Adams Papers

1779. March 4.

1779. March 4.

Walked with Mr. Jennings to Calvare, with my son.1

1Edmund Jenings (1731–1819) is an obscure but ubiquitous figure in the European scene during the American Revolution, and an important one in the history of JA’s diplomatic missions. Born in Annapolis, he was named for his father, King’s attorney and secretary of Maryland, and his grandfather, acting governor of Virginia early in the century. His sister Ariana married John Randolph the loyalist, and his family was also allied with the Grymes and Lee families of Virginia.

Jenings was educated at Eton, Cambridge, and the Middle Temple, and probably never returned to America thereafter. Being in what were then always called easy circumstances, he practiced little law but lived a life of cultivated leisure in London and maintained a large correspondence with American friends and relatives, notably with the Lee brothers. By early 1778 he had left London for the Continent and during the next five years lived mostly at Brussels, though he appeared recurrently at Paris, Boulogne, and elsewhere. He was put forward by the Lees, unsuccessfully, for diplomatic appointments. Probably Arthur Lee introduced him as a trustworthy and useful man to JA, who addressed a “Secret and confiden­tial” letter to him within a fortnight of JA’s own arrival in Paris, proposing the republication in London of one of JA’s early political tracts ( 20 April 1780, Adams Papers). It was in this role that Jenings was to prove remarkably assiduous and helpful to JA, for throughout the war he kept a channel open to the London press and, besides transmitting news and publications to JA, repeatedly placed pro-American writings, by both himself and JA, in British newspapers and journals. (For an example see the entry of 4 Dec. 1782, below, and note 1 there.)

JA thought so well of Jenings’ abilities and character that he wished to have him appointed secretary to the American Peace Commission in Europe (letter to Henry Laurens, 15 Aug. 1782, LbC, Adams Papers; Works description begins The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, ed. Charles Francis Adams, Boston, 1850–1856; 10 vols. description ends , 7:611), but to JA’s annoyance William Temple Franklin was the choice of Franklin and Jay for this post. After the Preliminary Treaty was signed late in 1782, a bitter quarrel developed between Jenings and Henry Laurens over an anonymous letter that originated in the Dutch or Austrian Netherlands and had been in circulation for six months or more, in which Laurens was cautioned against alleged misconduct by JA. Laurens came to believe that Jenings knew a great deal more about the letter than he admitted and might indeed have written it, with the aim of sowing distrust among the American Commissioners. The quarrel led to the printing of three pamphlets in London in 1783, two by Jenings in his own defense and one by Laurens, together with a vast amount of correspondence among all concerned, but the mystery of the anonymous letter remains as yet unsolved.

JA himself never doubted Jenings’ integrity and took pains to defend him in all quarters; see especially his letter to Thomas Brand Hollis, 5 Sept. 1787 (LbC, Adams Papers), proposing to put his entire correspondence with Jenings in Brand Hollis’ hands for reading. (JA had by this time recovered all the letters he had written to Jenings during the war, possibly with the intention of later publication.)

Jenings continued to live quietly in London from 1783 until his death. He called on JQA when the latter passed through London on his way to his first diplomatic post at The Hague, and expressed the loyal American sentiments he had always expressed to JQA’s father (JQA, Diary, 25 Oct. 1794; Memoirs, 53–54). That he was something of a busybody seems clear, but until much more explicit evidence of misconduct or disloyalty on his part is brought to light, the damning charges of Laurens, repeated by Francis (Wharton ed., Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Washington, 1889; 6 vols. description ends , 4:285, note), cannot be accepted.

The personal data on Jenings in this note were largely furnished by Mr. John M. Jennings, Director of the Virginia Historical Society, where an Edmund Jenings letterbook, 1756–1769, and other papers of his are preserved. Much scattered information on him will be found in the biographies and published correspondence of Arthur, Richard Henry, and William Lee. The privately printed pamphlets exchanged by Jenings and Laurens, which are so rare as to have been seldom examined by scholars, are entered in Sabin description begins Joseph Sabin and others, comps., A Dictionary of Books Relating to America, from Its Discovery to the Present Time, New York, 1868–1936; 29 vols. description ends 35984, 35985, 39258; no library in the United States is known to possess all three.

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