Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from John Adams, 2 December 1785

From John Adams

Grosvenor Square Dec. 2. 1785.

Dear Sir

Mr. Nathaniel Barrett, a Gentleman of a respectable Family in Boston, of a fair Character and long Experience in Trade, will have the Honour to deliver you this Letter. He comes to France for the express Purpose of negotiating with proper Persons concerning the Proposals of Monsieur Tourtille de Sangrain, relative of Sperma Cœti oil. I beg Leave to recommend him and his Business to your Attention. I mean this however as mere matter of Form, as I know very well, that your Zeal for the Support of our Whale Fishery, would have been Introduction enough for Mr. Barrett to you, without any Interference of mine. With great Respect and Esteem, I have the Honour to be Dear Sir, your most obedient and most humble Servant,

John Adams

RC (DLC). FC (MHi: AMT); in the hand of Miss Abigail Adams. Recorded in SJL as received 13 Dec. 1785.

On this same day Adams wrote a similar letter introducing Barrett to the Abbés Arnoux and Chalut, and to Lafayette he wrote that Barrett’s “Character and Connections are very good, and his long acquaintance with Commerce qualifies him particularly for the Business entrusted to him, which is the proposition of Mr. Tourtille de Sangrain, relative to our Sperma Coeti oil. As that is a child of your own you will naturally have affection enough for it to take it and Mr. Barrett with it under your protection” (both letters dated 2 Dec. 1785; MHi: AMT). Adams regarded Barrett’s arrival at this timely juncture as “a lucky Event,” not only because he was a more judicious negotiator than the driving Thomas Boylston, who possessed what TJ called “a little too much hastiness of temper,” but also because Barrett’s “errand was to get the whale business … put on a general bottom instead of the particular one which had been settled … the last year for a special company” (TJ to Adams, 10 Dec. 1785; Adams to TJ, 20 Dec. 1785; TJ to Gerry, 11 May 1785). Lafayette had opened up the subject of the trade in whale oil with some merchants in Boston late in 1784, and Tristram Dalton had reported to Adams at once that Lafayette “had it in contemplation to endeavor to introduce the Use of our fish oil in France, as a counter-balance to the high duty laid on that Article by G. B… . On this plan I can form no Judgement, but I can frame a most sanguine wish. Such a Step must affect G. Britain in a tender point” (Dalton to Adams, 21 Dec. 1784; 21 July 1785; MHi: AMT).

In the late summer of 1785, while Boylston was setting out on his own individual effort, a number of merchants in Massachusetts showed their attitude toward the proposition that Lafayette had induced Tourtille de Sangrain to make. Writing at their request on the general state of New England trade, Stephen Higginson informed Adams that the “proposal is such as will not readily be complied with in its present form. No price is fixed, but it is to depend upon the current price at the time and place of delivery. It may however be ripened into something soon that may be beneficial to the Contractors and to the fishery. Should an arrangement take place for introducing our Oil into France, it may give rise to Conventions for receiving our other exports. This will very naturally lead to our receiving their exports in return, and should France become a mart for our exports and we habituated to the use of their manufactures, the British may afterward repent their having refused a reasonable connexion with us, but they will then find it impossible perhaps to recover our Trade. The proposition for receiving our Oil is evidence that the French have such Arrangements in View, and will tend to detach us still more from Britain and strengthen our connection with them… . The British will judge whether this be an interesting consideration to them or not” (Higginson to Adams, 8 Aug. 1785; see also William Gordon to Adams, 4 Oct. 1785; MHi: AMT).

What the merchants thought the matter might be “ripened into … soon” became apparent in a letter written to Adams a few weeks later by Royall Tyler: “The French Propositions respecting the purchase of our Whale Oil are generally Acceptable. Our Politicians applaud the French Conduct in this Instance, as the most Politick Commercial Manoeuvre they have ever Displayed, and the most adequate to the purpose of Detaching us from our British Commercial Connections. There will be no Mercantile Company formed in this state, in consequence of their proffers, but our Merchants propose sending Mr. Nathaniel Barrett, son of Deacon Barrett to France to negotiate Privileges for the people at large …” (Tyler to Adams, 15 Oct. 1785; MHi: AMT). Barrett, while in passage in the Ceres that had brought TJ to Europe in 1784, explained his mission more explicitly: “The present unsettled state of our Commerce, the backwardness of Gentlemen on our side of the water to engage in Companies, the uncertainty of the Value to be obtained for the Oil, and especially the disadvantage of receiving Goods for pay, chosen by persons, who cannot be Judges of the Quallities suitable for our Market, all operate against engaging in the Contract as proposed. A number of Gentlemen, however, who wish to engage on their separate Accounts with spirit into this Business, and who, if the same privellidges can be procured to Individuals as are proposed to a Company, are fully equal to it, have induced me to engage in a Negotiation for the purpose.” Barrett concluded by asking Adams for letters of introduction to the “Marquis de la fayette, Mr. Jefferson, or any others whose Influence you think would promote this purpose” (Barrett to Adams, Nov. 1785; Tr in MHi: AMT).

An objective that had developed out of a spirit of retaliation to the British Navigation Acts and a desire to promote trade relations with France, and including principles of free competition as opposed to the kind of exclusive privilege sought by Boylston, was bound to enlist TJ’s enthusiastic support. Within a few days after his arrival in Paris, Barrett reported to Adams: “I am happy in acquainting you that I have before me a prospect of effecting something which may materially promote the Trade of our Country thro’ the Exertions of the Marquis de la fayette in Conjunction with Mr. Jefferson, to the kind Attention and politeness of both whom, I am under the highest Obligations” (Barrett to Adams, 10 Dec. 1785; this letter was carried with TJ’s to Adams of the same date; MHi: AMT). Early in the new year he informed Adams that in his own name and in behalf of others in America he had contracted for oil to the amount of 400,000 livres per annum for six years at a price that he thought reasonable, that Messrs. Le Couteulx had guaranteed payment, and that “The Marquis de la fayett has been indefatigable in this Business” (Barrett to Adams, 29 Jan. 1786; MHi: AMT; see Sangrain to TJ, 6 Dec. 1785).

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