Henry Laurens’ Account of a Conversation with John Adams on the Peace Negotiations
Thursday 19th. Decem 1782—
Waited on Mr. Adams this Morning & after our conversation on Mr. Bridgen’s affair as related in P. S. of a Letter to him.1 We entered upon the topic of our late preliminaries, I repeated my apprehensions of our having done wrong. Mr. Adams persevered in his old opinion & in censuring Count de Vergennes upon whom he said the whole blame would fall, he had been a greater Enemy to the United States than even the British Ministry that if his conduct was explained to the Court of France he was sure, the Count could not possibly hold his place
I replied “that maybe for aught I know but tis certain our Instructions have been broken & so far he has an advantage over us” Mr. A. replied, “they were very foolish & unfortunate Instructions I dare say of his procuring by a small majority in Congress.”—2 then grew very warm & a little inconsistent, said the Court of France in his real belief never wished for our Independce they had never asked as if they did they had assisted America only from hand to mouth as it were but never as if they wished her to be Independt. & much more in the same strain chiefly angry repetition— “But that’s not the whole said I Congress have pledged themselves to the World in their Resolve of the 4th. October last, in which they solemnly promise not even to discuss propositions from the Court of London without the confidence & concurrence of France, this has been published in Philadelphia, in New York & in many of the London News Papers—Mr. A. said he not seen it. I promised to send it to him.—3 I asked Mr. A. pray Sir how came we by that Letter of Monsr. Marbois? I had it said he from Mr Jay— this being an indirect & unsatisfactory answer, I asked again— You can tell me Sir how Mr. Jay came by it—he paused a moment & replied Mr. Jay can best answer that question here a profound silence ensued, in about a minute Mr. Adams said, I suppose he got it from the English Commissioners, they intercepted the Letter.4
these indirect answers shew a want of confidence on the part of Mr. Adams who is not ignorant of a tittle. I took my leave.
MS (ScL [ScU]:Kendall Coll.).
1. Laurens is presumably referring to his postscript of 19 Dec. to his 18 Dec. letter to Edward Bridgen (Laurens, Papers description begins The Papers of Henry Laurens, ed. Philip M. Hamer, George C. Rogers Jr., David R. Chesnutt, C. James Taylor, and others, Columbia, S.C., 1968–2003; 16 vols. description ends , 16:88–90.). At issue was JA’s decision to write separately to Robert R. Livingston on 14 Dec. concerning Bridgen’s proposal to supply Congress with copper blanks for coins rather than to send the proposal as an enclosure to a joint letter from the commissioners. For JA’s second letter of the 14 Dec. and the commissioners’ letter of 20 Dec., both enclosing Bridgen’s proposal but neither of them printed here, see JA’s first letter of 14 Dec. to Livingston, note 1, above.
2. From this point to the following dash, Laurens’ comment is written in the left margin and marked for insertion at this point.
3. On 4 Oct. Congress resolved that the United States would “inviolably adhere to the treaty of alliance with his Most Christian Majesty, and conclude neither a seperate peace or truce with Great Britain” and that it would “not enter into the discussion of any overtures for pacification, but in confidence and in concert with his Most Christian Majesty.” Congress ordered that the resolutions be sent to Benjamin Franklin and its other ministers in Europe and that they be published, which it itself did as a broadside (JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, ed. Worthington Chauncey Ford, Gaillard Hunt, John C. Fitzpatrick, Roscoe R. Hill, and others, Washington, 1904–1937; 34 vols. description ends , 23:637–639, 887; Evans, description begins Charles Evans and others, American Bibliography: A Chronological Dictionary of All Books, Pamphlets and Periodical Publications Printed in the United States of America [1639–1800], Chicago and Worcester, 1903–1959; 14 vols. description ends No. 17761).
The resolutions were also published in virtually all American newspapers, including the Pennsylvania Gazette of 9 Oct. and the Boston Independent Chronicle of 24 October. In London they appeared on 19 Nov. in the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser and Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser and on the following day in Parker’s General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer. Elsewhere, it appeared in the Gazette d’Amsterdam of 19 Nov. and in the Gazette de France of 29 November. Copies of the 4 Oct. resolutions are in MHi:John Adams, Embassy MSS, but there is no indication as to when or how JA received them.
4. This is François de Barbé-Marbois’ letter of 13 March 1782 to the Comte de Vergennes, in which the secretary of the French legation at Philadelphia criticized American efforts to obtain fishing rights off Newfoundland in an Anglo-American peace settlement. Barbé-Marbois offered arguments for Vergennes’ use in combating the American pretensions and censured Samuel Adams as the leader of the group supporting American access to the fisheries (Wharton, Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. description begins The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, ed. Francis Wharton, Washington, 1889; 6 vols. description ends , 5:238–241). The British intercepted the letter, deciphered it, and supplied it to John Jay, who enclosed a copy with his letter of 18 Sept. to Robert R. Livingston. Jay’s letter reached Congress on 24 Dec., leading to an unsuccessful effort to rescind the portion of the commissioners’ instructions requiring them to follow the advice of France in the peace negotiations (Morris, Peacemakers description begins Richard B. Morris, The Peacemakers: The Great Powers and American Independence, New York, 1965. description ends , p. 324–325; JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, ed. Worthington Chauncey Ford, Gaillard Hunt, John C. Fitzpatrick, Roscoe R. Hill, and others, Washington, 1904–1937; 34 vols. description ends , 23:870–874).
JA also sent a copy of the Barbé-Marbois letter to Congress, enclosing it with the 8 Nov. letter he originally intended for Livingston but instead sent to Jonathan Jackson, above. For Jay and JA the letter reinforced their view of the competing American and French interests over the exact terms of an Anglo-American peace settlement and justified their determination to negotiate separately from France.
Although Laurens in this account indicates doubts about the authenticity of the intercepted letter, JA had none, citing it as clear evidence of French duplicity in letters to Thomas McKean, James Warren, and Robert R. Livingston of 6 Feb., 20 March, and 25 May 1783, respectively, all below. In addition, he printed Barbé-Marbois’ letter and devoted considerable space to a commentary on it in his contributions to the Boston Patriot, 17–24 Aug. 1811, a portion of which was reprinted by CFA in JA, Works description begins The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, ed. Charles Francis Adams, Boston, 1850–1856; 10 vols. description ends , 1:669–674.