Papers of John Adams, volume 18

To John Adams from the Marquis de Lafayette, 5 January 1787 Lafayette, Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Adams, John
From the Marquis de Lafayette
My dear Sir Paris january the 5th 1787

I Expected to write to You By cll franks, But as His departure Has Been daily differed, I will not delay Any longer My Hearty Wishes of an Happy New year to You, mr̃s Adams, mr̃s Smith, Your Sons, the Adoptive one I will write to By in Bye—1 May this New Year Afford You, and Your Worthy family and friends Every kind of Public and Personal Satisfaction! Had I Been less Acquainted With the forms of a Republican Government, and the temper of the Good Citizens of America, I would Have Been Greatly Alarmed at the late Accounts of disturbances in Some States, Which, However, in Spite of My Reasonings, Gave me Some Momentary Uneasiness— A letter from You to mr̃ jefferson did us Great deal of Good—2 I Hope the fœderal Councils will take No Measures that May Alarm the people Against fœderal ideas—and from the Wisdom, the Great Sense, and the patriotism of the people, I flatter myself, the More so when I Remember old times, that Good will Come from a temporary Evil, and that the very things in Which the Ennemies of America Now Have the Impudence to glory and Confide, will turn out to the Greater fame, and Advantage of the United States

the [Empeor] of Morocco is a lovely Boy— I wish the Algerines Could do the Same— I Confess my old ideas do Still Smile to My fancy— Could we not Agree in a third proposal which Has Been Spoken of to You By an other Opportunity?3

I dare Say You Have Been pleased to Hear of the Meeting of an Assembly at Versaïlles to debate Several Matters of the Utmost Importance to this kingdom— it is not what we Call the Etats Generaux, But an Assembly of Notables Appointed By the king, Who does not take in Any Man Holding a place at Court— it Consists of 140 Members, and perhaps a few More— A Number of Arch Bishops and Bishops for the Clergy—Six and thirty Members for the Noblesse, among whom are two Acquaintances and a friend of Yours, Count d’estaing, 530 the duke de la Rochefoucaud and Your Humble Servant— it is Not ascertained if the princes of the Blood will Be at our Head, or in the king’s Suite— there will Be the first president and procureur General from Every parliament, three more from the parliament of paris, and Some Conseïllers d’etat, and Intendants— thirty towns will Send their Mayors— it is on the 29th that the Assembly Meet, for one Month at least, and probably for a longer time— our letters say that the king Wants to Communicate to us His views for the Soulagement des peuples, Arrangement des finances, et Reformation de plusieurs Abuse4 this is Certainly a Noble, patriotic Measure Which does great Honour to the king and May do much Good to this Country.

Pray, what is Become of doctor Gordon? I know He is in England, But Have Not Heard from Him— I wish to know when His History Comes out, and to Enlist myself Among the Subscribers

Adieu, My dear Sir, Most Affectionately and Respectfully / Yours


RC (Adams Papers); endorsed: “M. M. De la Fayette / 5. Jan. 1787. / ansd. 12.”


Lafayette wrote to WSS on 16 Jan., briefly mentioning the meeting of the Assembly of Notables, but in WSS’s 24 Jan. letter to John Jay he quoted virtually verbatim from Lafayette’s account in this letter of the assembly’s membership (Roof, Smith and Lady , p. 142–143; Dipl. Corr., 1783–1789 , 3:60).


Of 30 Nov. 1786, above.


While JA and Thomas Jefferson pursued a diplomatic resolution, Lafayette advocated a more aggressive response to the seizure of American ships in the Mediterranean. In [ca. 6 March 1786] letters to Jefferson and Henry Knox, Lafayette recommended sending John Paul Jones to lead a naval blockade of key ports in the Barbary States (Jefferson, Papers , 9:318–320). See JA’s reasons for dismissing Lafayette’s suggestion in his 6 June letter to Jefferson, above.


Acting at the request of the French finance minister, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, Louis XVI gathered the Assembly of Notables at eleven o’clock in the morning on 22 Feb. 1787 in the Salle des Menus Plaisirs at Versailles. The 144-member convention, composed of noblemen, clergy, magistrates, and municipal officers, had not met formally since 1626, and signaled French interest in experimenting with constitutional monarchy. Delayed by the 13 Feb. death of the Comte de Vergennes and by Calonne’s illness, the notables split into seven bureaus to address the ruinous state of France’s economy. They took a brief hiatus to observe Easter and adjourned on 25 May, reshaping public opinion but effecting no fundamental change in economic policy. Lafayette, one of the younger and more radical noblemen in attendance, reported to the American commissioners, George Washington, and WSS on the proceedings, which spun out of both Calonne’s and the king’s control.

Initially, Calonne planned to use the convention to leverage popular support for his financial reforms, so that he could sidestep the anticipated resistance of local parlements. Calonne sought to impose a general land tax and stamp tax, to lift internal customs barriers, to regulate the corn trade, and to create elective provincial assemblies. But the notables, shocked to learn of the country’s dire financial straits, spent most of the debates indicating their displeasure with Louis XVI and the inadequacy of Calonne and the finance ministers who had preceded him. They countered with an aggressive set of reforms to resolve the crisis, including new forms of fiscal equality and improved accounting of public revenue in the provinces. Far from earning him the “great Honour” that Lafayette predicted, the notables’ well-publicized criticism of Louis XVI caused his waning popularity to 531 plummet further in the assembly’s aftermath. The king dismissed Calonne on 8 April and later exiled him from Paris (Schama, Citizens , p. 237–246; Gottschalk, Lafayette , 4:279–300; Cambridge Modern Hist. , 8:100–106, 144). See also Jefferson’s account of the opening of the assembly, in his letter to JA of 23 Feb. (Jefferson, Papers , 11:176–177).

At the assembly, Lafayette spoke often as an ardent proponent of toleration toward Protestants, freedom of trade, and the need to reform criminal law. He read JA’s Defence during the “Very Solemn” debates and likely drew on it to make his own arguments for local assemblies. “Some of our friends, who Agree with mr Turgot’s democratic principles, were Surprised that I, a Republican in the Heart, did vote for Such distinctions in the Assembly as would form or Rather prepare a check in future times, and a division in three Branches,” he wrote to JA on 9 April; he enclosed a report of the notables’ actions in a subsequent 30 May letter (both Adams Papers). In his reply to Lafayette of 27 Oct., JA was optimistic about the growth of local sovereignties meant to counterbalance or improve the royal ministry’s policy making. According to JA “the Provincial assemblies, if they act only as Councillors of the King must operate for the benifit of the Nation” (LbC, APM Reel 113).