Adams Family Correspondence, volume 3

John Thaxter to John Adams, 7 August 1780 Thaxter, John JA


John Thaxter to John Adams, 7 August 1780 Thaxter, John Adams, John
John Thaxter to John Adams
Sir Paris August 7th. 1780

Since Mr. Appleton left Us,1 the inclosed Letters came to hand with a packet of Newspapers as late as the middle of May. The Letter signed Portia came in the State that You will receive it in; it was under a Cover superscribed by I. Smith Esqr.2 In the Letter were two bills of Exchange on the Minister at this Court, one of eighteen dollars and the other of sixty, which Mr. Dana will present to day for acceptance. A Memorandum in the letter is forwarded. I am so unfortunate as not to have recieved a single line from any of my friends—for my Consolation Mr. D. says, Batchelors have no right to any. This is neither the Law nor the practice.


The papers announce the death of Mr. Jona. Williams tertius, the Gentleman who studied with You. The convulsive fits, to which he had been latterly subject, returned upon him with great violence, and after three days severe struggling with them, he died.3

Dr. Gordon has been scribbling in the papers, about the time when a new Convention shall be held for revising and amending the Constitution if necessary. He objects not to the Year 1795 as a proper time, but looks upon a revision then as something precarious and contingent, because it is said in the Address may be held, and not shall be held. He is for having this made certain, that there shall be a Convention in 1795. He quotes an “excellent Speech” of yours in the Convention, upon the Impossibility of human Wisdom forming a plan of Government adapted to all future Emergencies, and the necessity of periodical revisions, and of a frequent recurrence to first and fundamental principles, to preserve the Constitution sound and free. He makes a few Observations on the Nature of Power, its often becoming dangerous from the frailties and imperfections of human Nature, where its Exercise is not guarded and limited, is for having a Constitution so framed and principled, that the People, as Mr. Burgh says, may lay hold of it without Violence to it, wield it as they please and turn it against those who have or would pervert it. He acquits the present Convention of any design of preventing a future one in 1795, but is jealous of some. These are his words—“but I am jealous lest there was a design in some to provide for the prevention of it: nor is this jealousy lessened upon reading in the Address, 'on the expiration of 15 Years a new Convention may be held.' I know not who were the Compilers of the Address, but were they full in the Idea that a Convention was to take place in 1795, I suppose that the words would have been, 'a new Convention is to be held.'” He supposes a Convention may be prevented at that time, by the influence of those, who possess Seats in the Government, over their “Creatures, friends and Dependents” in the Towns and Counties. Quere, whether the words, may, is, or shall, will make any mighty difference in the operation and effects of this Influence? A Gentleman under the Signature of Tribunus has answered him, and handled the Dr. rather roughly, vindicated the Convention from a sinister design. Tribunus says, “When the Convention had finished the performance sent to their Constituents for Examination, it was thought necessary to provide for a revision to cure the defects Experience might point out, and 15 years was judged a proper period to take the minds of the people upon the subject, and determine whether the Constitution or form of Govern-390ment should be or not be revised. Convention did not suppose they had a power to compel the people to revise or alter the form at that time, nor to prevent their doing it before, and therefore laid it down as a first principle in the declaration of Rights, that the people have at all times this power in themselves.” This is the substance, some parts of it are severe. I am not sorry for it, for altho' the Dr. has shone with the borrow'd lustre of the Names of Adams and Burgh in this performance, whose Characters and Opinions will ever be respected, yet pardon me, Sir, if I think and say, that he would on this occasion have been better employed in the Cure of Souls, than in quarrelling with Moods and Tenses.4

The Dr. has wrote something to conciliate the Minds of religious disputants in the 3d. article of the declaration of Rights.

Mr. D. who presents his respects to You, requests when you return, that You would bring a few pounds of Dutch sealing Wax and a few Bunches of the best Dutch Quills.5

I sincerely wish You better health and agreable prospects. Much Love to my two little Friends.

I have the Honor to be, with the greatest Respect, Sir, Your Excellencys most obedient humble Servant, J. T.

RC (Adams Papers). Only one of the enclosures is now identifiable; see note 2.


John Appleton (1758–1829), son of the Boston merchant and commissioner of the Continental Loan Office Nathaniel Appleton. He had been in Paris on a mercantile mission and followed JA to the Low Countries, carrying letters for him. See Samuel Cooper to Benjamin Franklin, 15 March 1780, introducing Appleton (PPAmP:Franklin Papers); Francis Dana to JA, 31 Aug. Jul. 1780 (Adams Papers); Isaac A. Jewett, Memorial of Samuel Appleton of Ipswich, Massachusetts . . . , Boston, 1850, p. 36; Paige, Hist, of Cambridge, Mass. , 2:19; JQA, Diary, 10, 11, 13 Aug. 1780.


Probably AA to JA, 1 May, above.


Williams, identified earlier in this volume, had returned from France, married, and, on 1 May 1780, died; there is an obituary notice of him in the Continental Journal, 4 May, p. 3, col. 2.


Rev. William Gordon's letter on the amending process, dated 28 April and addressed “To the Freemen of Massachusetts-Bay,” appeared in both the Continental Journal (p. 2, col. 1–2) and the Independent Chronicle (p. 1, col. 1–3) on 4 May. His summary of JA's speech, which, if made, must have been made at an early sitting of the Convention in the fall of 1779, is the only contemporary record of such a speech, but it has an air of authenticity. The answer to Gordon by “Tribunus” was published in the Continental Journal on 25 May 1780, p. 2, col. 2–3.


This passage indicates clearly enough that when JA left Paris, as he did with his two sons on 27 July on a journey to Brussels, The Hague, and Amsterdam, he did not intend to be gone long. But as things turned out he did not come back to Paris until the following July. The motives for his trip and its prolongation to almost a year's stay in the Netherlands require explanation.

Soon after his arrival in France with powers to negotiate treaties of peace and commerce with Great Britain, JA discerned from Vergennes' aloofness that neither negotiation was likely to be put 391in train for some time. On 16 March he wrote to James Lovell in Congress:

“I wish to know your private Opinion whether Congress will continue Mr. Dana and me here, at so much Expense, with so little Prospect of any Thing to do, for a long time, . . . or whether they will revoke our Powers and recall Us? or what they will do with Us. A Situation so idle and inactive, is not agreable to my Genius, yet I can submit to it, as well as any Man, if it is thought necessary for the public Good.—I will do all the Service I can, by transcribing Intelligence and in every other Way” (LbC, Adams Papers).

In the role of intelligence gatherer and transmitter JA was phenomenally industrious during the next several months, and he combined with it another function, that of publicist and propagandist for the American cause, composing and sending a steady stream of communications for publication in French, Dutch, and (through a secret but efficient channel) British newspapers. The full story of his activities as a propagandist in 1780, before going to the Netherlands where his work of this kind is better documented, remains to be written from scattered hints in his correspondence and from the files of the newspapers themselves, few if any of which exist in adequate files in the United States.

He also furnished items of news from America to the French government. One such, which reported Congress' measures to support its currency by buying up old emissions at the rate of 40 to 1, led to questions from Vergennes; see above, Lovell to AA, 21 March, and Cranch to JA, 26 April, with notes and references under both; also CFA's account in JA, Works , 1:314 ff. A spirited correspondence ensued that led to a complete break in personal relations between the two men. “Je pense,” Vergennes wrote sharply on 30 June, “que toute discution ultérieure entre nous a cet égard serois superflüe” (Adams Papers; translation of full text in JA, Works , 7:212–213). Vergennes either forgot, or perhaps (as Professor Morris acutely observes) was only too well aware, that he himself had started this quarrel. His questions about American financial policy should have been directed to Franklin, the American plenipotentiary to France, rather than to JA. “Even a captious mood on the part of Vergennes came as the result of careful calculation” (Morris, Peacemakers , p. 196).

In July JA took up other subjects in a manner that proved at least equally exasperating to the French foreign minister, who at this moment was facing difficulties both in his own government and with his uncooperative ally, Spain. The last thing he wished for was pertinacious advice and questions from the American peace minister, who had little to do in Paris except to write letters and newspaper pieces; but this is precisely what he got. One series, beginning 13 July, related to the grand strategy of the war, in which JA argued in detail and with cogency that a greater concentration of French naval power on the North American coast could easily pen up the British armies in the port cities they occupied and bring the war to a conclusion—if indeed, he had the temerity to hint, France really desired such a conclusion. Vergennes replied on 20 July that this was the very reason the Chevalier de Ternay's fleet had been dispatched to Rhode Island (where it arrived at just this time). JA, however, was by no means ready to drop the subject. In a letter of 27 July he disputed some of Vergennes' language concerning French-American relations and observed that Ternay's force was not large enough to gain the vital supremacy he had been arguing for (as was shortly proved by Ternay's being bottled up by Admiral Graves' larger fleet). Two days later Vergennes returned a short and crushing rejoinder, informing JA “que le Roi n'a pas eu besoin de vos Sollicitations pour s'occuper des intérêts des Etats-unis.” See JA to Vergennes, 13 July (Archives Aff. Etr., Paris, Corr. pol., Etats-Unis, vol. 13; printed in JA, Works , 7:218–227, from LbC, Adams Papers, and in Wharton, ed., Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. , 3:848–855, from PCC, No. 84, II). Vergennes to JA, 20 July (Adams Papers; translation printed in JA, Works , 7:232–233; another translation printed in Wharton, 3:870–871, from PCC, No. 84, II). JA to Vergennes, 27 July (Archives Aff. Etr., as above, 392printed in JA, Works , 7:241–243, from LbC, Adams Papers, and in Wharton, 4:12–14, from PCC, No. 84, II). Vergennes to JA, 29 July (Adams Papers; translation printed in JA, Works , 7:243; another translation printed in Wharton, 4:16–17, from PCC, No. 84, II). It is of some significance that the actual recipient's copies of these and of the other letters from JA to Vergennes cited below in this note are those now filed in the Papers of the Continental Congress, they having been sent by Vergennes to Franklin, and by Franklin at Vergennes' request forwarded to Congress ( Wharton , 4:18–19, 22). Only copies and translations remain in the French Archives of Foreign Affairs.

In the midst of these stinging exchanges JA chose to raise again the question of announcing his missions to the British government, a subject on which Vergennes had imposed a ban almost from the moment JA had reappeared in Paris early in 1780. On 17 July JA proposed “a frank and decent Communication of my full Powers” as a means of stirring up British popular sentiment in favor of peace and of offsetting the rumored secret peace negotiations between England and Spain. Vergennes' answer of the 25th is a massive document in twenty MS pages which was intended to refute every one of his correspondent's arguments and, whether it did or not in JA's mind, forbade any notice to the British government until Congress had seen the exchange between JA and Vergennes and furnished fresh instructions. In the life of his grandfather, CFA correctly characterized Vergennes' letter as “rough and dictatorial. . . . The tone is that of a master” (JA, Works , 1:327). JA, who had begun to suspect a certain insincerity if not duplicity on the part of the hard-pressed foreign minister, replied temperately on the 26th and departed on the following day for the Low Countries. For his part, Vergennes on the last day of July transmitted to Franklin the entire correspondence that had passed between him and JA during June and July. The covering letter emphasized Vergennes' confidence in Franklin's principles and sentiments, but as for JA,

“Vous trouverés, je pense, dans les lettres de ce plénipotentiare, des opinions et une tournure qui ne répondent ni à la maniere avec laquelle je me suis expliqué avec lui, ni avec la liaison intime qui subsiste entre le Roi et les Etats unis. . . . Je desire que vous les fassiés passer au congrès afin qu'il sache la conduite que Mr. Adams tient à notre égard, et qu'il puisse juger s'il est doué autant que le congrès le desire sans doute, de 1'esprit de conciliation qui convient à besogne aussi importante et aussi délicate que celle qui lui est confiée (PCC, No. 84, II, printed in translation in Wharton, 4:18–19).

See JA to Vergennes, 17 July (Archives Aff. Etr., as above; printed in JA, Works , 7:228–230, from LbC, Adams Papers, and in Wharton, 3:861–863, from PCC, No. 84, II). Vergennes to JA, 25 July (Adams Papers; printed in translation in JA, Works , 7:235–240; another translation in Wharton, 3:882–883, and 4:3–6, from PCC, No. 84, II). JA to Vergennes, 26 July (Archives Aff. Etr., as above; printed in JA, Works , 1:322–327, from LbC, Adams Papers, and in Wharton, 4:7–11, from PCC, No. 84, II). The degree of Vergennes' success in endeavoring to obtain JA's recall or at least a reduction of his powers will appear subsequently. Among many comments JA later made on this incident, perhaps the most incisive is in a letter of 18 Aug. 1809 ( Corr. in the Boston Patriot , p. 284–286).

As for the trip to the Netherlands, it was a “fishing expedition,” of the very kind that both Vergennes and Franklin heartily disliked but could scarcely forbid. “I have never yet chang'd the Opinion I gave in Congress,” Franklin told Arthur Lee in 1777, “that a Virgin State should preserve the Virgin Character, and not go about suitoring for Alliances, but wait with decent Dignity for the Applications of others” (21 March 1777, Franklin, Writings, ed. Smyth, 7:35). The Lees did not subscribe to this view, nor did JA. Hints of the possibility of Dutch support for America, or at least of marked antipathy to Great Britain as arbitrary mistress of the seas, had reached the Continental Congress, and JA as a member, from various quarters for several years. (An example will be found 393in JA's letter to AA, 3 April 1777, summarizing a letter written to Congress by William Carmichael from Amsterdam, 2 Nov. 1776; see above, vol. 2:198–199, and references there.) Whether these were well or ill authenticated, it was natural and easy for Americans to give them credence, for the Dutch Republic (in official language the United Provinces of the Low Countries) was a confederation of states that had won its freedom from a distant imperial power and was governed, at least in part, by a representative body, the States General. In July 1777 Congress instructed its Committee of Foreign Affairs to prepare a commission for an American representative to the United Provinces, and this was done, but the whole matter was then laid on the table ( JCC , 8:523, 527, 531). The reason for postponing action was the very correct one that the sentiments of their High Mightinesses the States General ought to be known first, since “possibly their connections with England, might make the receiving an American Minister, as yet inconvenient, and . . . a little embarrrassing” (American Commissioners at Paris to C. W. F. Dumas, 10 April 1778, JA, Diary and Autobiography , 4:44–45). Meanwhile JA began reading Dutch history, particularly commending to AA and the ten-year-old JQA Cardinal Bentivoglio's History of the Warrs in Flanders, in which they were to note the remarkable parallels between the Dutch and American revolutions (JA to AA, 21 July, and to JQA, 27 July 1777, above, vol. 2:286–287, 289–292). The first official but very tentative American overtures to the Dutch were made in the spring of 1778, via C. W. F. Dumas, and JA happily reported that “In Holland there is more Friendship for Us, than I was aware before I came to France” (to Samuel Adams, 21 May 1778, JA, Diary and Autobiography , 4:107). But nothing meaningful had resulted by early 1779, when JA learned that he was to be relieved of his duties as a commissioner. That he yearned to go to the Netherlands at this time is clear from his conversation with Marbois on his return voyage to Boston. “My own Inclinations would have led me to Holland: But I thought my Honour concerned to return directly home” (same, 2:390). In the very long letter—his diplomatic testament—that he wrote to Secretary Jay immediately after reaching Braintree, JA commented thoughtfully on a possible entente between the two republics. He supposed this would be favored by the “Similitude of Manners, of Religion and in some Respects of Constitution,” by “the Analogy, between the Means, by which the two Republicks arrived at Independancy,” and, most of all, by “the Attractions of commercial Interests” between the United Provinces and the United States. But these affinities, JA felt in the summer of 1779, were unlikely to show themselves “in a public Manner before a Peace, or a near Prospect of Peace. Too many Motives of Fear or Interest place the Hollanders in a Dependance on England, to suffer her to connect herself openly, with Us, at present.” Even so, on the basis of the inquiries the American Commissioners in Paris had made and the information they had received, JA felt that the prospects of obtaining loans and promoting trade between the two countries were good enough to warrant Congress' sending a minister to The Hague. The minister should be given “a discretionary Power, to produce his Commission, or not, as he shall find it likely to succeed”; he should have full powers and clear instructions for borrowing money; “and the Man himself, above all, should have consummate Prudence” and “a Caution and Discretion that will be Proof against any Tryal” (4 Aug. 1779, full text printed in Wharton, ed., Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. , 3: 278–286, from PCC, No. 84, I, and in JA, Works , 7:99–110, from LbC, Adams Papers).

It is perhaps not surprising that, having prescribed these exacting qualifications, JA should have thought of himself as eligible for the post in question. At any rate, having accepted his altogether unexpected and unsolicited mission as peace minister in Europe, he intimated to a close friend in Congress that a commission to the Netherlands might be attached to it without added pay (to Elbridge Gerry, “Secret as the Grave,” 18–19 Oct. 1779, LbC, Adams Papers). The idea had already occurred to his friends there, and he was in fact 394nominated on 18 Oct. as agent to seek a loan, but Congress thought best “to make a distinct Appointment” and on 21 Oct. chose Henry Laurens, who shortly afterward was given further powers to negotiate a treaty of amity and commerce with the States General (Lovell to JA, 19 Oct. 1779, Adams Papers; JCC , 15:1186, 1198, 1230).

For one reason or another, Laurens did not sail for Europe during the winter and spring of 1779–1780, and the surrender of Charleston (in which his son Col. John Laurens was made prisoner) delayed his departure still longer. Ultimately, as we shall see, Laurens never served in the Netherlands. Evidence meanwhile accumulated in both Paris and Philadelphia showing that relations between the Dutch and British governments were deteriorating—a theme recurrent in JA's voluminous dispatches to Congress throughout the spring of 1780. Reporting on Sir Joseph Yorke's latest memorial to the States General, invoking ancient Dutch treaty obligations to England, JA said, “It looks as if England would force the Dutch into the War: but if they take a Part it will be certainly for Us.—Oh that Laurens was there.—Oh that Laurens was there!” (to Lovell, 29 March, LbC, Adams Papers; see also JA to Huntington, 3 April, PCC, No. 84, I, printed in Wharton, ed., Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. , 3:588–592, (also printed in Papers of John Adams)and a long series of long dispatches that followed on the subject of Anglo-Dutch relations and the Armed Neutrality that Russia had initiated among the northern European powers to curb British naval power). By mid-June Congress felt it must take some step, and on the 20th it empowered JA (or, alternatively, Francis Dana) to act in Laurens' place, until Laurens himself arrived, with respect to obtaining a Dutch loan ( JCC , 17:534–537). Such a commission was precisely what JA would have liked to have at just this time, but he had made his own plans to reconnoiter Amsterdam and The Hague long before it reached him. (It was not sent until 11 July, in a letter from the Committee of Foreign Affairs, Adams Papers). At the beginning of July he waited on Vergennes and told him “that I had an intention of making a Journey to Amsterdam for a few weeks, as I flattered myself I might form some Acquaintances or Correspondence there and collect some Intelligence that might be useful to the United States.” Vergennes asked him to wait for further news from the diplomatic front but on the 16th informed him that since the current Anglo-Spanish negotiations would be delayed until further instructions could be sent for from Madrid and received back from London, which would take perhaps two months, there was time enough for JA to pay his visit to the Netherlands (JA to Huntington, 23 July, printed in Wharton, 3:877–878, from PCC, No. 84, I; also in JA, Works , 7:233–235, from LbC, Adams Papers). Hence the entry of 27 July in JA's diary: “Setting off on a Journey, with my two Sons to Amsterdam.—Lodged at Compiegne. Fryday night lodged at Valenciennes. Saturday arrived at Brussells.—This Road is through the finest Country, I have ever seen”—and the diarist went on to describe the topography and crops with enthusiasm ( Diary and Autobiography , 2:442). This brief interval in the beautiful and fertile French countryside was deeply refreshing to him after his labors and frustrations in Paris.

On 3 Aug. Franklin acknowledged Vergennes' letter of 31 July, quoted above, which enclosed the entire correspondence Vergennes had had with JA during June and July. Without particularizing, Franklin characterized JA's “Sentiments therein expressed” as proceeding from his “Indiscretion alone, and not from any Instructions received by him” from America; nor was it possible that his conduct would be “approved” by Congress. “I am glad,” he went on, “he has not admitted me to any Participation of those Writings” (Franklin, Writings, ed. Smyth, 8:123–124)—a statement only partly true since at JA's request Franklin had himself written Vergennes in June about the issue of Congress' fiscal policy, and at the end of that month had received copies from JA of all the correspondence that dealt with it (JA to Franklin, 23 June, printed in JA, Works , 7:193, from LbC [dated 22 June], Adams Papers; the original was enclosed in Franklin to Vergennes, 24 June, which, with its en-395closure, is in Archives Aff. Etr., Paris, Corr. pol., Etats-Unis, vol. 12; JA to Franklin, 29 June, printed in JA, Works , 7:211–212, from LbC, Adams Papers; RC in PPAmP:Franklin Papers, with postscript: “I have added Copies of the whole Correspondence”).

Dutifully but not very happily, Franklin on 9 Aug. forwarded to Congress the papers Vergennes had sent him, and gave his view of JA's conduct in Paris and his motives in traveling to the Netherlands:

“Mr. Adams has given Offence to the Court here, by some Sentiments and Expressions contained in several of his Letters written to the Count de Vergennes. . . . Mr. Adams did not show me his Letters before he sent them. I have . . . mentioned some of the Inconveniencies, that attend the having more than one Minister at the same Court; one of which Inconveniencies is, that they do not always hold the same Language, and that the Impressions made by one, and intended for the Service of his Constituents, may be effaced by the Discourse of the other. It is true, that Mr. Adams's proper Business is elsewhere; but, the Time not being come for that Business, and having nothing else wherewith to employ himself, he seems to have endeavoured to supply what he may suppose my Negociations defective in. He thinks, as he tells me himself, that America has been too free in Expressions of Gratitude to France; for that she is more oblig'd to us than we to her; and that we should show Spirit in our Applications. I apprehend, that he mistakes his Ground, and that this Court is to be treated with Decency and Delicacy. . . . Mr. Adams, on the other hand, who at the same time means our Welfare and Interest as much as I, or any man, can do, seems to think a little apparent Stoutness, and greater air of Independence and Boldness in our Demands, will procure us more ample Assistance. . . .

“He is gone to Holland to try, as he told me, whether something might not be done to render us less dependent on France.” (Franklin, Writings, ed. Smyth, 8:126–128.)

To JA, on the next occasion he communicated with him, Franklin allowed himself, in touching on this last topic, only the observation that “Our Credit and Weight in Europe depend more on what we do than on what we say; And I have long been humiliated with the Idea of our running about from Court to Court begging for Money and Friendship, which are the more withheld the more eagerly they are sollicited, and would perhaps have been offer'd if they had not been asked” (2 Oct., Adams Papers; Franklin, Writings, ed. Smyth, 8:146). Judged by ultimate results, Franklin's view proved correct in regard to American relations with all the European powers, major and minor, except France, where, at the outset, Franklin himself had participated in the “militia diplomacy” he now so deprecated, and the Netherlands, where JA in due time proved Franklin's view wrong and his own irregular tactics overwhelmingly right.