Papers of John Adams, volume 18

To Matthew Robinson-Morris

From Thomas Barclay

220 From John Adams to James Bowdoin, 24 March 1786 Adams, John Bowdoin, James
To James Bowdoin
Sir Grosvenor Square March 24. 1786

I do myself the honour of inclosing a few Extracts of Letters written in 1783 to Mr Livingstone,1 which it is to be presumed were laid before Congress: but I have not heard that the Plan Suggested in them of purchasing raw Sugars in France, Spain and Portugal, to be refined in Boston, New York and Philadelphia for Exportation to Russia, Germany & Italy, has been ever attempted, untill this Winter by Mr Thomas Boylston.2 Upon the Arrival of a Cargo of Oil in the Thames he resolved instead of paying the Alien Duty, to embark on board of the Vessell and carry it abroad. He arrived in Ostend, unloaded the ship, Seperated the Sperma Cæti from the Oil, and went with both to Havre de Grace and thence to Rouen. He had Letters from me to Rouen & to Paris, particularly to Mr Jefferson, the Marquis de la Fayette & Messrs Le Couteulx. with Some difficulty they got the Duties somewhat reduced, and with his Sagacity, Activity and Perseverance, he got the better of those Devices which are too frequent in Trade in that Country, sold his Oil for a good Price, bought a Quantity of raw sugars which cost him Six or seven hundred Guineas more than the Proceeds of his Oil, and sent the Head matter and sugars, to Boston. No other Man at his Age, would have undertaken So much fatigue Risque & Vexation: and I much question whether Delays and Charges and Leakage considered, his Profits have been very great. but A Beginning is made and an Example sett. If We can make Remittances to Russia in this manner, it will be a Resource.3 It well deserves the Consideration of the state of Massachusetts, whether any Encouragement can be given by Bounties or Drawbacks of Duties upon Sugars thus imported from Europe. a Markett in this Way may Surely be found for all your Oil. Mr Boylston has certainly rendered a considerable service to his native Country, by applying his Capital, his Talents and Industry in this manner.

With great Respect I have the Honour to be / Sir, your Excellencys most obedient & most / humble servant

John Adams.4

RC (MHi:Winthrop Papers); internal address: “His Excellency James Bowdoin / Governor of Massachusetts.”; endorsed: “John Adam’s esqr. / his Letter relative to / Commerce &c / March 24. 1786.” LbC (Adams Papers); APM Reel 112.


JA’s enclosed extracts have not been found. But for JA’s views on the potential for American profit in the sugar trade, articulated in a set of 1783 letters written to Robert R. 221 Livingston which were all laid before Congress, see his 19 March 1786 letter to Elbridge Gerry, and note 4, above.


With substantial aid from Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Boylston had succeeded in the first step of his original proposal, to sell American whale oil to France. Boylston reinvested the profits in West Indian sugar and molasses, to be sold on the American market, and simultaneously sought to acquire an arrangement similar to Robert Morris’ tobacco monopoly with the French Farmers General (Jefferson, Papers , 9:29–31).


After the 1783 failure of Francis Dana’s mission to St. Petersburg to obtain Russian recognition of the United States and a Russo-American commercial treaty (vol. 15:179–182), few American merchants—only an estimated nineteen vessels before 1790—attempted the market. By JA’s presidency, however, roughly forty American vessels arrived in St. Petersburg each year to trade raw sugar from Martinique and southern foodstuffs for Russian hemp, canvas, and iron (Nikolai N. Bolkhovitinov, The Beginnings of Russian American Relations, 1775–1815, transl. Elena Levin, Cambridge, 1975, p. 95–98).


On 27 March 1786, JA resumed his Diary after a ten-month absence, but he made only scattered entries in it until the Adamses departed for America in May 1788 (JA, D&A , 3:181–217).