Adams Papers

From John Adams to Boston Patriot, 22 September 1809

Quincy, September 22, 1809.


ALL the gentlemen in Holland who were the most friendly to the American cause, were excessively prone to have their spirits cast down into deep despondency, and absolute despair of our final success by any sudden news of unfortunate events: In one of these dispositions, the Baron Vander Capellen wrote me a letter, full of these causes of his own and others anxiety, to which I wrote him the following hasty answer.

Amsterdam, January 21st, 1781—wrote to the Baron Vander Capellen de Poll: “I have not been able to find an opportunity to acknowledge the receipt of the esteemed favor with which you honored me, on the 24th of December, till now.

I think it is very probable that the several causes you have enumerated co-operate to lessen the credit of the United States—but I think, at the same time, that it is because the facts are misrepresented and exaggerated by the friends of England.—Let us consider them for a few moments, one by one.

“The invasion of Georgia and of South Carolina” is the first. But why should the invasion of these two States affect the credit of the Thirteen States, more than the invasion of any two others? Massachusetts and Rhode Island have been invaded by armies much more formidable. New-York, Connecticut, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, have all been invaded before: But what has been the consequence? Not conquest.—Nor submission. On the contrary, all these States have not only learned the art of war, and the habits of submission to military discipline, but have got themselves well armed, nay, cloathed and furnished with a great deal of hard money, by these very invasions. And what is more than all the rest, they have got over the fears and terrors that are always excited by a first invasion, and are a worse enemy than the English. And, moreover, they have had such experience of the tyranny and cruelty of the enemy as has made them more resolute than ever, against the English government. Now why should not the invasion of Georgia and Carolina have the same effects? It is very certain, in the opinion of the Americans themselves, that it will. Besides, the unexampled cruelty of Cornwallis has been enough to revolt, even Negroes. It has been such as will make the English, objects of greater horror there, than in any other of the States.

“The capture of Charleston” is the second. But why should the capture of Charleston have a greater effect than that of Boston or Philadelphia? The latter of which was of vastly more importance to the common cause than Charleston.

“The loss of the continental frigates.”—But why were these four or five frigates of so much more importance than several times that number that we had lost before. We lost several frigates with Philadelphia, and shipping to a much greater value than at Charleston. We lost frigates with New-York: but above all, we lost at Penobscot armed vessels to five times a greater amount than at Charleston. Yet all those losses have been suddenly repaired, insomuch that our armed vessels, in the course of the last summer, have taken more prizes than they ever did before by half. They did more damage to the English than the whole maritime power of France and Spain have done from the beginning of the war. We can afford to lose a great many frigates, because they cost us nothing. I am assured, that, by an accurate calculation from the public accounts, the prizes taken by the continental navy have amounted to a large sum more than the whole amount expended in building, equipping, manning, victualling and paying the ships and men, from the beginning of the war.

“The defeat of Gates.” But why should this defeat discourage America, or weaken her credit in Europe, more than the defeat on Long Island? The loss of Fort Washington? The defeat at Brandywine? At Germantown? The loss of Canada? Ticonderoga? &c. much greater defeats and more deplorable losses?

“The inaction of the combined fleets of De Guichen and Salano.” But if we consider that the Spaniards got their fleet and army and artillery safe to America, to put their dominions there in a state of safety; that the French have convoyed home, in safety, their merchant fleets; that De Guichen fought Rodney twice or three times, on equal terms, and the English gained no advantage; that the French fleet is now at Brest, under D’Estainge, to keep the English in awe: perhaps it is better for the common cause than if they had put more to hazard.

“The decided superiority of the English in the islands.” But if we consider the French and Spanish ships that are still in the West Indies, and the disabled condition of the English fleet, their want of men, and especially the weakness of their garrisons in their islands, and the strength of the French and Spanish garrisons, we are sure that the English are not in a condition to attempt any thing against them.

“The superiority of the English at New York”—is but just sufficient to prevent their enemies from destroying them.

“The defection of Arnold”—will be considered by every man who contemplates all the circumstances that attended it, as a proof the weakness of the English, and the decisive strength and confidence of the Americans. When we consider the crimes he had committed, and the unpopularity into which he had justly fallen: When we consider that an officer of his high rank, long services, and brilliant reputation, was not able to carry over with him a single officer or soldier, nor even his own valet, nor his wife, nor his child: When we consider the universal execration in which his treason was held by the whole army, and the whole continent: When we consider the firmness and dignity with which Andrée was punished, we must conclude that the American army and people stand strong; as strong against the arts and bribes as the arms and valor of their enemies.

“The discontent of the army.” There never was an army without anxiety and a constant agitation of hopes and fears.—When the officers think their pay is not enough, what can they do but represent it to the government for redress? This has certainly been done. But what are the discontents in the British army and navy? Much greater, I assure you, than in the American service.

“The jealousy between the army and the body politic,” is not to be dreaded. It only shews that the spirit of liberty is still alive and active in the people. The baron Vander Capellen, I am sure, will applaud the people for keeping a watchful eye over the army, to see that it may not ravish from them that liberty for which all have been contending.

“Mr. Neckar” seems to stand upon firm ground; and “the changes in the French ministry” probably have been for the better. But it is scarcely possible to believe that any change in the French ministry should do any considerable injury to the common cause. The changes already made were because enough was not done. The importance of France, nay, her existence as a maritime and commercial power, are so much at stake in this business, that it is impossible she should forsake the cause.

“The depreciation of the paper money” is the most difficult to be answered, because it is the most difficult to explain to a gentleman who has not been in the country and seen its operation. This depreciation has been a real advantage, because it is a tax upon the people paid as it advances, and therefore prevents the public from being found in debt. It is true, it is an unequal tax, and therefore causes what your friend governor Livingston justly calls “perplexity”; but by no means weakens or disables the people from carrying on the war. The body of the people lose nothing by it. The merchant, the farmer, the tradesman, the laborer, loses nothing by it. They are the monied men, the capitalists, those who have money at interest, those who live upon fixed salaries, that is, the officers of government, who lose by it, and who have borne this tax. This, you see, is an ease and relief to the people at large.—The consequence of this depreciation has been, that, while England has increased her national debt sixty millions by this war, ours is not a tenth part of it, not six millions. Who then can hold out longest?—This depreciation has no tendency to make the people submit to Great Britain; because that submission would not relieve, but increase the perplexity. For submission would not procure us peace. We must raise men and money to fight France, Spain, Holland, Russia, Sweden and Denmark.—The Congress, instead of attempting to redeem the paper money by hard cash, has ordered it all in, at the depreciated value, and this measure is adopted by the States without any difficulty, which is the only method of justice or policy.

Nobody need fear that the English will “seize the moments when our army shall be feeble for want of pay.” There have been several moments when our army has been reduced to almost nothing, not from want of pay, but from the expiration of their periods of enlistment. These moments the English seized before they had sent half their army to the West India islands. But what was the consequence? When our army was reduced to a few hundreds, and theirs more than double what it is now, they marched through the Jerseys. And what was the consequence? Their post at Trenton was attacked and taken; another body of their troops were attacked and defeated at Princeton, and General Washington took post at Morriston, in their rear, and they dared not move another step the whole winter. The affairs at Trenton, Bennington, and lately on the summit of King’s Mountain, prove beyond reply, that if our army is reduced ever so low, and theirs extend themselves ever so far, their necessary advanced posts are in our power: in the power even of an handfull of the militia. No, sir! Their power to hurt us lies more in keeping hid in a fortified sea port town, than by marching into the country.

As to “a total failure of specie,” we are in no danger of it. The English are furnishing us with silver and gold every day. What is become of all the millions they have sent to America, during this war?—What, of all the cash that France sends to pay and subsist their fleet and army? The truth is, that silver and gold now circulate freely in America, and there are larger quantities of both, than any body in Europe imagines.

As to “the danger of the people’s submitting, from indigence,” that danger, if any such there ever was, is past, in 1776 and 1777. The people suffered very much, and the army too, for want of salt, sugar, rum and cloathing. But at this day, their trade is so far extended, they make such numbers of prizes, and have introduced and established so many necessary manufactures, that they have a plentiful supply.—We have been more distressed for want of salt and powder than any thing else. But there is now an abundance of both, manufactured in the country, and imported too.

As to “the ability of America to pay,” it depends upon a few words. America has between three and four millions of people; England and Scotland have between five and six. The lands in America produce as much as any other lands. The exports of America, in 1774, were six millions. The exports of Great Britain, in 1774, were twelve millions, including too a great part of the commodities of the growth of America. England is two hundred millions in debt. America six millions. England has spent sixty millions in this war: America six. Which people then are the ablest to pay? Yet England has credit: America not. Is this from reasoning, or from prejudice?

The numbers of people, their industry; the quantity and fertility of their lands, and the value of their exports, are the best rules and the only rules I know to judge of the ability of a people to pay taxes and debts. In all these respects American credit will bear the most rigorous examination. The country that lends them money will get the most by it. Their principal and interest will be safe; and what is more the money will be laid out among them in the purchase of cloathing and supplies, so that the trade will be promoted by it.

When England and every other nation of Europe is obliged to borrow money every year to carry on war; England to the amount of her whole annual exports; it is not to be wondered, that America has occasion to borrow, a sum after six years of war, equal to a twelfth or a twenty-fourth part of her annual exports. With such a loan we could carry on the war more at our ease; our poor soldiers would be more warm and comfortable; but if we cannot obtain it, we shall not have it to pay; and I am positively certain we can carry on the war without a loan longer than Great Britain can with all their loans.

You may depend upon it sir I shall be “cautious,” and maintain the most sacred regard to truth in my representations to congress. But I dare not deceive them with false hopes. No man living has more at heart, than I have, a friendly and lasting connection between the two republics. The religion, the government and the commerce of the two countries point out such a connection. Old prejudices and habits of veneration for Holland in the minds of all Americans who have ever considered the Dutch as their friends and allies make the Americans wish for such a connection. For it should be remembered that we have been as long in alliance and friendship with this country as England, and have as good a right for any thing I know to the benefit of the treaties as the English. And therefore if the truth will not warrant me in representing to congress so much zeal and warmth in this nation for a connection with America as I could wish; it will not be my fault, but my misfortune and my grief.

1781, January 25th—wrote to Mr. Dumas, at the Hague. “I have to acknowledge the receipt of your favors of the 15th and 24th, the latter enclosing a letter to Congress, which I will do myself the honor to enclose with my first dispatches. This method will be very agreeable to me, if you choose to continue it.

There are bruits here of a 74 gun ship, with six homeward bound East Indiamen, taken from the English, by some French men of war, near the Cape of Good Hope. The report comes from Lisbon; but merits confirmation.

I do not yet see or hear any thing of the manifesto; nor about another thing, which gives me more anxiety than any other, I mean the determination of the court of justice of Holland, upon the conduct of Amsterdam. I have fixed my attention on that court of justice, because the full justification of the regency of Amsterdam ought to be inserted in the manifesto. The British manifesto cannot be answered without it. The world will never think the republic in earnest, until this is done. Keeping it in suspense is considered as a design to keep open a passage for retreat. It is treating Notre Ami (Van Berckell) with great indignity, and in some measure depriving the public of his counsel and assistance, at a time when it is most wanted.—It is suffering the spirit of the people to subside, and their passions to cool, a matter of the last importance in war. “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the ebb, leads on to fortune.” However, the maxims of government here are different from most other countries; and the nation itself, and its rulers, must be the best judges of its interest, duty and policy.

Some minds have an habit of looking forward and guessing what future events will be the consequence of those that are passed: and though we are very short sighted, we can sometimes reason upon sure principles, and conjecture with some degree of certainty. Upon this plan then what will be the conduct of the Neutral Union? And what that of England? Must not the Neutral Confederacy demand restitution of all the Dutch ships, upon pain of war? And England must, unless she departs from every maxim that has governed her, not only throughout this reign, but several others before it; unless she departs from the character of the nation too, as well as the maxims of the court, refuse to restore the Dutch ships. The consequence, to all appearance, must be Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, France, Spain and America, all at war against England at once. A rare and curious phenomenon to be sure! But what wilt be the effect of this? Peace? By no means. The Neutral Confederacy moving slowly, and unused to war at sea, will depend upon England’s giving up, and will not exert themselves. England, whose navy has lived among flying balls for some time, will be alert and active, and do a great deal of mischief before her enemies are properly aroused. I think, in the end, they will be aroused, and the consequence of it will be that England will run a chance to be ruined, and undergo a terrible convulsion. Say are these reveries wholly chimerical?

You are sensible that our country, America, has two objects in view; one is a treaty of commerce, at least with this republic; the other is a loan of money. You will be so good as to keep these points always in sight, and inform me if you discover any disposition towards both, or either, in persons capable of effecting them, or putting things in a train for that purpose. The court is supposed to be decided against America. But is that certain? It has had an inclination towards England, but having got over that, why should it be against America? I am persuaded that nothing can be done without the court.

Do you think it would be prudent in me to endeavor to get introduced to one or more persons in power; the Grand Pensionary of Holland; or any of the members of the States General? in order to have some conversation upon American affairs? Do you suppose I should succeed, if I were to attempt to obtain such a conference? If it is the interest of the two republics to connect themselves together, as you and I believe it to be, it would not be amiss to have those interests mutually and candidly explained; and objections, if there are any, considered and obviated.

1781, January 31st—wrote to Mr. Jennings, at Brussels: “Your favor of the 24th is received. I wish that Madrid would put an end to Hussey’s and Cumberland’s masquerades. They do no good, if they do no harm.

I think it is pretty certain, that the English ministry are seeking a connexion with the Emperor of Germany: but as there is nothing to be gotten by a connection with them, but broken bones, if he has as much sense as he is reputed to have, he will rather choose to sleep in a whole skin.

The Duke of Brunswick Wolfembuttle is not at Lillo, but at the Hague. Your reasoning to shew the policy, the justice and the necessity of acknowledging American independence, is conclusive to all the maritime powers; and it is probable they are all sensible of it. But whoever does it, must have war with England, and this idea startles them all. They choose to arrange matters in such a system, that all may go to war at once, if any is obliged to do so.—And this takes time. But if the armed neutrality were all at war against England, the question is, whether they would all acknowledge American independence? To be sure, they all mean it: it is their interest: and it is a part of their system. But such is the caution, the timidity and the sloth, that I expect they would put it off—They would say, we will treat you like friends. But it is time enough. We know not what may happen. Wait for the general conferences of pacification. Then we will take your affair into consideration. I think, however, that Congress should send a minister to each of the maritime courts; or at least one, authorised to treat with all of them. Whether they will or not, I can not say. I fear they will be much divided about their foreign affairs.

By the treaty, France has agreed to join America, in proposing to other powers, to acknowledge our independence. If Congress, or any minister of Congress properly authorised, were to propose this to France, she could not, and would not, refuse it. Why it has not been done, I know not. The unfortunate division (in Congress) about foreign affairs, will account for many things. I hope, however, that something or other will turn up to make them more unanimous. If Mr. Lee and Mr. Izzard do not find the majority of their opinion in one point, their information may produce greater unanimity in many others.

Have you read La Vie privie de Louis XV.? It is just published here, in four volumes. I have devoured it with the utmost greediness. History, romance, or libel, it is very entertaining and instructive. It is the greatest compliment to America that ever was written. When we see the distress, the ruin, the humiliation and debasement of the French nation and monarchy, up to the very moment when America was severed from Great Britain, and began to cultivate a good understanding with France—when we see that, from the same moment, France began to revive; and has been increasing in reputation, wealth, commerce and power ever since; and her flourishing and prosperous condition at this day: America ought to appear in her own eyes, as well as those of the French and the rest of the world; as a nation and country whose friendship and alliance is well worth cultivating. I mean not, however, by this observation, to diminish the glory of the present monarch, whose wisdom has taken advantage of the benefits which Providence offered him.’’

1781, January 31—wrote to Mr. Dumas, at the Hague: “I have to thank you for your favors of the 28th and 29th, which arrived untouched by any hand too inquisitive.

The extraordinary demand for bread, in England, will be a great advantage to America. By increasing the demand in those countries which trade directly or indirectly with America, it will raise the price of it, and consequently increase the demand, and raise the price in America. We have always said in America, “By and by will come a scarce year for grain in Europe, and then the nations there will begin to think us of some consequence.” There will be, I fancy, next spring and summer, a vast exportation of grain from America, which will be an advantage to our credit: and if there should be a short crop next year and the year after, in England and the other parts of Europe, they will have an opportunity of seeing somewhat of the resources of America. For in the midst of all the difficulties of this war, grain enough will be found in America to supply the deficiencies of Europe.

Pray what are the news from Vienna? That the English are laboring with all their might; intriguing with all their subtlety; and bribing with all the money they can spare; in order to draw in the house of Austria to some connection with them, I am well persuaded. That the old jealousy, envy and rivalry of the house of Austria towards the house of Bourbon, is not all extinct, I believe. That it now pleads in favor of England, I guess. But as the Emperor is a man of sense, I rely upon it, he will not be taken in. If he should be, it will only make the war more passionate against England, and he will get nothing in the end but broken bones.

The news from all quarters in America are agreeable. “All’s well,’ as the sentinels cry at sea. The Massachusetts constitution gives new vigor to the State and its neighbors.

Have you seen La Vie privie de Louis XV.? It has been printed in four volumes, this month. I have read it through, with as much ardor and impatience, as I did in my youth the character of Lovelace, in Clarissa Harlow, and with more indignation. This work is a sublime compliment to America, as well as to Louis XVI. It is so to the reigning monarch, in proportion as his private life is a contrast to that of his predecessor. But no wisdom or virtue, public or private; no exertions or activity in the Prince, ministry, or nation, could have raised France out of that profound degree of contempt, misery and debasement, in which Louis XV. left it, to that height of reputation, opulence and power where it now stands, without the separation of America from Great Britain, and her alliance with France. Let it be remembered by every Frenchman, that the first Congress was held the same year that Louis XV. died; that France had seen eleven years of peace; and instead of rising out of the misery in which the peace of 1763 left her, she sunk deeper and deeper; that her prosperity and glory commenced with her connection with America, and has grown with a rapidity that surprises all Europe, ever since.

When other nations shall read this work, and make the proper reflections, they will draw the natural inferences. Such as, 1. That France can never desert America. 2. That France ought to exert herself with zeal, and that she will do it too. 3. That other nations will do wisely to imitate the example of France. 4. That the sooner they form connections with America, the more wisely they will act. Pardon this abominable writing. I cannot transcribe it.

John Adams.

Printed Source--Boston Patriot.

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