons ). Thomas Jefferson wrote to Patrick Henry, governor of Virginia, on 16 June 1785, enclosing Herries’ proposal, obtained for him by Lafayette, to supply the Farmers General with 40,000 hogsheads of Virginia and Maryland tobacco over two years. Jefferson hoped that Virginia tobacco growers and merchants would make a similar proposal to the Farmers General whereby the tobacco would go directly to France rather than through London, thereby enriching Virginia rather than Britain. Jefferson’s hopes were not fulfilled because the Americans thought the terms proposed by Herries carried risks too great for them to accept (Jefferson, Papers , 8:212–214, 650–652). For Jefferson’s 15 Aug. letter to the Comte de Vergennes in which he sought to promote the sale of American tobacco directly to France and end the Farmers General’s monopoly of the tobacco trade, see same, 8:385–393.


Dr. John Fothergill (1712–1780), Quaker and British physician, was a longtime opponent of slavery, but none of his published writings were specifically devoted to that issue ( DNB ). Perhaps his most noted comment on the issue was that Africans harvesting sugarcane should be paid as workers rather than forced to work as slaves (John Coakley Lettsom, ed., The Works of John Fothergill, 3 vols., London, 1783–1784, 3:lxvii).


John Howard (ca. 1726–1790), an ardent prison reformer, visited prisons in Britain and throughout Europe. He published an enlarged edition of his State of the Prisons in England and Wales: With Preliminary Observations, and An Account of Some Foreign Prisons (London, 1777) at London in 1784. As JA indicates in his 21 Jan. 1786 reply to Lafayette, below, Howard was then in France, completing research on the treatment of plague victims in southern Europe’s lazarettos, hospitals for treating contagious diseases ( DNB ).