Adams Papers

John Quincy Adams to John Adams, 19 Sep. 1797

London. 19. September 1797.

The three memorials upon french affairs, just published by the Executors of Edmund Burke, do not apparently circulate with such a rapidity as did the pamphlets proceeding from his pen, which appeared from time to time during the last part of his life. The fact may be accounted for from various circumstances. Their style though more chastened and sober is not so well adapted to the prevailing taste, and their subjects have long since been antiquated, since they were written in the years 1791, 1792, and 1793.

They are however all of them highly interesting, and more especially the first.—It may indeed contain much information new, even at this moment to many of its readers, and as the subject comprizes <with> the views of the french revolutionary men, the weapons which they meant to wield and the measures they would pursue for the furtherance of their designs, as the author understood them at the time when he wrote, it deserves a particular attention to enquire after this lapse of time how far his opinions have been sanctioned by Events

The memorial closes with the observation that “if a great change is to be made in human affairs, the minds of men will be fitted to it; the general opinions and feelings will draw that way. Every fear, every hope will forward it; and then they who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself than the mere designs of men. They will not be resolute and firm, but perverse and obstinate.”—Its tendency from beginning to end seems to be to prove that such a great change in human affairs is to be made; the facts that he states though some of them little known, [and] many of them little observed, are I think in general accurate, and he is himself apprehensive that the natural inference from them must be despair to the cause which he would willingly support—It must be so.—He urges the necessity of beholding the danger without astonishment, and providing against it without perplexity, "but when the physician [truly] told Waller that his blood would no longer circulate, what could he do but go home and die.

Mr: Burke states that in all the external relations of France with every Power in Europe, she had always <formerly> [before] appeared as a Monarchy.

That recently M. de Montmorin had formally and in an offensive manner announced a revolution of Government, and the king’s acceptance of a new Constitution; a new species of Government and founded upon new principles.

That the king himself notwithstanding his compulsive acceptance; his brothers; <all> the Princes of his blood, the magistracy, clergy, nobility, with three hundred members of the constituent assembly, and a great part of the french Nation were totally averse and opposed to this new Government.

That in this case of a divided kingdom, by the law of Nations, Great Britain might take any part she pleased, having no direction but her own well understood policy.

He then puts the question whether the dictate of that policy be to countenance and encourage the Revolution thus notified, or not; and enters into the consideration of <the> [its] nature and probable effects.

It is a Revolution of doctrine and theoretick dogma;” it is not therefore to be compared with the ordinary Revolutions in single States, which concern not their neighbours. Its probable effects will be as was the case of the Reformation “to introduce other interests into all countries, than those which arise from their locality and natural circumstances.”—

“This is the first instance in the modern world of the spirit of political faction, separated from religion, pervading several countries, and forming a principle of union between the partizans in each. But the thing is no less in human nature”—It is exemplifyed by the Grecian History: and by that of Italy in the middle age.

“The political dogma, of the new french system—The perpetual sovereignty of a majority of the taxable People told by the head, in every Country—that all magistrates are only their functionaries; and that all other Governments are tyranny and usurpation. The project whereby this dogma is to be reduced to practice, is to destroy every where all antient establishments and form a new commonwealth in each country, upon the basis of the French Rights of Men.—They are to institute parochial governments by Representation, and from them through certain media, a general representative assembly in which the whole power of the nation is to be vested.

“Knowing how opposite a permanent landed interest is to that schema, they resolve to reduce that description of men to a mere peasantry for the sustenance of the towns and to place the true effective government in cities.”

“This system makes France, the natural head of all factions formed on a similar principle, wherever they may prevail.—The other system has no head.”

The new system has very many partizans in every country in Europe, but particularly in England. The classes of men are enumerated who are thus inclined and the mercantile interest is represented as equivocal, and liable to be drawn decidedly that way.

The direction in which the french spirit of proselytism will proceed is discussed. The seeds are sown almost every where.

“All those countries in which several States are comprehended, under some general geographical description, and loosely united by some federal constitution; countries of which the members are small, and greatly diversified in their forms of government, and in the titles by which they are held—these countries, as it might be well expected, are the principal objects of their hopes and machinations.”

The instances given, are Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

In Germany, the new doctrine has made an amazing progress and the natural though mistaken policy of the two great rival powers will concur with it to destroy the Germanic Constitution.—This is so satisfactorily proved to the author that he says, “a great revolution is preparing in Germany; and a revolution in my opinion likely to be more decisive upon the general fate of Nations than that of France itself; other than as in France is to be found the first source of all the principles which are in any way likely to distinguish the troubles and convulsions of our Age.”

The Aristocracies of Switzerland so wholly depend upon opinion, and the humour of their multitude, that the lightest puff of wind is sufficient to blow them down.—Their only support was France governed by the old maxims and principles of policy.

In Italy, if the french can get into their hands the keys of the Country, that is, the dominions of the king of Sardinia, nothing can arrest their progress.—Lombardy, Venice, Genoa, the dominions of any Prince of the house of Bourbon will all be in a manner defenceless. Naples is as liable to explosion as its own Vesuvius. Sicily is no better—Neither of them have any real Government or exact police.—The church is in the last stage of a decline. A Government full of abuses, and excepting the blind reverence of the Roman People, to the sancity of the Pope, it is feeble and resourceless beyond all imagination.”

Spain is a nerveless country. And the Inquisition is the sole, but unhappy resource of publick tranquility and order, remaining in it.

“Denmark and Norway, do not appear to furnish any of the materials of a democratick revolution or the dispositions to it.”—But Sweden has nothing to secure it, but the personal character and talents of the then king.

Russia is peculiarly liable to Revolutions, and may easily be taught the little catechism of the rights of Man, the inferences are in the passions.

Poland is always unquiet, and by its connection at that period with the Elector of Saxony would be in an imminent degree exposed to the infection of the new doctrines.

In Holland the predominant party at that time was not the Country. The suppressed faction, though suppressed, existed. The Anti-Orange party had always been french; will always hanker after a french connexion, and it will now be still more desired, as held to be more natural, by the changes in France

In the Netherlands the Emperors own politics were calculated to answer the purpose of the french Revolutionists whose design was to unite those Provinces to France. After having thus made the tour of Europe, the author returns again to England, and points out its danger, from vicinity, from constant communication, and from the magic power in the very name of Liberty. The attachment of the People to their Constitution is indeed a considerable security, but is not much to be relied on in case of a storm.

An opinion was at that time entertained by many sober and thinking men, that there was an inherent native weakness in the new system which would demolish it before it should have the time to produce its pernicious effects externally, and especially that of overthrowing the British Constitution. This opinion was founded upon the want of pecuniary resources.—He shews, that the prevailing power in France was not really so destitute of those resources as was generally apprehended, and further that this monied interest was not necessary to them. “That power goes with property, is not universally true, and the idea that the operation of it is certain and invariable, may mislead us very fatally.” His final conclusions from all these and many other considerations are, that <external change> [no counter revolution] is to be expected in France from internal causes solely: that the longer the new System existed, the greater would be its strength, and that “as long as it existed in France, it would be the interest of the managers there, and in the very essence of their plan, to disturb and distract all other governments, and their endless succession of restless politicians would continually stimulate them to new attempts.”

Against all this some of the States of Europe, were taking merely defensive measures. But defensive measures are insufficient while the weakness of the party attacked enemy is within the walls. “There is a party almost in all countries, ready made, animated with success, with a sure Ally in the very center of Europe. There is no cabal so obscure in any place that they do not protect, cherish, foster and endeavour to raise into importance at home and abroad. From the lowest, this intrigue will creep up to the highest. Ambition as well as enthusiasm, may find its account in the party and in the principle.”

The general disposition of the kings and Ministers of Europe, at the time was itself such as had a tendency to give vigour to the new system, and imbecility to the old one. “The whole corps diplomatique, with very few exceptions, leans that way.” The king of France and the Emperor from various circumstances of personal character, contributed to the promotion of those views.—The party of the feuillans, then had the king of France in their possession, and were about to send their emissaries into every Country of Europe under the character of Ambassadors & Ministers; the influence of this sort of intercourse, together with that of the connection by the means of clubs, and their mutual addresses and answers are fully represented

But after all when he comes to the important question What is to be done? he declines giving an answer; he states the evil, and leaves the remedy where power, wisdom, and information, he hopes are more united with good intentions than they could be with him.

The object of this memorial undoubtedly was to prove that the Constitution of 1791 just established in France, ought not to be acknowledged by this Government; nor the Minister then sent by the reigning party (at that time I think it was Chauvelin, with the private mission of Talleyrand) received. But that the emigrant Princes and the party of France opposed to that Constitution and adhering to the monarchy should be considered as the State and acknowledged as such.

It did not however meet the ideas of the Ministers here. The causes which are unfolded in the course of the work, or at least some of them, defeated all its efficacy, and the author in that instance as in almost all the others of his political life, met the fate of Cassandra; his prophecies were true, but they were not believed; and singular as it seems, they were not believed, [precisely] because they were true.

I am afraid that this minute analysis of the first memorial has been tedious; but I have thought it necessary in order to compare the present state of affairs with the statement of them at that time, and to draw from them such inferences as appear natural and of importance sufficient to require serious consideration.

The perpetual, unalienable sovereignty of the People still remains professedly the fundamental principle of the ruling power in France. But an explanation has been given which totally destroys all the consequences which they deduced from it at that time; and which once admitted reduces the question itself to an idle speculation, fit only for discussion in the schools. It is in the whole mass of the Citizens, they say, and not in any majority <whatever> however great, that they consider the sovereignty as residing. There were in truth two distinct principles involved in that which the french regenerators then professed. The unalienable sovereignty of the People;—and the right of the taxable majority at all times to exercise that Sovereignty <according to> [governed only by] their pleasure—The artifice of the day was to blend the two together, to produce the inference desired; insurrection—The first could do neither good nor harm unless coupled with the other; the poison was in the mixture, and accordingly they have now carefully separated in the Constitution of 1795 the noxious from the innocent ingredient, and retaining the one, have expressly disclaimed the other.

As they have made this and other important changes in their principles, they have also materially varied their means. They no longer prate about uniting the whole delegated sovereignty in a single assembly.—They have abandoned the system of frittering up Sovereignty into municipalities... indeed there is only one principle, to which, they still adhere, of all those with which they kindled the world into this awful conflagration: even to that they adhere only as a theory, for they have upon two great occasions violated it most outrageously in practice, and the only excuse which they pretend to advance for themselves is, that without such extreme measures the Republic itself would inevitably have fallen.—They have retained however inflexibly their deadly animosity against all antient governments and antient establishments, as well as their disposition to foment the divisions and cabals in all other Countries; they have realized their designs of aggrandizement both on the side of Italy and of the Netherlands, and they have overthrown the Governments of four antient Republics to substitute for them such governments as they think most suitable for the interest of France.

But the views of french ambition are not confined to the limits of Europe. They have been playing and will continue to play in the United States, the same game which Mr. Burke foretells they will in all Countries.—We have indeed no antient and abusive establishments to abolish; our Constitutions are all formed upon the principles of Representative Government their friendship cannot communicate to us; nor their hostility force upon us their system of the rights of Men.—But it is their uniform and constant policy, adopted from the Monarchy under which they were bred, to weaken foreign Nations by divisions.—Their designs upon our Constitution have long since been known to you. Paine in his Letter to General Washington has let them out, by pledging himself to attempt to effect a change. Necker discovers himself to have the same disposition, as I have heretofore mentioned. The motive is obvious, the only strength of the American Government, is in the attachment of the People to it, and in the constitution of the Executive and Senate.—By attacking therefore that part of the Constitution, they hope to <deprive us of the power> render those branches of the Government odious, and if they succeed, to give the finishing blow, by assimilating them to their own Directory and Council of Elders.

We must not imagine that these pernicious purposes are entertained only by the present prevailing party—They will soon get sick of popular elections themselves, and of a plural Executive too. They have long been hiding their system of adulation from the People, and bringing it to bear upon the armies. They cannot much longer escape the substance of a military Government; perhaps they will even disdain the forms of their present Constitution; but be that as it may, they will always have some pretext for distinguishing as Necker has done in his book, between us and themselves, and the more convinced they may become of the imbecility inseparable from their present system, the more desirous they will be to recommend it to us.

The second of the memorials was written just after the retreat of the Duke of Brunswick from Champagne, at a time when France was menacing Italy, and especially Spain, of which monarchy the author says they were offering to make a partition with Great-Britain. He censures in many points both the principles upon which the War had been commenced, and its conduct afterwards—He blames the allies for having “admitted that they had nothing to do with the interiour arrangements of France; in contradiction to the whole tenour of the publick Law of Europe, and to the correspondent practice of all its States, from the time we have any history of them.”—It is probable that this admission was not sincere on the part of the Allies: and in the course of the War the french have repeatedly professed the same principle. Their conduct at Geneva, in Holland, Venice, Genoa, and through all the Italian States is the most intelligible comment upon the intention with which they made such professions.

The third memorial was begun for the purpose of suggesting the principles upon which the allied Powers ought to pledge themselves with regard to the motives and the object of the War, in the declaration which they published towards the close of the year 1793.—Like the others it was without effect.—Its argument is founded upon the position that the allied powers have by the laws of Nations an indisputable right to interfere in a certain degree in the internal affairs of France; but he contends no less strenuously that they ought not to interfere beyond a certain degree. He strongly dissuades from any view of conquest, or aggrandizement or partition, or indeed of reducing the power of France as a State.—As far as the contest was political, he attempts to prove that there can be for the allies nothing intermediate, between recognizing and maintaining the Emigrant Princes and the antient orders as the corporate State of France, and acknowledging the Jacobins as the rulers of that Country. As it is a religious War, it is not of one sect against another, but of atheism, indiscriminately against all

This plan was perhaps wiser, it was certainly more consistent than that which the allies did pursue. They did indulge themselves in designs of making acquisitions at the expence of the French dominions. They did make their great and essential interest subordinate to the small ambition of adding towns to their territories: they sacrificed it to their individual pursuits and their mutual jealousies against each other: the consequence predicted by Burke in this paper, as inevitable from such a Conduct, is in his own words [“the enemy will triumph, and ]we shall sit down under the terms of unsafe and dependent Peace, weakened, mortified and disgraced, whilst all Europe, England included, is left open and defenceless on every part, to jacobin principles, intrigues and arms.”

RC (MHi: Adams Papers).

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