John Quincy Adams to John Adams
London June 18th. 1784
In my last Letter, I informed you of my intention to set off for the Hague next Wednesday; since that I have thought that it would be more prudent for me to wait ’till the Saturday after;1 because Mr. Smith is now in the Country, and will in all probability return <
before> in the course of the next week, and I shall then be able to see him before I go: I believe he intends returning to America with Captn. Callahan, who sails by the middle of next month; in that case he will not be able to go with the Ladies, to Holland if they come; however when he arrives I shall know for certain what his intentions are. . . . The wind has been for several days very favourable, for arrivals, and one or two Vessell’s are hourly expected from Boston; this is another Reason for me to wait; for surely the first Vessell will bring letters, that will inform us whether the Ladies come over this Season or not. . . . However I expect to hear from you both by next tuesday’s and next friday’s posts, and if you then think I had best wait no longer I shall certainly leave this place, tomorrow se’ennight: either alone, or in Company with the young Gentleman I spoke of in my Last.2
I was in the house of Commons the day before yesterday again, and heard the debates upon the subject of parliamentary reform. I was witness to something very extraordinary: I mean that Mr. Fox spoke with Mr. Pitt in support of the motion, and Mr. Dundas, with Lord North against it. . . . I have never been so much pleased with the debates as that day. Alderman Sawbridge, moved for a Committee, “to enquire into the State of Parliamentary representation,”3 and after several of the secondary speakers had delivered briefly their opinions, Lord North, made a masterly speech, against the motion, and was about two hours and an half delivering it, but Mr. Pitt in a speech of a little more than an hour’s length took Lord N—’s arguments all to pieces, and turned them all against them; he spoke in a most striking and pathetic manner of the unfortunate situation in which this Country now is, and endeavoured to show that, it was for the most part owing to the defects of the representation in Parliament; this speech confirmed me in my opinion that he is the best speaker in the house, and I really think, that
Mr. Dundas spoke for about half an hour against parliamentary reform, at least for the present time. . . . Mr. Fox then spoke near an hour and a half extremely well for the motion; he made use of a great number of very artfull and specious arguments against Mr. [Pitt] and seemed as if he found some consolation for his misfortunes in [tea?]sing the minister, tho’ he spoke on the same side of the Question. But tho’ I don’t pretend to say Mr. Pitt surpasses him in argumentation, yet I think no body will deny that he does in the delivery. Mr. Fox has a small impediment in his speech, and one would think his nose was stopped by a cold when he speaks, whereas, Mr. P—has the clearest voice and most distinct pronunciation, of any person I ever remember to have heard; but they are both very great men, and it is a real misfortune for this Country that those talents which were made to promote the honour and the power of the Nation, should be prostituted, to views of interest and of ambition.
“take him for all in all
I shall not look upon his like again.”4
Your dutiful Son.
J. Q. Adams
RC (Adams Papers). addressed: “à Monsieur Monsieur J. Adams Ministre Plenipotentiaire Des Etats Unis de l’Amerique à La Haye Hollande”; postmarked: “18/IV”; endorsed: “J. Q. Adams. June 18 1784.” Some damage to the text where the seal was torn away.
1. JQA probably did leave London about 26 June—“the Saturday after” that he projects here—because by 1 July he was again entering letters into JA’s Letterbook at The Hague (Adams Papers).
2. William Vans Murray.
3. Opening quotation mark supplied. JQA is paraphrasing John Sawbridge’s motion of 16 June: “That a committee be appointed to take into consideration the present state of the Representation of the Commons of Great Britain in parliament” (Parliamentary Hist. description begins The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803, London, 1806–1820; 36 vols. description ends , 24:980).
At least twenty members of Commons spoke to this motion, with Pitt, North, and Sawbridge speaking several times (same, 24:975–1006). William Pitt, the prime minister, initially urged Sawbridge to withdraw the motion because he intended to bring in a motion for parliamentary reform in a later session, at what he judged would be a more favorable time (24:976). Sawbridge, however, insisted on an immediate consideration of the issue, and after Lord North’s long denunciation of any and all attempts at reform (24:987–992), Pitt felt that he had to support Sawbridge, and he vigorously attacked North, not only for opposing reform, but also for his management of the American war (24:998–999). Henry Dundas, M.P. for Edinburghshire, treasurer of the Navy, member of the Board of Trade, and a firm supporter of Pitt on most questions, then opposed Sawbridge. Dundas expressed his doubt that the Commons could ever be reformed, but unlike Lord North, he was disturbed by the historic corruption of parliamentary representation (Namier and Brooke, House of Commons description begins The House of Commons, 1754–1790, ed. Sir Lewis Namier and John Brooke, London, 1964; 3 vols. description ends , 2:354–355; Parliamentary Hist. description begins The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803, London, 1806–1820; 36 vols. description ends , 24:999). Finally, Charles James Fox, richly enjoying the irony of a debate that found William Pitt in agreement with him, supported Sawbridge’s motion for reform. Fox used the occasion to attack both Crown influence in the Commons and Mr. Pitt, whom he charged with a lack of respect for the nation in his attack on Lord North’s leadership during the American war when Pitt knew perfectly well that the war, which Fox had always opposed, had enjoyed popular support (24:999–1000).
With both the Fox-North and the Pitt coalitions temporarily in disarray, Sawbridge’s motion failed, 199–125. Pitt did introduce a parliamentary reform measure in Feb. 1785, but after weeks of debate the prime minister was no more successful in carrying reform than the radical London alderman had been. The reform of the House of Commons’ uneven electoral districts and its pocket and rotton buroughs had to wait until 1832.
John Sawbridge, the younger brother of Catharine Macauley, the historian so much admired by JA and other Americans of whiggish views, had introduced motions for shorter parliaments every year since 1771. A founding member of the Supporters of the Bill of Rights and an ally of John Wilkes, Sawbridge had served as sheriff (1769–1770), alderman (1769), and lord mayor (1775–76) of London, and had sat for the City in Commons almost continuously since 1774. He was an ardent friend of America and one of Lord North’s fiercest opponents during the War for Independence. In March 1785 it was Sawbridge who successfully moved, over William Pitt’s objections, that Charles James Fox be finally seated for Westminster (Namier and Brooke, House of Commons description begins The House of Commons, 1754–1790, ed. Sir Lewis Namier and John Brooke, London, 1964; 3 vols. description ends , 3:409–411).
4. Shakespeare, Hamlet, I, ii, lines 187–188.