Adams Papers

From John Adams to Boston Patriot, 10 June 1809

Quincy, June 10, 1809


IN page 29. Mr. Hamilton says, "when an ordinary man dreams himself to be a Frederick," &c.

To this I shall make but a short answer. When a Miss of the street shall print a pamphlet in London, and call the Queen of England an ordinary woman, who dreams herself a Catharine of Russia, no Englishman will have the less esteem for his queen for that impudent libel.

There is something in the 24th page, of a graver complexion. It is said, “that the session which ensued the promulgation of the dispatches of our commissioners was about to commence. This was the session of 1798. Mr. Adams arrived at Philadelphia. The tone of his mind seemed to be raised."

Let me ask a candid public, how did Mr. Hamilton know any thing of the tone of Mr. Adams’s mind, either before or at that conference? To make the comparison, he must have known the state of Mr. Adams’s mind at both these periods. He had never conversed with Mr. Adams before, nor was he present at that conference. Who was the musician that took the pitch of Mr. Adams’s mind, at the two moments here compared together? And what was the musical instrument, or whose exquisite ear was it that ascertained so nicely the vibrations of the air, and Mr. Adams’s sensibility to them? Had Mr. Hamilton a spy in the cabinet? Who transmitted to him, from day to day, the confidential communications between the President and heads of department? If there existed such a spy, why might he not communicate these conferences to Mr. Liston, or the Marquis Yrujo, as well as to Mr. Hamilton? He had as clear a right. I believe that all the privy councillors of the world but our own, are under an oath of secrecy; and ours ought to be. But as they are not, their own honor and sense of propriety ought, with them, to be obligations as sacred as an oath.

The truth is, I had arrived at Philadelphia, from a long journey, which had been delayed longer than I intended, very much fatigued; and as no time was to be lost, I sent for the heads of departments, to consult, in the evening, upon the points to be inserted in the speech to Congress, who were soon to meet.

My intention was, in the language of the lawyers, merely to break the questions, or moot the points necessary for us to consider; not intending to express any opinion of my own, or to request any opinion of theirs upon any point; but merely to take the questions into their consideration, and give me their advice upon all of them at a future meeting.

I observed, that I found, by various sources of information, and particularly by some of the newspapers in Boston and New-York, that there was a party who expected an unqualified recommendation of a declaration of war against France.

These paragraphs, I was well satisfied, were written by gentlemen who were in the confidence and correspondence of Hamilton and one of the heads of departments at least, though I gave them no intimation of this.

I said to the gentlemen, that I supposed it would be expected of us, that we should consider this question, and be able to give our reasons for the determination, whatever it might be.

The conduct of the gentlemen upon this question was such as I wished it to be upon all the others. Not one of them gave an opinion either for or against a declaration of war. There was something, however, in the total silence and reserve of all of them, and in the countenances of some, that appeared to me to be the effect of disappointment. It seemed to me, that they expected I should have proposed a declaration of war, and only asked their advice to sanction it. However, not a word was said.

That there was a disappointment, however, in Hamilton and his friends, is apparent enough, from this consideration—that when it was known that a declaration of war was not to be recommended in the President’s speech, a caucus was called of members of Congress, to see if they could not get a vote for a declaration of war, without any recommendation from the President, as they had voted the alien and sedition law, and the army. What passed in that caucus, and how much zeal there was in some, and who they were, judge Sewall can tell better than I. All that I shall say, is, that Mr. Hamilton’s friends could not carry the vote.

My second proposition to the heads of departments was to consider, in case we should determine against a declaration of war, what was the state of our relations with France, and whether any further attempt at negociation should be made.

Instead of the silence and reserve with which my first question was received, Mr. Hamilton shall relate what was said.

Mr. Hamilton says, "It was suggested to him, Mr. Adams, that it might be expedient to insert in the speech, a sentiment of this import, that after the repeatedly rejected advances of this country, its dignity required that it should be left with France, in future, to make the first overture: that if desirous of reconciliation, she should evince the disposition, by sending a minister to this government; he would be received with the respect due to his character, and treated with, in the frankness of a sincere desire of accommodation. The suggestion was received in a manner both indignant and intemperate."

I demand again, how did Mr. Hamilton obtain this information? Had he a spy in the cabinet? If he had, I own I had rather that all the courts in Europe should have had spies there; for they could have done no harm by any true information they could have obtained there; whereas Hamilton has been able to do a great deal of mischief, by the pretended information he has published.

It is very true, that I thought this proposition intended to close the avenues to peace, and to ensure a war with France; for I did believe that some of the heads of departments were confident, in their own minds, that France would not send a minister here.

From the intimate intercourse between Hamilton and some of the heads of departments, which is demonstrated to the world and to posterity, by this pamphlet, I now appeal to every candid and impartial man, whether there is not reason to suspect and to believe, whether there is not a presumption, a violent presumption, that Hamilton himself had furnished this machine to his correspondent in the cabinet, for the very purpose of ensnaring me, at unawares, of ensuring a war with France, and enabling him to mount his hobby horse, the command of an army of fifty-thousand, ten thousand of them to be horse?

Hamilton says, "the suggestion was received in a manner both indignant and intemperate." This is false. It is true, it was urged with so much obstinacy, perseverance and indecency, not to say intemperance, that at last I declared I would not adopt it, in clear and strong terms.

Mr. Hamilton says, "Mr. Adams declared, as a sentiment he had adopted on mature reflection, that if France should send a minister here to-morrow, he would order him back the day after."

Here I ask again, where, how, and from whom did he get this information? Was it from his spy in the cabinet? Or was it the fabrication of his own "sublimated, excentric," and intemperate imagination? In either case, it is an entire misrepresentation.

I said that when in my retirement at Quincy, the idea of the French government sending a minister here, had sometimes occurred to me, my first thoughts were, that I would send him back the next day after his arrival, as a retaliation for their sending ours back; and because the affront offered to us had been at Paris, publicly, in the face of all Europe the atonement ought to be upon the same theatre; and because, as the French government had publicly and officially declared that they would receive no minister plenipotentiary from the United States until the President had made apologies for his speeches and answers to addresses, they ought to be made to retract and take back that rash declaration, on the same spot where it had been made. They might send a minister here, consistently with that offensive declaration. This was my first thought; but upon mature reflection, I saw that this would not be justifiable; for, to retaliate one breach of principle by another breach of principle, was neither the morality nor the policy that had been taught me by my father and my tutors. Our principle was, that the right of embassy was sacred. I would therefore sacredly respect it, if they sent a minister here. But I would not foreclose myself from sending a minister to France, if I saw an opening for it, consistent with our honor: in short, that I would leave both doors and all doors wide open for a negociation. All this refutation came from myself, not from the heads of departments.

All that he says in this place and in the beginning of the next page, of my wavering, is false. My mind never underwent any revolution or alteration at all, after I left Quincy. I inserted no declaration in my speech, that I would not send a minister to France; nor any declaration, that if France would give assurances of receiving a minister from this country, I would send one. Nothing like that declaration was ever made, except in my message to Congress, of the 21st of June, 1798, in these words: “I will never send another minister to France, without assurances that he will be received, respected and honored, as the representative of a great, free, powerful and independent nation." This declaration finally effected the peace.

Both the doors of negociation were left open. The French might send a minister here without conditions—we might send one to France, upon condition, of a certainty that he would be received in character.

What conduct did the French government hold, in consequence of this declaration? They retracted their solemn and official declaration, that they would receive no minister plenipotentiary, in future, from the United States, without apologies from the President, for his speeches and answers to addresses. They withdrew, and expressly disavowed all claims of loans and doucœurs, which had been held up in a very high tone. They even gave encouragement, I might say they promised, to make provision for an equitable compensation for spoliations.—They promised to receive our ministers, and they did receive them, and made peace with them—a peace that completely accomplished a predominant wish of my heart for five and twenty years before, which was, to place our relations with France and with Great Britain, upon a footing of equality and impartiality, that we might be able to preserve, in future, an everlasting neutrality in all the wars of Europe.

I see now, with great pleasure, that England professes to acknowledge and adopt this our principle of impartiality, and I hope that France will soon adopt it too. The two powers ought to see, that it is the only principle we can adopt with safety to ourselves, or justice to them. If this is an error, it is an error in which I have been invariably and unchangeably fixed for five and thirty years, in the whole course of which I have never seen reason to suspect it to be an error, and I now despair of ever discovering any such reasons.

Nevertheless, Mr. Hamilton calls the declaration that accomplished all this, "a pernicious declaration!"

Pernicious it was to his views of ambition and domination. It extinguished his hopes of being at the head of a victorious army of fifty thousand men; without which, he used to say, he had no idea of having a head upon his shoulders for four years longer.

Thus it is, when self-sufficient ignorance impertinently obtrudes itself into offices and departments, in which it has no right, nor color, nor pretence to interfere.

Thus it is, when ambition undertakes to sacrifice all characters, and the peace of nations, to its own private interest.

I have now finished all I had to say on the negociations and peace with France, in 1800—I find I must say something of the peace with England, in 1783.

In the meantime, when I look back on the opposition and embarrassments I had to overcome, from the faction of British subjects, from that large body of Americans who revere the English and abhor the French, from some of the Heads of Departments, from so many gentlemen in Senate, and so many more in the House of Representatives, and from the insidious and dark intrigues as well as open remonstrances of Mr. Hamilton, I am astonished at the event.

In some of my jocular moments I have compared myself to an animal I have seen, take hold of the end of a cord with his teeth and be drawn slowly up by pullies, through a storm of squibs, crackers, and rockets, flashing and blazing round him every moment: and though the scorching flames made him groan, and mourn, and roar, he would not let go his hold till he had reached the ceiling of a lofty theatre, where he hung sometime, still suffering a flight of rockets, and at last descended through another storm of burning powder, and never let go, till his four feet were safely landed on the floor.

In some of my social hours I have quoted Virgil:

Fata obstant, placidasque viri Deus obstruit aures.

Ac velut annoso validam cum robore quercum

Alpini Boreæ nunc hinc nunc flatibus illinc

Eruere inter se certant; it stridor; et altæ

Consternunt terram concusso stipite frondes:

Ipsa hæret scopulis: et quantum in virtice ad auras

Ætherias, tantum radice in Tartara tendit.

Haud secus assiduis hinc atque hinc vocibus heros

Tunditur, et magno persentit pectore curas.

Mens immota manet: lacrimæ volvuntur inanes.

Lib. 4. 440.

His hardened heart nor prayers nor threatening move;

Fate and the Gods had stopp’d his ears,

As when the winds their airy quarrels try,

Justling from every quarter of the sky;

This way and that the mountain oak they bend,

His boughs they shatter, and his branches rend;

With leaves and falling mast, they spread the ground.

The hollow vallies to the echo sound:

Unmov’d the sturdy plant, their fury mocks,

Or shaken, clings more closely to the rocks:

Far as he shoots his towering head on high,

So deep in earth his deep foundations lie;

No less a storm the Trojan hero bears;

Thick messages and loud complaints he hears,

And bandied words still beating on his ears.

Sighs, groans and tears, proclaim his inward pains,

But the firm purpose of his heart remains.

Dryden, B. 4. 186.

But this is all levity. There have been sober hours, not a few: and I know not that there has been one, in which I have not adored that Providence of Almighty God, which alone could have carried me safely through, to a successful issue, this transaction and so many others, equally difficult, and infinitely more dangerous to my life, if not to my reputation.

John Adams.

Printed Source--Boston Patriot.

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