Papers of John Adams, volume 8

To Tristram Dalton

To the President of the Congress, No. 8

To Elbridge Gerry, 23 February 1780 JA Gerry, Elbridge To Elbridge Gerry, 23 February 1780 Adams, John Gerry, Elbridge
To Elbridge Gerry
My dear Friend1 Paris Feby. 23d. 17802

The Boston Committee of Correspondence, and the Military Associations which grew out of it, are likely to prove the greatest Engines for pulling down Tyranny, that were ever invented. The Electrical Rod, which deprives the Clouds of their Thunder, does it not so effectually, as these Committees wrest the Iron Rod out of the Hands of a Tyrant.3

Ireland has already obtained, purely by the Use of this Machine, great Advantages, and as She has not yet laid it down, She will obtain more, or give England further Trouble.4 The Counties in England are generally laying hold of it, as you will see by the public Papers.

I recieved your Letter relative to Mr. Dalton's Vessel that was sunk, since my Arrival in this City.5 Dr. F. applied in the Time of it, as he tells me, to the Minister, and obtained an Order for Compensation, which I hope Mr. Dalton has recieved. But if the Order miscarried, a Repetition of it may be obtained at any Time. Let me beg of You, to write Me by every Opportunity.

Your Friend & humble Servant John Adams

RC in John Thaxter's hand (MHi: Gerry-Knight Coll.); docketed: “Paris Letter His Excellency John Adams Esq Feby 23 1780 ansd Jany 10th 1781.” LbC (Adams Papers).


Immediately after the greeting in the Letterbook copy is the canceled passage: “I will take the Liberty to inclose to you, for your private Use, and in Confidence, Copies of a few Letters I have written and received Since my Arrival. They may be of some Use.”


This may not be JA's first effort at a letter to Gerry in 1780. Several pages earlier in the Letterbook is an incomplete letter, dated 19 Feb., for which no recipient is given. The fragment, which like this letter begins “My dear Friend,” consists of one paragraph in which JA promised to send intelligence and the first sentence of a second paragraph in which he noted that the disposition of the European powers was the same as described in his letter of 4 Aug. 1779 to the president of the congress (above). An examination of the Letterbook and extant recipients' copies indicates that JA used this greeting only for letters to James Lovell and Elbridge Gerry. Since the Letterbook copy immediately preceding the fragment is that to James Lovell of 19 Feb. (above), it seems likely that the unfinished letter was intended for Gerry. If this was so, JA's reason for not completing the letter may have been that in content, following the opening lines, it would have been similar to the letters of the 19th to James Lovell and to the president of the congress (both above), which JA would assume Gerry would see.


One may view this sentence as an effort by JA to puncture what he saw as Benjamin Franklin's inflated reputation, for it is clearly a paraphrase of the epigram attributed to Turgot and attached to several portraits of Franklin in this period: “eripuit calo fulmen, sceptrumque 358tyrannis,” “he snatched the lightning from heaven and the scepter from tyrants” (vol. 6:174).


JA refers to the volunteer and nonimportation movements in Ireland, which were founded on deeply felt grievances and resurgent Irish nationalism. There was considerable sympathy for America in Ireland, thus making JA's comments on the Irish use of American models more justified than his comments in this and previous letters regarding the English county association movement (see JA to Samuel Adams, 23 Feb., above). The expectations of JA and others that the movements in Ireland, and to a lesser degree in England, could undermine the North ministry, however, were doomed to disappointment. The perspective of Paris and Versailles led to a misapprehension as to the origins and aims of the movements and, in the case of Ireland, the ability and willingness of Britain to deal effectively with Irish grievances.

The volunteer movement was reminiscent of the American minuteman companies and resulted from the lack of any sizable body of British troops to defend Ireland. The need for extraordinary measures became clear in 1778, when John Paul Jones captured the HMS Drake at Cerrickfergus, and was made even more urgent in 1779 when a Franco-Spanish invasion seemed likely. In mid-1778, therefore, the recruitment of volunteer companies began and ultimately over 40,000 troops were raised. Catholics and Protestants alike supported the effort, but the government at London and Dublin regarded the volunteers as an extralegal force that could as well be used to seek redress of grievances as for defense.

The nonimportation movement too had American roots. Always heavily circumscribed by British restrictions, Irish trade was almost destroyed when the outbreak of war in America cost Ireland the only profitable market for its linens. The chronically depressed Irish economy thus grew worse, with thousands facing starvation. To dampen growing Irish unrest, Lord North introduced a series of trade bills on 2 April 1778 that would have ended many of the barriers to Irish trade. Opposition from British manufacturers, however, forced North to retreat, and in the end only minor changes were made. In the absence of the relief that the trade bills would have provided, the Irish economy continued to deteriorate until, at a meeting at Dublin in late April 1779, a nonimportation agreement was adopted. The movement soon became widespread and was effective in limiting Anglo-Irish trade.

The volunteer and nonimportation movements altered Ireland's relationship with Great Britain. Although the volunteer companies showed no disloyalty to the crown, they became, as the British authorities had feared, a political force in support of nonimportation and free trade. Together the two movements forced the North ministry in late 1779 and early 1780 to introduce measures that finally permitted Ireland to enjoy a relatively free trade within and without the empire. With these measures and a relaxation of restrictions on Catholics and dissenters, the North ministry successfully defused the situation and, although many in Ireland remained sympathetic to the American cause, any hope that Irish unrest would materially effect Britain's ability to carry on the war ended (W. E. H. Lecky, A History of England in the Eighteenth Century, 8 vols., N.Y., 1878–1890, 4:520–542; Cambridge Modern Hist. , 6:495–498; for the Irish trade bills, see Parliamentary Hist. , vols. 19 and 20).


Gerry's letter of 12 May 1779 (Adams Papers) concerning the destruction of the Fair Play has not been printed, but see Tristram Dalton to JA, 13 May 1779, and note 1 (above).