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.
Shortly after the diplomatic break between John Adams and Count de Vergennes, Adams left for Amsterdam. Once there, he worked diligently to obtain loans from Dutch bankers in the hope of making the United States less dependent on France, a task that took almost two years. Meanwhile, the Adams-Vergennes controversy was playing out in Congress.
Upon instruction from Vergennes, the French ambassador Luzerne appealed to Congress for Adams’s recall. Different factions in Congress also demanded the recall of Adams and Franklin. Fortunately for them, they also had their supporters and they retained their positions. Congress named Adams, Franklin, John Jay, Henry Laurens, and Thomas Jefferson as co-commissioners and issued the following instructions on June 15, 1781:
. . .you are to make the most candid & confidential communications to the ministers of our generous Ally the King of France to undertake nothing in the Negotiations for Peace or truce without their knowledge & concurrence & ultimately to govern yourselves by their advice & opinion endeavouring in your whole Conduct to make them sensible how much we rely upon his majestys influence for effectual support in every Thing that may be necessary to the present security or future Prosperity of the United States of America.
Instructions from Congress to American Peace Commissioners, June 15, 1781. Original in the National Archives, Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, ARC 2440036)
The American victory at Yorktown came in October 1781. In early 1782, a new pro-peace government came into power under Lord Shelburne. Franklin soon began to receive overtures from London, and he summoned his fellow peace commissioners to join him in Paris. John Jay was the first to arrive in June and John Laurens the last in November. Adams returned to Paris at the end of October. He and Jay would play the key roles in concluding the Preliminary Articles of Peace. Jefferson, however, turned down his appointment because his wife had recently died.
Franklin describes how the initial peace overtures came about in his journal. Lord Cholmondely, an acquaintance of one of Franklin’s network of friends, stops at Passy for a visit and offers to carry a note from Franklin to Shelburne. The wheels of diplomacy began to move:
Great Affairs sometimes take their Rise from small Circumstances. My good Friend and Neighbour Madame Brillon, being at Nice all last Winter for her Health, with her very amiable Family, wrote to me that they had met with some English Gentry there, whose Acquaintance prov’d agreable; among them she nam’d Lord Cholmondely, who she said had promis’d to call in his Return to England, and drink Tea with us at Passy. He left Nice sooner than she suppos’d, and came to Paris long before her. On the 21st. of March I receiv’d the following Note.
I wrote for Answer that I should be at home all the next Morning, and glad to see his Lordship if he did me the honour of calling upon me. He came accordingly. I had before no personal Knowledge of this Nobleman. We talk’d of our Friends whom he left at Nice, then of Affairs in England, and the late Resolutions of the Commons on Mr. Conway’s Motion. He told me that he knew Lord Shelburne had a great Regard for me, that he was sure his Lordship would be pleas’d to hear from me, and that if I would write a Line he should have a Pleasure in carrying it.
Journal of Benjamin Franklin, March 21, 1782 to July 1, 1782. Transcript in the National Archives, Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and Constitutional Convention. Text is from the Packard Humanities Digital Edition.
With Franklin ill much of the time and Adams and Laurens not yet present, the early bargaining fell to John Jay. At first, Jay too was ill and did not become active until late summer. Then there was the matter of British negotiator Richard Oswald’s credentials, which did not acknowledge the United States or its independence:
Mr Oswald is here . . . , Ld. Shelburne continues to profess a Desire of Peace—but his Professions unless supported by Facts can have little Credit with us. He says that our Independence shall be acknowledged—but it is not done, and therefore his Sincerity remains questionable. War must make peace for us—and we shall always find well appointed armies to be our ablest Negociators. Letter from John Jay to John Adams, August 2, 1782. Original at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Text from Digital Edition of the Adams Papers.
Adams and Jay found the instructions from Congress to “govern yourself by the advice and opinion” of France to be offensive, feeling strongly that they could not rely on France to protect American interests and that they should negotiate directly with Great Britain. From his experience in Spain, Jay was concerned that France and Spain shared interests that were contrary to those of the United States. In particular, Spain was anxious to limit the American western border at the Appalachian Mountains.
Jay prepared the first draft and, not unexpectedly, it was rejected. More drafts went back and forth, each having to be sent to London for review. Only nine days before signing the treaty, Adams writes that the prospect of peace is on the edge of success or failure.
We live in critical moments. Parliament is to meet and the King’s speech will be delivered on the 26. If the speech announces Mr. Oswald’s commission [to treat for peace with the Americans] and the two houses thank him for issuing it the Prospect of Peace will be flattering. . . . But if Lord North and Company come in . . . the appearance of Peace will be very unpromising…Letter from John Adams to Robert Livingston, November 21, 1782. Original in the National Archives, Records of the Continental and Confederation Congress and the Constitutional Convention. Text from the Digital Edition of the Adams Papers.
Adams and Jay persuaded Franklin to ignore the instructions of Congress, chart their own course, and negotiate directly with Great Britain without informing Vergennes. In fact, Franklin had informed Vergennes that they were talking to the British.
Adams describes the weeks leading up to the treaty’s signing. Adams expresses his strong support for Jay’s views and his work to date. Like Adams, Jay was suspicious of France and thought they should disregard the instructions of Congress and negotiate directly with the British.
As Soon as I arrived in Paris I waited on Mr. Jay, and learned from him the rise and progress of the negotiations. Nothing that has happened since the beginning of the controversy in 1761 has ever struck me more forcibly, or affected me more intimately, than that entire coincidence of principles and opinions between him and me . . . [I] spent the evening with Dr. Franklin . . . I told him, without reserve, my Opinion of the policy of this court, and of the principles, wisdom, and firmness with which Mr. Jay had conducted the negotiation in his sickness and my absence, and that I was determined to support Mr. Jay to the utmost of my power in the pursuit of the same system. The Doctor heard me patiently, but said nothing.
The first conference we had afterwards with Mr. Oswald. In considering one point and another, Dr. Franklin turned to Mr. Jay and said: I am of your opinion, and will go On with these gentlemen in the business without consulting this court.” He accordingly met with us in most of our conferences, and has gone with us in entire harmony gild unanimity throughout, and has been able and useful, both by his sagacity and his reputation, in the whole negotiation.
John Adams’s Journal of Peace Negotiations, November 2 to December 13, 1782. Transcript copy the National Archives, Records of the Continental and Confederaton Congresses and the Constitutional Convention. Text is from Digital Edition of Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.
When Vergennes learned of the signing, he requested Franklin come see him and lashed into him for not consulting him beforehand. Franklin made his apologies, explaining the Articles were Preliminary and would not be final until all parties agreed. In almost the next moment, Franklin appealed for another loan and Vergennes eventually approved it.
The following year, the peacemakers worked on the final treaty. In June of 1783, Adams recorded in his diary a day at court in Versailles. Vergennes attempted to advise the American diplomat, but Adams has his own thoughts on what is best for the United States. If Adams is to be believed, and we have Franklin’s testimony that he “always an honest man,” the text suggests that in three years of diplomacy Adams had learned to “ask myself” before speaking his mind.
The C. de. V[ergennes] . . . recommended to Us to discuss and compleat the definitive Treaty, and Leave Commerce to a future Negotiation.—Shall We gain by Delay? I ask myself. Will not French Politicks be employed, to stimulate the English to refuse Us, in future, Things that they would agree to now? The C. observed, that to insist on sending British Manufactures to America, and to refuse to admit American Manufactures in England was the Convention Leonine [to reserve all or nearly all profits to only one partner].
Diary of John Adams, June 17, 1783. Original is at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Text is from the Digital Edition of the Adams Papers.
The following month Adams reported King George’s ratification of the Preliminary Articles. “Mr Hartley called upon me at my house, and informed me, that he had just Receiv’d a Courier from Westminster, who brought him the Ratification of the Provisional Treaty under the King’s own hand and under the Great Seal of the Kingdom inclosed in a Silver Box, ornamented with golden Tassells.” (Letter from John Adams, London, to Secretary of Foreign Affairs Robert Livingston, August 13, 1783. RG 360, Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention. ARC 6277293)
Today, the Exchange Copy of the Ratification rests with that same silver box and golden tassels in a vault in our National Archives.
We will take a break for a few weeks, and then return to Thomas Jefferson in Paris.
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