Diary of John Adams, volume 3

Fryday Feb. 16. 1776.

Monday Feb. 19. 1776

[Saturday Feb. 17. 1776.] JA [Saturday Feb. 17. 1776.] Adams, John
Saturday Feb. 17. 1776.

Saturday Feb. 17. 1776. The Committee to whom the Letters from Generals Arnold, Wooster, Schuyler and Lee were referred brought in their report, which was agreed to in the several Resolutions detailed in page 67. and 68 of this Volume of the Journals.

Same day Resolved that Mr. J. Adams, Mr. Wythe and Mr. Sherman be a Committee to prepare Instructions for the Committee appointed to go to Canada.1

Resolved that Congress will on Tuesday next resolve itself into a Committee of the whole, to take into Consideration the Propriety of Opening the Ports &c.

This Measure of Opening the Ports, &c. laboured exceedingly, because it was considered as a bold step to Independence. Indeed I urged it expressly with that View and as connected with the Institutions of Government in all the States and a Declaration of National Independence. The Party against me had Art and Influence as yet,365 to evade, retard and delay every Motion that We made. Many Motions were made and argued at great Length and with great Spirit on both Sides, which are not to be found in the Journals. When Motions were made and debates ensued, in a Committee of the whole house, no record of them was made by the Secretary, unless the Motion prevailed and was reported to Congress and there adopted. This Arrangement was convenient for the Party in Opposition to Us, who by this means evaded the Appearance on the Journals, of any Subject they disliked.2


See Diary entry of Feb.? 1776 (3d under that date) and note; also the entries in JA's Autobiography, 9, 11, 12, and 20 March below. According to Richard Smith's Diary, 23 Feb., “J. Adams presented a Sett of Instructions for [the commissioners going to Canada] which were recom[itte]d that some Matter may be added” (Burnett, ed., Letters of Members , 1:361); but this action does not appear in the Journal. The text of these important instructions, as adopted on 20 March after debate and amendment, is in JCC , 4:215–219.


JA frequently complained in his Autobiography (as historians have later) of the meagerness of the record in the MS Journals of Congress, and consequently in the published Journals. But his charges that Secretary Thomson's omissions (or, as JA thought them, “suppressions”) sprang from his partiality for the anti-independence party in Congress cannot be substantiated: Thomson simply confined the Journal record to motions that “prevailed,” i.e. resolutions actually adopted. This practice (in force until 2 Aug. 1777; see below) excluded the names of movers and seconders of motions, the texts of all motions eventually negatived, all debates on and amendments (as such) to motions and reports, all enumeration of votes, and all business done in committees, including committees of the whole house—except committee reports or recommendations that were ultimately adopted, and then always in the form agreed on by Congress, which was of course by no means always the form reported. It hardly needs to be said that the Secretary's method bore precisely as hard on one faction in Congress as it did on another. But it should be pointed out that Thomson's docketings on the motions and committee reports that have been preserved are usually much more revealing than the bare entries of action recorded in the Journal, the latter being considered from the outset a record that would be made public.

From time to time members complained that the proceedings were too secret and that, for instance, they had no way of making their dissents on measures they disapproved known to their constituents; see especially Thomas Burke's Abstract of Debates, 27 Feb. 1777 (Burnett, ed., Letters of Members , 2:285), and Samuel Chase's motion of the same date, which, since it failed, was not entered in the Journal ( JCC , 7:164). But Thomson's narrow interpretation of his duties as secretary persisted until 2 Aug. 1777, when Congress resolved “That all proceedings of Congress, and all questions agitated and determined by Congress, be entered on the journal, and that the yeas or nays of each member, if required by any State, be taken on every question as stated and determined by the house”(same, 8:599).

Thomson's engaging justification of his practice will be found in recollections attributed to him by an anonymous writer in 1827. It concludes: “what congress adopted, I committed to writing; with what they rejected, I had nothing farther to do; and even this method led to some squabbles with the members, who were desirous of having their speeches and resolutions, however put to rest by the majority, still preserved upon the minutes” (Amer. Quart. Rev., 1:31). Thomson's statement is printed in full in Burnett, ed., Letters of Members , 1:10, note.

See, further, entries below dated 23 March, 2, 6 April, 10 May, 7 June, 20 Aug., and 17 Sept. 1776, and notes thereunder.