Charles Dumas Deals with the Dutch

Politics During the War (1775-1783)

April 6, 2015
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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The Committee of Secret Correspondence was established by the Continental Congress on November 29, 1775.[1] It was responsible for employing secret agents abroad, developing a courier system for dispatches, and disseminating and funding propaganda.

The first intelligence agent recruited by the Committee was Arthur Lee, a doctor living in London. He was appointed on November 30. The next agent recruited and the focus of this article was Charles W. F. Dumas, a Swiss gentleman, living at The Hague. His residence was an ideal location for an American agent. “There [was] not in Europe a better Station to collect Intelligence from France, Spain, England, Germany, and all the Northern Parts; nor a better Situation from whence to circulate Intelligence.[2]

Benjamin Franklin first met Dumas in 1770 when he was visiting the United Provinces. Dumas was a ‘man of letters’, multi-lingual, and a proponent not only of the natural rights of man but also the American cause. The Committee contacted him on December 19, 1775:

We wish to know whether any one of [the countries of Europe,] from principles of humanity, is disposed magnanimously to step in for the relief of an oppressed people … [or if we] declare ourselves an independent people, there is any … who would be willing to enter into an alliance with us for the benefit of our commerce … for this purpose, you should confer directly with some great Ministers, and show them this letter as your credential.[3]

On April 30, 1776, Franklin received Dumas’ answer:

I am deeply … honored by … the confidence reposed in me by the committee … I shall … be devoted to the service of so glorious and just a cause. I accept, therefore, joyfully the commission you have bestowed, and whatever you may think Fit to give me in future, and I promise a Hearty good will and an untiring zeal.[4]

In his first report Dumas told the Committee that France and Spain were their most suitable allies, they were interested in trading with America as Britain’s “enormous maritime power fills them with apprehension,” and he had shared with the French minister at The Hague, Duc de la Vauguyon, the Committee’s requests.

On May 21, Dumas recommended to the Committee that Congress proceed carefully:

I think … that it will be more advantageous to you and to France also, that she should not be hasty to declare openly for you … your republican virtues will render you superior to your enemies, and invincible even without allies. These will not be wanting … for it cannot be thought, that with what is passing in your part of the world, ours can long remain at peace. The time will come when your friends will show themselves, and when your alliance will not only be accepted but sought.[5]

On September 26, Franklin was appointed “Commissioner for Negotiating a Treaty of Amity and Commerce” with France.[6] Not long after Franklin arrived in Paris, Dumas was given the task of setting the groundwork for the American minister who would soon be appointed by Congress to Holland, at that time known as the United Provinces. “No nation seems more interested in opening our commerce, by abolishing the British monopoly, than the Dutch. The carrying trade by which they flourish must be greatly increased by the change.”[7]

In Dumas’ next three letters to the committee, now called the Committee of Foreign Affairs, he informed them that Dutch as well as American vessels were being taken in Europe. After visiting The Hague, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, it was clear that “the great majority, almost the whole of our merchants, are for you,” and the States-General had assembled to discuss the need to send a convoy with their vessels going to the West Indies.[8]

On April 10, 1778, Dumas was sent a dispatch from Franklin which included the announcement of John Adams’ appointment as a commissioner to France, and a copy of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and France.[9]

In June, Dumas published in the United Provinces a memorial written by Arthur Lee. Its main point was:

The extraordinary remittances which the people of America have made to the merchants of Great Britain since the commencement of this dispute is a proof of their honor and good faith; so much more safe and advantageous is it to trust money with a young, industrious thriving people, than with an old nation overwhelmed with debt … By maintaining the independence of America a new avenue will be opened for the employment of money, where landed property, as yet untouched by mortgage or other incumbrances, will answer for the principal, and the industry of a young and uninvolved people would insure the regular payment of interest.[10]

In July, Dumas sent a copy of the treaty with France to E. F. van Berckel, the Amsterdam Pensionary, who was sympathetic to the American cause. In response, Berckel wrote back:

May we hope that circumstances will permit us soon to give evidence of the high esteem we have for the new republic, clearly raised up by the help of Providence, while the spirit of despotism is subdued; and let us desire to make leagues of amity and commerce between the respective subjects which shall last even to the end of time.[11]

In return, Dumas asked him “to continue, by your patriotic efforts to clear away difficulties, to provide means, and to hasten the moment of a connexion so desirable on both side.”[12] These two acts by Dumas catapulted the negotiations between the American colonies and the United Provinces to the next level.

On September 11, Dumas informed Franklin, “Tomorrow … all the Amsterdam merchants … will present an address to their High Mightinesses requesting the protection due them from their sovereign, [and] if the British refuse to behave … in accordance with the Republic’s neutrality … [then] some very serious measures and consequences, such as reprisals [must be considered].”[13]

The United Provinces was a neutral country, this meant, she did not favor one side or the other in a conflict and thus so no reason to invest in an effective defense on land or on the sea. She “asked no aid or alliances … only for what nature surely entitles all men to, a free and uninterrupted commerce and exchange of the superfluities of one country for those of another.”[14] On September 23, Van Berckel wrote to Dumas,

We should grant each other mutually all the facilities necessary to render commerce as free as possible, and that for this purpose we should take the treaty between France and America as the basis, changing nothing except those provisions, which cannot be applicable in the republic.[15]

Van Berckel also reminded Dumas that any action taken by the States-General required a unanimous vote by all seven of the provinces and as the Highest Executive Officer in the Province of Holland, he would never vote for any action that would jeopardize the United Province’s relationship with the American colonies. When Dumas conveyed van Berckel’s sentiments to Franklin and Adams in Paris, he was told,

Having received no answer from the Grand Pensionary to a letter … respectfully wrote to his Excellency some months since [April 10], expressing their disposition to such a good work, they apprehend that any further motion of that kind, on their part, would not at present be agreeable; though they still hold themselves ready to enter upon such a treaty, when it shall seem good to their High Mightinesses.[16]

When British Ambassador Sir Joseph Yorke learned about the communications between Dumas and van Berckel, he recommended to the Court of St. James that they “moderate and soften their tone.” He received the following response:

The Court of London is willing to restore all the vessels seized, with costs and charges, and to pay for the naval stores which it shall retain, but its ambassador will submit to their High Mightinessess a proposition to alter the treaties on this point, and to consent to declare these articles contraband in the future [and thus subject to seized].[17]

On October 30, Dumas was asked to give the following message to Franklin on behalf of the Grand Pensionary:

Mr. Franklin … should not find it strange or incongruous on the part of the Grand Pensionary if he does not answer the letter just yet and to make him understand that there are important, but secret, reasons which impose the need for the delay.[18]

The most important “reason” was the hereditary leader of the United Provinces, the Stadtholder William V. He was the cousin of the King of England, the leader of the Orange Party, and a significant influence in a majority of the provinces.

On November 2, Yorke requested “the appointment of Commissioners, with whom he may consult to settle the intent of the treaties relative to the articles and … the republic not grant convoys [because England] cannot consent to allow the articles [of stores, masts and shipbuilding timber] to pass.”[19] This, England argued, was simply a prolongation of the Treaty of 1674 between the two countries.[20] The Grand Pensionary, French Ambassador de la Vauguyon, and some of the Corps of Nobility were irritated by the request. On November 20, Dumas informed the Commissioners in Paris that the States-General had refused the first part of Yorke’s memorial but the Admiralty claimed they were in no position to offer convoy support for any ships carrying naval stores.[21] The city of Amsterdam filed a formal protest because the Admiralty’s decision had been adopted in a manner contrary to the Republic’s constitution that required a unanimous vote and Amsterdam had not given its assent. Dumas wrote:

The consequences of this affair … may be very serious if they push the city to extremities. The first will be the closing of the public chest, as concerns her contribution towards the expenses of the confederation. This city alone pays about one quarter of all the expenses of the republic, and if they should push things to extremity she may ask succors of France, who certainly would not suffer her to be oppressed.[22]

On December 7, Ambassador de la Vauguyon presented a memorial to their High Mightinesses and the States-General. He asked for a clear and precise statement of the Republic’s determination to maintain its strict neutrality and declared that if any derogation of that neutrality was permitted, France would withdraw the privileges enjoyed by Dutch vessels. The ambassador was diplomatically drawing a line in the sand and challenging the Republic to publically announce her intentions.[23] On January 1, according to Dumas in a letter to the Committee of Foreign Affairs, de la Vauguyon informed their High Mightinesses that because all of the provinces could not agree to convoy protection “whether for all branches of their commerce in general, or in particular for articles of naval stores of any kind, the present circumstances would be regarded as an act of partiality derogatory to the principles of an absolute neutrality” and thus the Provinces would be denied port privileges in France – all that is, except Amsterdam.[24] A few days later the cities of Haarlem, Rotterdam, Dordrecht and Zeeberg would join their sister city in opposition.

On March 24, 1779, Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, wrote to the Prussian Ambassador to The Hague and condemned England‘s attitude and actions towards the United Provinces as well as the English Ambassador to The Hague. On April 26, Dumas learned of the States-General’s plan for building thirty-two “ships for defense.” The plan identified the provinces responsible for their construction, the construction costs, their size and firepower, their manpower needs, and the timetable for their completion.[25] Up to this point, the United Provinces possessed only eleven ships of sixty or more cannons; this plan would add ten more ships of sixty cannons and fifteen of fifty cannons.

On July 10, 1778, France had declared war on England; eleven months later, on June 21, 1779, Spain did the same. On July 22, Ambassador Yorke delivered a memorial to the States-General in which he invoked an article of the Treaty of 1674 between Great Britain and the United Provinces which allowed either country to lay claim to support from the other when threatened with an attack.[26] Not being in a position to offer aid, the United Provinces put off responding.

In a letter to Franklin, dated September 14, Dumas reported convoy protection was still not granted, even for ships with no contraband. Finally, on November 8, the provinces agreed that two merchant fleets, not carrying contraband or naval stores, would sail under the protection of some “ships for defense.” One fleet headed for the West Indies and the other for France and then Spain sailed on December 27 from the United Provinces; however four days later, both were stopped by twelve British ships of war off the Isle of Wight. Several ships whose cargo consisted of general ship material were captured and taken to England. Their future was to be determined by an Admiralty Court in London.

Ambassador Yorke presented a second memorial invoking the Treaty of 1674 on November 26, 1779, and again was met with no response. Finally, on March 21, 1780, he issued his final memorial; the United Provinces were given three weeks to respond. On April 17, having not responded, by an order of the King, it was declared “the United Provinces shall henceforward be considered on the footing of neutral powers who are not privileged by treaties. His majesty [also] suspends … all the particular stipulations designed to favor in time of war the liberty of navigation and commerce of the subjects of the States-General.”[27]

This declaration occurred one week after Prince Gallitzin, Envoy Extra- ordinary, presented a memorial to the States-General on behalf of Empress Catherine II of Russia stating her desire

to maintain during the present war the strictest neutrality, she will, nevertheless, maintain, by means most efficacious, … the safety of her commerce … and will not suffer any injury should be done to it by any of the belligerent powers…. To avoid … all misunderstanding … she has thought it her duty to specify in her declaration the terms of a free commerce and of that which is called contraband … the definition founded upon… the laws of nature [and] the treaty of commerce [between] Russia with Great Britain … In pursuance of these two views, her Majesty has charged her [envoy] to invite your High Mightinesses to make a common cause with her.[28]

The common cause was to meet in St. Petersburg to discuss and hopefully accede to a treaty of armed alliance. Gallitzin said a draft was written based upon the five fundamental maritime principles adopted by all nations regarding neutrality, and the same invitation was being extended to the Courts of Versailles, Madrid and London. Dumas sent a summary of the memorial to the President of Congress on April 13. Two weeks later, John Adams wrote to the President of Congress that the province of Holland had resolved to accept the invitation and copies of the resolution were being sent to Prince Gallitzin, Johan Isaac de Swart, the Dutch Resident in St. Petersburg, and the courts at Copenhagen, Stockholm and Lisbon.

Great Britain’s policy of aggression was failing: the United Provinces did not respond to their demand for military support against France, did grant convoy protection for its merchant vessels, was building a larger navy, and was now considering an alliance with other neutral countries in Europe for their mutual defense. By October, as Dumas had predicted, Denmark, Sweden, the United Provinces, Prussia, France, and Portugal had envoys in St. Petersburg finalizing the Treaty of Armed Neutrality.[29]

Great Britain had only two options left: accede to the Treaty of Armed Neutrality or declare war on the United Provinces before she was officially a signer of the treaty. The perfect reason for choosing the latter occurred on September 3. A ship bearing Henry Laurens, the newly appointed commissioner to negotiate a treaty of amity and commerce with the United Provinces, was stopped off the coast of Newfoundland and in his possession was discovered letters from van Berckel and others that expressed their support for the American colonies and a draft treaty of amity and commerce. On November 10, Ambassador Yorke presented a memorial requiring of the States-General to issue a formal disavowal of the conduct of Amsterdam and “speedy satisfaction, adequate to the offence, and the exemplary punishment of the Pensionary Van Berckel and his accomplices.”[30] If the States-General refused to take such action, Great Britain would be obliged to take such measures as it saw fit “to maintain its dignity.” The Grand Pensionary immediately suspected that England was using the situation as a mean to prevent the United Provinces from joining the Armed Neutrality. Simply, England did not want the United Provinces to join the coalition of Armed Neutrality because under its protection, she would be able to resume her commercial shipping thereby cutting into the commercial interests of England and she would be able to furnish naval stores and munitions to the enemies of England.

On November 20, the States-General resolved to join the alliance.[31] On December 15, the States-General informed Ambassador Yorke that his memorial had been referred to the provinces and that a definitive answer would be given as quickly as the constitution of the government allowed. Dumas learned on December 24 that Yorke was recalled from the United Provinces without taking leave, and that in response, Count van Welderen, the Dutch Ambassador to the Court of St. James, was recalled to the United Provinces.[32]

On January 1, 1781, John Adams was appointed Minister Plenipotentiary to the United Provinces. Three weeks later, Dumas reported,

On the 31st of December last, the Dutch Plenipotentiaries and M de Swart had a final conference with the Russian Plenipotentiary … and the whole transaction having been laid before the Empress, and approved by her, the accession of this Republic to the treaties … for the mutual protection of the trade and navigation of their subjects, has been concluded and signed on January 4.[33]

On February 25, John Adams was granted by Congress, “full Powers to treat with their High Mightinesses, and to conclude and Sign a Treaty. [He] also received Authority to accede to the Principles of Armed Neutrality.” He presented a memorial to the High Mightinesses on May 4; in it he explained in detail why a Treaty of Amity and Commerce was in the best interest of both countries.[34] Seven days later, he directed Dumas to have the memorial published in French and Dutch. By the 15th, it appeared in all public journals in the country.[35]

During the months of May and June, Adams, against the advice of the French Ambassador, attempted to present his credentials to their Mightinesses, then to the Stadtholder, and finally to the States-General, but none were ready to receive him because the United Provinces had not, as of yet, recognized the independence of the United States. When news of Adams’ actions got back to Congress on July 12, his commission was revoked.[36] This occurred because Congress was convinced that Adams should take his direction from the French Foreign Minister Vergennes via Ambassador Duc de la Vauguyon. When Adams failed to do this, Vergennes wrote to the French Ambassador in America, the Chevalier de la Luzerne, who was able to sway members of Congress that Adams needed to be replaced. On August 16, however, Adams was issued a new commission with full powers “to confer, treat, agree, and conclude with the person or persons vested with equal powers by [the King of France] and their High Mightinesses concerning a treaty of alliance … and whatever shall be so agreed and concluded … in our name to sign.”[37]

On August 31, Dumas informed Congress that the United Provinces were considering a loan of five million guilders or two million dollars to the King of France under the guarantee of the States-General at five percent interest. Dumas had informed Adams of this almost one week earlier.[38] It was still a secret that the money was intended to be a loan to the colonies. It would be three months before Dumas could write to Adams announcing “the unanimous resolution that took place this morning [December 3] at the States-General for the loan guarantee.”[39]

Not surprisingly, on September 11, Great Britain accepted Catherine’s offer of mediation. The efforts did not go far after England refused to negotiate free navigation on the seas, the return of Dutch possessions seized by Great Britain in the West and East Indies and an indemnity for their losses at sea.

In November, news of Cornwallis’s surrender reached The Hague. On February 26, Friesland was the first province to acknowledge the independence of the United States.[40] Seven days later, Friesland proposed to the States-General the admission of John Adams as “Minister of the Congress of North America.”[41] On March 29, the province of Holland recognized the independence of the United States, Overyssel did the same on April 5, Zealand on April 8, Groningen on April 9, Utrecht on April 10, Guelderland on April 17, and finally on April 19, the States-General resolved “Mr. Adams is agreeable, and audience will be granted … when he shall demand it.”[42] Three days later he was introduced to the Stadtholder as “the accredited minister of the United States.” Dumas later learned the Corps of Nobles declared that they “would neither concur with nor oppose the resolution.”[43] Adams then proposed negotiations on a treaty of amity and commerce. Within days a commission was appointed and soon thereafter a draft was completed and sent to all of the provinces. While they deliberated, Adams met with the Grand Pensionary, and recommended an ambassador from the United Provinces be sent to Congress.

On August 8, the States-General approved a Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United Provinces and the United States of America. Adams and Dumas had accomplished what they set out to do – secure a loan from the United Provinces, have the independence of the United States acknowledged, have a plenipotentiary of the United States received, and secure a Treaty of Amity and Commerce. None of these could have been achieved without assistance of Charles William Frederic Dumas, a little known patriot who never set foot in America.


[1] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 3:392.

[2] Francis Wharton , ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1888), 4:30.

[3] Benjamin Franklin to Charles W. F. Dumas, December 9, 1775, in William B. Willcox, ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982), 22:287–91.

[4] Dumas to Franklin, April 30, 1776, ibid., 403–12.

[5] Dumas to the Committee of Secret Correspondence, May 21, 1776, ibid., 433–36.

[6] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 5:827.

[7] Arthur Lee to Dumas, January 6, 1777, in Jared Sparks, ed., The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, Vol. IX (Boston: Nathan Hale and Gray & Bowen, 1830), 306.

[8] Dumas to the Committee of Foreign Affairs, June 14, 1777, ibid., 326; August 22, 1777, 328; October 14, 1777, ibid., 330.

[9] American Commissioners to Dumas, April 10, 1778, in Willcox, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 26:267–68.

[10] Wharton, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, 2:545.

[11] Ibid., 2:674.

[12] Dumas to van Berckel, July 27 and August 17, 1778, ibid., 334, 336.

[13] Dumas to Franklin, September 11, 1778, in C. James Taylor, ed., The Adams Papers Digital Edition (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2015).

[14] Silas Deane to Dumas, August 18, 1776, in Wharton, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, 2:128.

[15] Dumas to Franklin, September 13, 1778, ibid; van Berckel to Dumas, September 23, 1778, in Sparks, The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, 456.

[16] Franklin to Dumas, September 27, 1778,” ibid., 467.

[17] Dumas to the Commissioners, October 27, 1778, ibid., 481.

[18] Dumas to Franklin, October 30, 1778, in Gregg L. Lint, Richard Alan Ryerson, et al., The Adams Papers, January–September 1781 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 7:181-184.

[19] Dumas to the Commissioners in Paris, November 4, 1778, in Wharton, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, 2:829; Jared Sparks, ed., The Bound Historical Manuscripts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1871), CIII.

[20] H. T. Colenbrander, De Patriottentijd, Vol. I, (Haag: Martinus Nijhoff, 1897) 115;

[21] Dumas to the Commissioners, November 20, 1778, in Sparks, The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, 499.

[22] Dumas to the Committee of Foreign Affairs, December 3, 1778, ibid., 339.

[23] “Memorial presented by his Excellency the Duc de Vauguton to the States General of the United Provinces of the Low Countries, 8 December 1778,” in Edmund Burke, The Annual Register, or the View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year 1779, 4th edition, (London: Knight and Compton, 1802), 422-23.

[24] Dumas to the Committee of Foreign Affairs, January 1, 1779, in Sparks, The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, 342.

[25] Dumas to the Committee of Foreign Affairs, May 15, 1779, in Burke, The Annual Register, 360-62.

[26] “Memorial presented by Sir Joseph Yorke, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the King of Great Britain, to their High Mightinesses the States General of the United Provinces of the Low Countries, 22 July 1779,” ibid., 428-29.

[27] John Adams to the President of Congress, April 28, 1780, in Wharton, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, 3:635-36.

[28] John Adams to the President of Congress, April 10, 1780, ibid., 3:606-07.

[29] Dumas to the President of Congress, July 22, 1780, in Sparks, The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, 428-29; Dumas to Franklin, October 3, 1780, ibid., 437-38.

[30] The Parliamentary Register; or History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons, Vol. 1 (London: J. Almon and J. Debrett, 1781), 323-24.

[31] Adams to the President of Congress, November 16, 1780, in Wharton, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, 4:153.

[32] Jared Sparks, ed., “Charles W. F. Dumas to the President of Congress, 5 February, 1782, 447.

[33] Dumas to the President of Congress, January 23, 1781, in Sparks, The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, 444.

[34] Adams’ memorial to the States-General, April 19, 1781, in Wharton, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, 4:370-76.

[35] “From John Adams to Hendrik Bicker, 1 March 1781,” in Lint, The Adams Papers, 11:171; Dumas to the President of Congress, May 4 and May 11, 1781, in Sparks, The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, 455, 456.

[36] Revocation of Adams’ Commission to Negotiate Commercial Treaty, in Wharton, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, 4:562.

[37] “Resolves of Congress, Comprising the Instructions to John Adams,” ibid., 4:636-37.

[38] Dumas to the President of Congress, August 23 and 30, 1781,” ibid., 655, 657.

[39] Dumas to Adams, December 3, 1781, in Lint, The Adams Papers, 12:109-10.

[40] Dumas to Adams, February 24, 1782, ibid., 12:266.

[41] “Resolution of the States-General, 5 March 1782,” in Sparks, The Bound Historical Manuscripts, CIII.

[42] Adams to Livingston, April 19, 1782, in Wharton, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, 5:315-19.

[43] Dumas to Adams, March 28, 1782, in Lint, The Adams Papers, 12:357-58.


One thought on “Charles Dumas Deals with the Dutch

  • Terrific article Bob ~ This reminds me of all of the international intrigue of Tuchman’s classic, FIRST SALUTE. Also, on the French side of the story, I highly recommend Joel Paul’s book, UNLIKELY ALLIES: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution. Paul, a professor of Foreign Relations and International Economic Law, expounds on the drama in an amazing narrative. UNLIKELY ALLIES is a wonderful read on the parlor dealings of Silas Deane’s maneuverings as Franklin’s advance man in the French court.

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