Papers of John Adams, volume 18

To John Adams from James Sullivan, 16 December 1786 Sullivan, James Adams, John
From James Sullivan
My Dear Sir Hartford December 16th 1786

I have neglected writing to you perhaps more than I Should have done had I not supposed that your Numerous correspondents had become a burden to you. indeed our Country has afforded but little lately to write upon.1

I have been here seventeen days on a mission to settle by a way of Compromise with the State of N York a Controversy between our Commonwealth and them respecting the Western Territory the business was concluded yesterday excepting the Sending of the parchment which is now engrossing and will be compleated today.2

N York cedes to the Commonwealth a tract of Territory bounded begining on Pensylvania Line Eighty Two miles from the N E Corner of that State thence running due north to Lake ontario and into the Lake to the British dominions then by the British Dominions through the Waters of Niagara and Lake Erie to a meridian passing through the Northwest corner of Pensylvania, then on the Line of that state to the beginning New York having one mile on the East Side of the Straight of Niagra and Parrell thereto, which includes the Forts. Masstts. has also 240,000 acres in the Forkes of the Susquehannah. N York has the Jurisdiction of the Whole. not to lay any Tax on the Land while ungranted by this Commonwealth: nor to tax 524 their Grantees till fifteen years after the Date of their Grants— All Grants to be recorded in the secretaries office of the Commonwealth, and we to march any armies necessary to Treaties with the Indians &c the Waters of the Two Lakes to be navigable by the Citizens of both States in common. The Tract Ceded to us exclusive of Waters is Six millions of acres or near seven. we were in fact glad to be excused from holding the Jurisdiction because the Country is too remote to be Governed by us and if we Colonized they would soon unite with the Wyoming people & revolt.3

we make a poor hand indeed of Governing the state as it is now. Insurgents are every day attacking and Stopping our Courts of Justice. some of the ring leaders have been lately taken by Coupe D main4 but the Government has neither learning ability energy or honesty the Legislature is parlementem indoctum compleatly the whole Tribe of Lawyers is excused from seats, and they have Scarcely a man who has Courage and ability to pen a useful act. the year has been spent in attempts to destroy the Men of the black robe and to lessen the numbers and expence of Lawsuits, to which purpose a variety of acts have been passed which make us the ridicule of the whole union.5 while the Doctors are only encreasing the malady they wish to cure; our G. has no Legal Ideas he wishes to do well but the path not being plain he is affraid to act and yet dares not to refuse. Laws are made altering the nature of private Contracts and rendering property totally insecure. this, while it disaffects all who have Supported the Government does by no means conciliate the affections of the Insurgents who have for their object being released from all Debts and Taxes without paying either.

The Fœderal Government is Still weaker and we dare not try to compel a compliance with the requistions of Congress in any of the States. our old Whigs are all now talking very Seriously of a change of System. they consider these seperate sovereignties as insupportable and quite incompatible with a general Government. Congress are raising a small Trove which I consider as the beginning of a Standing army and am sorry to say that all our fine Spun ideas of Democratical Governments being founded in the Virtue of the people are vanished & that we find the americans like other people obliged by force only to yield obedience to the Laws. our Constitution with regard to the Militia has nearly ruined us. in N Hampshire where the officers are appointed by the president of the State they have quelled their rebellions with ease and dispatch.

As you frequently see that great and good man Doctor Price pray 525 remember me to him. I Shall soon write him. and make my Compliments agreeable to your Lady and Famaly.

I am Sir with the Most unfeigned Friendship your Most obedient Humble Servant

James Sullivan

RC (Adams Papers); internal address: “His Excellency Mr Adams.”


Sullivan’s last letter to JA was of 24 Oct. 1785 (vol. 17:540–541).


For the origins of the longstanding Massachusetts—New York boundary dispute, the various efforts to resolve it, and the role that JA played in it, see vol. 2:22–81, and indexes to vols. 16 and 17.

On 30 Nov. 1786, the commissioners from Massachusetts (Rufus King, John Lowell, Sullivan, and Theophilus Parsons) met with those from New York State (Melancton Smith, Egbert Benson, Robert R. Livingston, James Duane, Robert Yates, and John Haring) in Hartford, Conn., and on 16 Dec. signed an agreement finally ending the dispute. Under its terms, Massachusetts agreed to all of New York’s claims and renounced the government, sovereignty, and jurisdiction over the disputed territory. For the renunciation of its claims, Massachusetts was awarded ownership of 6 million acres of land hitherto claimed by Native Americans, and another 230,400 acres in compensation for land in the area originally disputed that had been sold by New York (Alexander Hamilton, The Law Practice of Alexander Hamilton: Documents and Commentary, ed. Julius Goebel Jr. and others, 5 vols., N.Y., 1964–1981, 1:577). For James Bowdoin’s 13 Feb. 1787 message transmitting the agreement to the Mass. General Court, the approval of the agreement by a committee of the General Court, and the agreement itself, see Mass., Acts and Laws , 1786–1787, p. 459–467, 968–969.

Considering the time and effort he had spent in preparing the case to be used by Massachusetts in negotiations with New York, which was available to the Massachusetts commissioners at Hartford, JA was not impressed with the settlement. In his Autobiography, begun in 1802, he wrote that “the Decision was much less favourable to Massachusetts than it ought to have been, and the State have very unœconomically alienated all the Land since that time for a very inadequate sum of Money. I wish they had first given me a Township of the Land. It would have been much more prudently disposed of than any of the rest of it was, and more justly. I never had any thing for my half Years service, nor even Credit nor Thanks” (JA, D&A , 3:303–304).


Sullivan refers to the difficulty of governing colonists from a distance, which might unite them with disgruntled residents of the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania, who had been involved in the long-running dispute between Pennsylvania and Connecticut over its ownership.


For the Shaysite arrests, see Benjamin Hichborn’s 16 Jan. 1787 letter, and note 2, below.


Sullivan alludes to the attacks made by Honestus, Benjamin Austin Jr., on the Massachusetts legal profession, for which see Richard Cranch’s 3 Oct. 1786 letter, and note 3, above.