Adams Papers

John Adams to the president of Congress, 13 May 1784

To the President of Congress

The Hague May 13. 1784


The Measures taken by the Neighbouring Powers are likely to produce an intimate Friendship and Connection between this Republick and France. England, has mistaken her Policy So much as to delay the Signature of the definitive Treaty, and to keep up a Coldness and Distance, which instead of exciting the Populace, in favour of England as She expected has only accellerated the Union with France, as if She had not been blind She might have foreseen. The Emperor too, who certainly does not wish a close Connection between this Country and France, has revived so many ancient Pretentions as have allarmed this nation, and produced an Application to Versailles for her Mediation. The King of Prussia, perhaps would not be sorry to see the Republick allied to France but whether he had it in view or not his Letters have contributed Somewhat to that End.1

Hitherto, there are only two or three Provinces which have declared for a Treaty with France: But probably the whole Number will soon, embrace the same Policy. The first Step will be a Treaty of Commerce. This will be a Bar to the Renovation of the ancient Alliance with England; But if a War should break out, it will occasion an Alliance with France. a War may happen, for there are manifest Symptoms of a Fermentation in the several Courts of Europe and of a Jealousy between the two Imperial Courts and the House of Bourbon. But Still I hope the publick Tranquility will not be interrupted. The Difficulty of commanding Money will be its best Security. England would not be Sorry to See a War, if she could be neutral but She is not in a Condition to foment it, by furnishing Subsidies.

The Emperor has large Views, as it is Supposed both for his People and his Family, he is Suspected of vast Projects of Ambition Some of which have Silesia for their Object. But hitherto his Ambition has not been unjust in general, but has appeared in beneficent designs for his Subjects and Mankind, and it is much to be wished it may never overleap those bounds. if his Life and that of the Empress of Russia, Should be prolonged for Some Years and England Should recover the command of Money, She may probably furnish that Instrument of Mischief, and blow up a general War. it is good to look forward as far as We can, that We may be prepared for our own Part.

With great Respect I have the Honour to be, Sir your most obedient and most humble / Servant

John Adams

RC (PCC, No. 84, V, f. 320–321); internal address: “His Excellency Thomas Mifflin Esqr / President of Congress.” LbC (Adams Papers); APM Reel 107.

1As JA indicates, the Netherlands’ relations with Britain, Austria, France, and Prussia were unsettled at best and perilous at worst. This was partly owing to the growing ascendency of the anti-Orangist, pro-French Patriot Party over the forces of the stadholder, William V, Prince of Orange, but events in the wider world also contributed.

Anti-British sentiment, particularly among the Patriots, was fueled by Britain’s failure to conclude a definitive peace treaty with the Dutch until 20 May 1784, more than eight months after it had signed a preliminary Anglo-Dutch peace treaty and definitive peace treaties with France, Spain, and the United States. There were a variety of reasons for the delay, including a British proposal to move negotiations from Paris to either London or The Hague (vol. 15:232, 282, 305, 394; from C. W. F. Dumas, 25 May, below).

In the meantime, Joseph II of Austria, who in 1781 unilaterally abrogated the 1715 Barrier Treaty, undertook to accomplish his long-held ambition to reopen the Scheldt River port of Antwerp to navigation, a right denied by the 1748 Treaty of Münster. This effort began in Oct. 1783 with incidents at the fortresses of Lillo and Liefkenshoek and the town of Doel in the Austrian Netherlands. Despite Dutch efforts to resolve the conflict, tensions increased between Austria and the Netherlands until early May 1784, when Dutch negotiators at Brussels were presented with fourteen demands, including the destruction of portions of the fortresses, an end to Dutch control of navigation on the Scheldt, and an indemnity. Published in the newspapers, the Austrian demands hardened Dutch resolve, and an Austro-Dutch war became a very real possibility (vol. 15:419–420, 421; Gazette d’Amsterdam, 11, 14 May).

The actions of Britain and Austria were enough to make a Franco-Dutch treaty an attractive possibility (from Dumas, 25 May, below). An added incentive was Frederick II’s efforts to support William V against those who sought to diminish the prerogatives of the stadholder. Frederick wrote to the States General on 19 March offering to mediate the differences between that body and William V in order to restore domestic tranquillity. On 8 April the Prussian minister, the Baron von Thulemeier, wrote to the Regency of Amsterdam requesting that it attend to Frederick’s proposals for the “rétablissement de la tranquilité intérieure & de l’harmonie entre les Membres du Gouvernement de la Republique.” On 30 April, following adverse comments on Frederick’s appeal in various newspapers, Thulemeier wrote to the States General emphasizing the seriousness of the situation and requesting that such commentary be suppressed (Gazette d’Amsterdam, 6 April, 4, 7 May).

While the Patriots saw a Franco-Dutch treaty as the only bulwark against the menaces facing their nation from abroad, no such treaty was signed until 10 Nov. 1785, two days after Austria and the Netherlands signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau. The alliance’s delay owed much to the unstable European balance of power and also to France’s declining ability to act in the years immediately before revolution erupted. France did mediate the Austro-Dutch dispute over the Scheldt and brokered the Treaty of Fontainebleau that ended the crisis. France even guaranteed that treaty, which provided concessions to Austria, while confirming the Treaty of Münster regarding navigation of the Scheldt (Georg Friedrich de Martens, ed., Recueil des principaux traités … conclus par les puissances de l’Europe, 7 vols., Göttingen, Germany, 1791–1801, 2:602–609, 612–617). But as a Dutch ally, France would do nothing in 1787 when Prussia occupied the Netherlands to restore William V following his deposition and exile by the Patriots (vol. 15:316, 421).

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