Papers of John Adams, volume 20

Descriptive List of Illustrations

Guide to Editorial Apparatus

xvii Introduction

“What is a federal Republic?” Vice President John Adams reflected on 12 June 1789, as the first United States Congress battled to draft legislation. “It is an association of a Number of independent Sovereign States.— Are the Seperate States in our national Government, Sovereign and independent? If they are, We had all better go home. for Heavens Sake, let us analyze our Ideas and correct our Language.— Unanimity is essential to a federal Republick.—” Adams’ prudent shaping of his office and Congress’ formation of the federal government dominate this volume, which chronicles a pivotal era spanning from June 1789 to February 1791. While members of both houses struggled to interpret the Constitution and implement an economic framework, Adams held fast to federalist ideals and etched clear boundaries for his executive powers.1

Meeting in New York City, Adams and his colleagues warred over how to collect revenue and where to locate the seat of government. They established and staffed the departments of justice, state, treasury, and war. The first vice president focused on steering progress in the Senate, where he broke a significant number of ties. Enduring the daily grind of politics, Adams lauded the “National Spirit” of his fellow citizens and pledged to continue laboring for the needs of the American people. “If I did not love them now, I would not Serve them another hour—for I very well know that Vexation and Chagrine, must be my Portion, every moment I shall continue in public Life,” Adams wrote to his old friend and political confidant Dr. Benjamin Rush. When his duties permitted, Adams considered how to communicate his federalist principles to a wider audience. Despite the country’s rapid growth, the aging revolutionary worried that Americans would xviii be “tormented with a government of men and parties instead of being blessed with a government of laws.”2

Keeping up a grueling pace in the Senate, the vice president still carved out time to create. From 1789 to 1791 Adams researched and wrote his Discourses on Davila. His final product, an influential set of 32 essays, synthesized American progress with the perils of French history. To his chagrin, the same Discourses echoed down through the rancorous political debates of the 1790s, arming critics who erroneously labeled the essay collection as evidence of his love of aristocracy. An incomplete draft of his 33d essay is printed here for the first time, as is his whimsical “Dialogues of the Dead,” in which he staged a set of historical figures conversing in the afterlife as they awaited Benjamin Franklin’s arrival.3

Once again, John Adams’ candid letters reveal firsthand the joint labor of nation-building in an age of constitutions. The 301 documents printed in volume 20 of the Papers of John Adams show a statesman transitioning into the national spotlight after a decade of service abroad. Now that he shared a city and the opportunity for conversation with trusted interlocutors like John Jay and Thomas Jefferson, Adams reconfigured his networks of correspondence. For news of the unfolding French Revolution and the Anglo-Spanish rivalry in Canada’s Nootka Sound, he turned to letters from C. W. F. Dumas, the Marquis de Lafayette, John Bondfield, John Brown Cutting, and Thomas Brand Hollis. But, overall, Adams locked his gaze on domestic affairs. He pursued intense dialogues about the state of American politics with Rush, Roger Sherman, John Trumbull, and William Tudor. After years of negotiating treaties and managing loans, Adams was restless to know how the state legislatures were developing; if economic prospects had improved in peacetime; how to uphold American neutrality; and when the newly created government entities would achieve the ideals that he envisioned.

Volume 20 captures John Adams’ initial effort at providing national leadership in an era of radical change. Whether or not the union would hold, as regional interests impeded congressional action, remained his chief concern. Adams and his family moved from xix Braintree to New York City before relocating to Philadelphia, the new temporary capital, for his next decade of public life. It was, as he admitted to Rhode Island ally Henry Marchant, a real challenge to sustain the revolutionary vigor needed to build a republic. From his perch in the heart of a bustling Senate, Vice President John Adams wrote: “United We Stand but divided We fall. Join or die. these were our Maxims, twenty five or thirty Years ago, and they are neither less true nor less important now than they were then.”4


After the first federal Congress convened on 4 March 1789 in New York City’s Federal Hall, members drafted a legislative agenda focused on enforcing the ratified Constitution and raising revenue. John Adams and his peers sought to repair public confidence in national governance. Operating under the relatively weak Articles of Confederation, the Continental Congress had foundered badly in efforts to stabilize the economy and enforce foreign treaties. Members had not achieved a quorum since October 1788. With President George Washington’s election and all but two states consenting to the Constitution, the momentum for federal progress began at a steady clip. Adams, surveying his colleagues on 21 April 1789, hoped they were ready for hard work. He addressed the Senate: “A trust of the greatest magnitude is committed to this Legislature; and the eyes of the world are upon you Your country expects, from the results of your deliberations, in concurrence with the other branches of government, consideration abroad, and contentment at home—prosperity, order, justice, peace, and liberty.”5

Every state save North Carolina and Rhode Island had congressmen in place by fall. Dual paths of legislative action, mirroring the Constitution’s implied powers, quickly emerged. The House of Representatives brought the country’s finances in line, while Adams and the Senate dealt with forming departments of justice, state, treasury, and war. At times, this split focus hampered overall progress. The House, for example, repeatedly deferred action on the Bill of Rights, the ten amendments to the Constitution that secured personal liberties, as they deliberated over ways to collect revenue. Presiding over xx the Senate, Adams watched—and heavily contributed to—marathon debates on bicameral protocol. “We proceed Slowly: but in digesting Plans so new, so extensive and so important, it is impossible to bring Bodies of Man to a clear Comprehension of Things and a mutual Satisfaction without long deliberation and debate,” Adams reported to his old friend James Bowdoin. Mindful of precedent, members of Congress experimented with forms of communication, creating a daily whirl of new committees and federal firsts. Their routine notes of transmittal, ferrying bills back and forth for edits or requesting signatures, do not appear in Series III since they are found in the volumes of the First Federal Congress. The frequency and intensity of members’ exchanges on the floor vibrates through the letters printed here. Keen to make headway on a number of fronts, John Adams longed for Congress to take “bold and decisive Measures,” yet he was sensible of the institution’s youth.6

Eager to weigh in when arguments touched on constitutional interpretation and legal history, Adams developed a distinctive presence in the first Congress, as progress moved along in fits and starts. He cast the tie-breaking vote four times in the first session, when minor dilemmas of wording hindered the process. New England Federalists provided him with a rich pipeline of information and votes. Antifederalist critics like William Maclay delighted in jabbing at Adams’ pride. The Pennsylvania senator’s description of Adams, seated in his “great chair” at the Senate’s head and rustling newspapers, was less than flattering. In Maclay’s view, Adams was fond of giving “pretty speeches,” though “Bonny Jonny Adams” did “show as much joy on an adjournment from Friday to Monday as ever a school-boy did at the sweet sound of play-time.”7

In his Diary, John Adams kept fitful notes about the major debates but was too busy to comment fully in the bulk of his letters. When the session adjourned on 29 September, the first federal Congress had regulated trade and confirmed the U.S. Supreme Court justices. The president had filled his cabinet with influential department heads, including Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Henry Knox. Several pressing issues were postponed for the next session, namely, the location of the capital, the creation of a post office, the establishment of patents, and, most critically, the discharging of the national debt.


Departing New York City on 12 October, Adams spent his first hiatus in making a restorative solo trip to his native Braintree. Weary from six months of legislative work, he appeared with Washington and Samuel Adams in Boston, where the trio drew cheers. Writing to his wife, Abigail, on [1] November, Adams recalled: “The Remarks were very Shrewd— Behold three Men, Said one, who can make a Revolution when they please. There Said another are the three genuine Pivots of the Revolution.” By late November, the vice president was back in New York City and ready for Congress’ second session, which began on 4 January 1790.8

A great deal of congressional progress hinged on Adams’ robust exercise of his vice presidential powers. He broke more ties in the second session than he did in any other of his tenure in the Senate, often reaping criticism for it. Meanwhile, members squared off on two complex issues, the federal assumption of state debts and the site of the national capital. Progress on all fronts gradually stalled. During the spring of 1790, petitions piled up and bills lagged. “The awful object before them, I mean the national debt, monopolizes the attention of Congress to such a degree that untill some system is digested no member of either house will be able to attend to any thing else,” Adams wrote on 27 February. He was uneasy that members could not agree on a permanent seat of government. Senators from Pennsylvania and Maryland made a good case, as Adams thought, for situating the capital in proximity to lucrative western lands. In his Diary, Adams jotted down fragmentary notes on the debates, emphasizing Virginia senator William Grayson’s main point: “We are about founding a City which will be one of the first in the World, and We are governed by local and partial Motives.” To Adams’ mind, the standstill threatened the government’s credibility. Once Hamilton and Virginia representative James Madison struck their infamous bargain at Jefferson’s dinner table in June, Congress swung back into action. The Residence Act, signed by the president on 16 July, eased southerners’ concerns about federal power. The law stipulated the creation of a permanent seat of government on the Potomac River, with a temporary residence planned in Philadelphia for ten years. The Funding Act, passed on 4 August, also reinvigorated congressional momentum, appeasing northern demands for the federal assumption of heavy Revolutionary War debts. With a plan in place for establishing xxii the capital and collecting revenue, the union now stood on much firmer ground—with one exception.9

For, elsewhere, the protracted quandary of how to handle Rhode Island’s outlier status—whether to inflict high foreign duties on the lone state still mulling ratification of the Constitution—hit an impasse. Throughout the fall of 1789 and stretching into the following spring, Newport and Providence Federalists like Henry Marchant and Jabez Bowen appealed to Adams seeking congressional intervention. Led by a powerful Country Party, the Rhode Island legislature favored the emission of paper money and harbored Antifederalist sentiments inimical to adopting the Constitution. Several snarled attempts at hosting new sessions of the ratification convention ensued. Adams forwarded their petitions to Congress but complained that Rhode Islanders’ failure to consent indicated a deep rift in the union. “They are betraying the Rights and Interests of New England every day,” he wrote on 18 June 1789. Aside from expressing his ire, Adams took no public step to meddle in Rhode Island’s internal affairs, ensuring that the vice president’s powers did not overreach into state business. Operating under constitutional principles meant that Congress was not authorized “to make a Conquest of that People, or to bring them into the Union by Coertion,” Adams observed on 28 February 1790.10

Rhode Island merchants won a short reprieve from paying foreign tonnage duties until 15 January. They pleaded for a renewal of the exemption, to no avail. Congress, riven by arguments over the assumption of state debts and the federal seat, let the matter lie until April. Facing an increasingly dire situation—owing expensive duties and with scarce currency to pay them—Rhode Island capitulated. In March state convention delegates reconvened to debate amendments to the Constitution, but local factionalism again halted progress. Congress revisited the issue in April, drafting a punitive trade bill that treated the state as a foreign nation. Rhode Islanders responded by ratifying on 29 May. “Their members will join you, full fraught with State-politics, & a tolerable infusion of Antifederalism. The real friends to an efficient Government are so few,” John Trumbull cautioned the vice president on 5 June, voicing the attitude of many Federalists and speculating on the changes that Adams’ new peers might xxiii engineer. With the former thirteen colonies reunited in Congress, Adams and his colleagues continued the great work of making a government.11

When the second session closed on 12 August, Adams was relieved. It had been a period of “pretty tight service,” as Abigail recalled. He presided over the Senate every day, from ten o’clock in the morning until four o’clock in the afternoon, for seven months. “Reading long Bill, hearing debates, and not always those the most consonant to his mind and opinions putting questions, Stating them, constant attention to them that in putting questions they may not be misled, is no easy task what ever Grumblers may think,” she wrote. By session’s end, John Adams was deeply troubled by the partisan rivalry emerging in the halls of Congress. “There is every Evidence of good Intentions on all sides but there are too many Symptoms of old Colonial Habits: and too few, of great national Views,” he wrote. He believed that this enmity, which resounded in the press, undermined the government’s work. Service in the Senate also took a personal toll on Adams, who wrote: “Every unpopular point is invariably left to me to determine so that I must be the scape goat, to bear all their sins, without a possibility of acquiring any share in the honor of any of their popular deeds.”12 Diligently, Adams wrapped up his duties. He directed the city council to retain the fine mahogany and crimson-velvet furniture of the Senate while Congress moved to its next home, Philadelphia. The vice president and his family lingered in New York City, savoring the prospect of a quiet month ahead. All that changed abruptly in late August 1790, when Washington sought John Adams’ advice in resolving the first major crisis of American foreign policy.


Even as the new United States was opening to the world, lawmakers like John Adams carefully measured the limits of that engagement. His incoming letters offer a sharp lens on both the country’s early economic history and Americans’ hopes of fortune. Reeling xxiv from Revolutionary War debt, merchants found themselves enmeshed in the Anglo-American trade war that consumed their meager profits throughout the 1780s. In response, American entrepreneurs widened their reach, eyeing the riches of the developing China trade. They braved Barbary depredations, skyrocketing marine insurance rates, and the daily hazards of doing business without the protection of the British Navy. Adams had spent a decade viewing their plight from the Continent; as vice president, the problem came home. He encouraged explorers like Capt. Robert Gray, who circumnavigated the globe, and adventurers like Jeremiah Allen, who traveled to Empress Catherine II’s Russia to trade. In New York, Adams and the Senate reviewed two treaties with Native American tribes but never formally consented to the agreements, claiming confusion over internal protocols. When Adams and the Senate replied to George Washington’s annual address on 11 January 1790, they recommended a cautious approach to achieving expansion and diplomacy: “We are persuaded that one of the most effectual means of preserving peace, is to be prepared for war; and our attention shall be directed to the objects of common defence, and to the adoption of such plans . . . most likely to prevent our dependence on other countries for essential supplies.” With the boundary lines of the nation still fluid, Congress monitored multiple frontiers, wary of entanglement in foreign rivalries.13

Then, to Americans’ dismay, a major Anglo-Spanish dispute erupted over events in the small but strategic foothold of Nootka Sound. There, in late 1789, Spanish naval officers seized four cargo ships belonging to British entrepreneur John Meares and detained the crew, thereby reaffirming the Spanish claim to the region. What began as a fight over trading rights escalated into a clash of European powers by June 1790. Whether or not it advanced to war, the Nootka Sound conflict hinted at ideological and imperial consequences alike. If the British argument held, then it invalidated the 1493 papal bull affirming that land could be claimed by Spain’s discovery. Further, it meant that sovereignty without settlement was no longer a viable practice. Eager to maintain their far-flung colonial possessions, Britain and Spain spent the summer arming fleets and amplifying rhetoric. “The warlike preparations in every port and corner of xxv the Island are most vigourous and extensive,” John Brown Cutting wrote from London on 3 June.14

By late spring, frantic reports of a possible Anglo-Spanish war filled the newspapers and letters that flooded John Adams’ desk. The most substantial news came from Cutting, a longtime informant who supplied Adams with Meares’ account, squibs from the British press, naval intelligence, and parliamentary gossip. Like many observers, Cutting perceived several ways that the United States could turn the encroaching war to its advantage. First, America might sign an offensive and defensive treaty with Britain, with the expectation that a new commercial deal would result, along with a proper exchange of ministers—thereby satisfying two of Adams’ lingering desires from his time as minister in London. Alternatively, Americans might undertake the Spanish cause and help lock out the British from establishing a permanent base for trade in Nootka Sound, which was a gateway to the legendary Northwest Passage. This path would deprive the British of several generations’ worth of profit. Cutting espied another, richer angle of opportunity. In exchange for U.S. aid, Spain might open up navigation of the Mississippi River to Americans. Or, Cutting speculated further, perhaps a triumphant and grateful Britain would secure the same right for its American allies. Either way, an Anglo-Spanish war sent foreign troops marching across the neutral United States.15

In European gazettes and American newspapers, conjectures flew thick and fast, mixed in with some facts. British militias were training in Detroit, Michigan. Spanish Army officers planned to invade St. Augustine, Florida. William Pitt the Younger held clandestine talks with Latin American revolutionaries, plotting to ensure British control of the region’s gold and silver mines in the wake of a Spanish defeat. Tensions rose with each report. Americans, who had largely evaded the global conflicts that raged in the 1780s, eyed the Nootka Sound crisis with mounting apprehension. Many supported a policy of neutrality for the same reasons that Adams had laid out three years earlier: “The United States of America will take the coolest precautions, while they fulfil their engagements with honor, to maintain their neutrality inviolate. If a general and lasting war in Europe xxvi should ensue, and America preserve her peace, she will be, at the close of it, the first country in the world, in point of affluence and prosperity if not in real power.—” To Adams’ mind, dabbling in foreign quarrels endangered the union’s hard-won liberty and risked its financial ruin. Americans watched, and waited.16

Though British and Spanish negotiators met in Madrid to resolve the conflict, signing a preliminary agreement on 24 July 1790, that critical piece of news did not cross the Atlantic until months later. The opening act of the Nootka Sound conflict rattled lawmakers like Washington and Adams, who hoped to “preserve an honest Neutrality,” given the nation’s inability to muster an army, raise a fleet, or afford a war. Beset by rumors and reports, Washington wrote to his cabinet on 27 August, seeking counsel. The president circulated a nearly identical and “secret” letter to Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Knox, and John Jay. He asked each to assess the threat, recommend a course of action, and weigh the price of neutrality. Washington ended with a pointed query: Should the United States grant safe passage to British troops?

John Adams was the first to reply. From his perspective, maintaining American neutrality was key. Like Washington, he projected that the British would strike first at French Louisiana. This invasive maneuver would render the nation’s western lands vulnerable and halt U.S. trade with the West Indies, while the British Navy’s presence on the Atlantic coast would breed panic. Americans would be surrounded and occupied, and therefore he advised that they continue to pursue “a neutrality, as long as it may be practicable.” In addition, the nation lacked the resources to contend with a foreign threat, a view echoed in the replies of Hamilton, Jay, and Knox. “We Should not engage even in defensive War, untill the Necessity of it, Should become apparent, or at least until We have it in our Power to make it manifest, in Europe as well as at home,” Adams wrote. He flatly rejected allowing British troops to pass over U.S. soil, suggesting that Washington turn down any such request in “clear and decided” but “guarded and dignified” terms. Adams drew on the circumstance of the country’s scattered population and law of nations theory to buttress his argument, decrying “a measure So daring offensive and hostile, as the march of Troops through our Territory to Attack a friend.” Within the cabinet, Jefferson dissented, urging a show of force. Heeding Adams and the majority of his advisors, Washington stood xxvii firm and took no action. An ocean away, Anglo-Spanish negotiators spent the autumn crafting a set of conventions that awarded trade rights to both nations. Owing to British ingenuity at the bargaining table, Spain was edged out of Pacific lands and cut off from the fur trade. And the United States hung on to its neutrality.17

Shrewdly, Adams used the Nootka Sound crisis to press for the enlargement and development of a professional diplomatic corps. This arose from a combination of experiences, mainly the debates he saw in the Senate and his years of service in Europe. For, as Adams knew, nominations for consulships fell under the constitutional purview of the president. Adams received a wave of patronage requests for these prestigious posts from former business contacts, ship captains, and Continental Army officers trying to recoup the fortunes they had invested in the Revolutionary War. While he stressed the need for neutrality, Adams underlined to Washington how vital it was to staff U.S. diplomatic offices around the world. The failure of unofficial efforts by Gouverneur Morris and William Stephens Smith to negotiate an Anglo-American trade deal bore out his belief. Without ministers resident at listening posts in London, Paris, and The Hague, a fresh crisis might afflict the United States and do greater damage. “God knows where the Men are to be found who are qualified for Such Missions and would undertake them,” he wrote. Briefly free of official duties during the Senate’s adjournment, Adams seized on the Nootka Sound conflict to reiterate his statesmanship—and to assert his voice in Washington’s cabinet.18


Americans had never had a vice president before John Adams. Nor did the supreme law of the land, the U.S. Constitution, supply a clear road map to the responsibilities and privileges of the office. Adams envisioned the role as similar to the rotating head of the States General in the Netherlands, with a touch of Roman senator. He was less certain, however, that he prevailed in a fair election. Whispers of a “dark and dirty Intrigue” haunted Adams’ initial months in office, xxviii and evidence of it trickled steadily into his mail. Slowly, he uncovered a scheme propagated by Alexander Hamilton and Col. Samuel Blachley Webb. Acting in concert, they convinced presidential electors in New England and in the southern states to cast their votes for other candidates, thereby ensuring that Adams came in second to George Washington. He did not care to expose the plot, but Adams still fumed about the flawed procedure a year later. “The Doctrine of throwing away Votes is itself a Corruption. a bare Motion in the House or Senate to institute an Inquiry would produe a trepidation in many hearts. Throwing Away a Vote is betraying a Trust, it is a Breach of Honour, it is a Perjury—it is equivalent to all this in my Mind,” he wrote to John Trumbull. Reluctant to incite more discord in Congress, Adams turned to shaping the vice presidency.19

First, he sought to settle the question of his ambition, a popular complaint that had dogged Adams since his earliest days of public life. “I am not of Cæsar’s mind. The Second place in Rome is high enough for me,” Adams asserted as he settled into his post. He knew he lacked the public “confidence and affection” showered on Washington, a war hero who was the people’s choice at the polls. The president nearly died twice during his first year in office, prompting an outpouring of popular concern that mingled, bitterly for Adams, with open hostility toward the idea of his assuming the top seat. Ever sensitive to criticism, Adams recoiled from the notion that he was anything other than the eighteenth-century ideal of a disinterested servant toiling solely for the public good. In letters to friends and former law students, he emphasized that a decade in luxury-loving Europe had not led him to abandon American morals. He acknowledged that he was no Washington. But Adams was eager to accentuate his venerable New England roots, scholarly prowess, and diplomatic expertise. “The Character of a Legislator, has in all Ages been held above that of an Hero,” he wrote, adding: “A consummate Master of science and Literature, a long Experience in Affairs of Government, travel through all the known World were among the ancients thought little enough for a Founder of Nations Laws.—” It was no accident that Adams, who cast himself in cutting contrast to Washington as a lawmaker rather than a warrior, had exhibited precisely those skills.20


Second, Adams navigated the hazy charge of the vice presidency, seeking a balance between his Senate labors and the joys of writing. Presiding over the Senate was physically and intellectually demanding. The former diplomat was accustomed to life on the road rather than the “severe” strain of a desk job in Federal Hall. He persevered with the task, reflecting that “setting still in the same place, so many hours of every day, and attending to the Course of proceedings in every step, as it is some thing new to me is somewhat injurious to my health.” Gradually, he acclimated to the routine of attending debates, editing bills, and signing the continuous stream of paperwork that brought political architecture to life. Between his rounds of duty, Adams tried to engage citizens in print. He proved to be an exceptionally prolific author during the first Congress. New editions of his works about American federalism and European history rolled out, including Twenty-six Letters, Upon Interesting Subjects, Respecting the Revolution of America; his three-volume Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America; and an essay series, Discourses on Davila. When his work in the Senate felt tedious, Adams reached out to a set of elite readers—C. W. F. Dumas, Thomas Brand Hollis, François Adriaan Van der Kemp, and others—who were enthusiastic to trade news and views.21

According to Adams, the American vice president should be a diligent bureaucrat with (preferably) no pretensions to higher office. A thick-skinned attitude toward the press, a trait that Adams rarely demonstrated, was also required. When a satirical ode by Edward Church sped through the states, lampooning Adams as “The Dangerous Vice ———” who loved monarchy, he struck back, but privately. One part of Church’s ode that particularly riled the prickly Adams was allegedly inspired by Washington’s refusal to acknowledge him at a levee. This portrait of division and jealousy at the highest level of government, Adams thought, was exactly the kind of poisonous sedition he expected from a spurned job-seeker with loyalist roots. He was surprised, though, to serve as Church’s target. “Washington refused or neglected him: and he fawns on Washington and Spits fire at Adams. poor Devil! I pitty him,” he complained to Cotton Tufts. His response was mild, but Adams recognized that the vice presidency offered no buffer from the press. Alternately celebratory and xxx vicious, the constant ebb and flow of public opinion influenced Adams’ approach to shaping national policy and, by extension, his role in it.22

The years from 1789 to 1791 brought more than a career change for Adams, who struggled to reconcile the personal and the political. Benjamin Franklin and James Bowdoin, two of his closest revolutionary colleagues, died. Adams revered Bowdoin and suggested to son John Quincy Adams, now a fledgling lawyer in Boston, that Bowdoin offered a fine role model: “Massachusetts has produced few Characters so respectable. Splendid fortune Seldom unites with so much Knowledge Integrity, Prudence and public Spirit.” Adams was less charitable in remembering his fellow peace commissioner, eulogizing Franklin thus: “I can reconcile his Conduct in public affairs neither to the Character of an honest Man, nor to that of a Man of sense.—” Along with his mixed feelings about mourning Franklin, Adams suffered another kind of loss, made evident in this volume. The French Revolution’s onset, which caused Adams “to rejoice with trembling,” severed his exchanges with trusted confidants in Europe by early 1791. At home, partisan politics drove him apart from friends who expressed Antifederalist sentiments, including Mercy Otis Warren. Once Adams had hailed her as “the most accomplished Lady in America.” Following her published critique of the U.S. Constitution, Adams changed tone. He drafted a sternly worded letter to Warren, explaining that Antifederalist resistance could trigger a bloody civil war. Some friends, Adams wrote, lost his trust if he could not stomach their politics: “As long as this indecission remains, it is impossible there should be the same confidence between them and me, which there was once.— The affection for them which I once had will never be forgotten, nor can it ever be destroyed, but confidence can never be the same, without the same foundation for it.” He never sent the letter, but the break was mutual. Adams and Warren did not resume correspondence until 1803.23

From November to December 1790, Adams spent the congressional break settling into his new residence of Bush Hill. Although he let his outgoing correspondence lapse, reserving his energy for the forthcoming legislative session, Adams kept busy. Avidly, he collected xxxi reactions to his writings, especially his Discourses on Davila. Soon, a characteristic zeal to return to public service resurfaced in Adams’ letters. The political conversations centering on the Bill of Rights persuaded Adams that some wounds of partisan rivalry, no matter how deep, could be healed. He responded to Samuel Adams, the new lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, explaining that his cousin’s Antifederalist critiques must not curtail their dialogue. John Adams proposed the “Sweet Communion” of a reunion. “I dont believe, that We who have preserved for more than thirty Years an uninterupted Friendship, and have So long thought and acted harmoniously together in the worst of times, are now so far asunder in sentiment as some People pretend,” he wrote. Written between the lines, the vice president’s message was nevertheless clear. Support of the Constitution was sorely needed at every level, or partisan politics would tear apart Congress before it passed vital legislation. The “active and ardent” rivalry developing between the state and federal governments also troubled John Adams. “Thirteen Strong Men embracing thirteen Pillars at once, and bowing themselves in concert, will easily pull down a frail Edifice,” he warned Trumbull.24

For Adams and many of the lawmakers who filed into Philadelphia’s Congress Hall on 6 December, the third session felt like a homecoming, to the site where the Continental Congress declared independence in 1776. Adams appreciated the change of scene. “Philadelphia is worth Seeing. It is a great City and has Science, Litterature, Wealth and Beauty, which deserve respect, if not Admiration,” he wrote to John Quincy on 13 December 1790, as the federal gears again began to move. With the Funding Act and the Residence Act in place, members focused on the maintenance and enforcement of recent legislation. Congress approved another key piece of Hamilton’s economic framework, establishing the First Bank of the United States on 25 February 1791. That step came after weeks of debate, with James Madison and others questioning the federal government’s constitutional power to create such an entity, in light of the states’ abilities to form branch banks. With Hamilton’s vision taking root, speculation soared and real estate investment boomed. Two territories, Vermont and Kentucky, advanced toward statehood. Adams welcomed the United States’ growth and relayed word of it across the Atlantic to a handful of well-connected friends in Europe. “This xxxii country, sir, is as happy as it deserves to be,” he observed to Hollis. Digging back into his now familiar Senate routine, Adams almost sounded optimistic.25

During the third session members acted swiftly, demonstrating an acculturation to protocol and a fresh capacity for compromise, now that the Funding Act and the Residence Act were made law. They also rejected or tabled a substantial number of bills, mostly related to domestic issues such as federal regulation of the post office, compensation for widows and orphans of Revolutionary War soldiers, and the consular convention. Congress made a last push on 3 March to pass the Whiskey Act, which raised duties and laid an excise on distilled liquors, and several other acts extending Hamilton’s financial plan. Yet American affairs felt unsettled as the term waned. Washington sent a message to Adams and the senators still in Philadelphia, calling for a special session on 4 March to address “certain matters touching the public good.” He was anxious to finish filling government posts and sent a long list of nominations for excise supervisors, army officers, and more.

The vice president readied for another bruising round in the Senate. As the special session opened, he once again permitted himself a few brief moments of literary reflection. He contemplated how far the theory of tripartite federalism had carried the nation, and whether it could survive as a political practice. In his draft 33d essay of the Discourses, John Adams assessed the state of the American union and considered what came next in terms of legislative labor: “Before We attempt Discoveries and improvements, We should consider, whether the whole of a Subject is not already known: and whether it is not already as perfect as We can make it: and better than it would be with Such Innovations and alterations as are projected.”26


During the span of 21 months covered by this volume, John Adams used Letterbooks 26 and 27, which correspond to reels 114 and 115 of the Adams Papers Microfilms. Both Letterbooks have been fully described in a previous volume.27 Between September 1789 and xxxiii February 1791, John’s middle son, Charles, often served as his secretary. Occasionally, William Stephens Smith and Abigail Adams 2d performed the same duty. Many entries are in John Adams’ hand, although a few unknown hands are also featured therein.


There have been no substantive changes made in the editorial method since 2007, when the editors made changes following a comprehensive review of the project’s editorial practices. For a statement of the policy as then determined, see the Papers of John Adams, 14:xxix–xxxvii. Those interested in following the evolution of the editorial method from the beginning of the project should consult the Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, 1:lii–lxii, and the Papers of John Adams, 1:xxxi–xxxv; 9:xx–xxiii; 11:xx–xxi.


The Massachusetts Historical Society is committed to making Adams family materials available to scholars and the public online. Four digital resources of particular interest to those who use the Papers of John Adams volumes are the Adams Papers Digital Edition; The Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive; The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: A Digital Collection; and the Online Adams Catalog. All are available through the Historical Society’s website at

The Adams Papers Digital Edition, a project cosponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Harvard University Press, and the Massachusetts Historical Society, offers searchable text for 47 of the Adams Papers volumes published prior to 2016 (excluding the Portraits volumes). There is a single consolidated index for volumes published through 2006, while the indexes for more recent volumes appear separately. This digital edition is designed as a complement to the letterpress edition by providing greater access to a wealth of Adams material.

The Adams Family Papers Electronic Archive contains images and text files of all of the correspondence between John and Abigail Adams owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society as well as John xxxiv Adams’ Diaries and Autobiography. The text is fully searchable and can also be browsed by date.

The Diaries of John Quincy Adams Digital Collection provides digital images of John Quincy Adams’ entire 51-volume Diary, which he composed over nearly seventy years. The images can be searched by date or browsed by diary volume. Access to the diaries is being expanded through the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary, the goal of which is to provide verified and searchable transcriptions alongside the digital images of the Diary. The project is supported by the Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund, Harvard University Press, and private donors.

The Online Adams Catalog represents a fully searchable electronic database of all known Adams documents, dating primarily from the 1760s to 1889, at the Massachusetts Historical Society and other public and private repositories. The digital conversion—based on the original Adams Papers control file begun in the 1950s and steadily updated since that time—was supported by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the Massachusetts Historical Society, and was initiated with Packard Humanities Institute funds in 2009. The catalog allows public online access to a database of nearly 110,000 records, with some 30,000 cross-reference links to online, printed, and microfilm editions of the items, or to websites of the holding repositories. Each record contains information on a document’s author, recipient, and date and on the location of the original, if known.

Also of value to users of the Papers of John Adams is the John Adams Library at the Boston Public Library, which contains a catalog record of the marginalia entered by Adams in his books.

Volume 20 explores 21 months of John Adams’ public life as he painstakingly created the office of the vice presidency, in theory and in practice. The 301 documents printed and 128 omitted should be used in conjunction with the documents for the period appearing in the Adams Family Correspondence, 8:367–451 and 9:1–196, wherein an additional 32 letters to or from John Adams appear. Abigail Adams’ letters provide details on the family’s myriad social and political obligations in Braintree, New York City, and Philadelphia, as well as their cultural travels. John Quincy Adams’ correspondence with his father about the legal profession and with other family members offers a nuanced portrait of the trials and tribulations of life as a young xxxv lawyer in Boston. Scholars should also consult John Adams’ Diary and Autobiography, 3:217–224, which he briefly resumed from 15 July 1789 to 25 January 1790 to record key debates in the Senate during the first federal Congress.

Sara Georgini July 2019

To William Tudor, 12 June 1789, below.


To James Lovell, 4 June 1789; to Benjamin Rush, 9 June; to James Sullivan, 14 July, all below.


John Adams’ Discourses on Davila, 28 April 1790 – 27 April 1791, Editorial Note; John Adams’ Discourses on Davila, No. 33, [ca. 16 March 1791]; “Dialogues of the Dead,” [ca. 22 April 1790], and note 1, all below.


To Henry Marchant, 1 June 1790, below.


Vol. 19:xxviii, 418.


To James Lovell, 4 June 1789, and note 3; to James Bowdoin, 11 June; to Richard Peters, 5 June, all below.


Maclay, Journal , p. 86, 275, 313, 385.


AFC , 8:420, 432.


First Congress, Second Session, 4 Jan. – 12 Aug. 1790, Editorial Note; to Jabez Bowen, 27 Feb., both below; JA, D&A , 3:223; AFC , 9:xi–xii.


From Jabez Bowen, 16 June 1789; to James Sullivan, 18 June; from Henry Marchant, 29 Aug.; from Bowen, 28 Dec.; to John Brown & John Brown Francis, 28 Feb. 1790, all below.


From Henry Marchant, 18 Jan. 1790; from William Ellery, [ca. 6] March; to Ellery, 19 May; from John Trumbull, 5 June, all below.


AFC , 9:74; JA, D&A , 3:217–224; Bickford and Bowling, Birth of the Nation , p. 15–22, 29–35, 45–54; to Richard Peters, 5 June 1789; to William Cushing, 14 Sept.; First Congress, Second Session, 4 Jan. – 12 Aug. 1790, Editorial Note, all below.


Vol. 19:xiii; to Roger Sherman, 20 July 1789, and note 2; from Jeremiah Allen, 29 July 1790, and note 1, both below; U.S. Senate, Jour. , 1st Cong., 2d sess., p. 104.


From John Brown Cutting, 3 June 1790, and notes 1–2, below; John Meares, Authentic Copy of the Memorial to the Right Honourable William Wyndham Grenville . . . Containing Every Particular Respecting the Capture of the Vessels in Nootka Sound, London, 1790, p. 8. See also Descriptive List of Illustrations, No. 6, above.


See, for example, John Brown Cutting’s letters of 14, 16 June, and 5 July 1790, all below.


From John Brown Cutting, 5 July 1790, and notes 1–2; from George Walton, 23 July, and note 1, both below; Dipl. Corr., 1783–1789 , 2:805.


Black, British Foreign Policy , p. 233–256; from George Washington, 27 Aug. 1790, and notes 1–3; to Washington, 29 Aug., both below.


Vol. 19:xxx–xxxi; to George Mason Jr., 4 July 1789; from Robert Montgomery, 20 July; from Sylvanus Bourne, 18 Aug.; from John Brown Cutting, 3 June 1790, 17 July; from Jeremiah Allen, 29 July; from John Codman Jr., 27 Aug.; to George Washington, 29 Aug.; to Codman, 10 Oct.; from WSS, 3 Dec., and note 2, all below.


To Benjamin Rush, 9 June 1789, and note 2; to François Adriaan Van der Kemp, 27 March 1790; to John Trumbull, 25 April, all below.


To James Lovell, 1 Sept. 1789, and note 2; to William Ellery, 19 May 1790, and note 3; to Henry Marchant, 20 March, all below.


Vols. 10:196–252; 18:539, 544, 546–550; 19:130–132; to James Lovell, 4 June 1789, John Adams’ Discourses on Davila, 28 April 1790 – 27 April 1791, Editorial Note; from François Adriaan Van der Kemp, 7 Jan. 1790; to Van der Kemp, 27 Feb., all below.


Vol. 18:103; to Sylvanus Bourne, 30 Aug. 1789, and note 1; to Cotton Tufts, 16 Sept., both below.


Vol. 9:64; to JQA, 8 Dec. 1790, Adams Papers; to John Trumbull, 25 April; “Dialogues of the Dead,” [ca. 22 April 1790]; to Richard Price, 19 April; to Mercy Otis Warren, 14 Feb. 1791, all below.


From James Sullivan, 2 July 1789, and note 2; to Samuel Adams, 18 Oct. 1790; to John Trumbull, 23 Jan. 1791, all below.


AFC , 9:160, 186, 250; to Thomas Brand Hollis, 3 Nov. 1790, below.


Bickford and Bowling, Birth of the Nation , p. 99, 100; Washington, Papers, Presidential Series , 7:485–486; John Adams’ Discourses on Davila, No. 33, [ca. 16 March 1791], below.


Vol. 19:xxxii–xxxiii.