Papers of John Adams, volume 7

John Gilbank to the Commissioners

To Edmé Jacques Genet

323 To Edmé Jacques Genet, 30 December 1778 JA Genet, Edmé Jacques


To Edmé Jacques Genet, 30 December 1778 Adams, John Genet, Edmé Jacques
To Edmé Jacques Genet
ante 30 December 1778 1

As many Gentlemen may apprehend that one is exposed to a shortage of 2 Provisions, especially of Bread in America, from the Difficulty which the French Fleet found at Boston, to obtain a Supply, especially of Bread, I beg Leave to suggest to you, an Observation or two upon that Subject.

It would be Sufficient to Say, that the Comte D'Destaing, did, in Fact obtain, a Sufficient Quantity, altho the Price was Somewhat high, and that a French Fleet may always depend upon a Supply even at Boston, altho it will be dearer, there than in other Parts of the united States.

Of all the thirteen united States of America, the Massachusetts Bay alone, has never raised its own Bread. Their Soil, or Air, is less favourable for the Culture of Wheat, and their Commerce enabled them to import Corn, and Flour, So easily, from Pensilvania, Maryland, and Virginia, that it has been computed that about Fifty thousand People, Inhabitants of the Seaport Towns of Boston, Salem, Newbury Port, and Marblehead, were annually fed with Corn, imported, the Province not producing a Sufficient Quantity for its Inhabitants.3

Since the Commencement of this War, the Inhabitants have raised more Grain, than before, but Still not So much as they wanted, and the Deficiency has been Supplied, partly, by Land, in Waggons, from the States of Connecticutt and New York, and, partly, by Sea, from Pensylvania, Maryland and Virginia by Small Vessells, with Skillfull Navigators, which all the Vigilance of the British Frigates, has never been able wholly to prevent.

This Year, the Southern States, for good Reasons of State however, had laid an Embargo on Grain, which cutt off, entirely this Channell of Supply from Boston, and rendered the Article of Bread very Scarce and dear, and what added to the Misfortune, was the Demand for General Burgoines Army near Six Thousand Men, who were in Barracks at Cambridge, within a League of Boston. So that in the Moment when the Fleet arrived in their Harbour, So great was the real Scarcity of Bread among the Inhabitants, that the Sudden and unexpected Addition of so large a Demand excited Apprehensions among some of the People of a Famine.

But it may be depended on, that there is no other Part of the united States, but produces more Grain that it consumes. It may also be depended on that even at Boston any Fleet that may be sent there, may 324procure Supplies of Bread, at all Times, paying only the Additional Price of transporting it to that Town by Land.

It was this Scarcity of Bread, which excited or at least gave the Pretence to the Disturbances that happened on the first Arrival of the Fleet.4

There were in the port several privateers of which, in general, the crews were more or less English, Scottish, and Dutch sailors. There were also some Deserters, not only from General Burgoines army, but also from several Corps of Prisoners at discretion of whom there are 5 upwards of five thousands in the several states, and other Deserters, from the Main Army of the English, and their several Outposts, have at times inlisted on board of Privateers. A Number of Persons, As it is Supposed of this Discription, pretending a Want of Bread, and probably stimulated by secret Ennemies, went to the Bake houses, and began a Bickering, which proceeding from Words to Blows, produced the Disorders which every good Man in Boston abhors.

It is not indeed Surprizing. The Wonder is that there were not more and greater Quarrells. For the Sailors, of every Nation of the Earth, Seem to have a Kind of mixed Passion of Contempt and Hatred towards the sailors of all other Nations. It is the opinion of all who come from Boston that had a British Fleet of the same Size, lain in that Harbour so long in Time of the profoundest Peace and Strictest Friendship between England and America, there would have been more Quarrells and Disturbances between them and the Inhabitants, which is much to the Honour of the French Fleet and its Commander, and is the best of Proofs of Discipline and good order.

Whenever French and Spanish, English and Portuguese Sailors come together, they fight as naturally as Cats and Dogs, or if they chose to be compared to Animals of a nobler Nature, as the Elephant and Rhinoceros. Indeed, the English Sailors, of London and Bristol, and even those of Salem and Marblehead in America are never found together unless fighting among themselves with fists or clubs. Such is the sailor's nature and Character. And they display their Heroism in this Way, as in contending among Cannon Balls.6

I mention these Things for your particular Consideration. Perhaps it would not be prudent, to say any Thing in your Publication, concerning, the Affray at Boston. But you will Use your own Pleasure.7

The affair of Bread at Boston is of Importance to be well understood. All other Provisions, especially Beef and Pork, are very plenty there and of good Quality. The Resources of these Articles are inexhaustible in New England. The Cornucopia is there poured out. The 325English intend to render this Resource Useless to France. They may as easily dry up the Ocean. If they were to burn the Town of Boston, which however they must ask leave of a brave and hardy Race of Men to do, this Resource would remain to France undiminished. An Harbour in which all the Fleets of Europe may ride securely, and a Country abounding with Provisions of every Kind excepting Bread, and even enough of that to be had by Land for a little higher Price.

Accept the Respects of your

John Adams

RC (PWacD: Feinstone Coll., on deposit PPAmP). The tops of all four pages of this letter have been damaged by fire, with the loss of the dateline, salutation, and several lines of text. As a result, except for the dateline and portions of the fifth and sixth paragraphs (see note 3), missing text has been supplied in brackets by reconstructing the English text from the French translation in Affaires de l'Angleterre et de l'Amérique (see notes 1, 2, 5, and 6).


This letter probably was written sometime between 20 and 29 Dec. The former date is that of a copy of an early draft (PCC, No. 102, III, f. 1) of the Commissioners' letter to Vergennes of ante 20 Dec. 1778 – ante 9 Jan. 1779 (above); drafts of the letter contained several paragraphs on the Boston riots that JA appropriated for this letter, but which were deleted from the Vergennes letter as finally sent (see note 4). The latter date is one day prior to JA's letter to Genet (below), containing additional assurances of the good will of Bostonians toward France and the French fleet which may have been intended to supplement those in the present letter. The time that it would have taken Genet to show JA's letter to Vergennes and then draft his reply of 1 Jan. (below) seems to preclude JA's having written after the 29th.

The letter was put to good use. Virtually all of it, without signature, appeared with other letters under the general heading “Extraits de diverses lettres écrites de Boston” in Affaires de l'Angleterre et de l'Amérique (“Lettres,” vol. 13, cahier 63, p. xlix, lxiii–lxvii). To justify its inclusion with the other letters and further conceal JA's authorship, the letter was dated 4 Nov., the approximate date of a letter sent from Boston that would arrive in France in time to be included in an issue of Affaires printed in early January.


In Affaires this paragraph begins: “Comme plusieurs personnes peuvent croire qu'on est exposé à manquer de.”


This and the following three paragraphs are almost identical to corresponding paragraphs in Commissioners to Vergennes, ante 20 Dec. 1778 – ante 9 Jan. 1779, No. 1 (above). Words lost through fire damage in the next two paragraphs have, therefore, been supplied from that document in brackets.


For the Boston riots, see James Warren to JA, 7 Oct., note 5 and references there (above).


In Affaires this paragraph begins: “Il y avoit alors dans le Port plusieurs corsaires dont en général les equipages avoient plus ou moins de Matelots Anglois, Ecossois et Hollandois. Il y avoit aussi quelques déserteurs, non-seulement de l'armée de Burgoyne, mais encore de divers corps de prisonniers sur leur parole, dont le nombre est.”


In Affaires the text of this paragraph following Bristol reads: “et en Amérique meme ceux de Salem et de Marblehead ne se sont jamais trouvés ensemble sans se disputer d'adresse à coups de poing ou de gourdin. Telle est la nature et le caractere du Matelot; et il attache autant d'honneur à la bravoure héroïque qu'il montre de cette maniere, que si le canon étoit de la partie.”


This paragraph, which did not appear in Affaires, was set off, probably by Genet, by a vertical line placed next to it in the left margin.