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The American Commissioners to the Conde de Sousa Coutinho, 9 September 1784

The American Commissioners to the Conde de Sousa

AL (draft):9 National Archives

After having met in person with Hartley, the British negotiator who would soon return to London, and Walterstorff, the Danish envoy with whom Franklin had negotiated a draft treaty in 1783,1 the American commissioners decided to send a circular letter to official representatives of the other nations with which they were empowered to negotiate treaties of commerce under their new instructions. The circular was drafted by John Adams.

Adams addressed his draft to Sousa, the Portuguese ambassador at the French court. Sousa and Thulemeier, the Prussian envoy at The Hague, were the first to receive circular letters, as they represented the two other countries besides Denmark with which the United States had already negotiated draft treaties of commerce.2 In their two cases, Adams (or one of his colleagues) realized that the earlier negotiations had to be acknowledged; Adams therefore interlined a phrase to that effect, which we note below. The letters to Sousa and Thulemeier, both including the additional phrase, were issued on September 9.

The circular letters were prepared by David Humphreys, who delivered them in person whenever possible. A second round of letters was issued on September 22, addressed to the following diplomats accedited to the court of Versailles:3 the conde de Aranda, the Spanish ambassador; Bariatinskii, the Russian minister;4 Jean-Baptiste Rivière, the chargé d’affaires of the Electorate of Saxony;5 Pio, chargé d’affaires of the court of the Two Sicilies; the conte di Scarnafiggi, ambassador of Sardinia; Pamphili, the papal nuncio; and Dolfin, the Venetian ambassador.6 A letter to Favi, the Tuscan chargé d’affaires, would have been included among those sent on September 22, but for “a mistake in transcribing.” A rewritten version was signed, dated, and sent on September 30.7

Of the twenty nations that the commissioners were instructed by Congress to approach, fourteen were now accounted for.8 For reasons explained in the commissioners’ report to Congress of November 11, they postponed notifying representatives of Hamburg, Turkey, Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. This left the three nations that had already concluded treaties with the United States: France, the Netherlands, and Sweden. The commissioners were instructed to propose supplementary treaties to these powers. They did so to the Swedish ambassador, Stael von Holstein, in a variation of the circular letter, dated September 28.9 The meeting between Adams, Jefferson, and Vergennes at Versailles is described in the commissioners’ report to Congress of November 11, below, as is the reason why the commissioners did not contact the Netherlands.

Passy, near Paris Septr. 9th 17842


The United States of America, in Congress assembled, judging that an Intercourse between the Subjects of her most Faithfull Majesty of Portugal and the Citizens of the Said States founded on the Principles of Equality, Reciprocity, and friendship, may be of mutual Advantage to both Nations, on the twelfth day of May last, issued their Commission under the Seal of the Said States, to the Subscribers as their Ministers Plenipotentiary, giving to them or the Majority of them Full Power and Authority, for them the Said States and in their Name to confer, treat, and negotiate with the Ambassador, Minister or Commissioner of her Said Most Faithfull Majesty of Portugal vested with full and Sufficient Powers, of and concerning a Treaty of Amity and Commerce, to make and receive Propositions for Such Treaty and to conclude and Sign the Same transmitting it to the Said United States in Congress assembled for their final Ratification.

We have now the Honour to inform your Excellency that We have received this Commission in due Form3 and that We are here ready to enter on the Negotiation,4 whenever a Full Power from her Said Most Faithfull Majesty of Portugal Shall appear for that Purpose.

We have further the Honour to request of your Excellency that you would transmit this Information to your Court, and to be, with great Respect, your Excellencys most obedient and most humble Servants

His Excellency the Comte de Sousa Ambassador from Portugal
at the Court of Versailles.

[In Humphreys’ hand:] Son Excellenc, Monsieur Monsieur Le Comte de Souza Ambassadeur de leurs Majestes tres Fideles a la Cour de France en son Hotel a Paris

Notations:5 NB nine Letters dated 22 Septr. 84 do. Favi 30 Septr. 84 / Portugal / (Circular) Paris Septr. 9. & 22. 1784 to The Ambassador of Portugal & others

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

9In the hand of JA.

1Those meetings took place on Aug. 31 and Sept. 4, respectively.

2Sousa had negotiated a draft Portuguese-American treaty of commerce with BF in the spring of 1783, and BF sent it to Congress that July: XL, 123–32, 360. Thulemeier had negotiated a draft Prussian-American treaty of commerce with JA in the spring of 1784; it is in Adams Papers, XVI, 132–58.

3Few of the LS survive; the locations of those that do are noted below. Humphreys copied into the letterbook two letters as samples: the one to Thulemeier of Sept. 9 (published in Adams Papers, XVI, 319–20) and the one to Aranda of Sept. 22. He followed each with a list of the other diplomats who received essentially identical letters on that date, with only the names, titles, and pronouns changed. He noted that the names were written “exactly in conformity to the expressions made use of in the original Commissions.”

4Arkhiv vneshnei politiki Rossii. The LS is reproduced as an illustration in Nina N. Bashkina et al., eds., The United States and Russia: the Beginning of Relations, 1765–1815 ([Washington, D.C., 1980]), pp. 218–19. Bariatinskii forwarded it to Catherine II on Sept. 26. In his cover letter he explained that he had received it from the hand of David Humphreys, who had written two days earlier to request the appointment. As Humphreys spoke very little French, and as the letter was written in English, a language Bariatinskii did not read, he could only reply that he would transmit the letter to the empress. Humphreys then managed to communicate the hope of the American commissioners that she would honor them with a reply: ibid., pp. 217–20. No reply has been located.

5Identified in Repertorium der diplomatischen Vertreter, III, 373–4.

6Archivio di Stato, Venice. Dolfin did not forward the letter until January: Angelo F. Guidi, “Washington and the Italians,” in Italy and the Italians in Washington’s Time (New York, 1933), p. 43. He had altered its dateline, evidently to conceal his tardiness. What we believe to have been “Sept. 22” was scratched out, and over it was written “Xbr” (i.e., December).

7Humphreys’ letterbook.

8BF had written to Mercy-Argenteau, the Austrian minister, on July 30 (XLII, 456–7), and to Spinola, the Genoese minister, on Sept. 13 (below).

9Svenska Riksarkivet; for the text see Jefferson Papers, VII, 428–9. For unknown reasons, Humphreys’ letterbook copy of this letter is dated Oct. 2.

1Inserted by Humphreys above JA’s crossed-out salutation, “His Excellency the Comte de Sousa”.

2The day of the month was filled in by David Humphreys. JA had left a blank space.

3XLII, 239–40, where the commission to negotiate with Prussia is printed as an example. Immediately after “Form” the following was deleted: “which is to continue in Force for a Term not exceeding two Years from the Date of it”.

4The words that follow, ending with “Court,” were included only in the commissioners’ letters to Portugal and Prussia (with the name of the sovereign adjusted for the latter).

5The first notation is in Humphreys’ hand, the second (written above it) in TJ’s, and the third (written in another location) is again by Humphreys.

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