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From John Adams to John Jay, 28 May 1786

To John Jay

Grosvenor Square May 28. 1786

Dear Sir

An Agent from South America, was not long Since arrested, at Rouen in France, and has not Since been heard of.— another Agent, who was his Associate, as I have been told is here, and has applied to Government, for Aid. Government, not in a condition to go to War with Spain declines having any Thing to do with the Business. but if Application Should be made to rich Individuals, and profitable Prices offered, for twenty or thirty Thousand Stands of Arms, a Number of Field Pieces, a few battering Cannon, Some Mortars, a good deal of Ammunition Cloathing &c. do you think that in this Capital of Mammon they might not be obtained?— I might mention Names and Facts, which have been communicated to me. but my Information is not official, nor authentic enough for this. It is Sufficient to Say that an Office, like that once undertaken by Mr Beaumarchais, would not probably be refused by all Men here.1

You are probably better informed, than I can pretend to be of the Disturbances which took Place in the Spanish Provinces of South America, during the late War: of the Pacification of them; and of the Complaints and Discontents which now prevail. it is a fixed Opinion in many minds here, that a Revolution in South America, would be agreable to the United States, and it is depended on that We shall do nothing to prevent it, if We do not exert ourselves to promote it. I Shall decline entering far into this Speculation, which is out of my depth.— but I must venture to Say, that Portugal is bound by a Treaty of 1778 to assist Spain in Such a Case. France must assist her, from the Family Compact, and for a Still more weighty Reason, vizt to prevent England from getting too rich & powerfull by it. and Holland is now bound by Treaty to France & perhaps to Spain.— We Should be very cautious, what We do. for England will certainly reap the greatest Advantage, as she will Supply with her Manufactures, all South America, which will give her a Sudden Wealth and Power, that will be very dangerous to Us.

That British Ambassadors will very soon endeavour, to excite the two Empires, & Denmark, to an Alliance, for the Purpose of Setting the Spanish and Portuguese Colonies free, is very probable. as an Inducement they may agree to assist in opening the Danube and the Navigation by the Dardanells. The Object of the next War, I think will be the Liberty of Commerce in South America, & the East Indies. We Shall be puzzled to keep out of it. but I think We ought if We can. England would gain the most, by Such a Turn in Affairs, by the Advantages she has over other nations in the improvements of her Manufactures Commerce and Marine, and England unfortunately We cannot trust.

Such Speculations as these are not new. a Pamphlet was written in 1783, under the Title of La Crise de L’Europe, by a learned British Knight, and circulated upon the Continent. as I cannot Send you the whole you may possess yourself of the Spirit of it, by a few Extracts.2

Such are the Secret Thoughts of many in this Country but not a Word or hint Escapes in Conversation. They are Sent to you, because, they afford a Clue, for the whole political Conduct of G. Britain in future. and for the present too, for it is impossible Otherwise to account for the Inattention of this Country to the Commerce and Friendship of the United states of America. They are keeping up their Navy, and Sacrificing every Thing to Seamen, in Order to be able to Strike a sudden and Awful Blow to the House of Bourbon, by setting south America free, and they rely upon it the United states will not oppose them.

With great and Sincere Esteem, I have the Honour to [be] / Sir your most obedient and most / humble servant

John Adams.

RC (PCC, No. 84, VI, f. 193–204); internal address: “His Excellency John Jay. / Secretary of State for / foreign Affairs.” LbC (Adams Papers description begins Manuscripts and other materials, 1639–1889, in the Adams Manuscript Trust collection given to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1956 and enlarged by a few additions of family papers since then. Citations in the present edition are simply by date of the original document if the original is in the main chronological series of the Papers and therefore readily found in the microfilm edition of the Adams Papers (APM). description ends ); APM Reel 112. Some loss of text due to a tight binding.

1The information provided by JA in this paragraph is essentially the same as that in WSS’s 10 May letter to Jay (Dipl. Corr., 1783–1789 description begins The Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States of America, from … 1783, to … 1789, [ed. William A. Weaver], repr., Washington, D.C., 1837 [actually 1855]; 3 vols. description ends , 3:27–29). There WSS wrote that William Pitt rejected any official aid from the British government because of the treaties guaranteeing Spain’s American colonies. However, negotiations led by George Nugent-Temple Grenville, 3d Earl Temple and 1st Marquis of Buckingham, to provide clandestine aid through a private individual, much as the French had done for the Americans through Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, were under way. On 14 June WSS informed Jay that Buckingham’s effort had proceeded no further (same, 3:30–31).

2From this point, at the bottom of page 3 of this letter through the middle of page 11, JA included a series of lengthy extracts from Sir John Sinclair’s anonymously published La crise de l’Europe, ou pensées sur le système que les différentes puissances de l’Europe et, en particulier, la neutralité armée devroient suivre dans la conjoncture présente, [London?, 1783], p. 19–24, 25–27, 28–29, 29–30, 31–33, 34, 35, 39–42, 43, 44, 46–47. For John Pintard’s English translation of the French passages, see PCC, No. 84, VI, f. 205–210.

Sinclair (1754–1835) was an M.P. for Lostwithiel, Cornwall, a sometime supporter of Pitt, a prolific writer, and a founder of the short-lived “armed neutrality” party. It was presumably from the last that the pamphlet arose (DNB description begins Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, eds., The Dictionary of National Biography, New York and London, 1885–1901; repr. Oxford, 1959–1960; 21 vols. plus supplements; rev. edn., www.oxforddnb.com. description ends ). JA and Thomas Jefferson dined with Sinclair on 18 April and may have discussed Spain’s American colonies, for on [24 April] Sinclair wrote to Jefferson enclosing several copies of a pamphlet “the first that ever was published asserting the propriety of a general colonial emancipation.” Presumably Jefferson gave one of the copies to JA (JA, D&A description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 3:188; Jefferson, Papers description begins The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, Princeton, N.J., 1950– . description ends , 9:405–406).

The portions of the pamphlet extracted by JA make it clear that Sinclair’s purpose was to contain “l’ambition des Bourbons,” that is, France and Spain. He wanted to open the resources monopolized by them in the Americas to the world and thus advance the cause of humanity. To accomplish this, he proposed reestablishing the 1780 League of Armed Neutrality—then composed of Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands, Prussia, and Portugal—and to add to it Great Britain (vol. 10:index). The British and Dutch fleets would be combined and take the French and Spanish possessions, distributing them to the members of the new armed neutrality: Cuba would be given to Russia, Martinique to Denmark, Guadeloupe to Sweden, Puerto Rico to Prussia, Spanish Hispaniola to the Netherlands, French Hispaniola to Austria, and the remaining islands would be awarded to Britain.

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