How John Adams Almost Undermined the French Alliance

The Peace Commissioners. Unfinished portrait by Benjamin West showing the American peace commissioners who met with the British representatives in Paris: John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Laurens. The figure behind Franklin is his grandson. (The Henry Francis DuPont Winterthur Museum, Wilmington, Delaware)

On September 27, 1779, John Adams was appointed “Minister Plenipotentiary for negotiating a Treaty of Peace and a Treaty of Commerce with Great Britain.” On November 13, he set sail from Boston; on February 9, he arrived in Paris,1 and on February 11 was formally presented to the French Foreign Minister, the Comte de Vergennes. It was not until the next day that Adams, in a letter to Vergennes, explained his mission:

as it was uncertain at what time the belligerent Powers might be disposed to treat of Peace, which could not be concluded, without a Minister from the United States, it would save a great deal of time, for this Power to have a Minister in Europe, fully authorized to treat, and in concert with Ministers from the other Powers at War, to conclude a Peace with Great Britain, and a Treaty of Commerce consistent with that already made with his Most Christian Majesty [the King of France].2

In the same letter he asked Vergennes,

I beg the favour of your Excellency’s Opinion and Advice upon these questions: Whether, in the present Circumstances of Things, it is prudent, for me to acquaint the British Ministry, that I am arrived here, and have such Commissions, and that I shall be ready to treat, whenever the belligerent Powers shall be inclined to treat? Whether it is prudent for me to publish, in any manner … the Nature of my Mission? Or whether, to remain, upon the Reserve, as I have hitherto done, since my Arrival in Europe?

Three days later Adams received a reply; it did not sit well with him.

I think … it is convenient to wait for the arrival of Mr. Gerard’s [the French minister in Philadelphia] dispatches because he is probably the Bearer of your Instructions and he will certainly, have it in his Power to give me Explanations, concerning the Nature and Extent of your Commission; but in the mean time, I am of Opinion, that it is the part of Prudence, to conceal your eventual Character and above all to take the necessary Precautions, that the Object of your Commission remain unknown to the Court of London.3

On the 19th, Adams wrote, “I have, according to your Advice, never communicated to any Person, since my Arrival in Europe, the nature of my Mission, excepting to your Excellency and Dr. Franklin.”4 The matter of his mission and his credentials was finally settled on February 24:

Your Full Powers, of which you have been pleased to send me a copy, are perfectly conformable to the Account which Mr. Gerard had written me, and they leave us nothing to desire, either in their form or substance … There is no inconvenience, in informing the public of the principal object of your mission, I mean to speak of the future pacification. It will be announced in the Gazette of France, when that shall make mention of your presentation to the King and Royal Family.5

Three weeks would pass before Adams wrote again to Vergennes.

It was on the 7th of March, that I had the honour to be presented to the King and Royal Family, but no notice has been taken of it in the Gazette of France. Whether this omission is accidental, or whether it is owing to any alteration in your Excellency’s sentiments, I am not able to determine.6

On March 30, Vergennes responded,

I recall very well having told you that your presentation would be inserted in the Gazette of France. But further investigation has convinced me that never have the presentations of either ambassadors or ministers plenipotentiary been announced in our Gazette, so that to do so in your case would indicate an unwarranted partiality … If you wish I will have it mentioned in the Mercure de France. 7

The Mercure was a literary journal and had no overt connection with the government of France. That same day Adams responded “I approve very much your Excellency’s proposition of inserting my presentation in the Mercure of France.”8 Three days later, however, after he read the announcement, he did not believe it explicitly described his powers.

On April 6, Adams received a letter from Thomas Digges, a gentleman from Maryland, who was living in London and acting as an agent for various shipping interests. He was an associate of Arthur Lee and frequently corresponded with Benjamin Franklin. The contents of the letter would not only shape Adams’ relations with the Comte de Vergennes and France for the next four months, but also his foreign policy efforts up to and throughout his presidency. Digges said he was sending him a pamphlet written by former Massachusetts Governor Thomas Pownall entitled “A Memorial to the Sovereigns of Europe on the state of Affairs between the Old and New World.”9 John Adams received his copy of the Memorial on April 15. Pownall argued that England should accept the fact that the colonies were lost, recognize their independence and immediately agree to a peace. Then through a policy of free trade, she could begin to reap the benefits of their economic power without bearing the cost of their governance. For this second step to occur, the new sovereign nation had to be brought into the world economy. His argument was the result of his reading Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.10

John Adams was so taken with the Memorial that he wrote a fifty-four-page redaction. In his work, he envisioned the United States as a new economic power in the world. For Adams, Pownall’s Memorial was a complete repeal of the Navigation Acts that the colonies had been subject to for most of the eighteenth century. It encouraged the opening of the colonies’ markets to everyone, even England’s rivals; and unless England recognized the United States’ independence and sovereignty, she would be refused access to her markets and resources. He added that the United States would not only trade freely with all nations, but that she would stay out of European politics and remain neutral in European wars. On April 19, he sent a summary of his thoughts to the President of Congress.11 John Adams now fully understood the purpose of his mission: it was to restore the economic relationship between England and the United States based on free trade. It was time to forgo tightly controlled mercantilism – those were the restrictive policies of the Old World. Unlike what others believed, a Treaty of Commerce had now become as important as a Treaty of Peace.

On June 20, Vergennes appealed to Adams for special consideration. Congress, in order to maintain its financial viability, decided to pay off the American Loan Office Certificates at a depreciation of forty paper dollars for one dollar in specie. Vergennes believed that the certificates held by French merchants, in good faith, should be paid at their face value.

I had but one objective in writing to you … which was to convince you thatthe French ought not to be confounded with the Americans, that this would be an evident injustice by making them sustain the loss with which they are threatened. The details into which you have thought proper to enter have not changed my sentiments, but I think that all further discussion between us on this subject will be needless. I shall only observe that if the King’s Council considers, as you pretend, the resolution of Congress in a wrong point of view, the Chevalier de La Luzerne who is on the spot will not fail to clarify the matter, and should Congress not agree with the representations which that Minister is charged to make, it will undoubtedly communicate to us its reasons justifying its refusal. Should they be well founded the King will take them into consideration … But should they be otherwise, he will renew his request to the United States and will confidently expect … a decision more conformable to his demand.12

Two days later, Adams wrote a lengthy response at the heart of which was a general yet pedantic explanation of the operation of monetary systems.

The Amount of the ordinary Commerce external or internal of a Society maybe computed at a fixed Sum., a certain Sum of Money is necessary to circulate among the Society in order to carry on Business … You may emit paper or any other Currency for this purpose, until you reach this Rule, and it will not depreciate; after you exceed this Rule it will depreciate, and no power or Act of Legislation hitherto invented, can prevent it. In the Case of Paper Money, if you go on emitting forever the whole Mass will be worth no more than that was which was emitted within the Rule. When the paper therefore comes to be redeemed, this is the only Rule of Justice for the Redemption of it.13

Adams did not know that Vergennes also wrote to Franklin on the same day. In his letter he stated that Adams’ “long dissertation … contain(ed) only abstract reasonings, hypotheses, and calculations which have no real foundation.”14

At the beginning of July, Adams informed Vergennes that he planned to leave Paris and visit the United Provinces (Holland) for a couple of weeks. Vergennes convinced him to delay his departure.15

At about the same time that Adams was corresponding with Thomas Digges he was also corresponding with Edward Jenings, another gentleman from Maryland who resided in Brussels but had publishing connections in England. On July 8, Adams sent him a copy of the first four parts of his translation of Pownall’s Memorial; on the July 15, Jenings received the fifth and final part. His task was to safely convey them to England and have them “published in the Most Advantageous Manner”. The day before Adams received Jenings’ letter he had already sent him the fifth and final part of his translation.

The strain on Adams’ relationship with Vergennes rose to a new level with his letter of July 13. In it he requested that France increase her naval presence in American waters and offered a plan for its most effective use. The request was not the problem – it was what he wrote next. He stated that if France chose not to honor the request, all she would be doing wass perpetuating the war – not bringing it to an end:

I therefore beg leave to submit to your Excellency’s Consideration, whether there is any possible Way … a Fleet ought not to be constantly kept in North America … Two Ships of the Line with three Frigates stationed at Boston, with orders to cruise occasionally for the protection of French and American Trade and the Annoyance of the Enemy: the same Number at Rhode Island with the same Orders – the same Number at the Delaware River with similar Orders and a like Number in Chesapeake Bay … the calling off from the Continent [of] your Naval Force, during the Winter, and not keeping a Superiority there through the Year. I scruple not to give it as my opinion, that it will disunite, weaken and distress Us more than, We should have been disunited, weakened or distressed, if the Alliance had never been made.16

Four days day, Adams wrote,

After reflecting upon the subject … 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 … Your Excellency will recollect that my Commissions empower me to join with the Ministers of the belligerent [nation] 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.17

Adams made it sound like he was strongly considering presenting his credentials to the Court of St. James.

On July 20, Vergennes responded to Adams’ letter of the 13th: “The King is far from abandoning the American cause and that his majesty, without having been solicited by Congress, has taken effectual measures to sustain it … such generous conduct will [hopefully] be appreciated.”18 The next day, Adams appeared to accept Vergennes’ assurance: “Scarcely any News I ever heard, gave me more satisfaction; and nothing, in my opinion, can afford a more effectual Assistance to America … I am infinitely mistaken if the Service of the King … does not derive such essential Advantages from this Measure … to the American Cause.”19

It was not until July 25 that Vergennes responded to Adams’ letter of the 17th.

I request and require you in the name of the King to communicate your letter and my reply to the United States and suspend [all action], until you shall receive orders from them … I shall, on my part, send my observations to America so that M. de La Luzerne may communicate them to the members of Congress, and I am persuaded that [they] will judge the opinion of the Minister of France worthy of some attention and will not fear that, by adopting it as the rule of its conduct, it is neglecting or betraying the interests of the United States.20

Vergennes felt Adams was ungrateful, especially since a French fleet and army were just arriving in America.

On July 26, Adams finally let the full influence of Pownall’s Memorial make its appearance. In a letter to Vergennes, he wrote,

It is certain that all due deference will be shewn by the People of the United States and their Servants both in and out of Congress, to the sentiments of France. This deference however by no means extends so far as to agree in all Cases to those sentiments [with regard to England]. I cannot agree in the Sentiment, that proposing a Treaty of Peace and Commerce is discovering a great deal of weakness … [rather, it] would discredit the opinion which prevails too much in Europe that there is some secret Treaty between France and the United States, by which the former is entitled to exclusive privileges in the American trade. It is very true, that the Independence of America must be acknowledged before a Treaty of Peace can be made: But the prospect of a free trade with America upon principles of perfect equality and reciprocity, like that between France and the United States, might be a powerful Inducement with the people of England … for granting Independence, and making a Treaty of Peace.21

The next day Adams left Paris for Amsterdam. He had informed Franklin that he was going to Holland to see “whether something might not be done to render us [the United States] a little less dependent on France.”22 Two days later, Vergennes wrote to him,

When I took it upon myself to give you a mark of my confidence by informing you of the destination of Messrs. de Ternay and Rochambeau, 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.23

Francis Dana, Adams’ former secretary in Paris, delivered the above letter to him in Amsterdam.

Vergennes and Adams would not resume their communication until July 7, 1781 when Adams returned to Paris to discuss the proposed Austro-Russian mediation.

Why did the dispute between the two men in June and July even occur?

From Vergennes’ perspective, he was frustrated that he could not influence Adams and was forced to influence the body that sent him his directives, feared France might lose her exclusivity as a trading partner with the United States if Adams signed a Treaty of Commerce with England, and wanted the war to continue as long as possible so as to further weaken England economically. From Adams’ perspective, he was tired of Vergennes going over his head to Congress, was frustrated with being told that it would not be in the interests of the United States for him to divulge the nature of his mission and the powers vested in him, and believed that there was a concerted effort to prolong any mediation efforts that might bring about a peace.

Aside from these differences, there were two reasons, one of which if it was known in 1780 may have caused France to withdraw all of her aid immediately from the United States. The first reason was there was a strong likelihood that Franklin, the President of Congress, and Vergennes did not grasp the depth and breadth of the influence that Pownall’s Memorial had on Adams; the other was that Adams believed Vergennes and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France were just as much obstacles to peace as Lord North’s ministry in England.

In 1780, Joseph Galloway, a Pennsylvania delegate to the First Continental Congress and Loyalist who moved to England during the War for Independence, wrote a pamphlet entitled, Cool Thoughts on the Consequences to Great Britain of American Independence. John Adams wrote a series of rebuttals to the pamphlet; they took the form of twelve essays or letters that were printed in the London newspaper, The General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer. The letters served two purposes: to refute the assertions in Cool Thoughts and to encourage Lord North’s government to open peace negotiations. In his Letter From a Distinguished American – No. 1, written on July 14, 1780 but not published until January 17, 1782, Adams expounded on his notion that the true interest and political system between the United States and the countries of Europe was found in two words: peace and commerce.

It is not the interest of any nation of Europe to go to war with [the United States], it will be the interest of every one of them to trade with her, because she has commodities that every one of them wants, and every one of them has commodities that she wants … every maritime power in Europe must endeavor to have a share in American commerce, in order to maintain her share of the commerce of Europe.24

In other words, no single country would have a monopoly on American commerce and every country would enjoy the freedom of the seas.

In Letter … – No. 6, he wrote, “This treaty [of Amity and Commerce with France] lasts no longer than this war. Another war, America will be under no such obligations.”25 In the treaty between France and the United States, Article 11 provided that “from the present and forever, against all other powers,” France would guarantee the independence and sovereignty of the United States and the United States would guarantee all of France’s possessions in America. Adams believed that if France continued the war, the United States needed to disregard the treaty and pursue her two true interests with the other countries of Europe.

If promoting a disregard for Article 11 of the Franco-American Treaty was not enough, in Letter … – No. 7, he also wrote,

If England would awake out of her dream and make peace, acknowledge American Independence, and acknowledge the American treaties with France and make a similar treaty of commerce with the United States, upon the most generous principles of equality and reciprocity, neither France nor any other nation of Europe would be able to rival England in those manufactures which we most want in America … In short, the continuance of the war, will indeed be fatal: it will enable France to rival us in effect in our most essential interests; and there has hardly ever happened among mankind so obstinate and so blind a perseverance in error … if we had sold ourselves to France, we could not serve her more essentially, in every interest, commercial, naval, political, or œconomical, than by continuing this war.26

Fortunately for the United States, Adams’ letters did not appear in print until January and February of 1782. Cornwallis had already surrendered at Yorktown, peace overtures were beginning to be made, and Lord North’s ministry would suffer a vote of no-confidence the following month.


1 Journals of the Continental Congress, 15:1113; L. H. Butterfield, ed., The Adams Papers: Adams Family Correspondence, April 1778September 1780 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), 3:271-73.

2 L. H. Butterfield, ed. Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961), 4:244.

3 Ibid., 4:245.

4 Ibid., 4:251.

5 Ibid., 4:251.

6 Gregg L. Lint and Richard Alan Ryerson, ed., The Adams Papers: Papers of John

Adams, March 1780 – July 1780 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 9:78-79.

7 Ibid., 9:98.

8 Ibid., 9:99-100.

9 Ibid., 9:109-111.

10 Thomas Pownall, From Governor Pownall to Adam Smith, … Being an examination of several points of doctrine, laid down in his “Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” (London: J. Almon, 1776).

11 Lint and Ryerson, ed., The Adams Papers: Papers of John Adams, 9:148-53.

12 Ibid., 9:449-50; 9:457-59; 9:460-70; 9:492-3.

13 Ibid., 9:460-70.

14 Francis Wharton. The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Serial Set 2586 (Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1888), 3:827.

15 Lint and Ryerson, ed., The Adams Papers: Papers of John Adams, 10:26-28.

16 Ibid., 9:520 -529.

17 Ibid., 10:1-4.

18 Ibid., 10:16.

19 Ibid., 10:17-18.

20 Ibid., 10:37-38.

21 Ibid., 10:42-48.

22 Barbara B. Oberg, ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997), 162-64.

23 Lint and Ryerson, ed., The Adams Papers: Papers of John Adams, 10:57-58.

24 Ibid., 9:541-45.

25 Ibid., 9:556-60.

26 Ibid., 9:553-56.

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