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.
In the last post, we introduced the story of Adams and Franklin coming into conflict over the handling of U.S. relations with France. More specifically, Adams’s unsubtle and sometimes contentious conversations and correspondence with the French Foreign Minister, the Count de Vergennes, who was dealing with problems with his own government and a troublesome Spain.
Vergennes had little time for advice and questions, but Adams’s commission authorized him to enter upon peace and trade talks with Great Britain, and he felt it was within his authority to do so on his own. Vergennes argued the time would not be right until the military position of the U.S. and France was stronger. The Adams-Vergennes correspondence from February to July of 1780 came to an abrupt halt with this crushing letter from Vergennes:
I have received, sir, the letter which you did me the honor to write on the 27th of this month. When I took upon myself to give you a mark of my confidence by informing you of the destination of Messrs. de Ternay and Rochambeau [French Naval and Army commanders, respectively] I did not expect the remarks that you have thought it necessary to make regarding a passage in my letter of the 25th of this month. To avoid any further discussions of this sort I think it my duty to inform you that since Mr. Franklin is the only person accredited to the King by the United States, it is with him only that I ought and can treat of matters which concern them and particularly those which have been object of your observations. Letter from Count de Vergennes to John Adams, July 29, 1780. Transcript copy at National Archives, Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention. For text, see Digital Edition of the Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS).
The Adams–Vergennes confrontation was long in the making but had come to a head in the first half of 1780. Congress had appointed Adams on November 28, 1777, to replace Silas Deane as one of the three commissioners in France. Adams reached Paris on April 9, 1778, but was soon frustrated. Some weeks after his arrival, Adams describes a routine “working” day with Franklin:
I found that the Business of our Commission would never be done, unless I did it. My two Colleagues [Franklin and Lee] would agree in nothing. The Life of Dr. Franklin was a Scene of continual dissipation. I could never obtain the favour of his Company in a Morning before Breakfast which would have been the most convenient time to read over the Letters and papers, deliberate on their contents, and decide upon the Substance of the Answers. It was late when he breakfasted, and as soon as Breakfast was over, a crowd of Carriges came to his . . . to his Lodgings, with all Sorts of People; some Phylosophers, Accademicians and Economists . . . but by far the greater part were Women and Children, come to have the honour to see the great Franklin, and to have the pleasure of telling Stories about his Simplicity, his bald head and scattering strait hairs, among their Acquaintances. . . These Visitors occupied all the time, commonly, till it was time to dress to go to Dinner . . . and after that went sometimes to the Play, sometimes to the Philosophers but most commonly to visit those Ladies who were complaisant enough to depart from the custom of France so far as to procure Setts of Tea Geer as it is called and make Tea for him. . . . After Tea the Evening was spent, in hearing the Ladies sing and play upon their Piano Fortes . . . and in various Games as Cards, Chess, Backgammon, &c. &c. Mr. Franklin I believe however never play’d at any Thing but Chess or Checquers. . . . In these Agreable and important Occupations and Amusements, The Afternoon and Evening was spent, and he came home at all hours from Nine to twelve O Clock at night. Diary of John Adams, May 27, 1778. Original is at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS). For text, see Digital Edition of the Adams Papers, MHS.
A few months later, Adams wrote to his cousin Sam Adams and described a situation that was becoming unbearable for him:
Between you and me, I have a difficult Task. I am between two Gentlemen [Franklin and Lee] of opposite Tempers. The one may be too easy and good natured upon some occasions—the other too rigid, and Severe upon some occasions. The one may perhaps overlook an Instance of Roguery, from Inadvertence and too much Confidence [Franklin]—the other may mistake an Instance, of Integrity for its opposite, in a very honest Man, by too much Impatience and diffidence [Lee]. Yet both may be and I believe are honest Men, and devoted Friends to their Country. But this is an ugly situation for me who do not abound in Philosophy, and who cannot and will not trim. The Consequence of it may very probably be that I may have the entire Confidence of neither. Yet I have hitherto lived in friendship with both. Letter from John Adams to Samuel Adams, August 7, 1778. Original is in the George Bancroft Collection, New York Public Library. For text, see Digital Edition of the Adams Papers, MHS.
When Congress subsequently appointed Franklin as the sole Minister Plenipotentiary to France, Adams’s pride was hurt, and he was angered that Congress had not made any mention of him. He returned home and spent the months of September to November 1779 drafting a new constitution for Massachusetts.
Early in 1780, at the instruction of Congress, Adams returned to Europe to negotiate treaties of peace and commerce with Great Britain. From February to July, Adams undertook his own conversations with Count de Vergennes without Franklin’s assistance or involvement. It became clear to Adams that negotiations with Great Britain were still some time into the future, and he took up other subjects with Vergennes instead. In March he wrote to James Lovell, Massachusetts delegate to Congress:
I wish to know your private Opinion whether Congress will continue Mr. Francis Dana [Adams’s secretary] and me here, at so much Expense, with so little Prospect of any Thing to do, for a long time, . . . or whether they will revoke our Powers and recall Us? or what they will do with Us. A Situation so idle and inactive, is not agreable to my Genius, yet I can submit to it, as well as any Man, if it is thought necessary for the public Good.—I will do all the Service I can, by transcribing Intelligence and in every other Way. Letter from John Adams to James Lovell, March 16, 1780. Original is in Adams Papers, Library of Congress. For text, see the Digital Edition of the Adams Papers, MHS.
In the excerpts below, Adams and Vergennes exchange views on Adams’s diplomatic credentials and peace negotiations with “his Brittanick Majesty” in the days leading up to Vergennes’s letter of July 29.
Adams was fully aware of the importance of the French alliance and understood that U.S. armies would not be able to remain in the field without French aid. However, he also believed that all nations pursue their own interests first, that France was no exception and that the United States should do the same. He and Vergennes clashed on the devaluation of the American dollar, trade exemptions for French merchants, the need for more French naval support, grand military strategy, and the right time to open peace negotiations with Great Britain:
I shoud have been very happy if your Excellency had hinted at the Reasons which were then in your Mind, because, after reflecting upon this subject, as maturely as I can, I am not able to collect any Reasons which appear to me sufficient for concealing the Nature of my Powers in their full extent, from the Court of London. On the contrary, many arguments have occurred to me, which seem to shew it to be both the policy of the United States, and my particular Duty to communicate them. Your Excellency will recollect that my Commissions empower me to join with the Ministers of the belligerent Powers in making Peace; to make a Treaty of Commerce with the Ministers of his Britannick Majesty, and to represent the Congress, as their Minister Plenipotentiary at the Court of London. It seems to me then inconsistent with the design and nature of my appointments to conceal them from the Court of London. Letter from John Adams to Comte de Vergennes, July 17, 1780. A transcript copy is at the National Archives, Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, ARC 6277096. For text, see the Digital Edition of the Adams Papers.
This letter from Adams provoked Vergennes like no other. Vergennes had previously informed Adams that the French fleet and army were on their way to America, the most costly expenditure made by France to date. Vergennes was concerned that Spain’s waivering commitment to the war made this a poor time to bring Great Britain to the peace table. In his reply of July 25, Vergennes went into some depth as to his reasoning.
I continue to be of opinion that the time to communicate your plenipotentiary powers to Lord Germaine [British Secretary of State for the American Department] is not yet come and you will there find the reasons on which I ground my Opinion [see below]. I have no doubt that you will feel the force of them & that they will determine you to think as I do. But if that should not be the case I pray and in name of the King request you to communicate your letter and my answer to the United States and to suspend until you have shall receive orders from them all measures with regard to the English Ministry.
The Comte de Vergennes’s reasons for giving this advice to Mr. Adams are so simple as to appear preemptory:
To be concerned with a treaty of commerce before having made peace is to be concerned with decorating a building before laying its foundation. . . . Before anything else, it is necessary to obtain from England a recognition of American independence, and that recognition must serve as the basis for a peace treaty. Letter from Vergennes to Adams with enclosurer July 25, 1780]. Original is at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Transcript copy in the National Archives. For text, see the Digital Edition of the Adams Papers.
Vergennes’s next communication, his letter of July 29, ended his dialogue with Adams abruptly and Adams soon afterwards left for the Netherlands. About 28 months later, he returned to Paris when the time for negotiating peace with England had finally come.
In our next post, we follow the repercussions of the Adams-Vergennes controversy as it plays out in Philadelphia and elsewhere in subsequent months.
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