Adams Papers

From John Adams to Elbridge Gerry, 5 December 1778

To Elbridge Gerry

Passy Decr 5. 1778

Dr Sir

It is necessary that you should be minutely informed, of the minutest and most secret Springs of Action here, if it is possible. Yet the Danger is so great of our Letters, being taken and getting into English News Papers, that it is very discouraging to a free Correspondence.

I will however take all the Precaution in my Power, to have the Letters sunk, but if all these fail and my Letters become public the World must take them as they find them, and I hope they will do more good upon the whole than Harm.

This Court and Nation appears to me, to be well convinced of the Utility to their Interests of the American Alliance. But notwithstanding this they appear to me to have too much Diffidence of Us. Too much Diffidence of the People of America, and too much Reserve towards the Commissioners here. I am not Satisfyed in the Cause of this.

Whether they think, that the obstacles of Language Religion, Laws, Customs and Manners are Obstacles in the Way of a perfect Friendship, which cannot be removed, and therefore that they shall loose our Connection as soon as Britain, comes to her senses, or whether they are Embarrassed by the Conduct of Spain, and are acting in this reserved manner, and with an Appearance of Irresolution in hopes of her coming in, or whether they have any Prejudices against the Personal Characters of the Commissioners, and are loth to be unreserved with them, for fear they should communicate either indiscreetly, or by design any Thing to the English, or to any Body here, who might convey it to England1 or whether all these Motives together have a share in it, I know not.

Thus much is certain, that ever since I have been here, I have never seen any Disposition in any Minister of state to talk with any of the Commissioners, either upon Intelligence from Spain, or England, upon the Designs or Negociations of Either, or any other Court in Europe, or upon the Conduct of the War by sea or Land, or upon their own Plans and Designs of Policy or War.

If this Reserve was ever thrown off, to any one, I should think, that putting it on to others, had some personal Motive. But it is exactly equal and alike to all three.2

Each Commissioner here, before I came, had his own set of Friends, Admirers, and Dependants, both among the French and Americans. Two Households united in some degree against one, very unjustly I fear and impolitically. But this set the Friends of the two, to injuring the third, in Conversation, and they cant forbear to do it, to this day. This Dissention I suspect has made the Ministry cautious, lest in the Course of Altercations, improper Use should be made of free Communications.

For my own Part however Odd you may think it in me to say it3 I have no Friends, much less Dependants here, and am determined to have none, for I am convinced that Competitions among these have done the Evil: But I am determined, if I am continued here to have free Communication, with the Ministry upon these subjects and to search them to the Bottom. The Ministry are candid Men and sensible, and I am sure that some Ecclaircissements would do good.

However, I am reckoning without my Hoste, for by the Bruits which Mr. D’s Letters have Scattered, I may expect that the first Vessell will bring my Recall, or Removal to some other Court. But wherever I am, my Heart will ever be axious for the good of our Country, and warm with Friendship for her Friends, among whom you <are> will ever be reckoned, in the formost Rank, by your most obt

LbC (Adams Papers).

1The previous eleven words were inserted into the text.

2The “Diffidence” of the French government discussed by JA in this and the preceding four paragraphs had important consequences for American foreign policy. As JA indicates, Vergennes’ failure to consult with the Commissioners prevented them from informing the congress of the aims, conduct, and possible consequences of French policy. Their inability to provide adequate intelligence was of special significance in regard to Spain’s attempt to mediate between France and Great Britain, which had begun the previous April. No mention of the mediation can be found in any of the Commissioners’ letters to the congress between April 1778 and the end of JA’s first mission in February 1779. In instructions of 26 Oct. to France’s minister at Philadelphia, Conrad Alexandre Gerard, Vergennes directed him to use the prospect of a successful mediation to draw from the congress its peace ultimata in order to moderate the American objectives and bring them into line with those of France and Spain (Gérard, Despatches and Instructions description begins Despatches and Instructions of Conrad Alexandre Gérard, 1778–1780: Correspondence of the First French Minister to the United States with the Comte de Vergennes, ed. John J. Meng, Baltimore, 1939. description ends , p. 358). Gerard, with a zealous regard for his instructions, emphasized the chances for a successful outcome of the Spanish effort and the urgent need for a determination of peace objectives. The congress, lacking any independent assessment of the mediation by its representatives in Europe, was forced to rely on his interpretation of events. Thus the congress took a more optimistic view of the mediation than was warranted, particularly in view of Vergennes’ belief, indicated in his instructions to Gerard and which he must have held even more strongly by the date of this letter, that the Spanish mediation would fail and that Spain would enter the war regardless of what the congress did.

Although correct in his appreciation of the problems that might result from French “Diffidence,” JA erred in assuming that the “reserve” was “exactly equal and alike to all three” Commissioners. In his instructions to Gerard of 26 Oct., Vergennes stated that he had not informed the Commissioners about the Spanish mediation because of an injunction of secrecy by Spain and because he feared Arthur Lee and his associates (same, p. 358). Whether this included JA is uncertain, but Vergennes saw no danger in consulting with Benjamin Franklin, as is clear from a conversation that took place between the two, probably between the date of JA’s letter to Gerry and 25 Dec. In his instructions to Gerard of that date, Vergennes noted that it had become clear to Spain in the course of its mediation effort that Britain would not recognize American independence or enter into negotiations in which that was to be considered. As a result, Spain had suggested a long truce, similar to that of 1609 between Spain and the Netherlands. Vergennes then wrote that he had concluded that the Spanish proposal merited attention and had not hesitated to communicate it to Benjamin Franklin under the seal of secrecy and unknown to his two colleagues (same, p. 451).

Secret consultations seemed appropriate because by December, Vergennes was aware that the congress had elected Franklin to be its minister plenipotentiary to France and also because the French minister could be reasonably sure that Franklin would not divulge the conversations to the congress. In an instruction to Gerard of 19 Feb. 1779, Vergennes indicated that he was convinced that Franklin would not inform the congress of either Vergennes’ confidence or his own ideas because he would fear to inform them of something in which his two colleagues had no part (same, p. 535).

In the short run the situation that developed was advantageous to France, but in the long run it created serious problems for the Franco-American alliance. By consulting secretly with Franklin, Vergennes effectively prevented news of the Spanish mediation from reaching the congress through any source other than the French minister in Philadelphia, thereby permitting France to exert an inordinate amount of influence on the deliberations over the American peace ultimata. Indeed, Franklin’s first mention of the mediation was in a letter to the Committee for Foreign Affairs of 26 May 1779, by which time Spain was about to enter the war under the terms of the Franco-Spanish Convention of Aranjuez, which had been signed on 12 April (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 , 3:186; Henri Doniol, Histoire de la participation de la France à l’etablissement des Etats-Unis d’Amérique, Paris, 1886–1892, 5 vols., 3:803–810).

Of even more importance was the fact that by excluding Arthur Lee and JA from the consultations, Vergennes relied on Franklin’s views as an accurate representation of American policy and objectives. The problem with this assumption can be seen in Vergennes’ statement in his instruction to Gérard of 25 Dec., that Franklin had declared to him that nothing was of less importance to the colonies than Great Britain’s recognition of their independence because it existed in fact and was irrevocable, and that the only thing that they held sacred was their close and constant union with France. As a result, Franklin held the opinion that America could, without inconvenience, accept a long truce (Gérard, Despatches and Instructions description begins Despatches and Instructions of Conrad Alexandre Gérard, 1778–1780: Correspondence of the First French Minister to the United States with the Comte de Vergennes, ed. John J. Meng, Baltimore, 1939. description ends , p. 451).

Franklin was correct in saying that for the United States, British recognition of American independence could only confirm what already existed. In concluding from that, however, that the United States in 1778 or 1779 would agree to a cessation of hostilities based on anything less than direct negotiations with Britain to secure a definitive peace treaty was a serious misrepresentation. The American response to the British Parliament’s conciliatory bills and the Carlisle Peace Commission in April and June 1778, as well as the draft peace ultimata presented to the congress on 23 Feb. and those ultimately adopted on 14 Aug. 1779, clearly indicated that the sine qua non was direct negotiations with British representatives empowered to treat with the United States as an independent, sovereign state (JCC description begins Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, Washington, 1904–1937; 34 vols. description ends , 10:374–380; 11:615; 13:239–244; 14:956–960).

In accepting Franklin’s view, which he may have put forward because it was what he believed Vergennes wanted to hear, Vergennes could not fail to develop a perception of American policy that was considerably different from that held by JA, Arthur Lee, and others, and to ascribe all conflicting statements by Americans to an anti-French or pro-English party. Thus the real dangers of too much “Diffidence” toward the three Commissioners, and secret consultations with only one of them, were that they prevented France from obtaining a true understanding of the American view of the Franco-American relationship and of the objectives to be sought in a peace, while they deprived the United States of any basis upon which to judge French motives.

3The previous eleven words were interlined for insertion here.

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