Adams Papers

Edmund Jenings to John Adams, 24 February 1784

From Edmund Jenings

London Febry 24th 1784.


I have the Honour of receiving your Excellencys Letter of the 10th Instant

I had heard before of the disagreableness of your Journey to the Hague— I thought the passage by Harwich a bad one, I am glad however to find it was not so bad as that by Dover would have been. I Hope your residence, where you now are, will be rendered more Agreable by the Arrival of Mrs Adams and your Family.

your Excellency desires me to Speculate as formerly on publick affairs. but in Truth I grow every day more & more averse to meddle with such dangerous and Uncomfortable Matters & cannot but think it is Necessary for me to ruminate on them, as little as possible. however in Compliance with your Excellencys request. I must inform you that there seems to be a disposition in Mr Fox to reconsider the Proclamation Laws, relative to the Trade between the United States and the West Indias. I had this Information from a Gentleman, who having a Petition to present to the House of Commons from one of the Islands applied to the minister, as His Friend to Know when & in what Manner He should do it: on which He was told, naturally enough, that He had better to defer it until the Times should be more settled (when will that be?) and that He should Heartily concur in giving it his Support. That there were Petitions come over from several other of the Islands against the late Commercial Proclamations, and that, in Consequence Thereof, the late Ideas and System formed thereon must be got rid of. for this End, He thought the American Vessels ought to be Admitted to bring their Lumber into the Islands, & be suffered to purchase the productions of the Islands to the Amount of what the Cargo may sell for. This is Something, but it is piddling à la mode de langletterrea— This Country however will find itself under the Necessity of going farther, and perhaps of entering immediately into a Treaty of Commerce with the United States, for by a Vessel just arrived we find the following resolution has been agreed to by the Delegates of the State of Virginia

Richmond Decr. 4th 1783.1

whereas it appears by an order of the King of G B in Council bearing date the 2d of July last, made under the express authority of his Parliament, that the Growth or produce of any of the united States of America, are prohibited from being carried to any of the british West India Islands by any other than british Subjects in british built Ships, owned by british Subjects; & navigated according to the law of that Kingdom. And whereas this proceeeding, (though but a Temporary Expedient) exhibits a Disposition in G B to gain partial Advantages, injurious to the rights of free Commerce, and is repugnant to the principles of reciprocal Interest & convenience, which are found by Experience to form the only permanent foundation of friendly Intercourse between States

resolved, Nemine contradicente,2 that the United States, in Congress Assembled, ought to be empowered to prohibit british Vessels from being the carriers of the Growth or produce of the british west India Islands to these United States so long as the restriction aforesaid shall be continued on the part of G B, or to concert any other mode to be adopted by the States, which shall be thought Effectual to Counteract the designs of G B with respect to the American Commerce.

The foregoing is a good rap on the Knucles of the british Politician, but the State of Maryland has given a blow on their Heads by passing a Law for levying a Duties & those severe ones on the Shipping & Manufactures of G B. of which I will give your Excellency an Account, as Soon as I can see the Law itself3

There has been two Pamphlets published since you left England in answer to Lord Sheiffieds, which I think are much better than that which your Excellency saw. besides this I am told That Mr Paine has published in America an Answer to the Commercial Lord4

There cannot be a doubt I think that all parties must concur in adopting a different System towards America however they must be allowed a little more time to amuse themselves with declaring & perhaps shewing one another to be Madmen & perhaps somewhat worse.

I shall certainly inform your Excellency whenever I hear of the Arrival of the Ratification of the Treaty, when the last Ships left Annapolis There were not then a Sufficient Number in Congress to do that business.

on a debate in the Commons the other day there was something which dropt, as if a Treaty of Commerce was thought of.

The Question being whether a Bill Should be brought in to Naturalize Children born of English women in foreign parts; an Objection was taken, that this would tend to Naturalize the subjects of the United States, & by Consequence give them the benefit of British rights & Priveledges, which ought to be done without a return, which was a Matter fit to settled by negociation & this was the opinion of the House5

General Washington appeared in Congress the 23d of Decr last & gave up his Commissions He made a Speech on the Occasion, & was Answered by the President. I must refer your Excellency to the News papers. for them.

your Excellencys does not, I am Sure, expect, that I should Say any thing of the State of this Country with respect to its Parties, you will see by this Post in the News papers something, that the King gave in Answer to the Commons Address.6 The whole of it is not published— I am told the Commns have defered entering into a consideration thereof until Monday & are now debating whether they will admit the Votes for Supplies until the Answer is considered.—it does not appear that the Parties have formed any Union.

I have the Honour to be with greatest Respect / Sir / your Excellencys / Most Obedient / Humble Servant

Edm. Jenings

RC (Adams Papers); internal address: “His Excellency John Adams Esqr.”; endorsed: “Mr Jennings / Feb. 24. 1784.”

1Jenings may have seen this resolution republished in the London newspapers. An act to the same effect was adopted by the Va. house of delegates on 9 Dec. 1783 and approved by the Va. senate on the 12th. The act was then sent to Congress, which referred it to a committee on 26 Jan. 1784. On 22 April the committee reported, offering a resolution that was amended and adopted on the 30th (PCC, No. 75, f. 391–394; 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, D.C., 1904–1937; 34 vols. description ends 26:50, 269–271, 317–319, 321–322). For further information on the act, Massachusetts’ response, and Congress’ resolution of 30 April, see Tristram Dalton’s 6 April letter, and note 10, below.

2That is, it was adopted with no opposition. This phrase was not included in the copy sent to Congress.

3Like Virginia, Maryland was responding to Britain’s 2 July 1783 Order in Council prohibiting the export of American produce to the West Indies in American vessels (vol. 15:112–113). Maryland, like Virginia, authorized its delegates to agree to Congress’ regulation of trade, but unlike Virginia, Maryland imposed “a duty of five shillings … on every tun of British shipping” and enacted “an additional duty of two per centum … upon all merchandise, manufactures and commodities, the growth or produce of Great-Britain, or any colony or other place under the dominion of Great-Britain, brought or imported in any British ship” (Laws of Maryland, Made since M,DCC,LXIII, Annapolis, 1787, ch. 29, 1783, 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. 20483).

4Jenings refers to John Baker Holroyd, Lord Sheffield’s Observations on the Commerce of the American States with Europe and the West Indies, London, 1783. It was the most influential publication in defense of the Navigation Act and the denial of American access to the West Indian trade (vol. 15:15). The British publications refuting Sheffield’s arguments cannot be identified with certainty but may have included one by Edward Long, a Jamaican planter, entitled A Free and Candid Review of a Tract, Entitled, “Observations on the Commerce of the American States;” Shewing the Pernicious Consequences, Both to Great Britain, and to the British Sugar Islands, of the Systems Recommended in That Tract, London, 1784; or one by Bryan Edwards, a West Indian merchant, entitled Thoughts on the Late Proceedings of Government, Respecting the Trade of the West India Islands with the United States of North America, London, 1784 (DNB description begins Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, eds., The Dictionary of National Biography, New York and London, 1885–1901; repr. Oxford, 1959–1960; 21 vols. plus supplements. description ends ). Another may have been the anonymous Remarks on Lord Sheffield’s Observations on the Commerce of the American States; by an American, London, 1784, which was published by JA’s friend John Stockdale. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet was entitled A Supernumerary Crisis, addressed “To the People of America” and dated 9 Dec. 1783 (Life and Works of Thomas Paine, ed. William M. Van der Weyde, 10 vols., New Rochelle, N.Y., 1925, 3:249–255).

5This was a “Bill for declaring the children of British mothers natural-born subjects, though born abroad” introduced by George Dempster on 6 Feb. 1784. In opening debate William Eden declared that “there was much reason to doubt whether the inhabitants of the United States having renounced their allegiance to the King, and their renunciation having been accepted and ratified by the Sovereign and by Parliament, were not under every construction of law to be considered at this hour as [aliens]; and yet their children, through the whole continent of North-America, and their childrens children, would, by the present Bill … be declared natural-born subjects, and would be entitled to all the rights and claims belonging to that description. This might be wise and expedient as an interchange of privileges between the two countries; but it ought not to be done gratuitously and precipitately; it ought to be matter of treaty and negociation” (Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, 7, 9 Feb.). Compare Eden’s comments on 6 Feb. with those on 24 Feb., when the bill was debated further and finally dropped, same, 25 February.

6The address to George III, adopted by the House of Commons by a twenty-vote margin on 20 Feb., called on the king to “take such measures as, by removing any obstacle to the formation of such an administration as this House has declared to be requisite in the present critical and arduous situation of public affairs, may tend to give effect to the wishes of his faithful Commons.” That is, the minority ministry of William Pitt should be dismissed and replaced with one led presumably by Charles James Fox, who enjoyed a parliamentary majority. In his 27 Feb. reply, the king refused the Commons’ request (Parliamentary Hist., description begins The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803, London, 1806–1820; 36 vols. description ends 24:667–668, 677–678). For an account of the constitutional issues at stake, see vol. 15:466.

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