Papers of John Adams, volume 7

To Francis Dana, 25 December 1778 JA Dana, Francis To Francis Dana, 25 December 1778 Adams, John Dana, Francis
To Francis Dana
dear Sir Decr 25. 1778

In Some of the latest Letters from England, We are told, that they grow more and more out of humour with the Americans every day, and that it is the Fashion now of the Minority, as well as the Friends of Administration to abuse them, both in and out of Parliament. In a Particular Mr. Powis Mr. Fox &c. express their Abhorrence of Congress—call them the worst of Tyrants and Say they deserve to be treated as savages for Shamefully violating the Convention of Saratoga. In truth all Parties are disposed to Speak very harshly of them, and heartily wish that they could be well drubbed; as they plainly perceive, they are forever lost, as fellow subjects. A great Clamour is also raised about the Treaty of Alliance, with France, it is called an unnatural Combination to ruin England. That the Minority deserve little Credit for their late Interference about the Commissioners Manifesto, as very few of them acted from any other Motive than Opposition to Ministry.1 That it is not to be conceived with what Strange Fictions Your old Friend the Governor,2 amuses the Members of both Houses. He has let both his Imagination and his Tongue loose. He says that the present General Assembly of Massachusetts Bay is composed of a Majority of Tories, that they are impatient to throw off, the Congress Yoke and conciliate with England. That the several Assemblies of the thirteen States are not considered by a vast Majority of the Inhabitants, as their legal Representatives, because Congress have imposed an Oath of Abjuration, upon all Persons who elect, or shall be elected Members of Assembly, and not a Fifth Part of the People of the thirteen States have taken this Oath. That there are great Dissentions in the American Army, and nothing is wanting to make the Rebells desert France, and throw off their Independance, but a Speedy and powerfull Reinforcement of Clintons Army, and a Spirited Exertion of a Fleet with it; these to make descents on different Parts of the Sea Coast, while Parties3 are let loose upon the Frontiers of the Carolinas, Virginia, Pensylvania, New York, and Massachusetts Bay. That these Measures will be attempted to be carried into Execution early in the Spring, there is not the Smallest doubt, unless the Spaniard shall Soon openly join his 317Fleet with that of the French, in which Case they will not think it prudent to send any more of their Force to North America. That however, Strong hopes are entertained, that the Spaniard will not unite with France. That many of the best informed of their Statesmen are of opinion, that it would be better, at present to give Spain Gibralter, than suffer the great Branches of the House of Bourbon to be confederated, in a War against them. They have ventured even to drop Hints of this Kind to Some of the Leaders in opposition. That their officers and public Affairs, are in an extraordinary Way—their Admirals in the Channell service, are at an irreconcileable Variance. Keppell complaining in the House of Commons against Palliser, and the latter filing a String of Charges in the Admiralty against Keppell. This has produced an order for a Court Martial on the 7th of Jany. and an Act of Parliament, for trying him at Land.4 Lord How unemployed, and disobliged. His Brother, making a positive Charge against one of the Ministers.5 The late Ambassador at the Court of Versailles, suggesting such Information about the Treaty, as must bring on a Serious Enquiry, into the Conduct of another of their Ministers.6 General Keppell has resigned,7 and will not Act under Amherst, that all the great military People freely express their dislike of him, Say that he is all Grimace and possesses no shining military Talents &c. That all the Regiments of Infantry are to be sent in February to America, and their Place to be immediately supplied by new Regiments, to be raised by an Act of Parliament, not yet passed however, obliging each Parish in the Kingdom to furnish a certain Number of Men, a bold Measure, to be sure, but if moved by Ministers, it will go through, as that for the Militia did before.

The Tryal of Keppell, will work up Parties to a Frenzy. Palliser I think would never have ventured upon So daring a step, if he had not assurances of the highest support. Keppell has had a vast Popularity, especially in the Navy. If the Ministry aim at his Life, and it is said that four of the Charges against him, are capital, it is as desperate an Effort as ever they made. Whether they succeed in destroying his Life or not, they will certainly destroy or greatly injure his Reputation. Where all these Things will End, I know not. G. Burgoine had certainly some Colour, when he said that he saw his Country8 under every Symptom of immediate Dissolution. The Proceeding of Palliser is conjectured to be set on by Mr. James Twitcher, who is Supposed to be a favourite, there is in the Nation as vast a Mass of Prejudice, against Twitcher and his Patron as there is in favour of Keppell. What the Effect of all will be Time must discover, but We must be prepared

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for the Effect, of all these Fermentations, which may possibly turn upon Us.

I am &c.

LbC (Adams Papers.)


JA is largely summarizing the proceedings of Parliament from its opening on 26 Nov. through approximately 17 Dec. His observations on the debates and the positions of both the ministry and opposition are essentially correct. Few members of the opposition, with the exception of Edmund Burke, were willing to support independence for the American colonies. Instead, they continued their routine charges of incompetence against the North ministry and, with the Franco-American alliance and the outbreak of war with France, saw the vigorous prosecution of the French war as Britain's primary interest and, to some degree, the best means to win back the American colonies ( Parliamentary Hist. , 19:1277–1402 passim; 20:1–94 passim; Parliamentary Reg. , 11:1–193 passim).

Condemnations of the Continental Congress by both friends and opponents of the ministry appeared frequently during the debates. Charles James Fox, a leader of the opposition and perhaps the leading exponent of the position outlined by JA, declared during the debate over the King's speech and in reference to the treatment of Burgoyne's army: “I think the conduct of the Congress is blameable in the highest, and that they have departed from every principle that ought to bind men” ( Parliamentary Reg. , 11:10). Others, such as Thomas Powys, were more general and severe in their condemnations. On 4 Dec., while professing opposition to the Carlisle Commission's manifesto, he declared that if the members of the congress were “put to the most exemplary punishment, they should all fall unpitied by him, because they really deserved every severity that could be inflicted on them” ( Parliamentary Hist. , 19:1393–1394). William Conolly and Archibald MacDonald, the speakers immediately preceding Powys, took the same line. Conolly stated that he would support the manifesto only “if the Congress, that assembly of men who had set every right of nature and humanity at defiance, could be seized and punished according to their deserts,” but he thought they would escape (same, 19:1390–1391). MacDonald, in supporting the manifesto, referred to the Americans' “unnatural alliance” and declared that “by their alliance with France, the natural enemy of our country, they had forfeited all right to clemency” (same, 19:1392–1393).


George Johnstone, former governor of West Florida, was seen by many in England as an authority on American affairs. His statements regarding the relative strengths of whigs and tories in America were made in the debates over the King's speech and later during those over the army estimates on 14 Dec. In the first instance he declared that “two thirds of the people of North America wish to return to their ancient connection with Great Britain, and that nothing but a surrounding army, and the diffidence they have in our support, prevented it” (same, 19:1354). On the 14th he stated that discontent was so general in Pennsylvania “that out of 32,000 electors who voted for the first Congress, only 600 and odd had taken the abjuration oath to qualify them to vote for another Congress,” and that in “New England, the Whigs and Tories were so nearly equal in the provincial assembly, that the Whigs had only a majority of two” (same, 20:77).


A reference to Britain's expanded use of its Indian allies on the frontier, the prospect of which was a major reason for opposing the Carlisle Commission's manifesto in both houses of Parliament.


The Keppel-Palliser affair was the cause celebre of the new session of Parliament. It proved to be an embarrassment to the North ministry because it showed the government's fundamental weakness, the divisions between it and the military and naval officers ordered to carry out its policies, and it highlighted the problems inherent in the involvement of generals and admirals in politics. Ostensibly the affair concerned the men's behavior during the battle off Ushant in July. Many, 320however, recalled the trial and execution of Admiral Byng in 1757 and saw it as an effort by Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty and the “James” or “Jemmy Twitcher” mentioned by JA below, to find a scapegoat in the person of an opposition admiral for his failure to attain a decisive victory.

Keppel complained privately that Palliser had failed to obey his signal to reform the line of battle at Ushant, and thus prevented the British fleet from reengaging the French under Orvilliers. The matter remained private until an open letter by Palliser defending his conduct led Keppel to raise the issue during debates over the naval estimates on 2 Dec. Palliser, considered by many to be the creature of Lord Sandwich, then demanded that Keppel be tried on the capital charges of incompetence in preparing to engage, breaking off the fight prematurely, running away, and failing to pursue the enemy. On 11 Dec. the Admiralty agreed to a court-martial and, because of Keppel's health, the Commons on 17 Dec. and the Lords on the 23d passed a bill permitting the trial to be held on land. The court-martial began at Portsmouth on 7 Jan. and ended on 11 Feb. with Keppel's complete exoneration. The decision was greeted with riotous celebrations, during which the Admiralty, as well as the homes of Palliser, Sandwich, North, and Germain, were attacked (Mackesy, War for America , p. 239–243; Alan Valentine, Lord North, 2 vols., Norman, Okla., 1967, 2:56–59; Parliamentary Hist. , 19:1379–1385; 20:91–111; London Chronicle, 22–24 Dec.).


Lord Richard Howe had aroused considerable animosity among the government's supporters by not coming directly to London after resigning his command in America and returning to England without notice. With the opening of Parliament, both he and Sir William Howe called for an inquiry into their conduct, and on 4 Dec., during the debate over the Carlisle Commission's manifesto, Sir William charged that the failure of British arms in America resulted from his lack of support from Germain (Gruber, Howe Brothers , p. 325–332; Parliamentary Hist. , 19:1394–1395).


On 7 Dec. Lord Stormont, former ambassador to France, stated in the House of Lords that he had had early knowledge of the Franco-American commercial treaty of 6 Feb. and had promptly communicated the intelligence to Lord Weymouth, Secretary of State for the Southern Department. Lord Grafton then asked why, if that was the case, Weymouth had denied certain knowledge of the treaty on 5 March ( Parliamentary Hist. , 20:26–29).


Gen. William Keppel, brother of Adm. Keppel, resigned his commission as commander of the militia at Cox Heath Camp on 11 Dec. and was soon involved in the debates over his brother's court-martial (Mackesy, War for America , p. 243–244).


The remainder of this sentence is a direct quotation from a speech by Burgoyne during the debate over the King's speech opening Parliament as related in the Parliamentary Hist. , 19:1360.