Adams Papers

From John Adams to the Marquis of Carmarthen, 26 September 1785

To the Marquis of Carmarthen

Grosvenor Square Septr. 26. 17851

My Lord

The Duke of Dorset, in his Letter to the Ministers of the United States of America, dated at Paris the 26. March last, informed them, that having communicated to his Court the Readiness they expressed in their Letter to his Grace of the ninth of December to remove to London, for the purpose of treating upon Such Points as may materially concern the Interests both political and commercial of Great Britain and America, and having at the same time represented that they had declared themselves to be fully authorized and empowered to negotiate, His Grace had been in answer thereto instructed to learn from them, what was the real nature of the Powers, with which they were invested: Whether they were merely commissioned by Congress, or whether they had received Seperate Powers from the respective States,

The Expectation of a new Arrangement, and the Arrival of the Intelligence of the Appointment of a Minister to this Court from the United States, prevented those American Ministers from giving any Answer to those Inquiries of his Grace: but as it may be expected that I Should take some notice of them, I beg leave to represent to Your Lordship, that by the Sixth Article of the Confederation and perpetual Union of the United States, “no State without the Consent of the United States in Congress assembled, Shall Send any Embassy to, or receive any Embassy from, or enter into any Conference Agreement, Alliance, or Treaty, with any King, Prince, or State; and by the ninth Article of the Same Confederation The United States in Congress assembled, Shall have the Sole and exclusive Right and Power,” among other Things, “of Sending and receiving Ambassadors; entering into Treaties and Alliances, provided that no Treaty of Commerce Shall be made, whereby the legislative Power of the respective States Shall be restrained, from imposing Such Imposts and Duties on Foreigners, as their own People are Subjected to; or from prohibiting the Exportation or Importation of any Species of Goods or Commodities whatsoever:” From these Words of our Confederation, your Lordship will perceive, that in all Things which concern, either Embassies or Treaties, the Powers of the United States in Congress assembled are Sovereign and Supream with only two Limitations, which common Prudence would dictate to any Nation to prescribe to itself. The Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union have been not only passed and agreed to by the United States in Congress assembled, but have been Since Seperately received, ratified and confirmed and thereby become the Law of the Land in every one of the States. All Treaties therefore made, or which may be made, in Virtue of those Powers, are binding upon each State and every Citizen, as fully as any Treaty which can be made by any Sovereign is binding on his Subjects.2

With great Respect, I have the Honour to be, My Lord, your Lordships, most obedient, and / must humble Servant

John Adams.

RC (PRO:FO 4, State Papers, vol. 3, f. 611–614); internal address: “The Right Honourable / The Marquis of Carmarthen / Secretary of State for foreign / Affairs.”; endorsed: “Grosvenor Square Septr. / 26th: 1785. / Mr. Adams. / R. 20th: Octr.LbC (Adams Papers); APM Reel 111.

1This letter is curious because while there is no reason to doubt that it was written on 26 Sept., JA did not present it to Carmarthen until he met formally with the foreign minister on 20 Oct., and the LbC is located between copies of two other documents, dated 17 Oct., which JA gave to him at the same time. But it should also be noted that on 14 Sept., Carmarthen wrote to JA to request that the meeting be postponed to 22 Sept. The two men dined together on that day, as they also did at the American legation on the 30th (AFC description begins Adams Family Correspondence, ed. L. H. Butterfield, Marc Friedlaender, Richard Alan Ryerson, Margaret A. Hogan, and others, Cambridge, 1963–. description ends , 6:380, 386, 395). The most likely explanation is that JA withheld this letter until there was sufficient business to be transacted to justify requesting a meeting with Carmarthen (to John Jay, 21 Oct., and notes 2 and 3, below). If that was the case, then the precipitating factor was the arrival, on 15 Oct., of Jay’s 6 Sept. letter, wherein Jay noted the difficulties over the frontier posts, Anglo-American trade, and debts and also enclosed Congress’ resolution regarding the Stanhope Affair (to Jay, 15 Oct. and 21 Oct., note 1, both below). It was on the 15th that JA wrote to Carmarthen to request a meeting (Adams Papers).

2As he indicates, JA is replying to the Duke of Dorset’s 26 March letter to the commissioners, which was in response to their letter of 9 Dec. 1784 (vol. 16:446–447, 577– 578). Having been informed by them of their new joint commission to negotiate an Anglo-American treaty, Dorset indicated that he had been instructed to determine the precise scope of the commissioners’ powers, and whether Congress had the power to compel the individual states to observe the provisions of any treaty that was negotiated in its name. In their 16 May 1785 reply to Dorset’s letter of 26 March, the commissioners did not deal with the issues raised by the British ambassador because the three commissioners, presumably including JA, believed that the appointment of a minister to Great Britain had rendered them moot. Clearly, by 26 Sept. JA thought that a definitive, or at least more complete, response to Dorset’s queries than had been given by the commissioners on 16 May was required.

There were a number of reasons why JA, almost four months after taking up his post as American minister, may have been motivated to write this letter, but the most important was probably the Pitt ministry’s failure to make any meaningful response to his representations. No progress had been made with respect to the British evacuation of the frontier posts, the payment of prewar debts, or the removal of American property and slaves by British forces upon their evacuation of the United States. Moreover, nothing had been said regarding the major issue facing the two countries, the conclusion of a commercial treaty, a draft of which JA had submitted to Carmarthen almost two months earlier, on 29 July, above.

The real question is why JA waited to deliver this letter, because he must have been aware from the beginning of his tenure that the issues raised in Dorset’s letter remained important to both the government and the general public. Indeed, Carmarthen raised the issue of Congress’s authority over the states in matters of trade at his first meeting with JA on 17 June, specifically regarding newspaper reports of demonstrations in Boston against British domination of Anglo-American trade (to Jay, 17 June, and note 9, above). There were also comments in London newspapers, such as the 6 June London Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, which stated that “an Ambassador from the United States of America, it seems, has produced his credentials to the Secretary of State!!!— His Excellency ought to produce not only his own credentials from Congress, but also the credentials of Congress itself, certifying the power and authority of that body to treat and conclude treaties for the Thirteen United States, collectively and individually, and to enforce what they may stipulate against as well as for them.” And on 29 June that paper was even more explicit, declaring that Congress “have not even a shadow of power in their own country; for, by the best accounts from that continent, there is not, at this moment, any one of the Thirteen States, as they are pompously called, that acknowledges the supremacy of such a head, or pays the least regard to their ordinances and decrees.”

In his response JA quotes accurately from Arts. 6 and 9 of the Articles of Confederation, but the issue from the British point of view, as is evident from Carmarthen’s remarks and the newspaper pieces, was not with Congress’ exclusive right to conduct diplomatic relations and enter “into treaties and alliances.” Rather it was with the portion of Art. 9 limiting Congress’ power over the states’ ability to levy “imposts and duties” and to prohibit “the exportation or importation of any species of goods or commodities whatsoever.” These limitations brought into question the United States’ ability to agree to reciprocal trade provisions in a commercial treaty or, perhaps most importantly, to enforce most favored nation clauses.

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