Adams Papers

From John Adams to Robert R. Livingston, 6 September 1782

To Robert R. Livingston

The Hague Septr. 6th. 1782


In your Letter of 5th. March,1 You ask “whether this Power has entered into any Treaty with France since the War, and whether any such thing is in Contemplation?” They have made no Treaty; but a Convention concerning Re-captures,2 which You must have seen in the Papers. The East India Company have concerted Operations with France in the East Indies; and the Prince, by the Resolution of the States, has concerted Operations in these European Seas for this Campaign, and the City of Amsterdam has lately proposed in the States of Holland, to renew the Concert for next Year, and to revive an old Treaty of Commerce with France. In my Letter of the 18th. August, I have sent You a Copy of the Instructions to their Ministers for Peace, “not to make Peace, Truce or Armistice, but with the simultaneous Concurrence of all the belligerent Powers,” among whom the United States of America are certainly one in the Sense and Meaning of their High Mightinesses.

You observe, Sir, “that France is interested with Us, in procuring a public Acknowledgment of our Independence.” You desire me to write freely and my own Disposition inclines me to do so. This is a delicate Subject, and requires to be cautiously handled. Political Jealousy is very different from a suspicious Temper. We should contemplate the Vices naturally allied to the greatest Virtues. We should consider the Fevers that lie near an high state of Health. We should consider the Maxim that is laid down by all the political Writers in the World, and the Fact that is found in all Histories, “that in Cases of Alliance between unequal Powers, almost all the Advantages ever did and ever will accrue to the greatest.” We should observe in the Abby Raynal’s History of this Revolution, that there is a Party in France that blame the Ministry for putting themselves into the Chains “Fers” of Congress, and for not keeping Us dependent enough upon them.3 Is it not natural for them to wish to keep Us dependent upon them, that We might be obliged to accept such Terms of Peace, as they should think would do for Us? If the House of Bourbon should be suspected by any neutral Power to grow too fast in Wealth and Force, and be disposed to form a League against it, is it not natural for it to wish, that We may be kept from any Connections with such Powers, and wholely connected with it, so as to be obliged to engage with it in all its Wars. It is impossible for me to prove, that the delay of Spain to acknowledge our Independence has been concerted between the French and Spanish Ministry: but I candidly ask any Man, who has attended to the Circumstances of this War, if he has not seen Cause to suspect it? For my own part I have no doubt of it, and I don’t know that We can justly censure it. I have ten thousand Reasons which convince me, that one Minister at least has not wished that We should form Connections with Holland, even so soon as We did, or with any Power, altho’ he had no right, and therefore would not appear openly to oppose it. When I took Leave of that Minister4 to return to America in the Spring of 1779, he desired me expressly to advise Congress to attend to the Affairs of the War, and leave the Politicks of Europe to them, “et laisser la politique à nous.”5 In 17776 or 1778, when Mr. Lee and I proposed to Dr. Franklin to go to Holland, or consent that one of Us should go, the Doctor would not, but wrote to that Minister, upon it, and recd. an Answer, which he shew me, advising against it:7 and when I recd. my Letter of Credence here, the Minister here, who follows the Instructions communicated by that Minister, took all possible Pains to persuade me against communicating it;8 and Dr. Franklin, without Reserve in Word and Writing, has constantly declared, that Congress were wrong in sending a Minister to Berlin, Vienna, Tuscany, Spain, Holland and Petersbourg, and Dr. F. is as good an Index of that Minister’s Sentiments, as I know.9

Now I avow myself of a totally opposite System, and think our indispensible Duty, as it is our undoubted Right, to send Ministers to other Courts, and endeavour to extend our Acquaintance, Commerce and political Connections with all the World, and have pursued this System, which I took to be also the Wish of Congress and the Sense of America, with Patience and Perseverance, against all Dangers, Reproaches, Misrepresentations and Oppositions, until, I thank God, he has enabled me to plant the Standard of the United States at the Hague, where it will wave forever. I am now satisfied, and dread nothing. The Connection with Holland is a sure Stay. Connected with Holland and the House of Bourbon, We have nothing to fear. I have entered into this detail, in Answer to your Enquiry, and the only use of it I would wish to make is this—to insist upon seeing with our own Eyes, using our own Judgment, and acting an independent part; and it is of the last Importance We should do it now thus early, otherwise We should find it very difficult to do it hereafter. I hope I have given You my Sentiments, as You desired, with Freedom, and that Freedom I hope will give no offence either in America or France, for certainly none is intended.

In your favor of 22d of May, You direct me to draw upon Dr. Franklin for my Salary, and to send my Accounts to You. My Accounts, Sir, are very short, and shall be sent as soon as the perplexity of the Treaty is over.10 As to drawing on Dr. Franklin, I suppose this was upon Supposition, that We had no money here. There is now near a Million and an half of Florins, so that I beg I may be permitted to receive my Salary here.11

I have transmitted to Mr. Dana your Dispatches, as desired in your’s of 29th. May, reserving an Extract for publication in the Gazettes, which the French Ambassador is of opinion, as well as others, will have a great Effect in Europe. Your Letter is extreamly well written, and Mr. Dumas has well translated it, so that it will appear to Advantage.12

Your’s of the 30th. May affords me the pleasure of knowing, that You have recd. some Letters from me this Year, and am glad You inclined to lay that of 21st. February before Congress.13 By this time I hope that all Objections are removed to the Memorial, but in order to judge of the full effect of that Memorial, three Volumes of the Politique Hollondais, several Volumes of De Post Van Neder Rhin, all the Dutch Gazettes for a whole Year, and the Petitions of all the Cities should be read, for there is not one of them but what clearly shews the Propriety of presenting that Memorial, whose influence and effect, tho’ not sudden, has been amazingly extensive. Indeed the French Ambassador has often signified to me lately, and more than once in express words, “Monsieur, votre fermeté a fait un très bon effet ici.”14

The Cypher was not put up in this Duplicate;15 and I suppose the original is gone on to Mr. Dana in a Letter I transmitted him from You some time ago, so that I should be obliged to You for another of the same part.

Rodney’s Victory came, as You hoped it would, too late to obstruct me. I was well settled at the Hague, and publickly recieved by the States and Prince before We recieved that melancholy News. If it had arrived sometime sooner, it might have deranged all our Systems, and this Nation possibly might have been now seperately at Peace; which shews the Importance of watching the Time and Tide, which there is in the Affairs of Men.16

You require, Sir, to be furnished with the most minute detail of every step, that Britain may take towards a Negotation for a general or partial Peace. All the details towards a partial Peace are already publick in the Newspapers, and have all been ineffectual. The States General are firm against it, as appears by their Instructions to their Ministers. Since the Conversations between me and Diggs first, and Mr. Laurens afterwards,17 there has been never any Message, directly or indirectly, by Word or writing, from the British Ministry to me. It was my decided Advice, and earnest Request by both that all Messages might be sent to Paris to Dr. Franklin and the Comte de Vergennes, and this has been done. Dr. Franklin wrote me, that he should keep me informed of every thing that passed by Expresses, but I have had no Advice from him since the second of June. Your Dispatches have all gone the same way, and I have never had an Hint of any of them. I hope that Dr. Franklin and Mr. Jay have had positive Instructions to consent to no Truce or Armistice; and to enter into no Conferences with any British Minister, who is not authorised to treat with the United States of America.

Some Weeks ago, I agreed with the Duke de la Vauguyon to draw up a Project of a Memorial to their High Mightinesses, proposing a triple or quadruple Alliance, according to my Instruction to that purpose.18 The Duke, in his private Capacity, has declared to me often, that he is of opinion, that it would be adviseable to make this Proposition, as soon as the Treaty of Commerce is signed; but could not give me any ministerial Advice, without consulting the Comte de Vergennes. We agreed, that he should transmit the Project to the Comte. Two days ago the Duke called upon me, and informed me, that he had the Comte’s Answer, which was, that he did not think this the time, because it would tend to throw Obscurity upon the Instructions lately given by the States General to Mr. Brantzen, not to make any Treaty or Armistice, but simultaneously with all the belligerent Powers.

By the 10th. Article of the Treaty of Alliance, the Invitation or Admission is to be made by Concert. From my Instructions I supposed, and suppose still, that the Concert was made at Philadelphia between Congress and the Chevalier de la Luzerne, by the order of the King his Master: and my Instruction being positive and unconditional to make the Proposition, I shall be somewhat embarrased. On the one hand, I would preserve not only a real Harmony, but the Appearance of it, betwean all Steps of mine and the Councils of the French Ministers. On the other, I would obey my Instructions, especially when they are so fully agreable to me, at all Events. The Proposition would have a good Effect in England, in Holland, in France, America, and in all the Neutral Countries, as I think, and it could do no harm that I can foresee. Nay further, I am persuaded, that the French Ministry themselves, if they were to give me their private Opinions, as the Duke de la Vauguyon does, would be glad if I should make the Proposition against their Advice. It is possible however, that they may secretly chuse (notwithstanding the Offer made at Philadelphia) not to be bound in an Alliance with America and Holland. They may think they shall have more Influence with their Hands unbound, even to a System that they approve and mean to pursue. It is amidst all these doublings and windings of European Politicks, that American Ministers have to decide and act. The Result is clear in my Mind, that altho’ it is proper to be upon good Terms, and be communicative and confidential with the French Ministers, yet We ought to have Opinions, Principles and Systems of our own, and that our Ministers should not be bound to follow their Advice, but when it is consonant to our own; and that Congress should firmly support their own Ministers against all secret Insinuations. They must see that a Minister of their’s who is determined, as he is bound in honor to be free and independent, is not in a very delectable or enviable Situation in Europe, as yet.

There is but one Alternative. Either Congress should recall all their Ministers from Europe, and leave all Negotiations to the French Ministry, or they must support their ministers against all Insinuations. If Congress will see with their own Eyes, I can assure them, without fear of being contradicted, that neither the Colour, Figure or magnitude of Objects, will always appear to them exactly as they do to their Allies. To send Ministers to Europe, who are supposed by the People of America to see for themselves, while in effect they see or pretend to see nothing but what appears thro’ the Glass of a French Minister, is to betray the just Expectations of that People.19

I have the honor to be, Sir,20 with great Consideration and Esteem your most obedient & most humble Servant.

John Adams

RC in John Thaxter’s hand (PCC, No. 84, IV, f. 149–154). LbC (Adams Papers).

1Vol. 12:295–299.

2On 25 May 1781 JA sent Congress an English translation of the Franco-Dutch convention signed on 1 May (vol. 11:336, calendared). That agreement formed the basis for the Dutch-American convention on recaptures, see The Negotiation of the Dutch-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce, 22 Aug. – 8 Oct., No. IX, above.

3The sentence cited by JA reads, “pour-quoi s’être mis par un traité inconsidéré dans le fers du congrès qu’on auroit tenu lui-même dans la dépendance par des subsides abondans et réglés?” (Raynal, Revolution de l’Amérique, London, 1781, p. 144–145). JA defines “fers” correctly, but in the English language version the passage is translated less provocatively as “why did they, by an inconsiderate treaty, tie themselves down to conditions with the Congress, which they might themselves have held in dependence, by ample and regular supplies?” (Revolution of America, London, 1782, p. 151–152). Raynal is referring to those who would have preferred that France continue its clandestine aid rather than sign a treaty. It is interesting that JA states his reservations about the alliance with France in this letter to Livingston at the very time that his “Letters from a Distinguished American” were appearing in Parker’s General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer, for in the sixth number of the “Letters,” which appeared on 27 Sept., JA wrote that the Franco-American alliance “lasts no longer than this war” (vol. 9:557, 560).

4JA published this letter in the Boston Patriot of 22 and 26 June 1811. There he identified the “Minister” as the Comte de Vergennes.

5Closing quotation marks supplied.

6“1779” in the LbC.

7In Sept. 1778, following the negotiation of the Lee-Neufville Treaty, JA and Arthur Lee proposed that Franklin undertake a mission to the Netherlands. In a letter of 22 Sept. 1778, Franklin requested C. W. F. Dumas’ advice as to whether such an undertaking was advisable, to which Dumas replied on 16 Oct. that he thought it premature. Franklin sought Vergennes’ advice in a letter of 20 Oct. and received a reply the next day in which the foreign minister advised as JA indicates here (Franklin, Papers description begins The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Leonard W. Labaree, William B. Willcox, Claude A. Lopez, Barbara B. Oberg, Ellen R. Cohn, and others, New Haven, Conn., 1959–?. description ends , 27:448, 562–564, 576, 593). See also a letter of 29 Oct. that Arthur Lee proposed the American Commissioners send to Engelbert François van Berckel concerning a mission to the Netherlands, but that, in the wake of Dumas’ and Vergennes’ letters opposing it, JA and Franklin refused to approve it (vol. 7:171–172).

8For JA’s conversations on 19 and 20 April 1781, in which the Duc de La Vauguyon sought to discourage JA from presenting his credentials and his 19 April 1781 memorial to the States General, see vol. 11:263–265.

9JA is likely referring to Franklin’s comments in a letter of 7 April 1781 to Francis Dana regarding Dana’s mission to Russia (Franklin, Papers description begins The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Leonard W. Labaree, William B. Willcox, Claude A. Lopez, Barbara B. Oberg, Ellen R. Cohn, and others, New Haven, Conn., 1959–?. description ends , 34:517–519). There Franklin stated that “I have long imagined that we let ourselves down in offering our Alliance before it is desired; and that it would have been better if we had never issued Commissions for Ministers to the Courts of Spain, Vienna, Prussia, Tuscany, or Holland, till we had first privately learnt whether they would be received, since a Refusal from one is an actual Slight, that lessens our Reputation, and makes others less willing to form a Connection with us.” For JA’s immediate reaction to Franklin’s position, see his letter to Dana of 18 April 1781 (vol. 11:267–270).

10See JA’s letter of 7 Sept., below.

11In the Letterbook this paragraph continues for an additional nine lines, all of which have been heavily canceled and cannot be read, but they likely included additional comments on his accounts and his dependence on Franklin for his salary similar to the ones he made when he published the letter in the Boston Patriot, for which see note 18.

12The extract from Livingston’s letter of 29 May to Dana appeared in the Gazette d’Amsterdam of 13 September. The portion translated and printed consisted of the entire letter except for the dateline, greeting, first sentence, closing, and signature (Wharton, Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. description begins The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, ed. Francis Wharton, Washington, D.C., 1889; 6 vols. description ends , 5:446–447).

13Vol. 12:250–259.

14Your firmness has had a very good effect here.

15For the cipher, actually a code, see Livingston’s letter of 30 May, note 3, above.

16Presumably an allusion to the passage from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act IV, scene iii, lines 217–220: “There is a tide in the affairs of men / Which taken at the Flood, leads on to fortune; / Omitted, all the voyage of their life / Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

17For accounts of JA’s meetings with Thomas Digges and Henry Laurens on 21 March and 15 April, respectively, see vol. 12:350–352, 379–380, 410–412, 418–420.

18JA is referring to his 16 Aug. 1781 commission and instructions to conclude a tripartite alliance with France and the Netherlands under the terms of Art. 10 of the 1778 Franco-American alliance (vol. 11:453–456). The memorial was never presented and is calendared at [ca. 18 Aug.], above. See the references there, together with JA’s 1811 remembrance that by the date of this letter to Livingston, his interest in an alliance had waned.

19In the Boston Patriot of 26 June 1811, JA continued:

“A remark or two on the foregoing letter will not be misapplied.

“1. The order to draw on Dr. Franklin for my salary was one of the most extraordinary strokes of all the correspondence. What could be the design of it? For any good purpose it was superfluous; for I had long possessed a resolution of congress authorizing me to draw upon Dr. Franklin for my salary and commanding him to honor my draughts. If I had borrowed money and had it in my own hands, why should I trouble Dr. Franklin or myself with bills upon him? After congress had entrusted me to borrow ten millions of dollars—nay, after they had entrusted me with the destiny of the nation in the commission for peace, was my integrity now suspected to such a degree that I was not to be trusted to receive my own daily bread out of my own money?

“I was at no loss to unriddle this mystery. I did not impute this affront to Mr. Livingston; but to a Frenchified Franklinian faction; and had no doubt then, and have no doubt now in 1811, that the design was to get all the money I had borrowed or should borrow, into the power of Vergennes and Franklin, and their bankers and understrappers.

“I held the instruction in ineffable contempt and paid no kind of regard to it very well knowing that they dared not call me to account for disobedience to this tyrannical mandate.

“2. My anxiety to secure the future independence of America and her neutrality in all future wars, if possible, appears in this letter. The future destiny of our country, her future rights, duties and policy were frequent topics of conversation between Dr. Franklin and me when we lived together at Passy and Paris. My opinion was that our true policy would always be to maintain an impartial neutrality in all future European wars, as long as possible. Franklin’s favorite doctrine was, that ’we ought to unite with France at least in two future wars against England; the first to pay the debt of gratitude we owed her for assisting us in our revolution; and the second to shew ourselves as generous to her, as she had been to us.’

“It was easy for any man of the least reflection to foresee, that we should be solicited by France and England, with every artifice of subtlety, and by every motive of hope and fear, terror and flattery, to engage in their wars. I thought we ought to cultivate peace, and the study and labor of my life for more than thirty years has been invariably directed to this object and to place our relations with France and England upon a footing of impartial neutrality. By the treaty of 1800, with France, I flattered myself it was attained. But the British government seem to have presumptuously inferred from it, that their influence in America is irresistable, and that they may do as they please. France has been suficiently impertinent & unjust. Both together have brought us in danger of a necessary war. If injuries and provocations were exactly equal from both nations, it would be safer for us to preserve the peace with France than with England. but the insults, injuries, claims and pretensions of great britain have been hitherto much more dangerous than those of france.

“3. Mr. Livingston’s repeated and peremptory calls upon me ’for the most minute details’ perhaps led me into the habit and error in all my subsequent correspondence with congress, of descending to particulars too minute and circumstantial.”

20The following five words were inserted into the closing by JA.

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