Adams Papers

From John Adams to Robert R. Livingston, 31 October 1782

To Robert R. Livingston

No. 11

Paris October 31 1782.


Having executed the Treaty of Commerce, at the Hague and dispatched four Copies of it, by four different Vessells bound to America from the Texel, and having Signed a Sufficient Number of Obligations to leave in the Hands of Messrs Willinks, Vanstaphorst and De La Lande and Fynje, and having received Information from Mr Jay, that Mr Oswald had recd a Commission from the King his Master under the Great Seal of Great Britain, to treat with the Commissioners of the United States of America I Set off, for Paris, where I arrived, on Saturday the Twenty Sixth of this Month, after a tedious Journey, the Roads being on account of long continued Rains, in the worst Condition, I ever knew them.2

I waited, forthwith, on Mr Jay, and from him learned the present State of the Conferences.— It is not possible at present to enter into Details; All I can Say is in General that I had the Utmost Satisfaction in finding that he had been all along acting here upon the Same Principles upon which I had ventured to Act in Holland, and that We were perfectly agreed in our Sentiments and Systems.— I cannot express it better than in his own Words “To be honest and gratefull to our Allies, but to think for our selves.”—3 I find a Construction put upon one Article of our Instructions by Some Persons, which I confess I never put upon it my self. it is represent by Some, as Subjecting Us to the french Ministry, as taking away from us, all right of Judging for ourselves, and obliging us to agree to whatever the french Ministers Shall advise us too, and to nothing without their Consent.— I never Supposed this to be the Intention of Congress. if I had, I never would have accepted the Commission, and if I now thought it their Intention, I could not continue in it. I cannot think it possible to be the Design of Congress. if it is, I hereby resign my Place in the Commission and request that another Person may be immediately appointed in my Stead.4

Yesterday, We met Mr Oswald, at his Lodgings, Mr Jay Mr Franklin and my self on one Side and Mr Oswald assisted by Mr Stretchy, a Gentleman whom I had the Honour to meet in Company with Lord How upon Staten Island, in the year 1766 and assisted also by a Mr Roberts, a Clerk in Some of the public offices, with Books, Maps and Papers, relative to the Boundaries.5 We have to Search, the Boundaries of Grenada the two Floridas, ancient Canada according to the Claims of the French, Proclamation Canada, Act of Parliament Canada &c and the Bounds of Nova Scotia and of most if not all the thirteen States.—

I arrived in a lucky moment, for the Boundary of the Massachusetts because I brought with me, all the essential Documents relative to that object, which are this day to be laid before the Gentle men my Colleagues in Conference at my House, and after wards, before the Brit Mr Oswald.—6

It is now apparent at least to Mr Jay and my self, that in order to obtain the Western Lands, the Navigation of the Missisipi, and the Fishery or any of them We must act with Firmness and Independence as well as Prudence and Delicacy. With these there is little doubt We may obtain them all.—

Yesterday I visited Mr Brantzen the Dutch Minister, and was by him very frankly and candidly informed of the whole Progress of the Negotiation on their Part.— it is very Shortly told.— They have exchanged full Powers with Mr Fitzherbert, and communicated to him, their Preliminaries, according to their Instructions, which I have heretofore transmitted to Congress.—7 Mr Fitzherbert has Sent them to London and recd an Answer. but has communicated to them no more of this Answer, than this, that those Preliminaries are not relished at St James’s.— He excused his not having Seen them for 6 or 7 days, by pretence of Indisposition, but they are informed he has made frequent Visits to Versailles during those days, and Sent off and received Several Couriers.—

How the Negotiation advances, between Mr Fitzherbert and the C. de Vergennes and the C. D’Aranda, We know not.—

The Object of Mr De Raynevals Journey to London, is not yet discovered by any of Us.— It is given out, that he was Sent to See, whether, the British Ministry were in Earnest. But this is too general. it is Suspected that he went to insinuate Some thing relative to the Fishery and the Boundaries, but it is probable he did not Succeed respecting the former, and perhaps not entirely with respect to the latter.—8

With Great Respect &c

LbC (Adams Papers); internal address: “Mr Secretary Livingston.”; notation in John Thaxter’s hand: “original, Duplicate & Triplicate deliverd / Mr. Carnes 31st. Octr. 1782, to go by three / different opportunities”; APM Reel 108. Despite Thaxter’s assertion that multiple copies of this letter were sent, there are no copies in the PCC, and Congress’ dispatch books do not indicate that any were received (PCC, No. 185, III).

1In JA’s Letterbook some copies of his letters to Livingston are numbered. Apparently he intended to number consecutively his letters written from Paris to Livingston, but sometimes neglected to do so; even when he did, those numbers do not always appear on the recipient’s copies.

2JA refers to Jay’s letter of 28 Sept. (Adams Papers), which informed him of Oswald’s new commission and requested his immediate presence in Paris. For JA’s detailed account of the journey from Amsterdam, which he began on 17 Oct., see JA, D&A description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 3:29–37.

3Before seeing Jay, however, JA met with Matthew Ridley, principally because of his concern over Ridley’s statement in his 20 Sept. letter that “it is with great Pleasure I find Mr. J—— firm. I wish however he was supported” (vol. 13:479; Boston Patriot, 24 July 1811). JA’s detailed Diary account of his conversation with Ridley on 27 Oct. indicates that Ridley referred to Jay’s refusal to negotiate with either Richard Oswald, the British peace commissioner, or the Conde de Aranda, the Spanish ambassador to France, without their having full powers to negotiate with the United States. Ridley also alluded to Jay’s disagreement with Congress’ instruction requiring the peace commissioners to defer to France in negotiations with Britain. Both positions put him at odds with Franklin and Vergennes and from Jay’s point of view made JA’s presence at Paris all the more desirable (JA, D&A description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 3:37–39). Reassured by Ridley that Jay’s attitude toward peace negotiations mirrored his own, JA immediately sought out his colleague but found him not at home. The next day JA likely had the conversation with Jay described in this letter. In any event, Ridley’s journal entry for 29 Oct. indicated that JA was “much pleased with Mr. Jay” (MHi:Ridley Journal).

4JA refers to Congress’ instruction of [15 June 1781] that the peace commissioners were “to make the most candid & confidential communications to the ministers of our generous Ally the King of France to undertake nothing in the Negotiations for peace or truce without their knowledge & concurrence & ultimately to govern yourselves by their advice & opinion” (vol. 11:376). The passage appeared in cipher in the instructions and commissions that Franklin forwarded to JA in a letter of 16 Aug. 1781 (vol. 11:xiii–xiv, 374–377, 456–457, 467), but JA was unable to decipher it and remained unaware of its existence for more than a year. He first learned of it from Arthur Lee’s letter of 7 Aug., declaring in his reply of 10 Oct. that the instruction “has never been communicated to me” and that he could not “believe that any such one has passed” (vol. 13:220, 524). He learned of it officially upon his arrival at Paris, probably first from Ridley and then from Jay. In his Diary entry for 27 Oct. he claimed that “it seems to have been concealed, designedly from me” (JA, D&A description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 3:38).

JA’s comments regarding the instruction in this letter of 31 Oct. are particularly significant because of what had happened over the previous two days. When JA reached Paris he did not go immediately to see Benjamin Franklin at Passy; when Matthew Ridley visited Passy on the morning of 29 Oct., he found that Franklin was unaware of JA’s arrival. Upon his return to Paris, Ridley “spoke to Mr. A about making his visit to Dr. F He told me it was time enough—represented to him the necessity of meeting he replied there was no necessity that after the usage he had received from him he could not bear to go near him— I told him whatever their differences were he would do wrong to discover any to the World & that it might have a bad effect on our Affairs at this time.— He said the D: might come to him— I told him it was not [his] place—the last comer always paid the first visit—he replied the Dr. was to come to him he was first in the Commn.— I ask him how the D: was to know he was here unless he went to him. He replied that was true, he did not think of that & would go— Afterwards when pulling on his Coat he said he would not, he could not bear to go where the D: was— With much persuasion I got him at length to go” (MHi:Ridley Journal).

JA described his conversation with Franklin that evening in his Diary entry for 30 Nov., the day on which the preliminary articles were signed. There JA indicated that he and Franklin discussed the peace negotiations and the “present State of our foreign affairs.” JA declared “without Reserve my Opinion of the Policy of this Court, and of the Principles, Wisdom and Firmness with which Mr. Jay had conducted the Negotiation in his [Franklin’s] Sickness and my Absence, and that I was determined to support Mr. Jay to the Utmost of my Power in the pursuit of the same System.” The next day, when the commissioners met with Oswald, JA wrote that “Dr. Franklin turned to Mr. Jay and said, I am of your Opinion and will go on with these Gentlemen in the Business without consulting this Court” (JA, D&A description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 3:82). Thus JA’s comments regarding the instruction and his threatened resignation if Congress did not agree with his interpretation of it reflect the commissioners’ decision of 30 Oct. that, contrary to their instructions, they would negotiate a separate Anglo-American peace.

5Henry Strachey, whose name JA consistently misspelled, had been the secretary of the Howe Peace Commission when JA met with it as a member of a congressional committee in the fall of 1776. For JA’s subsequent and quite critical evaluation of him in that capacity, see vol. 5:187. Strachey was sent from London with a clerk, W. Roberts, principally because the Shelburne ministry was dissatisfied with the provisions regarding the fisheries and boundaries that Franklin, Jay, and Oswald agreed to on 8 October. The two men probably arrived on 29 Oct., the day on which Oswald introduced Strachey to the American Commissioners (Morris, Peacemakers description begins Richard B. Morris, The Peacemakers: The Great Powers and American Independence, New York, 1965. description ends , p. 352–353, 357).

6In his letter to the Boston Patriot of 23 Oct. 1811, JA commented on the clerk, Roberts, as well as the documents he brought to exhibit at the conferences on 31 Oct. 1782. There he wrote that “the British minister [presumably Oswald] introduced to us a special messenger from London as the oldest clerk in the board of trade and plantations, and a very respectable character He was sent over by the British cabinet with huge volumes of the original records of the board of trade and plantations, which they would not trust to any other messenger, in order to support their incontestable claim to the Province of Maine We all treated the gentleman and his records with respect After the usual ceremonies and salutations were over, the gentleman produced his manuscripts, and pointed to the passages he relied on, and read them.

“I said nothing at first, but I thought the British cabinet believed that Dr Franklin was too much of a philosopher to have been very attentive to these ancient transactions, and that Mr Adams and Mr Jay were too young to know any thing about them—and therefore that they might by the venerable figure and imposing title of the most ancient clerk in the board of trade and plantations, and by the pompous appearance of enormous volumes of ancient records, be able to chicane us out of the Province of Maine, or at least to intimidate us into compromise, for the River Kennebec, or at the worst for Penobscot.

“When the aged stranger had read for sometime in his aged volumes, I observed that I had at my apartments documents which I flattered myself would sufficiently explain and refute whatever might be contained in those records, which should be construed or alledged against our right to the Province of Maine, and requested that the deliberation might be postponed till I could produce my books and papers. This was agreed. Accordingly at the next meeting I produced my documents.”

In issues of the Boston Patriot for 23, 26 Oct., and 6, 9 Nov. 1811, JA described the documents that he brought to the negotiations and his use of them. Most important, perhaps, were copies of the Massachusetts charters of 1629, 1691, and 1728, and acts of the General Court relating to Maine and its borders. All of the documents are contained in two volumes, of which there are two sets, one the original and the other a duplicate. Both sets were prepared by John Avery, secretary of the commonwealth, and sent off under covering letters addressed to JA and Francis Dana that were dated 17 Oct. 1780 and 2 Jan. 1781 (all in M/JA/13–17, APM Reel 191). Thus they were not, as JA states in the Boston Patriot of 23 Oct. 1811 and is implied in a note to JA’s Diary entry for 10 Nov. 1782 (JA, D&A description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 3:50), procured prior to his departure for Europe in 1779. Instead, it was Francis Dana, acting in his role as JA’s secretary, who requested the documents from Samuel Adams before he and JA sailed. When their sudden departure prevented them from receiving the requested documents, Dana was forced to renew his request in a letter to Samuel Adams dated 3 March 1780 at Paris (MHi:Francis Dana Letterbooks, Private, 1780–1781). The first set arrived at Paris on 9 Feb. 1781 (M/JA/15, APM Reel 191).

JA had additional documentation, either brought from America or procured in Europe. He indicates that he had “a pretty thick quarto volume of the printed negotiations of Mr Maitland and Gov Shirley in the year 1754, in which many questions and perhaps all the questions relative to this subject, had been largely treated at Paris.” The passage of time may have clouded JA’s memory, as he is almost certainly referring to the 1749 Paris negotiations over the boundaries of British and French America between the British commissioners, William Shirley and William Mildmay, and the French commissioner, Etienne de Silhouette. In that case the work to which he refers was likely Mémoires des commissaires du roi et de ceux de Sa Majesté britannique, sur les possessions & les droits respectifs des deux couronnes en Amérique; a avec les actes publics & pièces justificatives, 4 vols., Paris, 1755–1757. But JA also had the Journals of the Massachusetts House of Representatives for at least the years 1762 through 1766. In the Boston Patriot he cites in particular the volumes for 1762 and 1763. In the appendix to the latter volume is “A Brief State of the Title of the Province of Massachusetts-Bay to the Country between the Rivers Kennebeck and St. Croix,” which is also among the items copied by John Avery. In the Boston Patriot JA quotes a substantial portion of that document, which he indicates that he read to the British negotiators. According to JA, “before I had gone half way through, I saw that all the gentlemen, not excluding the clerk himself, were fully convinced that they had taken possession of ground they could not maintain or defend. Although they did not expressly acknowledge their error, the subject subsided and we heard little more concerning the subject. The clerk with his records soon returned to England.” For JA’s later use of his documentation at a conference with the Comte de Vergennes, see his Diary entry for 10 Nov. (JA, D&A description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 3:48–49) and his 11 Nov. letter to Livingston, below.

7The instructions to the Dutch negotiators, Gerard Brantsen and Mattheus Lestevenon van Berkenrode, were included in JA’s letter of 18 Aug. to Livingston (vol. 13:246–248).

8For Gérard de Rayneval’s mid-September mission to London for negotiations with Lord Shelburne, and JA’s earlier opinion of it, see vol. 13:481, 503. Rayneval would return to London later in November and then again in early December.

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