Thomas Jefferson Papers

Dorset to the American Commissioners, 26 March 1785

Dorset to the American Commissioners

Paris 26th. March 1785


Having communicated to my Court the readiness you express’d in your Letter to me of the 9th. of December to remove to London for the purpose of treating upon such points as may materially concern the Interests both political and commercial of Great Britain and America, and having at the same time represented that you declared yourselves to be fully authorized and empowered to negotiate, I have been, in answer thereto, instructed to learn from you, Gentlemen, what is the real nature of the Powers with which you are invested; whether you are merely commission’d by Congress, or whether you have receiv’d seperate Powers from the respective States. A Committee of North American Merchants have waited upon His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to express how anxiously they wish to be inform’d upon this subject, repeated experience having taught them in particular, as well as the Public in general, how little the authority of Congress could avail in any respect, where the Interests of any one individual State was even concern’d, and particularly so, where the concerns of that particular State might be suppos’d to militate against such resolutions as Congress might think proper to adopt.

The apparent determination of the respective States to regulate their own seperate Interests renders it absolutely necessary, towards forming a permanent system of commerce, that my Court should be inform’d how far the Commissioners can be duly authorized to enter into any engagements with Great Britain which it may not be in the power of any one of the States to render totally fruitless and ineffectual.

I have the honor to be, Gentlemen, with great truth Your most obedient humble Servant,


RC (DNA: PCC, No. 86); in a clerk’s hand, signed by Dorset; endorsed by David Humphreys; opposite endorsement is the notation “No. 6.” Tr (DNA: PCC, No. 86) and another Tr (DNA: PCC, No. 116), both of which are in Humphreys’ hand. The letter was forwarded by the Commissioners to John Jay with theirs of 13 Apr. 1785 as its sixth enclosure.

The immediate background of this letter is shown in a series of communications written and received by John Adams from the time of the Commissioners’ letter of the 9th. of December to their receipt of Dorset’s reply. On 12 Dec. 1784 Adams wrote Gerry: “Dr. Franklin is so bad with the Stone, that he has not been to Versailles nor Paris these twelve months; he has ventured to Auteuil three or four times to dine with me, but the last Time he suffered such cruel Tortures in coming and going, that he seems determined to venture out no more unless in a Sedan. Mr. Jefferson has been a long time ill and confined, so that I have been much employ’d as a go between Passy and Paris. The doctor has appeared to me a long time to wish to go to England whether to see his Friends or to consult Physicians and be cut for the Stone, I know not. Mr. Jefferson is not so fond of going, and I am much averse to the Plague and Fatigue of the Journey, if it could be avoided. But we are all willing to go if necessary, and the British Ministry insist upon it. Mr. Hayle the Secretary of the British Legation told me at Versailles frankly that his court would never treat here, and this I believe. But whether they will invite us to London, we must wait to see. They have formally made the Proposition that Congress should send a Minister to St. James’s. This Congress will consider. Our affairs suffer for Want of somebody in England, but it will be to no Purpose, to send anyone there to starve and be laughed at, on two thousand a Year” (Adams to Gerry, 12 Dec. 1784; MHi: AMT). In a letter to Thomas Barclay Adams assured him in confidence that, if he went to England, Franklin and TJ would go with him and act “all together upon the business of our commission. But whether we shall go or not is yet problematical and depends upon an answer as yet to be received from the British Ministry” (Adams to Barclay, 8 Jan. 1785; MHi: AMT). As the year wore on, the tedious wait became more irritating to Adams: “Dr. F. is wholly confined,” he wrote to Francis Dana,” … and can no longer take the Exercise in his Chamber, which he used. Mr. Jefferson is as good a co-adjutor as I could desire. But it grieves me to see that his Time as well as mine, and the Expences of us all, are in a manner lost. I hope our Commissions when they expire will never be renewed. We could not do less at separate courts, and I think we might do more. At least I am sure we could do more good at home. The ministers of all the Courts not in hearty Friendship of France seem afraid of us here” (Adams to Dana, 8 Mch. 1785; MHi: AMT). Jonathan Jackson, who had recently been with Adams in Paris, wrote discouragingly from London that he almost despaired “of any Good arising to our country from the Gentlemen in our Commission coming here at all, such is the strange Blindness and Perversion of all ranks of People in this Country whom I meet or can hear the sentiments of” (Jackson to Adams, 25 Feb. 1785; MHi: AMT).

Jackson may indeed have been asked to sound out British opinion on the subject of a commercial treaty with America, but the most illuminating comment from London at this time came from Charles Storer, who reported to Adams that he had been led into conversation with a Mr. Petree, a member of the British committee of merchants respecting American affairs, and that they had discussed the subject of a commercial treaty. The same evening he called upon Jonathan Jackson and asked if he knew Petree, whereupon Jackson informed him that he himself “had had a Conversation upon the same subject with him, but a few days before, and had given him to understand that the reason of a Treaty Commerce’s not being made was owing to a disinclination to treat on the part of the American Commissioners: at least that Government had so given it out to the Merchants here; and that in consequence of this information they wished to know where was the obstacle to a treaty, that, if possible, it might be removed.” If Storer knew Jackson’s answer to what must have been a feeler put out by government, he did not say, but further reported that Petree had called upon him that very morning (his letter is undated) and “asked me if the American Commissioners were not authorized to make a Treaty with this Country and if so why they did not come over here? I told him that I was not authorised to talk with him upon these matters, and that therefore he must take what came from me, as originating with me: that so far as I knew anything it should be at his service. I told him then, that you were authorized to treat with this Country, and that I was surprised he should put the question to me since the Ministry had been well acquainted with it ever since last Fall and that, so far from the disinclination to treat being upon your side, I believed it laid entirely here. I told him that Mr. Hartley had been recalled just when you were empowered to treat and that you have been since amused with having an invitation from this Court to come here, but that you had never had any. He hoped you would not stand upon any etiquette, and ceremony when the business was so important. I told him I was sure you would never suffer any unnecessary etiquette to be any obstacle to you, nor that you would act either unless upon an equal footing and with proper formality: that, however, I knew of no particular objection you had to treat, except the not having an invitation from this Court. He told me that he had waited upon Ld. Carmarthen, the last week, who told him that the only difficulty rested with you, as he had sent the American Commissioners an invitation about a month ago, thro’ the D. of Dorset, which you did not incline to accept of: he wondered that you had not been here before this, and said he really wished you would come. I told him I equally wondered at this intelligence being given by Ld. Carmarthen, since he knew that, if he sent a proper invitation you would come here. I asked Mr. Petree if there was any person to treat with you here, if you came. He said that Ld. Carmarthen he believed was authorized, but asked, in his turn, if Congress had power to treat, was this Court inclined to meet them. I told him that other Treaties have been made, but that this would be known when the full powers of each should be exchanged. Upon parting, Mr. Petree said he was glad to hear that the difficulty did not rest with you and, being convinced of this, the Merchants would immediately remonstrance to the Ministry that a proper invitation should be sent to you, in order that Business should be begun. Mr. P. said the Merchants have been alarmed at the appointment of a Consul General, supposing that some Convention had been made. Upon their application to Ld. C. he told them there was no Convention made, and that why a Consul had been appointed he did not know. The merchants have objected to the man.—It seems the Ministry have industriously given it about that the American Commissioners were averse to treating with this Country, wishing to throw all the blame upon them. Whether from a fear of engaging upon an unpopular business, as they must make some concessions, whether from a wish to profit from the monopoly of our carrying trade to the W. Indies, or whether to give time to strengthen the Adventurers in the Whale-fishery is not for me to say. Perhaps they each have weight with them” (Storer to Adams, undated but written during Mch. 1785; MHi: AMT; Storer directed Adams, for safety and privacy, to enclose his reply under cover addressed to John Appleton, No. 11 Spring Garden, or to John Harwood, No. 18 Cullum Street).

Adams replied on 28 Mch. to the effect that he could not enter upon public affairs with Storer or any other private person; that he was joined in the commission with others; and that he therefore had doubts “both of delicacy and Prudence, if not of right,” whether he could “communicate opinions Reasoning or even Facts without their Knowledge and Consent.” He declared, nevertheless: “We are to Treat with the British Court, not the Royal Exchange, and whatever veneration I might have for this last assembly, I should be thought a mal-adroit Ambassador, if I might be there quoted for things which had not been represented at St. James’s. Besides I should look still more unwise if it should appear that Merchants were employed to pump out of me my sentiments by Ministers behind the scene … . You may however affirm roundly and with Perfect Truth, that the Disinclination to treat is not in America nor in the American Ministers. We have full Powers to treat and conclude, which we made known to the British Ministry through Mr. Hartly. Instead of being Authorized to treat with us, he was recalled. We then repeated the Communication through the Duke of Dorsett. We were then answered by a Refusall to treat here and an invitation or rather a Proposition that the United States should send a Minister to St. James’s … . It can hardly be said that we have waited for an invitation. We have rather invited ourselves. I don’t see what more we could have done unless we had all three flown over in an Air Balloon, alighted at Lord Carmarthaens House Pour demander a diner of his lordship” (Adams to Storer, 28 Mch. 1785; MHi: AMT). Despite this disclaimer, it seems evident that, as the Ministry were obviously employing merchants “to pump out … sentiments behind the scenes,” so the Commissioners, through Storer, were probably attempting to do the same thing. Adams placed confidence in Storer’s steadiness and discretion, and when, a few months later, Storer went to New England, Adams gave him letters of introduction to John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and others introducing him as “a Gentleman who has lived some time in my family at the Hague, in Paris, and in London. He will be able to give you, in conversation, an account of the State of our affairs at this Court and in this Country, in greater detail than it would be convenient for me to write. As he has assisted me in copying so many of my papers, he is in confidence well acquainted with their Contents” (Adams to Hancock and others, 2 Sep. 1785; MHi: AMT).

The point advanced in Dorset’s letter is one that the British ministry seized upon in support of its policy directed at retention of control over American commerce and at ultimate repossession of the North American colonies. The deliberateness of the strategy of bringing into public view the lack of any coercive power in the Confederation to compel observance of treaty stipulations by the states is apparent and is indicated in particular by the secret instructions to the Governor-General of Canada to retain possession of the northwestern posts, issued 8 Apr. 1784, “the evening before George III proclaimed the treaty of peace to be in effect and enjoined all his subjects to obey its articles” (S. F. Bemis, Diplomatic History of the United States, 3rd edn., N.Y., 1951, p. 71) and by the later refusal to abandon these posts during a period of twelve years on the ground that various states had refused to comply with terms of the treaty. But in employing this device to avoid negotiating a commercial treaty, the ministry may have gained an immediate end while sacrificing an ultimate objective. A few weeks after the Commissioners received the present letter, an able American merchant wrote from London to John Jay, who—perhaps not knowing of the secret order—believed the British retention of the northwest posts was not unjustified in view of the actions of some states in failing to live up to treaty obligations: “Every advance on the part of our Gentlemen to begin a Commercial Treaty has been ineffectual and I understand the last Answer given was that ‘They could not see the advantage for Security for entering into a Commercial Treaty with Congress, whilst it’s Powers if not disputed, were doubted, and that the measures pursuing by different states for restricting Trade with England might strike at the Root of any Treaty made with the Ministers of Congress. That the States reserved to themselves the seperate powers of restraining Laws and therefore unless they would surrender those Powers to Congress, for the purpose of forming a Commercial Treaty, Ministry here could not see the utility of negotiating upon one, which if carried into Effect in Europe, might be rendered ineffectual in America from the opposition of any one of the States’” (Matthew Ridley to John Jay, 2 May 1785; MHi: Ridley Papers). Again, and more emphatically, Ridley reported: “Not a step taken towards forming a Treaty of Commerce; nor until we place a proper Power somewhere and adopt some legal measures to give weight and Dignity to that Power, do I believe this Government will make the least advance towards it. They I believe on the Contrary wish strength to the Party which is against it. Those who have left America leave no measure unassayed to encrease and rivet the popular prejudices against a Connection with us. The Papers teem with abuse and Tradesmen are spurr’d on by insidious Paragraphs to distress and push every Merchant who has the smallest Connection with America; and from this Conduct I really am afraid of consequences to many” (Ridley to Jay, 5 Sep. 1785; MHi: Ridley Papers). “If,” John Adams wrote shortly after going to London, “by giving a proper consistency to our Confederation, you mean the making of Congress Souvereign and Supream in the Negotiation of Treaties of Commerce, and in regulation of the Commerce between one State and another, and indeed in regulating the internal commerce of the states, as far as it is necessarily connected with either, I wish it all imaginable success … . I hope that neither the Massachusetts, nor any other state, will stop at a Navigation Act … . We must and we will have justice from this Country, proud and cunning as it is” (Adams to Mazzei, 23 Aug. 1785; MHi: AMT).

Ridley was correct in observing that the British ministry wished “strength to the Party … against” the lodging of a proper power in the Confederation. But the ministry’s exploitation of weakness in the Articles of Confederation helped to build strength. It might not be too much to say that the “linch pin of the Constitution” of 1787, Article vi, is in part at least a monument to the British ministry’s use of the fact that the Confederation lacked power to compel recognition of treaties as the law of the land. There were, to be sure, many in England who favored liberal commercial relations with America—the younger Pitt, Fox, Lord Lansdowne, David Hartley, Dr. Richard Price, and others, but they were powerless to oppose the contrary policy. In the last analysis it may not be too much to say that the obstacle faced by the Commissioners was the result of the triumph of one book over another—the ascendancy of Lord Sheffield’s Observations on the Commerce of the American States (1783) over Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776). No one put the fact more succinctly than Edmund Burke: “You, Dr. Smith, from your professor’s chair, may send forth theories upon freedom of commerce as if you were lecturing upon pure mathematics; but legislators must proceed by slow degrees, impeded as they are in their course by the friction of interest and the friction of prejudice” (for a general discussion of this subject, see S. F. Bemis, Jay’s Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy, N.Y., 1923, p. 21–33; Gerald S. Graham, Sea Power and British North America, Cambridge, Mass., 1941, p. 19–35; see also TJ to Adams, 7 July 1785; TJ to Monroe, 17 June 1785; TJ to Lee, 22 Apr. 1786; TJ to Jay, 23 Apr. 1786; also, various letters written by Lafayette to American friends on the importance of strengthening the union in respect to control over commerce, as cited by Gottschalk, Lafayette, 1783–89 description begins Louis Gottschalk, Lafayette between the American Revolution and the French Revolution (1783–1789), Chicago, 1950 description ends , p. 157–8). But in this instance there is little evidence that British practitioners of the “art of the possible” did not prefer to use rather than guide interest and prejudice (see Richard Price to TJ, 21 Mch. 1785).

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