Adams Papers

From John Adams to Boston Patriot, 2 May 1809

Quincy, May 2, 1809.


THE message mentioned in my last letter, was in these words:

Gentlemen of the Senate,

The proposition of a fresh negociation with France, in consequence of advances made by the French government, has excited so general an attention and so much conversation, as to have given occasion to many manifestations of the public opinion, from which it appears to me, that a new modification of the embassy will give more general satisfaction to the legislature and to the nation, and perhaps better answer the purposes we have in view. It is on this supposition, and with this expectation, that I now nominate Oliver Ellsworth, Esq. Chief Justice of the United States, Patrick Henry, Esq. late Governor of Virginia, and William Vans Murray, Esq. our Minister Resident at the Hague, to be Envoys Extraordinary and Ministers Plenipotentiary to the French Republic, with full powers to discuss and settle by a treaty all controversies between the United States and France. It is not intended that the two former of these gentlemen shall embark for Europe, until they shall have received from the Executive Directory assurances signified by their Secretary of foreign relations, that they shall be received in character, that they shall enjoy all the prerogatives attached to that character by the law of nations, and that a minister or ministers of equal powers shall be appointed and commissioned to treat with them.

John Adams.

Feb. 25, 1799.

To these nominations the Senate advised and consented, and commissions were prepared. My friend, Mr. Henry declined, on account of his age, and Governor Davie, of North-Carolina, was appointed in his place. During all this transaction, no motion was made in Senate, to pass a resolution that a mission to France was inexpedient. With the despatches from Talleyrand before his eyes, I believe no member of the Senate would have been willing to record his name in favor of such a resolution, among the yeas and nays. The deputation of Senators made no remonstrances to me against the mission, or the diplomatic communications on which it was founded, but only against the missionary, Mr. Murray.

I sent an invitation to the heads of departments to assemble in my chamber, to consult upon the instructions to be given to our envoys. They all met me accordingly, and in several long evenings entered into a very serious and deliberate discussion of every article that was to be demanded and insisted on in the proposed treaty. They were all unanimously agreed upon to my entire satisfaction, and reduced to writing. I committed them to the secretary of state, to be reduced into proper form, to have a fair copy made and transmitted to me, for revision, correction or signature, as there might be occasion.

The yellow fever was expected, and we wert all obliged to fly for our lives: myself and all my family to Quincy, and the heads of departments, with the public offices, to Trenton.

I had repeatedly endeavored to impress upon the mind of the secretary of state, the necessity of transmitting to me as soon as possible, his draught of the instructions, that they might be finished and signed, and every thing prepared for the departure of the envoys. I waited with much concern, expecting from day to day to receive the instructions; but no instructions appeared. At length, instead of them, I received a letter signed by all five of the heads of departments, earnestly entreating me to suspend the mission!

I was astonished at this unexpected, this obstinate and persevering opposition to a measure, that appeared so clearly to me to be so essential to the peace and prosperity of the nation, and the honor of the government, at home and abroad. I was not a little surprised at the unanimity of the heads of departments, for two of them had always appeared moderate and candid in relation to this mission. My instantaneous determination was to go to Trenton, meet the gentlemen face to face, to confer with them coolly on the subject, and convince them, or be convinced by them, if I could. On my way, I called upon Chief Justice Ellsworth, at his seat in Windsor, and had a conversation of perhaps two hours with him. He was perfectly candid. Whatever should be the determination, he was ready at an hour’s warning to comply. If it was thought best to embark immediately, he was ready. If it was judged more expedient to postpone it for a little time, though that might subject him to a winter voyage, that danger had no weight with him. If it was concluded to defer it till the spring, he was willing to wait. In this disposition I took leave of him. He gave me no intimation that he had any thought of a journey to Trenton. I lodged at Hartford, not yet purified of the yellow fever, and there I caught something very like it, or at least almost as bad, a most violent cold, attended with a constant fever, which rendered me for six weeks more fit for a chamber and bed of sickness, than for uncomfortable journeys, or much labor of the head or hands. However, I would not consent to be retarded on my journey, and reached Trenton, where Mr. Hamilton had arrived a few hours before me. Governor Davie had been there some time. Ill as I was, I sent for the heads of departments. Four of them were there. The attorney general was gone to Virginia. Many days were employed in conferences with them, sometimes at my own apartments, and sometimes at their offices.

The inhabitants of Trenton had been wrought up to a pitch of political enthusiasm that surprised me. The universal opinion appeared to be, that the first arrivals from Europe would bring the glorious news, that Louis the Eighteenth was restored to the throne of France, and reigning triumphantly at Versailles. Suwarrow, at the head of his victorious Russian army, was to have marched from Italy to Paris, on one side, and Prince Charles, at the head of an Austrian army, was to have marched from Germany to Paris on the other, and detachments from both armies were to march down to Havre, to receive the king, who was to be brought over by a British fleet and escorted with flying colours to Versailles. I could scarcely believe my own senses when I heard such reveries.—Yet the heads of departments appeared to believe them, and urge them as decisive arguments for suspending the embarkation of our envoys till the spring. In vain did I urge the immense distances the two imperial armies had to march, the great number of towns and cities in the route of both, in positions chosen with great skill, fortified with exquisite art, defended by vast trains of heavy ordnance, garrisoned by numerous troops of soldiers perfectly disciplined, and animated with all the obstinacy and ardor of the revolutionary spirit. In vain did I alledge the military maxim, which would certainly govern both Prince Charles and Suwarrow, that is, never to leave a fortified city in the rear of your army, in possession of your enemy. That the siege of one town would consume the whole season.—That neither the Russians nor Austrians were probably provided with the mortars and heavy cannon necessary for sieges.—Nothing would do—Louis XVIII. must be upon the throne of France.—Well, suppose he is, what harm will there be in embarking our envoys? They will congratulate his Majesty, and if his Majesty cannot receive them under their credentials to the French Republic, he will be glad to see them in his kingdom, and assure them of his royal protection till they can write home for fresh commissions, and such shall be ready for them at a minute’s warning. In vain did I urge the entire change of property in France, and the necessity the present possessors were under to defend themselves at every sacrifice and every risque. Mr. Ellsworth had arrived in two or three days after me. I invited him and Governor Davie to dine with me alone, that we might converse with entire freedom. At table, Mr. Ellsworth expressed an opinion somewhat similar to that of the heads of departments and the public opinion of Trenton. Is it possible, Chief Justice, said I, that you can seriously believe that the Bourbons are or will be soon restored to the throne of France? Why, said Mr. Ellsworth, smiling, it looks a good deal so. I should not be afraid to stake my life upon it, that they will not be restored in seven years, if they ever are, was my reply. And then I entered into a long detail of my reasons for this opinion. They would be too tedious to enumerate here, and time has superceded the necessity of them.

The result of the conversation was, that Mr. Davie was decidedly for embarking immediately, as he always had been from his first arrival, and Mr. Ellsworth declared himself satisfied and willing to embark as soon as I pleased.

Mr. Hamilton, who had been some time in town and had visited me several times, came at last to remonstrate against the mission to France. I received him with great civility, as I always had done from my first knowledge of him. I was fortunately in a very happy temper and very good humor. He went over the whole ground of the victories of Suwarrow and Prince Charles, and the inflexible determination of the two imperial courts, in concert with G. Britain, to restore the house of Bourbon to their kingdom. That there was no doubt the enterprise was already accomplished, or at least it would be, before the end of the campaign. That Mr. Pitt was determined to restore the Bourbons. That the confidence of the nation in Mr. Pitt was unbounded. That the nation was never so united, and determined to support Mr. Pitt and his resolution to restore the monarchy of France.—His eloquence and vehemence wrought the little man up to a degree of heat and effervescence like that which Gen. Knox used to describe of his conduct in the battle of Monmouth, and which General Lee used to call his paroxysms of bravery, but which he said would never be of any service to his country. I answered him in general, as I had answered the heads of departments and Judge Ellsworth—but to no purpose. He repeated over and over again the unalterable resolution of Mr. Pitt and the two imperial courts, the invincible heroism os Suwarrow and Prince Charles, and the unbounded confidence of the British empire in Mr. Pitt, with such agitation and violent action, that I really pitied him, instead of being displeased. I only added, that I differed with him in opinion on every point, and that instead of restoring the Bourbons, it would not be long before England would make peace. I treated him throughout with great mildness and civility; but after he took leave, I could not help reflecting in my own mind on the total ignorance he had betrayed of every thing in Europe, in France, England, and elsewhere. Instead of that unbounded confidence in Mr. Pitt, I knew that the nation had been long working up almost to a ripeness for rebellion against Mr. Pitt, for continuing the war. Accordingly it was not long before Mr. Pitt was obliged to resign, peace at Amiens was made, and Napoleon acknowledged. Mr. Hamilton in his most famous pamphlet, has hinted at this conversation, and squinted at my simplicity for expecting peace.

Upon the whole, I directed the instructions to be prepared, the heads of departments were assembled, and the instructions deliberately considered, paragraph by paragraph, and unanimously approved by me and by them. Indeed there had never been any difference of opinion among us on any article of the instructions.

The instructions were presented to the envoys, and they requested to embark in the United States frigate as soon as possible.—For some cause or other in the state of the ship, they landed in Spain, and went by land from Corunna to Paris on the same route which Mr. Dana and I had travelled twenty years before, that is, in 1780. Before their arrival, a revolution had occurred, and the Consular government succeeded the Directory.

Had Mr. Murray’s nomination been approved, he would probably have finished the business long before, and obtained compensation for all spoliations.

John Adams.

Printed Source--Boston Patriot.

Index Entries