Jean Luzac to John Adams: A Translation
Leyden, 14 September 1780
I have finished reading the pamphlet, about which you asked my opinion.1 The style is excellent and it is only in the first eight or ten pages that I found some obvious, but easily correctable errors in language. As to content, it is well reasoned and, although the author’s vivid imagination may have led him to exaggerate somewhat the consequences of the American Revolution, I am nevertheless convinced that at their heart his ideas are sound and that his principles, no less than his views on the future, deserve the attention of the Philanthropes. I believe, therefore, that this pamphlet fully merits publication and that it can only inspire favorable sentiments toward the interests of America. I would be less than honest, however, if I did not disclose to you a slight misgiving that I have on this subject. The author depicts with bold strokes the revolution that American independence will bring to the European commercial system, but in the picture that he paints Russia is deprived of its exclusive trade in ships timbers and naval stores; Sweden of its trade in iron; and Holland of its carrying trade and monopoly of spices &c. I fear that many might be frightened by this prospect. It is true that the author endeavors to prove that this competition, this general liberty, this reduction of all nations to a common level would be beneficial; that the possession of distant colonies is detrimental; that the advantages attributed to exclusive trade stem only from a prejudice, etc.; but, sir, these prejudices are too deeply ingrained not to remain a powerful force today. I, myself, in pleading the cause of America and emphasizing Europe’s interest in its independence, have encountered, twenty times at the very least, the following argument from sensible, well educated people: “Yes, but if America becomes independent it will one day dictate the law to Europe; it will strip us of our islands and our colonies in Guiana, take all of the West Indies and swallow up Mexico, even Peru, Chile, and Brazil; it will take over our carrying trade; it will repay its benefactors with ingratitude etc.” I have always responded with the same principles as our author, but I nevertheless remain convinced that this jealousy influences many people here, and whoever understands the selfishness that unfortunately forms the basis for so much policy will fear that it may have its effect on the northern powers. It would be a pity, however, to emasculate the pamphlet, for it seems to me that in a preface one could cast a veil over the naked truths that might offend certain eyes.2 If you are agreeable, sir, I would gladly assume the post of publisher and could easily find a bookseller. But in that case I would appreciate, if possible, having the original pamphlet.
Please forgive me for not yet returning the Pennsylvania gazettes. We received some others from another source and, as our paper cannot print everything at once, I plan to publish them sequentially in a manner that I trust that you will approve. You will find some examples in the enclosed sheets, together with the beginning of the translation of the address of the convention of Massachusetts Bay.3
Count Sarsfield, who has honored me with a visit, requested that I send the enclosed letter.4 My family presents its respects and I pray that you will be persuaded of the respectful and particular consideration with which I am, sir, your excellency’s most humble and most obedient servant.
RC (Adams Papers); endorsed: “M. Luzac. 14. Septr.”; in another hand: “1780.”
2. Jean Luzac sought to drive home two points in his “Préface de l’Editeur” to Pensées sur la révolution de l’Amérique-Unie (p. iii–xxii). First, American independence was of vital interest to Europe in general and the Netherlands in particular. Second, European and Dutch commerce would not suffer from American competition. In both instances his thinking paralleled JA’s, and was influenced by JA’s reply of 15 Sept. (below).
Luzac saw Britain’s effort to subdue its American colonies as but another instance of its determination to establish and maintain itself as the dominant maritime power to the detriment of all other maritime nations. According to Luzac, this had been the focus of British policy since “l’usurpation de Cromwel” (p. v). The American Revolution and the support given it by France and Spain were aimed at overthrowing Britain’s domination, an outcome of the utmost interest to the Netherlands as a commercial rival of Great Britain.
In view of this, Luzac saw the favorable opinion that many Dutchmen held toward the existing Anglo-Dutch alliance as unrealistic and contrary to Dutch interests. It was an unnatural alliance, the result of the threat posed by Louis XIV earlier in the century. But the policies of Louis XVI were not those of Louis XIV and it was time for the Dutch to join with France and its allies, the United States and Spain, as well as the League of Armed Neutrality under Catherine II, in their efforts to establish the rights of all nations to trade freely on the high seas.
Luzac’s second point aimed at allaying the fears of Dutch and European merchants caused by Pownall’s, and JA’s, “imagination ardente,” which led them to exaggerate the speed with which the United States would emerge as a commercial and manufacturing power in competition with Europe (p. xix). Using material from JA’s letter of 15 Sept., Luzac argued that contrary to what the author of the pamphlet might say, the American economy would remain agricultural for the foreseeable future. Americans would have little incentive to devote time to manufactures because of the vast areas still unsettled, the high cost of labor, and the expense of carrying such goods to Europe. Thus the United States would remain dependent on Europe for manufactured goods and markets for its raw materials.
But even if an independent United States did become a powerful commercial rival, would it be less so as part of the British Empire? This question was appropriate, for if Britain was victorious it would stand as the dominant power in Europe and the unchallenged master of the sea, able to control trade as it saw fit. But the United States, even if it posed a commercial threat, would have no incentive to involve itself in the political affairs of Europe and would share with the Europeans the interest in freedom of navigation. “La Paix sera son système” in order to cultivate the arts and sciences and serve as a haven from European luxury and corruption, permanent asylum for all those who sought liberty (p. xxi). He ended with a quotation, in English, from James Thomson’s Britannia, lines 194–197:
A State, alone, where Liberty should live,
In these late times, this evening of Mankind,
When Athens, Rome, and Carthage are no more,
The world almost in slavish sloth dissolved.
3. This was the Gazette de Leyde of 12 Sept., containing the opening portion of the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention’s address to the people. The rest of the address appeared in the issues of 15, 19, and 22 September. Beginning with the issue of 3 Oct., Luzac began printing the text of the ratified constitution and continued, as space permitted, through the issue of 8 Dec., which included the final four articles of Chap. 2, Sect. 1, setting down the powers of the governor. The remainder of the constitution did not appear in the Gazette.
4. This letter has not been found.