Papers of John Adams, volume 9

To Muscoe Livingston

To the President of Congress, No. 41

To the President of Congress, No. 40, 10 April 1780 JA Huntington, Samuel President of Congress


To the President of Congress, No. 40, 10 April 1780 Adams, John Huntington, Samuel President of Congress
To the President of Congress, No. 40
Sir Paris April 10th. 1780


The Memoire of the Prince Gallitzin, Envoy Extraordinary of all the Russias to the States General, presented the third of this Month, is of too much Importance to the United States of America, and their Allies, to be omitted to be sent to Congress.1 It is of the following Tenor.

High and Mighty Lords.,

“The Undersigned, Envoy Extraordinary of her Majesty the Empress of all the Russias, has the Honor to communicate a Copy of the Declaration, which the Empress his Sovereign has made to the Powers actually at War. Your High Mightinesses may regard this Communication, as a particular Mark of the Attention of the Empress, to the Republic equally interested in the Reasons which have given Birth to this declaration.

He has, moreover, orders to declare, in the name of her Imperial Majesty, that how much soever She may desire, on the one hand, to maintain during the present War, the strictest Neutrality, She will nevertheless maintain, by means the most efficacious, the Honor of the Russian Flag, and the Safety of the Commerce and the Navigation of her Subjects, and will not suffer that any Injury should be 122done to it, by any of the belligerent Powers. That, to avoid on this occasion all Misunderstanding, or false Interpretation, She has thought it her Duty to specify in her Declaration, the Terms of a free Commerce, and of that which is Contraband: that if the definition of the former, is founded upon Notions the most simple, the most clear and the most determinate by the Law of Nature, that of the latter, is taken by her literally from the Treaty of Commerce, of Russia with Great Britain: that by this She proves incontestibly her good Faith, and her Impartiality, towards both Parties that She thinks, consequently, that She ought to expect, that the other commercial Powers will be earnest to accede to her manner of thinking, relative to the Neutrality. In persuance of these Views her Majesty has charged the Subscriber, to invite your High Mightinesses to make a Common Cause with her, insomuch that this Union may serve to protect Commerce and Navigation; observing at the same time the most exact Neutrality, and to communicate to You the measures which She has taken in Consequence: Similar Invitations have been already made to the Courts of Copenhagen, Stockholm and Lisbon, to the End that by the common Cares of all the neutral maritime Powers, a natural System founded on Justice, and which by its real Utility, may serve as a Rule for future Ages, may be established and made legal, in favor of the commercial Navigation of neutral Navigations i.e. Nations. The Subscriber makes no doubt, that your High Mightinesses will take into Consideration the Invitation of her Imperial Majesty, and concur in making without delay a Declaration to the belligerent Powers founded upon the same principles, with those of the Empress his Sovereign, by explaining your Sentiments at the same time upon the Subject of the protection of your Commerce, of your Navigation, and of the Nature of contraband Goods conformably to the Terms of your particular Treaties with other Nations. Moreover, the Subscriber has the Honor to assure your High Mightinesses, that if, for establishing solidly a System, equally glorious and advantageous, to the good prosperity of Navigation in general, you will commence a Negotiation with the neutral Powers abovementioned, to the End to establish a particular Convention upon this Subject, the Empress his Sovereign will be ready to engage in it.

Your High Mightinesses will readily percieve the Necessity of coming to a Resolution upon Subjects equally important and advantageous to Humanity in general: the Subscriber requests the favor that your High Mightinesses would furnish him with a speedy Answer.”2

Declaration of her Majesty the Empress of Russia, made to the 123Courts of Versailles, Madrid and London, mentioned in the foregoing Memorial.

“The Empress of all the Russias, has manifested so visibly the Sentiments of Justice, Equity and Moderation which animate her, and has given, during the whole Course of the War maintained against the Ottoman Porte, such convincing Proofs of her Attention to the Rights of Neutrality, and the Freedom of Commerce in general, that in this Respect She may appeal to the Testimony of all Europe. This Conduct, as well as the scrupulous Exactness; with which She has observed the Rules of Neutrality, during the Course of this War, have given Room to hope, that her Subjects would peaceably enjoy the fruits of their Industry, and the Advantages which belong to all neutral Nations. Experience has, however, taught her the contrary. Since neither these Considerations, nor the regard due, to what the Law of Nations in general prescribes, have been able to hinder, the Subjects of her Majesty from being oftentimes troubled in their Navigation, or interrupted and retarded in their Commerce, by the Subjects of the Belligerent Powers. These Interruptions, having come upon Business in general, and that of Russia in particular, are of a Nature to awaken the Attention of all the neutral Nations, and oblige her Majesty the Empress to seek to deliver herself from them, by all means suitable to her Dignity, and the well-being of her Subjects: but before She shall put them in Execution, and being filled with a sincere desire to prevent all subsequent Acts of Violence; She has thought that it was consistent with her Equity, to lay open to all Europe, the principles which will govern her, and which are indispensible to prevent all Misunderstanding, as well as all which might give Occasion to it. To this She has determined herself with so much the more Confidence, as these Principles are drawn from the primitive Law of Nations, adopted by all Nations, which the belligerent Powers themselves cannot enervate, at least but by violating the Laws of Neutrality, and contemning the fundamental Rules, which they themselves have adopted, in divers Treaties and Alliances now existing.

Art. 1st. That all neutral Vessels ought to navigate freely, from one port to another, as well as upon the Coasts of the Powers now at War.

Art 2d. That the Effects belonging to the Subjects of the belligerent Powers, shall be free, in neutral Ships, except always, contraband Goods.

Art. 3d. That her Imperial Majesty, in Consequence of the Limits above fixed, will adhere strictly, to that which is stipulated by the 124tenth and eleventh Articles of her Treaty of Commerce with Great Britain concerning the manner, in which She ought to conduct towards all the belligerent Powers.

Art. 4th. That as to what concerns a Port blocked, we ought not in Truth to consider, as such, any but those, which are found so well shut up, by a fixed and sufficient Number of Vessels belonging to the Power which attacks it, that one cannot attempt to enter into such Port, without evident danger.

Art. 5th. That these Principles, above laid down, ought to serve as a Rule in all proceedings, whenever there is a Question concerning the Legality of Prizes.3

From these Considerations, her Imperial Majesty, makes no difficulty to declare that wishing to insure the Execution of that which is herein before declared, to maintain at the same time the honor of her flag, as well as the Safety of the Commerce of her States and also to protect the Navigation of her Subjects, against all those whom it may concern, She has given Orders, that a considerable Portion of her maritime Forces, shall be put to Sea, with no other Intention, than to insure the Observation of the most exact and the most strict Neutrality, which her Majesty proposes to keep as long as She shall not see herself absolutely forced to depart from that System of Moderation and of perfect Neutrality, which She has adopted: in such Sort, that it will not be but in the last Extremity, that her Fleet will exercise her final Orders, to go, wherever the Necessity and the Circumstances may require.

It is then, by assuring the belligerent Powers in the most solemn manner, and with all that Rectitude and Sincerity, which form the distinguishing Character of her Imperial Majesty; that She declares to them, that She proposes to herself no other Thing, than to convince them of the Sentiments of Equity with which She is animated, as well of the Tendency of her salutary Views towards the well-being of all Nations in general, and particularly of those now at War, and that consequently her Imperial Majesty, will provide her Admiralty, as well as her Generals, with Instructions relative to this System, extracted from the Code of Nations, and which they have so often taken for Rules in their Treaties.”

I have the Honor to be, with the greatest Respect, Sir, your most obedient and most humble Servant. John Adams

Dupl in John Thaxter's hand (PCC, Misc. Papers, Reel 1, f. 55–58;) endorsed: “Duplicate John Adams April 10. 1780 Recd. Septr. 1. Russian Memorial.” LbC 125 (Adams Papers;) notations: “No. 40”; by Thaxter: “N.B. 16th. May 1780. This day sent a duplicate of the above to Nantes to Mr. Johnson Triplicate, to John Hodshon of Amsterdam, and another to Mr. Ross of L'Orient who are to forward them to Congress.” Since a letter from Joshua Johnson also reached Congress on 1 Sept., it was the duplicate sent to Johnson that first reached Congress ( JCC , 17:798).


JA correctly assesses the importance to the United States of Prince Dmitry Alekseyevich Gallitzin's memorial of 3 April and Catherine II's declaration of the principles of an armed neutrality of 10 March. The Russian initiative was the most significant yet undertaken by a European power and in succeeding letters JA analyzed its impact on the American cause and the reactions of the neutral and belligerent powers.

The two documents are relatively straightforward explanations of the motives that were the immediate cause of Catherine's undertaking. Contrary to the tenor of the declaration, however, its principles, particularly Art. 2, were not then nor were they likely to become in the near future part of the established law of nations (see note 3). Moreover, Catherine hoped that by maintaining a strict neutrality and placing herself at the head of a league of neutral powers she could achieve her long held ambition to mediate between France and Great Britain and thereby enhance the position of Russia within the European political system. Finally, in using the term belligerents, Catherine meant European belligerents, not the United States. Since Russia did not recognize the United States as a sovereign state, but rather as a group of British colonies in rebellion, the provisions of the declaration did not apply to trade with the United States. Since such trade was illegal under British law, all ships, neutral or belligerent, were subject to seizure (De Madariaga, Armed Neutrality of 1780 , p. 140–145).

These caveats are important when considering statements by JA and other Americans about the armed neutrality. Almost universally they accepted the proposition that the declaration's principles were or were about to become part of the law of nations and that the declaration indicated a growing sympathy for the American cause. On the other hand, they saw as irrelevant, if they considered them at all, the declaration's European context and Catherine's long-term objectives. For JA the armed neutrality and the principles that it ostensibly sought to establish took on a special importance because they fit very neatly into his concept of what should be the longterm foreign policy of the United States that he had envisioned when he wrote the Treaty Plan of 1776 and which would become further defined through his reading and revision of Thomas Pownall's Memorial (vol. 4:260–302; Gregg L. Lint, “Law of Nations and the American Revolution,” in Lawrence S. Kaplan, ed., The American Revolution and “A Candid World,” Kent, Ohio, 1977, p. 117–119; David M. Griffiths, “American Commercial Diplomacy in Russia, 1780–1783,” WMQ , 3d ser., 27:380–382 [July 1970]; Edmund Jenings to JA, 12 April, below; A Translation of Thomas Pownall's Memorial, 19 April —ca. 14 July , below).


The States General replied to the memorial on 24 April, but did not accede formally to the system proposed by Catherine II until 20 Nov. 1780 (James Brown Scott, ed., The Armed Neutralities of 1780 and 1800, N.Y., 1915, p. 325).


Of the five principles set forth, the first and fourth are relatively unexceptionable. The first confirmed the existing right of neutrals to trade with all belligerents, subject to local laws, the right of belligerents to stop and search neutral ships for contraband, and the prohibition against entering a blockaded port. The fourth was, perhaps, a more rigorous definition of a blockade than was set down by the authorities on the law of nations, but it did no more than explicitly state what was already implied (Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations, or Principles of the Law of Nature, Applied to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns, bk. III, chap. 7, sects. 111–114, 117).

The same cannot be said for the second, third, and fifth articles. Their content, together with the statements in the memorial and the declaration regarding the nature of the law of nations and the means by which its provisions became established, indicated a departure from previously held theories about the law's origin. In the eighteenth century the law of nations had two distinct parts. The first, called the necessary law of nations, was founded on and indistinguishable from the law of nature; its principles were self-evident to anyone obeying the dictates of right reason. Binding on all nations, its tenets were immutable, not subject to human intervention. 126The second part was the positive law of nations, which included the stipulative law or law of treaties. The stipulative law permitted modifications of the necessary law in treaties, but such alterations were binding only on the signatories. Where no treaty provision existed, interstate relations were governed wholly by the dictates of the necessary law.

The memorial and the declaration, however, implied that the Russian government expected that the adoption of the declaration's principles by the neutral powers and their observance by the belligerents would establish those principles as part of the necessary law. Such an interpretation of the two documents was furthered by the sentence immediately preceding the five articles in which note was taken of the fact that each of the belligerents had agreed, in one or more treaties, to the principles set down in the declaration and thus could not reject them “but by violating the Laws of Neutrality, and contemning the fundamental Rules, which they themselves have adopted, in divers Treaties and Alliances now existing.” This implies that a provision could become part of the necessary law, not because it was a law of nature, but rather because it was accepted by a large number of nations. No eighteenth-century authority supported such a conception of the law or envisioned any circumstance by which a treaty provision at variance with the accepted law of nature could be incorporated into the necessary law, regardless of how many nations had agreed to it in their treaties.

Art. 2 was the most controversial of the five because the doctrine that it proposed to establish—free ships make free goods—lacked any standing under the necessary law of nations and its inclusion largely determined European and American perceptions of the declaration. In the eighteenth century the established principle among writers on the law of nations was that enemy goods could be seized wherever found, while neutral property was free, even if found on an enemy ship. Indeed, when JA wrote this letter the United States observed the established rule toward neutral and enemy property, except in regard to France because of the establishment of the principle that free ships made free goods in the Franco-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce. It did not begin to apply the doctrine that free ships made free goods to neutral vessels until the adoption of new instructions to the captains of warships and privateers on 27 Nov. 1780, largely in response to the Russian declaration ( JCC, 18:1097– 1098). Had the doctrine that free ships make free goods gained universal acceptance and become part of the law of nations as Catherine seemed to desire, the greatest impact would have been on Great Britain because it would have nullified the advantage enjoyed by Britain from its naval superiority. As a result, although there is no indication that this was Catherine's intention, the declaration was perceived in Europe and America as being specifically directed against Britain.

Controversy over the third article was due largely to its misinterpretation. Both the memorial and the declaration stated that the definition of contraband contained in Arts. 10 and 11 of the Anglo-Russian treaty would guide Russian actions, but that other neutrals should define contraband in accordance with their existing treaties with the belligerents. Despite this, the article was widely seen as an effort to obtain universal acceptance of the definition set down in the Anglo-Russian treaty (see, for example, JA to the president of Congress, 14 April, No. 44, calendared, below; and JA to Edmund Jenings, 15 April, below). Under the necessary law of nations contraband goods were defined broadly as those useful in war. Included under such a designation were arms and ammunition, naval stores and ships timbers, and even provisions in some instances. Over time, however, more limited definitions were included in various treaties, particularly in regard to naval stores, which the Anglo-Russian treaty did not list as contraband. This was significant because of the Anglo-Dutch dispute over the carrying of naval stores by Dutch ships that had reached its climax with the British interception of a Dutch convoy at the beginning of 1780 and the suspension of all provisions in Anglo-Dutch treaties relating to neutral trade in April. From Britain's perspective the universal adoption of such a list of contraband would have had much the same effect as the adoption of the doctrine that free ships make free goods, namely to reduce or eliminate the fruits of its naval superiority (De Madariaga, Armed Neutrality of 1780 , p. 172–180, 445– 446). See also Sir James Marriott's ruling in the case of La Sybellina Hillegonda, one of the Dutch ships seized from Adm. Lodewijk van Bylandt's convoy, in JA's letter of 6 April to the president of Congress (No. 37, calendared, above).