To James Warren
Philadelphia, July 24th, 1775
In Confidence,—I am determined to write freely to you this Time.1 —A certain great Fortune and piddling Genius2 whose Fame has been trumpeted so loudly, has given a silly Cast to our whole Doings —We are between Hawk and Buzzard—We ought to have had in our Hands a Month ago, the whole Legislative, Executive and Judicial of the whole Continent, and have compleatly moddelled a Constitution, to have raised a Naval Power and opened all our Ports wide, to have arrested every Friend to Government on the Continent and held them as Hostages for the poor Victims in Boston. And then opened the Door as wide as possible for Peace and Reconcilliation: After this they might have petitioned and negotiated and addressed, &c. if they would.—Is all this extravagant?—Is it wild?—Is it not the soundest Policy?
One Piece of News—Seven Thousand Weight of Powder arrived here last Night—We shall send along some as soon as we can—But you must be patient and frugal.
We are lost in the extensiveness of our Field of Business—We have a Continental Treasury to establish, a Paymaster to choose, and a Committee of Correspondence, or Safety, or Accounts, or something, I know not what that has confounded us all Day.
Shall I hail you Speaker of the House, Counsellor or what—What Kind of an Election had you? What Sort of Magistrates do you intend to make?
Will your new Legislative and Executive feel bold, or irresolute? Will your Judicial hang and whip, and fine and imprison, without Scruples?3 I want to see our distressed4 Country once more—yet I dread the Sight of Devastation.
Addressed, To the Hon. James Warren, Watertown. Favor’d by Mr. Hitchborne.
RC not found. Reprinted from (Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette, 17 Aug. 1775). This version is printed here because the newspaper seems to have tried to render the text exactly as JA probably wrote it, particularly in the use of dashes of varying length, which normally the editors treat as commas or periods unless the dash serves the modern function of indicating a break in thought. Comparison of the newspaper version with contemporary British MS copies, listed below in note 1, shows no differences in wording with two minor exceptions: that discussed in note 4 (below), and the use of the complimentary close “yours,” which occurs in all MS copies but No. 3. None of the MS copies quite manages to reproduce all the dashes of varying lengths. All the listed copies except No. 1 include the newspaper note: “N.B. This Letter was Anonymous, but wrote in the same Hand with that addressed to Abigail Adams.” Adm. Graves, commander in chief of the British fleet, to whom the original was forwarded, sent only copies back to England and to Gen. Gage, but a search of his official correspondence and of his unpublished documentary memoir of his service in America has not turned up the original (Gage, Corr. description begins The Correspondence of General Thomas Gage with the Secretaries of State, 1763–1775, ed. Clarence E. Carter, New Haven, 1931–1933; 2 vols. description ends , 1:412; P.R.O.: Admiralty 1, vol. 485; BM: Add. MSS, 14038–14039). It may have been given to the printer, who in good 18th-century fashion, saw no need to preserve it once his type had been set, but see note 4 (below).
1. This letter, a letter of JA to AA of the same date (Adams Family Correspondence description begins Adams Family Correspondence, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1963– . description ends , 1:255–256), and a letter of Benjamin Harrison to George Washington, 21–24 July, were all three printed in sequence in the Massachusetts Gazette. They were seized by the British when Benjamin Hichborn, the bearer, was captured on Narragansett Bay en route to Massachusetts. Hichborn had begged JA to give him letters to carry back home because as one who had apprenticed under a tory lawyer, he felt the need to prove his loyalty to the American cause (Allen French, “The First George Washington Scandal,” MHS, Procs. description begins Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections and Proceedings. description ends , 65 [1932–1936]: 461–467). Copies of JA’s letters were forwarded to England by Adm. Graves, Gen. Gage, and others. Authentic contemporary copies known to the editors in British collections are these: (1) P.R.O.: C.O. 5, vol. 122: 15h, originally enclosure No. 7, according to its endorsement, in Adm. Graves to Stephen Stephens, secretary to the Lords of the Admiralty, 17 Aug.; (2) same, vol. 92:250, enclosure No. 2 in Gage to Dartmouth, 20 Aug. (covering letter printed in Gage, Corr. description begins The Correspondence of General Thomas Gage with the Secretaries of State, 1763–1775, ed. Clarence E. Carter, New Haven, 1931–1933; 2 vols. description ends , 1:412–413); (3) MiU-C: Gage Papers, English Series, FC of an enclosure in Gage to Dartmouth, 20 Aug., endorsement on FC of the covering letter states that this packet was “Sent by Mrs. Gage” and a “Duplicate by Lt. Bilkinson”; (4) BM: Add. MSS, Haldimand Papers, 21687:225r-226v, endorsement gives John Adams as writer; (5) William Salt Library, Stafford, England: Dartmouth Papers, endorsement leaves blank the name of the writer. Many other copies, both British and American, are recorded or exist as reproductions in the Adams Papers files. The purveyor of one copy attributed the letter to Samuel rather than John Adams, despite his knowledge that others did not agree with him (T. Bruce to Thomas Bruce Brudenwell, Lord Bruce, 12 Aug., TxDaHi: Jake L. Hamon Coll.).
With the oblique reference to John Dickinson as a “piddling Genius,” this letter brought to a head the conflict between him and JA over whether conciliatory or more vigorous measures should be pursued in the congress. The expression of JA’s impatience and frustration was not new, for he had relieved his feelings in earlier letters to Warren and AA (to Warren, 6, 11, and 23 July, above, and to AA, 23 July, Adams Family Correspondence description begins Adams Family Correspondence, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1963– . description ends , 1:252–253). Certainly at the time the letter was written, JA did not view it as exceptionally important, but its publication identified him as a leader among those pressing for strong resistance to Great Britain.
Copies of the letters arrived in England on or about 17 Sept. and were immediately printed in Lloyd’s Evening Post and British Chronicle, 18–20 Sept., and then in other newspapers as well (M. W. Willard, ed., Letters on the American Revolution: 1774–1776, Boston, 1925, p. 187–189). Their immediate impact was probably limited, for the king had already, on 23 Aug., proclaimed that the colonies were in rebellion, and the Olive Branch Petition had been submitted to Lord Dartmouth on 1 Sept., in whose hands it died (Merrill Jensen, ed., English Historical Documents: American Colonial Documents to 1776, N.Y., 1955, 9:850–851; French, First Year description begins Allen French, The First Year of the American Revolution, Boston, 1934. description ends , p. 548–550). Thus the letters at first probably confirmed ministerial views already held.
2. Both the London Chronicle of 19–21 Sept., which took its version from the Massachusetts Gazette, and Gen. John Burgoyne identified the “piddling Genius” as John Hancock rather than Dickinson (Edward Barrington DeFonblanque, The Life and Correspondence of ... John Burgoyne, London, 1876, p. 193–194). In Britain, however, the breach between JA and Dickinson had become known by at least December, when a letter from London declared that the peace commission led by the Howe brothers sought “to sow dissensions among the Provinces, . . . of which they entertain great hopes of success, from the supposed coolness between Mr. D—k—s-n, of Pennsylvania, and Mr. J—— Ads, of Massachusetts-Bay” (Force, Archives description begins [Peter Force, ed.,] American Archives: Consisting of a Collection of Authentick Records, State Papers, Debates, and Letters and Other Notices of Publick Affairs, Washington, 1837–1853; 9 vols. description ends , 4th ser., 4:222–223).
3. JA resented this passage’s being interpreted as his wish for harsh treatment for tories; see his explanation in Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 3:320.
4. In British contemporary copies Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 5, listed in note 1 (above), this word appears as “distressful.” The same form is used in the copy furnished by an officer on board the Swan, the vessel which seized the ferry that was carrying Hichborn from Newport to Providence. The account of the seizure was carried in the Newport Mercury, 7 Aug. (reprinted in Naval Docs. Amer. Rev. description begins William Bell Clark, William James Morgan (from vol. 5), and others, eds., Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Washington, 1964- description ends , 1:1086–1087). The Swan officer, writing to London on 14 Aug., two weeks after the capture, says the letters were sent on to Graves, “but I found an opportunity of copying two of them, and herewith send the copies to you” (Willard, ed., Letters on the American Revolution, p. 187). If the officer made his copies from the originals, his text may be more accurate in this one respect than that used by the Massachusetts Gazette. It is conceivable, however, that the Swan officer, given the passage of time, made his copies from copies produced for Graves. In the latter case, one must assume that some copyist made the mistake of writing “distressful” for “distressed,” the word that appears in both the Gazette and in the copy Graves forwarded to London. Of course, if “distressful” was in the original, then the newspaper was furnished with an inexact copy and Graves sent a second such copy to London. No evidence has been found that the British tampered with the wording as JA claimed (Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 3:319).
6. The effect of the letter in America is difficult to assess because it was not printed in any newspaper outside of Boston; thus the extent to which a public debate occurred over its content is a question. The failure to reprint the letter suggests that leading patriots, particularly those in the congress, wanted to avoid widely publicizing a formal split in their ranks. Gilbert Barkley, a British spy in Philadelphia, reported that as of 16 Sept. JA’s letters had not been printed in that city largely because great pains had been taken to suppress them and local printers feared printing anything not approved by the congress. But Barkley promised to give his own copies as wide circulation as possible (Geoffrey Seed, “A British Spy in Philadelphia,” PMHB description begins Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. description ends , 85:21–22 [Jan. 1961]). Other MS copies circulated as well.
The effect of the letters on JA personally is also hard to determine. Barkley claimed that JA met with a cool reception, that Quakers and others considered him an enemy to his country (same, p. 22–24). Benjamin Rush, writing his Autobiography years later, remarked that publication of the intercepted letters made JA into “an object of nearly universal detestation,” neglected by his friends and forced to walk “our streets alone,” but Rush recognized that this treatment was temporary (The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush, ed. George W. Corner, Princeton, 1948, p. 142). Except for mentioning his meeting Dickinson on the street when Dickinson passed without any sign of recognition, JA apparently gave little weight to the reaction to the letters (Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 2:173). Nor was his role in the congress notably affected. According to his own account, he continued active in the debates almost every day, and he served on as many committees between Sept. and Dec. 1775 as he had during the first session of the Second Continental Congress (same description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 3:327; Adams’ Service in the Congress, 13 Sept. – 9 Dec., Editorial Note, below). He received reassurance from Joseph Reed and Charles Lee that the letters were doing no harm, and when the passing months brought more repressive measures from Britain, he was in a sense proved right and enjoyed the acclaim that correct predictions, even dire ones, usually bring (Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 3:319–321; Lee to JA, 5 Oct., below). It is possible that his improved reputation even led to publication of his two intercepted letters as late as 1 Jan. 1776 in the Boston Gazette. By that date his call for genuine continental government, with open ports backed by naval power, would find more willing listeners.
The British reaction to the letters centered on the contradiction between the tone of public statements of various patriot leaders and the attitude revealed in the letters. The British officer on board the Swan referred to the “real intentions of those miscreants who have misled his Majesty’s subjects in North America to commit acts of open Rebellion” (Willard, ed., Letters on the American Revolution, p. 187). Gen. Burgoyne declared the author of the letters was “as great a conspirator as ever subverted a state” and warned that “this man soars too high to be allured by any offer Great Britain can make to himself or to his country. America, if his counsels continue in force, must be subdued or relinquished. She will not be reconciled” (DeFonblanque, Life of Burgoyne, p. 194–195). Any significant British political use of the letters had to await the opening of Parliament and responses to the King’s speech of 26 Oct. In the ensuing debate the letters were cited as evidence that reconciliation was a forlorn hope, that a rebellion was in progress which had independence as its goal (Parliamentary Hist. description begins The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803, London: Hansard, 1806–1820; 36 vols. description ends , 18:731–732). Even those friendly to America saw little possibility for improved relations on the basis of the Olive Branch Petition, which was deemed a political ploy; JA’s letters reinforced their perception (French, First Year description begins Allen French, The First Year of the American Revolution, Boston, 1934. description ends , p. 550–551). The climax came with the Prohibitory Act of 22 Dec., which stopped all American trade (Jensen, ed., English Historical Documents, 9:853), but the intercepted letters were only one among many influences that brought that act into being. Indeed, the act might very well have come even if JA’s private thoughts had never become public.