To the Comte de Vergennes
Paris July 21. 17811
Since my Letter of the nineteenth, Sir, another Point has occurred to me, upon which it seems necessary, that I Should Say Something to your Excellency, before my Departure for Holland, which will be on Monday Morning.2
An Idea has, I perceive been suggested, of the several States of America, choosing Agents seperately, to attend the Congress, at Vienna, in order to make Peace, with Great Britain, so that there would be thirteen instead of one.3
The Constitution or Confederation of the United States, which has been Solemnly adopted and ratified by each of them Seperately and by all of them jointly has been officially and authentically notified to their Majesties the Kings of France and Spain, and to their High Mightinesses, the States General of the United Provinces of the Low Countries, and communicated to all the other Courts and Nations of the World, as far as the Gazettes of Europe are able to Spread it: So that it is now as well and universally known as any Constitution of Government in Europe.
By this Constitution, all Power and Authority, of negotiating with foreign Powers is expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.4 It would therefore be a publick Disrespect and Contempt offered, to the Constitution of the Nation if any Power Should make any Application, whatever, to the Governors, or Legislatures of the Separate States. In this respect the American Constitution is very different from the Batavian.
If the two Imperial Courts Should address their Articles to the States Seperately No Governor or President of any one of those Commonwealths, could even communicate it to the Legislature. No President of a Senate could lay it, before the Body, over which he presides. No Speaker of an House of Representatives could read it to the House.
It would be an Error, and a Misdemeanour, in any of these officers, to receive and communicate any Such Letter. All that he could do would be, after breaking the Seal and reading it, to Send it back. He could not, even, legally transmit it to Congress. If Such an Application, therefore, Should be made and Sent back, it would consume, much time to no Purpose, and perhaps have other worse Effects.
There is no method for the Courts of Europe, to convey any Thing to the People of America but through the Congress of the United States, nor any Way of negotiating with them, but by means of that Body. I must therefore intreat your Excellency, that the Idea of Summoning Ministers from the thirteen States may not be countenanced at all.
I know very well, that if each State, had in the Confederation, reserved to itself a right of negotiating with foreign Powers, and Such an Application Should have been made to them, Seperately upon this occasion, they would all of them Seperately refer it to Congress, because the People universally know, and are well agreed, that all Connections with foreign Countries, must, in their Circumstances, be under one Direction. But all these Things, were very maturely considered in framing the Confederation, by which, the People of each State, have taken away from themselves, even the right of deliberating and debating upon these Affairs, unless they should be referred to them by Congress for their Advice, or unless they should think proper to instruct their Delegates in Congress, of their own Accord.
This matter may not appear to your Excellency, in so important a Light as it does to me: and the Thought of such an Application to the United states may not have been seriously entertained: but, as it has been mentioned, though only in a Way of transient Speculation, I thought I could not excuse myself from Saying Something upon it, because I knew it would be considered in so unfavourable a Light, in America, that I am persuaded Congress would think them selves bound to remonstrate against it, in the most Solemn manner.
I have the Honour to be, with the greatest Respect, sir your most obedient and most humble Servant
RC (Arch. Aff. Etr., Paris, Corr. Pol., E.-U., vol. 17:441); endorsed: “M de R.”
1. In 1809, when he published this letter in the Boston Patriot, JA preceded it with the following explanation of his motives for writing his final letter to Vergennes. “I lived in daily and hourly hopes and expectation of an answer to some of my letters and communications, or of an invitation to some personal conference, in which I might be favored with some intimations of his excellency’s sentiments of approbation, or disaprobation, or his advice, criticisms or corrections of any thing he might think required any alteration. But nothing appeared. All was total silence and impenetrable mystery. Such a dead reserve, such a fixed determination not to commit himself to any thing; not even to an acknowledgment of the obligations of his own treaty with the United States, appeared to me to be poor encouragement to us, to be over communicative with the French ministry. I waited till the twenty first of the month, when, being very anxious to return to Holland, where I had reason to believe I could negociate for peace with Great Britain, much more rapidly than in France, I wrote the following letter” (JA, Corr. in the Boston Patriot description begins Correspondence of the Late President Adams. Originally Published in the Boston Patriot. In a Series of Letters, Boston, 1809[–1810]; 10 pts. description ends , p. 130).
2. 23 July.
3. It is not known how JA learned of this proposal. He received full confirmation of it several months later via Francis Dana in St. Petersburg. Dana provided copies of letters he had received from the Marquis de Verac dated 2 and 12 Sept. regarding the general peace conference (LbC’s in French, Adams Papers; English translations, 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 , 4:684–685, 705–707).
Count Panin, Catherine II’s chancellor, first posed the idea of inviting American state delegates during preliminary discussions concerning a Russian mediation of the Anglo-French war in 1780. Prince Kaunitz, the Austrian chancellor, raised the plan again in April 1781 in talks with the French ambassador at Vienna concerning the Austro-Russian mediation. Both men believed that Britain was more likely to negotiate with the individual states than with Congress because it would have the opportunity to split the rebellious colonies and retain a portion of its American empire. Moreover, this plan would allow Britain to avoid recognizing the U.S. as sovereign and independent.
Vergennes favored the proposal. In a memorandum to Louis XVI of Feb. 1781, the foreign minister reasoned that the only means to end the war might be for the U.S. to accept a long truce based on uti posseditis. France would guarantee American independence during the term of the truce, but if Britain negotiated with the separate states the likely effect would be the partition of the U.S.
Whether due to JA’s forthright representations or to the improving military situation in the U.S., Vergennes’ reply to the mediators in August rejected their intervention principally because of uncertainty over the status of Congress’ negotiator at any peace conference (De Madariaga, Armed Neutrality of 1780 description begins Isabel de Madariaga, Britain, Russia and the Armed Neutrality of 1780, New Haven, 1962. description ends , p. 245, 328; Morris, Peacemakers, p. 169–171, 179– 183, 208–210).
In 1809, when he published this letter in the Boston Patriot, JA credited his letters to Vergennes for the defeat of the mediation. There he wrote: “The answer to the articles relative to America, proposed by the two imperial courts, and the letters to the Comte de Vergennes, ... I have the satisfaction to believe, defeated the profound and magnificent project of a Congress at Vienna, for the purpose of chicaning the United States out of their independence.
“It moreover established the principle, that American Ministers Plenipotentiary were not to appear without their public titles and characters, nor to negociate but with their equals after an exchange of full powers” (JA, Corr. in the Boston Patriot description begins Correspondence of the Late President Adams. Originally Published in the Boston Patriot. In a Series of Letters, Boston, 1809[–1810]; 10 pts. description ends , p. 133).