This is part of a series, written by Jim Zeender, devoted to letters written by the Founding Fathers in their own words and often in their own hand. Jim is a senior registrar in Exhibits.
The leadership of John Adams in the independence movement and the publication of his “Thoughts on Government” in the same year (1776) made him an international figure, although today he is probably less famous than his cousin: patriot, beer brewer, and Boston tea party participant Sam Adams.
Adams was often described as vain or pompous, but the following diary passage from 1779 exemplifies a keen wit and self-deprecation.
When I arrived in France, the French Nation had a great many Questions to settle.
The first was—Whether I was the famous Adams, Le fameux Adams? —Ah, le fameux Adams?—In order to speculate a little upon this Subject, the Pamphlet entituled Common sense, had been printed in the Affaires de L’Angleterre et De L’Amérique, and expressly ascribed to M. Adams the celebrated Member of Congress, le celebre Membre du Congress. . . . When I arrived at Bourdeaux, All that I could say or do, would not convince any Body, but that I was the fameux Adams.—Cette un homme celebre. Votre nom est bien connu ici.—My Answer was—it is another Gentleman, whose Name of Adams you have heard. It is Mr. Samuel Adams, who was excepted from Pardon by Gen. Gage’s Proclamation.—Oh No Monsieur, cette votre Modestie.
But when I arrived at Paris, I found a very different Style. I found great Pains taken, much more than the Question was worth to settle the Point that I was not the famous Adams. . . . I soon found too, that it was effectually settled in the English News Papers that I was not the famous Addams. No body went so far in France or Ingland, as to say I was the infamous Adams. I make no scruple to say, that I believe, that both Parties for Parties there were, joined in declaring that I was not the famous Adams. I certainly joined both sides in this, in declaring that I was not the famous Adams, because this was the Truth. . . .
I behaved with as much Prudence, and Civility, and Industry as I could. But still it was a settled Point at Paris and in the English News Papers that I was not the famous Adams, and therefore the Consequence was settled absolutely and unalterably that I was a Man of whom Nobody had ever heard before, a perfect Cypher, a Man who did not understand a Word of French—awkward in his Figure—awkward in his Dress—No Abilities—a perfect Bigot—and fanatic.
(Diary of John Adams, February 11, 1779. Original is at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Read the full text here.)
When Congress appointed Adams as a joint commissioner to France in 1777, he joined Benjamin Franklin, the oldest and most experienced of American diplomats, as well as Silas Deane and Arthur Lee. In the summer of 1779, he returned home to Braintree, Massachusetts, and spent the fall months drafting the constitution of Massachusetts. Only a few months later, he returned to Europe at behest of Congress as its Minister Plenopotentiary to negotiate a treaty of peace and commerce with Great Britain.
Franklin and Adams realized that France and other European powers such as Spain and the Netherlands would hold the key to obtaining independence in a war against the military might of England. Without financial and military support, the fledgling nation had little hope of success. They also understood the need to court the French and to be deferential to its leaders, but how to court and how deferential to be? That is where they would differ, resulting in a serious conflict between the two. How serious is evident in this letter from Franklin to Samuel Huntington, President of Congress:
Mr Adams has given Offence to the Court here by some Sentiments and Expressions contained in several of his Letters written to the Count de Vergennes. I mention this with Reluctance, tho’ perhaps it would have been my Duty to acquaint you with such a Circumstance, even were it not required of me by the Minister himself. . . . It is true that Mr Adams’s proper Business is elsewhere, but the Time not being come for that Business, and having nothing else here wherewith to employ himself, he seems to have endeavour’d supplying what he may suppose my Negociations defective in. He thinks as he tells me himself, that America has been too free in Expressions of Gratitude to France; for that she is more obliged to us than we to her; and that we should shew Spirit in our Applications. I apprehend that he mistakes his Ground, and that this Court is to be treated with Decency & Delicacy.
The King [Louis XVI], a young and virtuous Prince, has, I am persuaded, a Pleasure in reflecting on the generous Benevolence of the Action, in assisting an oppress’d People, and proposes it as a Part of the Glory of his Reign: I think it right to encrease this Pleasure by our thankful Acknowledgements; and that such an Expression of Gratitude is not only our Duty but our Interest. A different Conduct seems to me what is not only improper and unbecoming, but what may be hurtful to us. Mr Adams, on the other Hand, who at the same time means our Welfare and Interest as much as I, or any Man can do, seems to think a little apparent Stoutness and greater Air of Independence & Boldness in our Demands, will procure us more ample Assistance. It is for the Congress to judge and regulate their Affairs accordingly. [French Foreign Minister] M. De Vergennes, who appears much offended, told me yesterday, that he would enter into no further Discussions with Mr Adams, nor answer any more of his Letters. He is gone to Holland to try, as he told me, whether something might not be done to render us a little less dependent on France.
(Letter from Franklin to Samuel Huntington, President of Congress, August 9, 1780. National Archives, Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, ARC 6277098)
Franklin did not say anything to Adams at the time and they continued to work together, albeit at a distance—Paris and Amsterdam—but Adams would find out eventually and so would his wife Abigail. Mrs. Alice Lee Shippen of Philadelphia (member of the famous Lee family) intended to send a letter to Mrs. Elizabeth Welles Adams (wife of Samuel Adams). However, she addressed it only “Mrs. Adams” and as fate would have it, Abigail received it:
The British are making sad Havock in Virginia, they have taken six Members of their Assembly: I am much distress’d lest a Brother I have in that Body should be one of their number. I am sure none of my Brothers will find any Mercy with them. A French Fleet in Virginia now might do every thing we wish, but I despair of such assistance while a certain person is our Minister. He [Franklin] has sent his resignation to Congress; this is probably no more than a State Trick to fix him more firm in the Saddle. He says perhaps he is too Old, but he does not perceive any thing like it himself; and then gives a strong Proof of it by recommending his Grandson [William Temple Franklin] as the Person who will, in a Year or two, be most fit for our Plenepotentiary. From this recommendation one or the other of these two things is clear, either Mr. F—’s faculties are impair’d, or he thinks ours are. This same Gentleman is now blackening the Character of Mr. J:A. to Congress more than he did Mr. L—’s, and he has got the french Minister to join him. (Excerpt of letter from Alice Lee Shippen to Elizabeth Welles Adams [Mrs. Samuel Adams], June 17, 1781. Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society. Text from Digital Edition of the Adams Papers. )
Abigail maintained a regular correspondence with James Lovell, a Massachusetts delegate to Congress and a friend of the Adams family. She brought the matter to Lovell’s attention a couple of weeks later. John Adams could not have had a better advocate and defender.
At length the mistery is unravelld, and by a mere accident I have come to the knowledge of what you have more than once hinted at. A Letter of Mrs. Shippen addressed to Mrs. A. but without any christian Name or place of abode, was put into my Hands. . . . [A]fter mentioning our affairs in France and giving a Specimin of the Abilities of the present plenipotentiary [Franklin] . . . she adds “this same Gentleman is now blacking the character of Mr. [Adams]—to Congress more than he did Mr. S— and he has got the French Minister to join him.” This allarmed at the same time that [it] enlightned me. . . . The duce take the Enemy for restraining my pen. I want to ask you a hundred Questions and to have them fully and explicitly answerd. You will send me by the first opportunity the whole of this dark prosess. Was the Man a Gallant I should think he had been monopolising the Women from the enchanter. Was he a Modern Courtier I should think he had outwitted him in court intrigue. Was He a selfish avaritious designing deceitfull Villan I should think he had encroached upon the old Gentlemans perogatives but as he is neither, what can raise his malice against an honest republican? Tis fear, fear, that fear which made the first grand deciver start up in his own shape when touchd by Ithuriel[‘s] Spear. The honest Zeal of a Man who has no Sinnester views to serve, no Friends to advance to places of profit and Emolument, no ambition to make a fortune with the Spoil of his country, or to eat the Bread of Idleness and dissapation—this this man must be crushed, he must be calumniated and abused. . . . He [Adams] is a good Man, would to Heaven we had none but such in office. You know my Friend that he is a man of principal, and that he will not violate the dictates of his conscience to Ingratiate himself with a minister, or with your more respected Body.
Yet it wounds me Sir—when he is wounded I blead. I give up my domestick pleasure and resign the prospect I once had of an independant fortune, and such he could have made in the way of his Buisness. Nor should I grudge the sacrifice, only let not the slanderous arrow, the calumniating stabs of Malice rend in peices an honest character which is all his Ambition.
Who steals my purse steals trash twas mine, tis his and has been slave to thousands but he who filches from me my good Name takes that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.
Letter from Abigail Adams to James Lovell, June 30, 1781. Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society. Text from Digital Edition of the Adams Papers.
The Adams-Vergennes-Franklin story will be continued in the next post.
Many of the documents featured in this series are online at DocsTeach, a tool designed for using primary materials in the classroom. There are now almost 6,000 items in DocsTeach.