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Browsing: Adams Family Correspondence, Volume 4

This note contained in document ADMS-04-04-02-0118
7. Lovell here returns to, and under the protection of ciphered phrases is a little more explicit about, what was currently happening to French-American relations in Paris and Philadelphia. The immediate background is given in his letter to AA, 26 June, above; see especially note 4 there on Congress' alteration of JA's peace instructions and its joining him with other commissioners in the peace negotiation. The incidents which led up to these actions, and which Lovell refers to here, nearly a whole year later, are set forth above in note 5 on Thaxter to JA, 7 Aug. 1780 (vol. 3:390–395).
“Gravier” is the family name of the French foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes. His “two Letters [written] in a Pet against [JA] to old F[ran]kl[i]n” are (1) that dated 30 June 1780, disagreeing with JA's support of Congress' new monetary policy and requesting Congress' reconsideration of that policy (Wharton, ed., Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev., { 175 } 3:827); and (2) that dated 31 July 1780, enclosing the mass of his recent correspondence with JA on other topics in dispute between them, and demanding that the whole of it be submitted to Congress for appropriate action, by which Vergennes certainly meant a reprimand (same, 4: 18–19; text of French original quoted at vol. 3:392, above). Franklin's “unkind and stabbing” letter transmitting the documents to Congress is dated 9 Aug. 1780 and is the fullest comment Franklin ever permitted himself to make on JA's conduct as a diplomat, contrasting it with his own more accommodating approach to the French court and condemning the whole concept of what has come to be known as “militia diplomacy.” The original is in PCC, No. 82, I; it is printed in Franklin's Writings, ed. Smyth, 8:124–130 (see esp. p. 126–128); a normalized text is in Wharton, ed., Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev., 4:21–25 (see esp. p. 22–23). Relevant portions are quoted in vol. 3:394, above, but to understand the deepening embitterment between the partisans of JA and of Franklin on both sides of the Atlantic, the whole passage dealing with JA should be read and pondered.
Just how Franklin's remarks got into circulation at this time in Boston and vicinity is not known, but letters that follow in the present volume make clear that they indeed did and that they stirred up strong feelings there. See AA to Lovell, 14 July; Richard Cranch to JA, 16 July; AA to Elbridge Gerry, 20 July; Gerry to AA, 30 July; all below.
Congress had considered the JA-Vergennes exchanges on 26 Dec. 1780, together with numerous dispatches from JA dating between the previous July and October (JCC, 18:1194). Not a word was recorded at this time concerning Franklin's dispatch of 9 Aug., which according to the Journals was not read in Congress until 19 Feb. 1781, together with other Franklin letters and enclosures (same, 19:174). While a good deal of discussion “out-of-doors” must have followed from the revelation of the disputes between JA and Vergennes, Congress officially noticed only three of the letters read in December, namely JA to Vergennes, 17 and 26 July, and Vergennes to JA, 25 July, in which JA had asked leave to communicate to the British ministry his powers to negotiate a commercial treaty, and Vergennes had refused to give such leave (texts in Wharton, ed., Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev., 3:861–863; 4:3–6, 7–11). A committee consisting of Thomas Burke, John Witherspoon, and James Duane was appointed to report on these letters (JCC, 18:1194), and on 10 Jan. it brought in a draft of a letter which was agreed to and sent over Pres. Huntington's signature to JA on that day (same, 19:41–42). Although the letter recognized the “zeal and assiduity” displayed by JA in his request of Vergennes, it amounted to a rebuke because it approved Vergennes' reasons for refusing the request (Adams Papers; printed in JA, Works, 7:353; JCC, 19:42).
During the following months La Luzerne, under guidance from Vergennes that was hardly needed, conducted his campaign among friendly delegates in Congress that culminated in the measures taken by that body in June to curb JA's freedom of action. A further measure to the same effect was taken the day before Lovell dated the present letter. This was the outright revocation of JA's commission and instructions to negotiate a treaty of commerce with Great Britain, issued to him in Sept.–Oct. 1779 simultaneously with his peace commission (see Diary and Autobiography, 4:179–180, 183–184; see also vol. 3:230–233, above). The immediate initiative for this had come from the committee of conference with La Luzerne in May, and an attempt was made on 19 June to transfer these powers from JA to the five newly named peace commissioners (of whom JA was one), but this failed at the moment (JCC, 20:619, 676). After further maneuvers which cannot be traced here, James Madison moved on 12 July that JA's commercial powers be revoked and that, among other things, the peace commissioners be instructed to place the territorial claims of the United States all the way to the Mississippi on an equal footing with its claims to the Atlantic fisheries—neither of these claims being any longer ultimatums because of the alterations in the instructions for peace and the contemplated revocation { 176 } of JA's commission to negotiate a treaty of commerce. This motion passed by a large majority, only the New England delegates dissenting (same, 713–714, 746–747; Madison, Papers, ed. Hutchinson, 3:188–189). Madison's multiple and complex motives have been discussed by Brant in his Madison, 2:143–145, from Madison's point of view. Justly or not, Madison had by this time come to distrust JA's egotism and impulsiveness, his New Englandism, and his suspected partiality for British as opposed to French interests. Subsequent events deepened Madison's prejudices toward JA, as will later appear.
JA's view of these transactions was that they constituted the most humiliating stroke ever dealt him in the house of his supposed friends. See his confidential conversation in Jan. 1783 with Benjamin Vaughan as recorded in Diary and Autobiography, 3:103–105; also his letter to Secretary R. R. Livingston, 5 Feb. 1783, in which he endeavored to reconstruct Congress' motives, as shaped by French intrigue, and to show how mistaken they were (LbC, Adams Papers; JA, Works, 8:33–40).
Cite web page as: Founding Families: Digital Editions of the Papers of the Winthrops and the Adamses, ed.C. James Taylor. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2016.