Motion on John Adams’ Commission and Instructions
MS (NA: PCC, No. 36, IV, 367). Although docketed by Samuel Huntington, “Motion by Mr Madison 2d by Mr Sharpe Respecting the Instructions given to J Adams for Negotiating a Treaty of Commerce with Britain,” the “Secret Journal, Foreign Affairs,” states that John Mathews seconded it (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XX, 746). A rough draft of the motion in JM’s hand is in NA: PCC, No. 36, IV, 357. After beginning a letter by writing “Philadelphia, July 13, 1781” and “Sir:” on a separate sheet of paper, JM evidently decided to use the sheet instead as a cover for the page containing the rough draft of his motion and file it with the papers of Congress. He repeated the place and date line in the letter from the Virginia delegates to Joseph Reed (q.v.).
[12 July 1781]
That the Commission & instructions for negociating a Treaty of Commerce between the U. States & G. Britain given to J. Adams Esqr. on the day of 2 be & they are hereby revoked.
That the Ministers Plenipotentiary3 for negociating a Treaty of Peace, be & they are hereby instructed to admit into such Treaty no stipulations on the part of the U. States4 in favor of the Commerce of G. Britain, unless the same shall be necessary5 to obtain the proposed peace;6 and that in case of such necessity, they7 use their most strenuous endeavours to obtain in consideration thereof, an explicit stipulation on the part of G. B.8 to the U.S. of9 the right of the latter to fish on the banks of Newfoundland &c. as stated in10 the instructions of Congress of the day of 11 relative to a Treaty of Commerce; of their claim of territory as stated in the Ultimatum of Congress on that subject12 in their instructions of the day of relative to a Treaty of peace;13 and also a relinquishment of any demands wch. may be made by G. Britain of the readmission14 of the Persons or restitution of the property of those who have15 abandoned or been banished from any one of the United States.16
1. See Motion on Treaty of Commerce, 29 June 1781, and editorial note. The present resolutions were forwarded to Adams on 21 July 1781 by James Lovell, who thought them “ill-judged” (Wharton, Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, 1889). description ends , IV, 597).
2. On 14 August 1779, over the negative vote of the three delegates of Virginia, Congress had adopted instructions to bind whoever should be chosen to negotiate a treaty of commerce with Great Britain. On 27 September John Adams was selected for this assignment, and the wording of his commission was adopted the following day (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XIV, 960–62; XV, 1113, 1117).
3. In his rough draft, which begins with the second paragraph, JM first wrote “Commissioners” and then replaced the word with “Ministers Plenipotentiary.” For their election, see Notes from Secret Journal, 9–15 June 1781, n. 5.
4. “On the part of the U. States” does not appear in JM’s preliminary draft.
5. JM’s final draft at first read, “unless such stipulation shall be absolutely necessary,” but he then reverted to the phraseology in his rough draft.
6. Under the provisions of the second article of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce concluded with France in 1778, the contracting powers had guaranteed each other every commercial “Favour” granted by either to any third power. To concede anything “in favor of the Commerce of G. Britain” would, then, be automatically to extend the same to France. But this very likely was not what concerned JM. He was probably far more concerned with the fact that should France and Great Britain be placed on the same footing in regard to American markets, there could be but one result in a competition involving an ally which concentrated on luxury goods and the common enemy which vaunted itself on being “the workshop of the world.” Again, it would have been obvious to JM that the greater the number of concessions withheld from London now, the greater would be the bargaining power of the United States in the long course of diplomatic and commercial maneuvering that must take place in the future.
7. In the rough draft “to” rather than “they” appears.
8. The rough draft omits “on the part of G. B.”
9. In the rough draft, following “of,” JM wrote “their right” and, of course, omitted “of the latter” after “right.”
10. In the rough draft, following “in,” JM wrote “their instructions” and omitted “of Congress.”
11. See n. 2, above. In JM’s preliminary draft, “to J. Adams, Esq.” appears after this second blank space.
12. From the semicolon to this point, the preliminary draft reads, “of the Boundaries of the U.S. as defined in the Ultimatum on that subject as required.”
13. Apparently the blank spaces should be filled in with 15 June 1781 (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XX, 651–52). See Motions on Boundaries, 8 June 1781, and nn.; Notes from Secret Journal, 9–15 June 1781, n. 5.
14. From the semicolon to this point in the rough draft, the text originally read, “and a relinquishment of any demands that may be made by G. Britain of a readmission into any of these said States.” JM then crossed out the last six words of this passage. Before he polished his final draft, “to obtain” followed “also,” “demands” appeared as “claims,” and “made” as “set up.”
15. Following “have” in his final draft, JM crossed out “either.”
16. For the vote on these resolutions, see Notes from Secret Journal, 12 July 1781. JM was in effect proposing that the American commissioners, if obliged to agree to peace terms favorable to British commerce, should make their yielding on this matter contingent upon an acceptance by the British not only of the two earlier ultimata of Congress concerning independence and boundaries but also of a third stipulation, not hitherto advanced, respecting Tories and their property. The final sentence of n. 6, above, is especially in point here.
Although Congress adopted the present resolutions, the fifth article of the Treaty of Paris of 3 September 1783 would state that Congress should “earnestly recommend” to the legislatures of the states “to provide for the restitution” of all confiscated properties “belonging to real British subjects” and also to civilians who lived “in districts in the possession of His Majesty’s arms” within the United States. As is well known, Virginia and most of the other states refused to follow this recommendation.