Adams Papers

From John Adams to Boston Patriot, 9 May 1809

Quincy, May [9,] 1809.

Mr. Hamilton, in his famous pamphlet, page 23, says, “the conduct pursued bore sufficient marks of courage and elevation to raise the national character to an exalted height throughout Europe.”

“Much it is to be deplored that we should have been precipitated from this proud eminence, without necessity, without temptation.”

It is the habitual practice of our parties, to affirm or deny, as they find it to their purpose, the honor or the disgrace that is produced in Europe by our measures. But neither party know any thing about the matter. The truth is, that our affairs are much less spoken or thought of, in Europe, than we imagine. In all parts of Europe, but especially in France and England, they are constantly misrepresented and misunderstood. Most of all in England. I will venture to say, that Mr. Hamilton wrote entirely at random, and without a glimmering of genuine information, when he mentioned both the exaltation and precipitation of our national character. To appeal to the courtiers or cabinet, or to the diplomatic corps in Europe, would be idle; because none of them will ever read Hamilton’s pamphlet or those papers. But I would not hesitate to submit the whole subject to any of them. I shall take another course. Chief Justice Ellsworth is no more. I can no longer appeal to him. If I could, I would say no more than the truth, but it would be more than I shall now say; and I aver that his representation to me was the direct reverse of Hamilton’s dogmatical assertions. Governor Davie still lives, and to him I appeal with confidence. He declared to me, that to judge of the conduct of the American government, both in their naval and other preparations for war, and in their political and diplomatic negociations upon that occasion, a man must go to Europe, where it was considered as the greatest demonstration of genius, firmness and wisdom. If I represent the Governor’s expressions in stronger terms than those he used, I request him to correct them.

In England, I know the Anti-Jacobin Journal abused us, and so did Macdonald, Cobbett, Smith, and every Briton in Europe and America, who wished us at war with France and in alliance with England. But even in England all the sober part of the nation applauded us, and that to such a degree, that it soon became the popular cry, “We must imitate the United States of America, change our ministers, and make peace.” Accordingly they did soon change their ministers and make peace at Amiens.

Mr. Liston, whose character I respect, had run through a long course of diplomatic experience in various courts and countries in Europe, from a secretary of legation and charge des affaires to the grade of minister plenipotentiary, and thence to that of ambassador at Constantinople, was probably a better judge than Mr. Hamilton, who had no experience at all in any diplomatic station, and who, I dare to say, had read very little on the subject of diplomatic functions, and still less of the history of embassies or of the printed despatches of ambassadors. Mr. Liston, if any body, knew what would procure honor to a nation or government, and what disgrace: what would raise the dignity, or what depress it: what was triumph, and what humiliation.

Now I affirm, that the first time Mr. Liston saw me after he had been informed of the communications of the French Directory, through Talleyrand, Mr. Pichon and Mr. Murray, he said to me these words—“To what humiliations will not these Frenchmen stoop, to appease you? I am very sorry for it: I own, I did hope they would have gone to war with you.” I smiled, but made no answer. I wanted no proof of the sincerity of this declaration. I doubted not the sincerity of his wish, more than I did that of Mr. Canning and his associates in the Anti-Jacobin, who, upon receiving the news of Mr. Murray’s nomination, proclaimed that jacobinism was triumphant and carrying all before it in America. They could not, or would not, distinguish between jacobinism and neutrality. Every thing with them was jacobinism, except a war with France and an alliance with Great Britain. They all panted for a war between the United States and France as sincerely, though not so ardently, as Alexander Hamilton.

There were not wanting insinuations and instigations to me, to confer with Mr. Liston on the subject of an alliance with Great Britain. And Mr L. himself repeatedly suggested to me. in very modest and delicate terms, however, his readiness to enter into any explanations on that head. I always waved it with as easy a politeness as I could. But my system was determined, and had been so for more than twenty years, that is, to enter into no alliance with any power in Europe. In case of war with England, I would not enter into any alliance with France. In case of war with France, I would not form any alliance with England. We want no alliance: we are equal to all our own necessary wars.

Non tali auxilio, nec defensoribus istis, tempus eget.” We might aid and be aided by a power at war with our enemy, and might concert operations from time to time; but I would take no engagement that should tie up our hands from making peace whenever we pleased. Had the war with France continued, I might have been drawn by the force of public opinion, or the influence of the legislature, into an alliance with England; but it would have been against my own judgment and inclination.

Let me conclude this letter with an anecdote. Dr. Franklin told me, that before his return to America from England, in 1775, he was in company, I believe at Lord Spencer’s, with a number of English noblemen, when the conversation turned upon fables, those of Æsop, La Fontaine, Gay, Moore, &c. &c. &c. Some of the company observed that he thought the subject was exhausted. He did not believe that any man could now find an animal, beast, bird, or fish, that he could work into a new fable with any success; and the whole company appeared to applaud the idea, except Franklin, who was silent. The gentlemen insisted on his opinion. He said, with submission to their lordships, he believed the subject was inexhaustible, and that many new and instructive fables might be made out of such materials. Can you think of one at present? If your lordship will furnish me a pen, ink and paper, I believe I can furnish your lordship with one in a few minutes. The paper was brought, and he sat down and wrote:—

Once upon a time, an eagle scaling round a farmer’s barn, and espying a hare, darted down upon him like a sun beam, seized him in his claws, and re-mounted with him in the air. He soon found that he had a creature of more courage and strength than a hare, for which, notwithstanding the keenness of his eye-sight, he had mistaken a cat. The snarling and scrambling of the prey was very inconvenient, and what was worse, she had disengaged herself from his talons, grasped his body with her four limbs, so as to stop his breath, and seized fast hold of his throat with her teeth. Pray, said the eagle, let go your hold and I will release you. Very fine, said the cat, I have no fancy to fall from this height and be crushed to death. You have taken me up, and you shall stoop and let me down. The eagle thought it necessary to stoop accordingly. The moral was so applicable to England and America, that the fable was allowed to be original and highly applauded.

Let Hamilton say what he will, the French Directory found it convenient to stoop and set us down on our honest ground of neutrality and impartiality, as the English did eagle formerly, and now does a second time.

John Adams.

Printed Source--Boston Patriot.

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