Robert R. Livingston to the American Peace Commissioners
Philadelphia. 31st: May. 83.
Congress were yesterday pleased to pass the enclosed Resolutions on the subject of the payment of British Debts—1 The language they speak requires no Comment— I complained in my last of your long Silence, or rather laid before you the Complaint of Congress. These I think receive additional force from Intelligence I have since had, that the Negotiations are still going on, and that important Propositions have been made you from Holland.2 As Congress have adjourned for two Days, & the Packet sails tomorrow, I cannot procure their Instructions on this Subject, tho’ I think I may venture to say, that they will not, without reluctance, go one step further than their honor requires of them, in making new engagements which may involve them in the disputes of Europe, from which they wish to be totally disengaged.—
I make no observations on these Propositions, or your power to accede to them, being well persuaded that you will take no Steps in this business without a full persuasion that important Advantages will result therefrom to these States.— The second Proposition, in case France & Spain should decline acceding to the first, is more peculiarly delicate from the inability of the contracting Powers to enforce them, if, which is hardly to be supposed, they should unite in wishing it. I cannot help lamenting, since so much time has elapsed before any Conclusion is formed, that you had not thought it adviseable to write to me on this subject, explaining the advantages & disadvantages of the measure and ennabling me to take the Sense of Congress thereon: for tho’ they have the highest Confidence in your judgement, & knowledge of the true Interests of this Country, yet, I am persuaded, that they think it a duty to see with their own eyes & to form their own Conclusions on great national Objects, where there is a possibility of so doing. The experience of the last war has shewn that the Propositions of the Empress of Russia were little more than a dead letter— those whom England dared to offend derived no advantage from them. Our Engagements therefore on this head will, in my opinion, add little weight to them, unless the great Maritime Powers of Europe agree to support them, and they may involve us in disagreable discussions. These howr: are only my Sentiments: those of Congress I am ignorant of—
The 5th: & 6th. Articles of the Provisional Treaty excite much ferment here, for, tho’ the most dissatisfied Spirits acknowledge the whole Treaty taken together to answer their highest expectations, yet they wish to take only what they like, & leave out what they disapprove, and such is the relaxation of Governmt: so great the disorders & licentiousness introduced by the war, that it will be found very difficult to bridle the just resentments of some, and the unfounded apprehensions that others entertain of re-imbursements, that may affect their particular Interests.—
I have the honor to be, Gentlemen, / with the greatest esteem & respect, / Yr: Most Obedt: humle: servt:
(signed) Robt: R. Livingston—
RC and enclosure (Adams Papers); internal address: “The Hoñble, John Adams / Benja: Franklin, / John Jay, & / Henry Laurens. / Esquires.”; endorsed: “Mr Livingstone to the Ministers / for Peace 31. May. 1783.”
1. Livingston enclosed a copy of Congress’ resolution of 30 May responding to Virginia’s resolution of 17 Dec. 1782 and a 19 March 1783 letter from the legislature of Pennsylvania, both concerning the payment of debts owed British creditors. The peace commissioners were directed to make representations to the British negotiators to delay demands for repayment until three years after the signing of the definitive treaty and to renounce the interest accrued on the amounts owed during the war. The commissioners were also instructed to seek, in the definitive treaty, a reciprocal arrangement for the settlement of the expenses incurred for the subsistence of prisoners of war (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 , 24:372–376). Livingston also enclosed a copy of Congress’ 26 May resolution directing the peace commissioners and Washington to protest the British removal of slaves and other property during their evacuation, for which see Livingston’s 28 May letter to the commissioners, and note 1, above.
2. Livingston is here referring to C. W. F. Dumas’ letter of 20 March, with which he enclosed extracts of eighteen letters written by him to various people between 24 Jan. and 14 March (PCC, No. 93, II, f. 220–232, 291–292). Included were his letters to JA of 24, 28, and 30 Jan; 4, 13, and 18 Feb.; and 6 March, all above. These letters concerned, wholly or in part, the proposal offered by Engelbert François van Berckel and supported by Pieter van Bleiswyck that Dumas passed on to JA and his colleagues in his letter of 24 January. The two men suggested that to remove obstacles to an Anglo-Dutch peace treaty with regard to Dutch neutral commerce, the United States should accede to the Armed Neutrality and enter into a similar agreement with France, Spain, and the Netherlands or a bilateral agreement with the Netherlands. For the reasoning behind the proposal, see note 2 to the letter of 24 Jan., above. Dumas did not include JA’s letter of 29 Jan., above, in which he indicated that the commissioners believed that the power to formally accede to the Armed Neutrality resided in Francis Dana, but that Congress’ resolution of 5 Oct. 1780 (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 , 18:905–906) permitted them “to pledge the faith of the United-States to the observance of the Principles of the Armed Neutrality.”
In his report on Dumas’ letter of 20 March 1783 and its enclosures, Livingston attributed the Dutch proposals to the States General and inferred, without having seen JA’s letter of 29 Jan., that the commissioners had encouraged the first two proposals but that the end of the war had nullified whatever power they or Dana held to accede to the Armed Neutrality or to any other agreement specifically establishing neutral rights. Livingston recommended that the commissioners be permitted to include an article on neutral rights in the definitive peace treaty; to conclude an agreement establishing neutral rights with France, Spain, and the Netherlands if absolutely necessary; but not to agree to any agreement of such a nature to which France, Spain, and the Netherlands were not parties (Wharton, Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. description begins The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, ed. Francis Wharton, Washington, 1889; 6 vols. description ends , 6:473–474).
On 12 June Congress resolved that “as the true interest of these states requires that they should be as little as possible entangled in the politics and controversies of European nations,” the power to accede to the Armed Neutrality should not be renewed and that if any provisions on neutral rights were included in the definitive treaty the commissioners were “to avoid accompanying them by any engagements which shall oblige the contracting parties to support those stipulations by arms” (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 , 24:393–394).