Adams Papers

To John Adams from Stephen Sayre, 15 June 1778

From Stephen Sayre

Copenhagen 15th June 1778


As my information is only from the public papers, I am left in uncertainty whether I am writing to Mr. John, or Mr. Samuel Adams. Some Letters have pass’d between the latter Gentleman and myself, on the subject of American Controversy. As I ask only for a short reply, on a matter of simple justice; I trust I shall not be disappointed, tho I am ignorant as to which of those great Characters I write.1

You cannot be a stranger to the circumstance of my having attended Mr. Lee to Berlin, at the public expence. I thought it somewhat hard, to be told at Berlin, which was done in clear and express terms, that I should be no longer consider’d in that service, or expect the least support from the Commissioners, whether I return’d to Paris with Mr. Lee, or not—at the same time I don’t say they acted unjustly.

As a private Gentleman, having no expectation given me that the most humiliating attendance at Paris could give me any Employment, I chose to remain at Berlin, where I could live more at ease and at less expence. Having wrote to my friends in Congress from Paris, by all the Ships sent by the Commissioners from the month of April 1777, to September or October—I waited with impatience for Answers. Think then, how great must be my astonishment, to learn, that tho’ the Commissioners had many Letters sent to their care for me, they have neither sent them, or given me any reasons why they with’old them. Surely this is a ground of complaint, and a conduct that sets all conjecture at difiance.

I am willing to suppose some strange accidents may have concur’d to disappoint me. I could wish, that urgent national business were an Apology for neglecting an individual, tho’ intitled to some decent attention, from the highest Characters. I have a right to some reply, as a private man—my whole public conduct makes it a matter of indispensable justice.

Of you, Dear Sir, I request the high favour, to learn the Cause, and to state it to me with candour. If you suffer any arguments to dissuade you from a reply, which [I?] may expect from your own feelings, you will thereby condemn me before I am heard.

Let me add one word of congratulation on the glory acquired by the United States of America, and that I am with great esteem and respect your [. . .][obe]dient & very humble Servant

Stephen Sayre

RC (PPAmP: Franklin Papers); addressed: “To the honorable—Adams Esqr Member of the American Congress now at Paris”; docketed: “Mr. Stephen Sayres Letter. 15. June 1778 from Copenhagen.”; in an unknown hand: “Stephen Sayre Amsterdam”; passage in an unknown hand and apparently done considerably later than the other entries: “tous les françois aiment M. franklin ils admirent ses talents ils respectent ses vertus tous les americains partagent ces sentiments avec M. franklin.” The reference in the second docketing to “Amsterdam” is unclear because Sayre was apparently not in that city until mid–1779 (Sibley-Shipton, Harvard Graduates description begins John Langdon Sibley and Clifford K. Shipton, Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cambridge and Boston, 1873-. description ends , 14:212).

1Stephen Sayre, Princeton B.A. and Harvard M.A., had at various times been a merchant, London banker, pamphleteer, and Sheriff of London. In 1775 he had been imprisoned in the Tower of London on charges of high treason, against which he had been successfully defended by Arthur Lee, and was the self-described chief founder of the Society of Supporters of the Bill of Rights (same, 14:204–211). In this last capacity he had written to JA on 15 Oct. 1773 to notify him of his election to membership in the Society (vol. 1:353–354)

The present letter, apparently not acted on by either JA or the Commissioners, shows Sayre in another role: freelance diplomat. It reflects the split that had developed between him and Arthur Lee when he served as Lee’s secretary during the ill-fated Berlin mission in 1777 to secure recognition for the United States. When the mission failed and Lee returned to Paris, Sayre claimed without authorization to be an official American agent in Berlin. Apparently this pose was maintained during the time Sayre spent in Copenhagen and Stockholm, from Dec. 1777 through early 1779, attempting to promote, according to his later statements, a league of armed neutrals. By mid–1779 the Commissioners, particularly Franklin, had disavowed his activities and referred him to the congress for the compensation he sought (Sibley-Shipton, Harvard Graduates description begins John Langdon Sibley and Clifford K. Shipton, Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cambridge and Boston, 1873-. description ends , 14:210–212; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–1936; 20 vols. plus index and supplements. description ends ).

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