Papers of John Adams, volume 13

To Francis Dana

From Engelbert François van Berckel

From Arthur Lee, 7 August 1782 Lee, Arthur JA


From Arthur Lee, 7 August 1782 Lee, Arthur Adams, John
From Arthur Lee
Philadelphia Augt. 7th. 1782 Dear Sir

I wrote you a long letter of the 30th. Decr. 1780 to which I have not yet receivd any answer.1 But I cannot help writing a line to you by this opportunity, as well to congratulate you on the success of your negociations in Holland as to mention to you what I think may be of material concern to you; that the present minister for foreign affairs is as devoted a partizan of Count de Vergennes and Dr. Franklin as any that exists. Here he is entirely under the direction of the Minister and Marbois.2 It may be obvious that considerable caution will be necessary in your correspondence with such a minister. You may also judge that some ballance is necessary against the french influence here, to keep us from swerving from the interest of our Country wherever that happens to run counter to the real or imaginary interests of the Court of Versailles. Therefore a minister from the States general may be of essential utility here. For when there are two foreign parties, the friends to their country, tho few, may make the scale preponderate as they please, which certainly is not now the case. For these reasons I think you will render us an essential service by hastning the departure of a minister who may answer this valuable purpose.

Our affairs here at present are prosperous. The Enemy have evcuated Savannah after having been beaten in an engagement by Genl. Wayne; and it is pretty certain that the evacuation of Charles-town will soon follow.3 Hard-money begins to come in by taxes, and when Commerce has a little recoverd us from the baneful effects of Paper-money, I think, our Finances will soon acquire stability, and the States credit.


The Instruction which subjects you to the french ministers gives great offence and uneasiness to many in Congress; and to no one more than to myself. I think it most dishonorable and dangerous. It is a surrender of our Independence and Soveriegnty and an acknowlegment that we are unequal to either. Mr. Jay has expressed the same sentiments very freely to Congress and I hope the Commissioners will not think that Instruction can bind them to assent to any thing injurious to their Country, tho it should be the advice and opinion of those who cannot have the interests of this Country so much at heart, and who are not responsible to us for their conduct.4

God bless you & prosper your Negociations, in spight of us, to a safe, honorable & lasting Peace.

PS. please to make my Compts to Mr. Jay, and let him know that his Letters have gaind him some friends, and perhaps lost some. But his account of a certain Court differs so much from what I had learnt of it, that I cannot but think there has been some secret agency in the business.5 Remember me affectionately to Mr. Laurens.

Sir Guy Carelton and Admiral Digby have announcd to Genl Washington and he to Congress, that Mr. Grenville is instructed to propose the Independence of the 13 provinces, so they phrase it, previous to a negociation.6

This Letter was committed to Mr Lee Mr. Witherspoon and Mr Rutlege, who will report I believe—That Congress consider the above Letter as mere matter of Information, inexplicit as to the nature and extent of the Independency directed to be proposd by the british Plenipotentiary; and as Congress have receivd no information on this subject from their ministers for negociating with G. B. therefore no public measure can or ought to be taken upon it, in its present form.

That it be hereby is recommended to the several States in the Union, not to remit of their exertions for carrying on the war with vigor and effect.

That the Commander in chief be authorizd to empower the Commissioners he shall appoint to settle a general Cartel; to release Earl Cornwallis from his parole in return for a similar indulgence granted by his britannic M. to the Honble. Mr. Laurens.

To our very great surprise, we have not receivd one line from you relative to our acknowlegement &c by the States general. Some of us suspect foul play with your Letters as Dr. Franklin has chosen to 221be silent on the subject, which no doubt is very mortifying to him and his Employers.

RC (Adams Papers); endorsed: “A. Lee Esq. Aug 7. ansd Oct. 10. 1782 Livingston a devoted Partizan of Vergennes and Franklin. The Instruction wh. Subjects us to the French Minister.”


Neither Arthur Lee's letter nor a reply from JA is extant in the Adams Papers. JA likely never received the letter.


That is, the French minister at Philadelphia, the Chevalier de La Luzerne, and his secretary, Barbé-Marbois. For the effect of Livingston's close relationship with La Luzerne, see vol. 12:44.


The garrison at Savannah was evacuated to Charleston on 11 July, after the town was besieged by Gen. Anthony Wayne. The British did not leave Charleston until 14 Dec. (John Richard Alden, The South in the American Revolution, Baton Rouge, 1957, p. 266–267).


Lee is referring to Congress' instructions to the joint peace commissioners of 15 June 1781 , and specifically to the third paragraph that directed them to “make the most candid & confidential communications to the ministers of our generous Ally the King of France to undertake nothing in the Negotiations for Peace or truce without their knowledge & concurrence & ultimately to govern yourselves by their advice & opinion” (vol. 11:374–377). John Jay had written to Congress on 20 Sept. 1781 to protest the provision and, in effect, to offer his resignation (Wharton, Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. , 4:716–718). But JA had never commented on the provision referred to by Lee because he had deciphered only a portion of the first sentence of the third paragraph and was unaware that Congress intended the commissioners to negotiate under the direct supervision of the French government. Indeed, in his diary entry for 27 Oct., the day after he reached Paris, JA states, “this Instruction, which is alluded to in a Letter I received at the Hague a few days before I left it, has never yet been communicated to me” ( D&A , 3:38; but see also JA's reply to Lee of 10 Oct., below).

Lee's objections to the instructions had a tangible result, for on 8 Aug. he moved that the peace instructions “be reconsidered.” That motion almost immediately was replaced with another requiring a committee to “be appointed to revise and consider the instructions . . . and to report what alterations ought to be made.” A lengthy debate then ensued, during which James Madison admitted that “the instructions given are a sacrifice of national dignity” but defended them as “a sacrifice of dignity to policy” because “the situation of affairs and circumstances at the time rendered this sacrifice necessary. Nothing essential is given up.” In the end a motion by Madison to appoint a committee “to take into consideration and report to Congress the most advisable means of securing to the United States the several objects claimed by them and not included in their ultimatum for peace” was adopted, but nothing further was done about the instructions (Wharton, Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. , 5:645–651; JCC , 22:458–460).

In a letter to James Warren, likely written shortly after 8 Aug., Arthur Lee was even more explicit about his distaste for the instructions and their source. Lee noted that he had “movd in vain for reconsideration of the Instructions.” But, apparently assuming that John Jay would not act under the instructions, he declared that “the yoke is riveted upon us, and the Man [Franklin] who I am sure sold us in the negociation with France is the sole adjunct with Mr. Adams, in a negociation on which every thing that is dear and honorable to us depend. He, good man, felt no qualms at such a commission, no sense of dishonor or injury to his Country. On the contrary he expressd the utmost alacrity in accepting it, and I believe most cordially; since it puts him in the way of receiving money, which is the God of his Idolatry” ( Warren-Adams Letters , 2:173; there dated [July]).


Lee is likely referring to John Jay's very long 28 April letter to Robert R. Livingston, which reached Congress on 2 Aug. (Wharton, Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. , 5:336–377; PCC, No. 185, III, f. 36). There Jay described his continuing, but unsuccessful, efforts to open negotiations with Spain for recognition of the United States and for a commercial treaty. But most of the letter concerned the lack of support that he had received from both 222the French ambassador and the Spanish government when a large number of bills drawn on him were presented for payment and, because he lacked sufficient funds, ultimately were protested. Lee indicated to JA that “some secret agency” was involved, but in his letter to James Warren cited in note 4, he stated that “Spain has behavd towards us with very little wisdom or decency; but it much to be suspected that the French were at the bottom of it” ( Warren-Adams Letters , 2:174).


The letter from Gen. Sir Guy Carleton and Adm. Robert Digby was of 2 Aug. and was enclosed with George Washington's letter of 5 Aug. to Congress (PCC, No. 152, X, f. 669–671, 665–668). The Carleton-Digby letter informed Washington that Thomas Grenville was at Paris with powers to negotiate with all powers and that he was empowered to propose independence immediately rather than it being a condition for a general treaty, but in return the loyalists were to be restored their property or compensated. They then mentioned the release of Henry Laurens as amounting to his exchange for Cornwallis and the need to negotiate a general prisoner exchange. In response to Washington's request for advice on how to proceed, Congress adopted three resolutions on 12 August. The first resolved that the letter from Carleton and Digby, in so far as it concerned peace negotiations, be considered “as mere matter of information” in the absence of any information on the subject from the peace commissioners and that no action be taken regarding it. The second is as Lee indicates, but with “and effect” being replaced by “as the only effectual means of securing the settlement of a safe and honorable peace.” The third resolution as given by Lee was replaced by another that did not mention the exchange of Cornwallis for Laurens, but rather called only for negotiations to “settle forthwith a general cartel for the exchange of prisoners” ( JCC , 23:462–464).