Papers of John Adams, volume 18

From Rufus King

From John Jay

277 To John Adams from John Jay, 4 May 1786 Jay, John Adams, John
From John Jay
Dr Sir Office for foreign Affairs 4th: May 1786

Since the 22d. February which was the Date of my last Letter to You,1 I have been honored with yours of the 4. 5. and 11 Novemr. and 2. 6. 9. 12. and 15 and one of    Decemr. last, and also of 4th. 21. and 26. January 1786.2 All of them have been laid before Congress, from whom I have no Instructions to say any thing more on the Subjects of them than what you will find in my Letter to you of the 1st. Inst.— This is to be imputed to there not being so many States convened in Congress as are necessary to decide on Matters of that kind, for since last Autumn when the new Election took place they have not had nine States on the floor for more than three or four Days, until this Week— There are nine at present and more are expected, so that I hope more Attention will now be paid to our foreign Affairs than has been the Case for many Months past.—

Your and Mr. Jeffersons joint Letter dated 2d. & 11th. October last with the Prussian Treaty has been received and I have reported a Ratification of it, which when agreed to shall without Delay be transmitted.3 The printed Papers herewith transmitted will give you some Ideas of our Affairs. The proposed Impost gains Friends and the Legislature of this State has passed an Act in its Favor rather in Compliance with the popular Opinion, than that of a Majority in the House— it departs however from some material Parts in the Recommendation of Congress, and it is not certain that in it’s present State it will be accepted.4 As this Letter will go by the Packet I avoid minute Details— I hope by the next private Ship to write more circumstantially especially as it is probable that Congress will by that Time have concluded on several Matters respecting foreign Affairs, which have long been and now are under their Consideration.—

Mr. Anstey is here, and I think has Reason to be satisfied with the Attention shewn him. The English Papers do us Injustice, and are calculated to create a much greater Degree of Asperity in this Country than really exists in it.—

Mr. Hancock is still at Boston, and it is not certain when he may be expected— this is not a pleasant Circumstance, for though the Chair is well filled by a Chairman,5 yet the President of Congress should be absent as little and seldom as possible.

With great & sincere Regard I am / Dr Sir / Your most obt. & hble: Servt.

John Jay—

RC (Adams Papers); internal address: “The Honorable John Adams Esqr. / Minister Plenipoy. of the Ud. States / at the Court of London—”; endorsed: “Mr Jay. 4. May / ansd. 16. June. / 1786.”


Jay had written to JA on 7 April and, as he indicates in the second sentence of this paragraph, on 1 May, both above. Jay, however, presumably considered those letters private, because of their content and Congress’ inability to obtain a quorum, but see JA’s first letter of 14 June to Rufus King and his second letter to Jay of 27 June, both below.


For the Nov. 1785 letters, see vol. 17:564—566, 568–574, 584–585. The letters for 2, 6, 9, and 15 Dec. are all above. For that of 12 Dec. see the 9 Dec. letter, note 1. The undated December letter is the first of 3 Dec., for which see note 1 to that letter, above. The Jan. 1786 letters are all above, but Jay is referring to JA’s first letter of 4 January.


For the commissioners’ covering letter for the Prussian-American treaty, see vol. 17:502–503. Jay’s report recommending ratification of the treaty was dated 9 March, and Congress acted on 17 May. Jay enclosed the ratified treaty with his 6 June letter, below.


On 18 April 1783 Congress adopted resolutions recommending to the states that they enact legislation permitting Congress to levy an impost on imported goods to be used to discharge the public debt. Such an authorization would not go into effect until all of the states agreed to the resolutions. By the date of this letter the impost had been approved by twelve states. All included the reservation that the impost would not become effective until it had been adopted unanimously.

New York, the last state to do so, acted on 4 May 1786; however, while the legislation approved an impost, it effectively removed its collection and enforcement from the control of Congress and thus conflicted with the measures adopted by the other states. In a report of 27 July, Congress declared that it would be impossible for the impost to go into effect if the New York act stood. It then resolved to form a committee to draft legislation that, upon being adopted by New York, would empower Congress to act in accordance with its resolutions of 18 April 1783. On 11 Aug. 1786 Congress called on New York to convene a special session of the legislature to enact the required legislation. In a 16 Aug. letter George Clinton, governor of New York, indicated to Congress that the state constitution prevented him from doing so. Clinton was upheld in his refusal at the legislature’s next meeting, and with the failure of New York to comply, the impost was never enacted ( JCC , 24:257–261; 30:439–445; 31:513–514, 555–561; Smith, Letters of Delegates , 23:480–481).

The seriousness of the situation was evident from the Board of Treasury’s 22 June report to Congress that ended with the warning “that nothing but an immediate and general Adoption of the Measures recommended by the Resolves of Congress of the 18th April, 1783, can rescue us from Bankruptcy, or preserve the Union of the several States from Dissolution” ( JCC , 30:366).


That is, David Ramsay of South Carolina.