Adams Papers

From John Adams to Boston Patriot, 17 May 1809

Quincy, May 17, 1809.


Another of my crimes, according to my great accuser, page 28, was nominating Mr. Murray, without previous consultation with any of my ministers. To this charge I shall say but little at present.

In England the first magistrate is responsible for nothing; his ministers for every thing: Here according to the practice, if not the constitution, the ministers are responsible for nothing; the president for every thing. He is made to answer, before the people, not only for every thing done by his ministers, but even for all the acts of the Legislature: Witness the Alien and Sedition Laws. In all great and essential measures, he is bound by his honor and his conscience, by his oath to the constitution, as well as his responsibility to the public opinion of the nation, to act his own mature and unbiassed judgment, tho’ unfortunately, it may be in direct contradiction to the advice of all his ministers. This was my situation in more than one instance. It had been so in the nomination of Mr. Gerry; It was afterwards so in the pardon of Fries. Two measures that I recollect with infinite satisfaction, and which will console me in my last hour.

In the case now in question I perfectly knew the sentiments of all my ministers. I knew every argument they could alledge, and moreover, I knew the secret motives that governed them, better than they did themselves. I knew them then, and I know them now: Believe it or disbelieve it who will, at the present time: hereafter the world will be convinced of it.

I knew that if I called the Heads of Departments together, and asked their advice, three of them would very laconically protest against the measure. The other two would be loath to dissent from their brethren, and would more modestly and mildly concur with them. The consequence would be, that the whole would be instantaneously communicated to A, B, C, D, E, F, &c. in the Senate, and G, H, I, &c. in the House of Representatives; the public and the presses would have it at once, and a clamor raised and a prejudice propagated against the measure, that would probably excite the Senate to put their negative on the whole plan. If I had called the Heads of Departments together, and asked their advice, I knew from past experience, that their answers would have been flat negatives. If I had asked their reasons, they would be such arguments as Hamilton has recorded, for he, it seems, was their recording secretary. 1. The etiquette which required, according to them, that France should send a minister to us. 2. That a negotiation with France would give offence to Great-Britain and to Russia, and probably involve us in war with these powers. I had twenty times answered these arguments, by saying that there was no such etiquette. It was true that in antient and more barbarous times, when nations had been inflamed by long wars, and the people wrought up to a degree of fury, on both sides, so as to excite apprehensions that ambassadors would be insulted or massacred by the populace, or even imprisoned as in Turkey, sovereigns had insisted that ambassadors should be exchanged and that one should be held as a hostage for the other. It had even been insisted that a French ambassador should embark at Calais, at the same hour that an English ambassador embarked at Dover. But these times were passed. Nations sent ambassadors now as they pleased. Franklin and his associates had been sent to France; Mr. Jay had been sent to Spain; I had been sent to Holland; Mr. Izzard had been commissioned to Tuscany; Mr. W. Lee, to Vienna and Berlin, without any stipulation for sending ministers in return. We had a minister in London three years, without any minister from England in return. We have had a minister at Berlin, without any from Prussia.

As to the offence that would be taken by Great Britain, I asked, shall we propose any thing to France, or agree to any thing inconsistent with our treaties and pledged faith with England? Certainly not. What right has England, then, to be offended? Have we not as clear a right to make peace as she has? We are at war with France, at least in part. If Britain should make peace with France, what right have we to complain, provided she stipulates nothing inconsistent with her treaty with us?

As to Russia, what has she to do with us, or we with her? I had confidence enough in the assurances given, firmly to believe that our envoys would be received and respected. Candidates enough were ready to run the risque, and Hamilton himself would have been very proud to have been one of them, if he had not been Commander in Chief of the Army.

I will acknowledge that when the terror of the power and anger of Great Britain have been held up to me, in a manner that appears, to me, to be base and servile, I sometimes was provoked to say, that in a just cause, when the essential character and interests of the United States should be wronged by Great Britain, I shall hold her power in total contempt. It may be said, for it has been said, that this was imprudent, and that I was fretted. Let it be said by whom it will, I now repeat the same sentiment, after the coolest reflection of ten years.

On the other hand, by making the nomination on my own authority, I believed that the heads of departments would have some discretion, and although I knew that the British faction would excite a clamor, and that some of the Senators, Representatives, and heads of departments would make no exertions to discountenance it, if they did not secretly or openly encourage it: yet I was so perfectly convinced of the national sense, and that the Senate felt it so strongly, that they would not dare to negative it, even if the majority had disliked it, which I very well knew they did not. I thought a clamor after the fact, would be much less dangerous than a clamor before it. And so it proved in experience. A clamor there was, as I always knew there would be, and Alexander Hamilton had a principal under-hand in exciting it.

It is well known that there are continued interviews between the members of the Senate and the members of the House, and the heads of departments. Eternal solicitations for nominations to office, are made in this manner. There is not an executive measure, that members of Congress are not almost constantly employed in pumping from the heads of departments. There is not a legislative measure that the heads of departments do not intermeddle in. It really deserves consideration whether it would not be better that heads of departments should be members of the legislature. There they would be confronted in all things. Now all is secrecy and darkness. Washington, I know, was nearly as much vexed and tortured by these things as I was, and resigned his office to get rid of them. And so would I have done, with great joy, if I could have been sure of a successor whose sentiments were as conformable to mine, as he knew mine were to his.

John Adams.

Printed Source--Boston Patriot.

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