John Adams and the Molding of William Vans Murray, Peacemaker

Politics During the War (1775-1783)

November 14, 2017
by Nick DeLuca Also by this Author


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John Adams had a nose for good character. He could sniff out individuals of talent and integrity like a bloodhound. He famously nominated George Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental army in 1775, urged Thomas Jefferson to spearhead the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, appointed John Marshall as secretary of state and chief justice of the Supreme Court, and won the heart of one of the most righteous, sensible, self-sacrificing women in American history.

One of Adams’s political protégés, though, has become little more than a historical footnote in the centuries following the American Revolution when in fact he was an indispensable and consequential asset during the fragile years following the establishment of the United States.

From 1784 to 1787, William Vans Murray of Maryland studied law in London. Born in 1760, he grew up alongside the revolution. His hair was wild and Beethovenian, his cheekbones high and sharp, his nose aquiline. During his four years abroad, Murray met and befriended a young John Quincy Adams and through that transaction came under the tutelage of John Adams, then serving as minister plenipotentiary to Britain.

With Adams as his mentor, Murray began to grapple with the idea of virtue in government. Murray wrote and published under the nom de plume “Citizen of the United States” a series of six essays in 1787. Throughout these sketches, Murray argued against some leading philosophers of the era, like France’s Abbé de Mably, who contended that a virtuous government could be likened to those republics of classical antiquity.

But Murray, in his first publication, stated of Mably’s stance, “the picture of ancient governments, except in a zeal for freedom, could furnish but a slight resemblance to the American Democracies… Those were of a mixed, a military, and of an aristocratic, sometimes regal nature. These are, in their principles, structure, and whole mass, purely and unalterably democratic.”[1] Whereas the likes of Rome and Greece were built on the foundation of an entrenched class system based largely on wealth, the budding United States was being built on the “original foundations of human rights, revealed by a study of the laws of nature.”[2] In other words, the American system needed to be grounded in “comprehensive laws, a relative equality of rights, and representative assemblies dedicated to preserving those rights.”[3]

American democracy, posited Murray, was not woven from the same cloth that manufactured the governments of yore. American democracy was composed of material unlike any seen before in the history of the world. American democracy needed not luxury, taste, or refinement to succeed in governance; rather it needed virtue, a raw and rough morality produced by men and women of liberty, labor, discipline, and faith. “…virtue—the enthusiasm of a simple age uncultivated and rude, was essential to that very form, which of all others is best adapted to the plenitude of human felicity.”

Murray’s essays hardly captured the eyes and imagination of the British people, and “received a poor review.”[4] But he had cemented his relationship with Adams, who would become the first vice president, and along with his support for a strong executive at the head of government coupled with a bent for impartiality between conflicting European nations, he would leave a positive impression on the first president as well.

Upon completing his legal studies and returning to Maryland, Murray would be elected to the state legislature and the House of Representatives where George Washington “frequently consulted him on matters of patronage and followed his advice on a number of important appointments to judicial and cabinet posts.”[5]

Washington’s trust in Murray launched the budding legislator into the role of international diplomat, a post he held during the first transition of power from Washington to his successor, Adams. Proving himself a worthy ambassador to The Netherlands, “he brought to a satisfactory conclusion the negotiations arising out of the Dutch-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce of 1782.”[6]

In the late 1790s the United States under Adams became embroiled in the XYZ Affair, a political episode “arising from French hostility to the ratification of the Jay Treaty with Great Britain in 1796.”[7] In order to entertain negotiations with the United States, which wanted an end to aggressions that included the seizure of American ships, the French required both a bribe and a loan. When talks deteriorated between the three Frenchmen identified as X, Y, and Z, and three Americans (Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry—the former two ultimately left Europe), the devious French Foreign Minister, Talleyrand, reached out to The Hague to negotiate with a more amiable arbitrator: Murray.

As an intermediary Talleyrand used Louis-André Pichon whom he sent to The Hague as secretary of the French legation with special instructions to cultivate the American minister’s friendship and to sound out his views on a possible rapprochement between France and the United States.[8]

American politics towards France were hotly polarized; Federalists clamored for war, Republicans for peace, and both sides hyperbolized the aims of the other. Murray, with the full confidence of his mentor and having proven himself a capable diplomat, was tapped by Adams as the new Minister to France. Political adversaries saw the appointment as a step towards declaring war. Political allies saw it as foolhardy. Many didn’t want a Minister to France at all.

Hearing of Adams’s choice of Murray, even his closest confidant, his wife Abigail, wrote to him,

there has not been any measure of the Government since you have been placed at the Head of it, which has so universally electrified the public: as the appointment of Mr. Murray to France, not the man, but the appointment, it came so sudden, was a measure so unexpected, that the whole community were like a flock of frightned pigions; nobody had their story ready: Some call’d it a hasty measure; others condemnd it as an inconsistant one; some swore some cursd…[9]

But Adams knew Murray would strive for peaceful impartiality. And he knew that Murray had also gained the favor of Talleyrand, who wrote of Murray, “I entertain esteem for that Minister… he possesses reason, understanding, and a true attachment to his country… he is ingenuously an American.”[10]

Like Talleyrand, his agent Pichon was cunning. “A period of diplomatic fencing followed Pichon’s initial probings.”[11] Pichon knew Murray personally and, as a political disciple of the sitting president, considered Murray to be of anti-French sentiment, though independent minded. But Murray was perceptive. He understood that France, through Murray by way of Pichon, was attempting to manipulate public opinion in the United States in favor of a peaceable resolution between the quarreling nations. Keen to Pichon’s devious diplomatic tactics, he cautiously played along. Murray wrote the following to John Adams:

France alarmed at our attitude, was bursting out again, wishing to amuse America with a new chime of bells has fixed on this secretary because he knew me in Philadelphia as the instrument to try the pulse and me as the vehicle of her wretched policy. Nothing has ever come from me to lead her to suppose that I am her man that much at least I may permit myself to boast to you, Sir, but still she thinks that on that account if she could get me into an informal negociation and impose upon me so far as to credit these airs of tenderness and induce me by these means to hazard a few hopes in favour of amicable adjustment that two opinions might yet rise in the U. States and that at all events some ground would be prepared for the impressions which she trusts Mr. Gerry may make on his return if nothing more Mr. Gerry acts wisely in resisting entering into negotiation or affecting to assume the power.—Yet they and the French Americans at Paris will try every act to impress the public mind in America that every thing could be done by any man with powers.[12]

Tensions between Murray and Pichon would ultimately cool, both sides lending increasingly sympathetic and open ears to the other. Pichon produced for a Murray a copy of a letter sent to Pichon from Talleyrand in which Talleyrand declared “whatever plenipotentiary the Government of the United States might send to France, to put an end to the existing differences between the two countries, would be undoubtedly received with the respect due to the representative of a free, independent, and powerful nation.”[13]

In September 1800, the Treaty of Mortefontaine was signed, steering the fledgling United States clear of war with France and establishing the United States as nation independent of the tangles of European countries. The smoke of the XYZ Affair cleared. Thomas Jefferson succeeded Adams as president and public opinion towards Franco-American relations lightened. The Senate requested provisions to the treaty, which Murray carried out at the behest of Jefferson.

France was a crucial ally to the American cause against Britain during the revolution, and the cordiality of this relationship was once again restored thanks in large part to William Vans Murray, whom most Americans have likely not heard of. “He was the only American who labored steadily at the trying and far from glamorous project of building a peace from its faintest inception to its anti-climactic end. In the hands of a lesser man, the peace might well have been lost.”[14]


[1] William Vans Murray, Political Sketches, Inscribed to His Excellency John Adams, Minister Plenipotentiary from the United States to the Court of Great Britain (London: C. Dilly, in the Poultry, 1787), 5.

[2] Murray, Political Sketches, 5-6.

[3] David Nicholas. American National Biography Online (Oxford University Press, 2000), s.v., “William Vans Murray.”

[4] Nicholas, American National Biography

[5] Alexander DeConde, “The Role of William Vans Murray in the Peace Negotiations between France and the United States, 1800,” Huntington Library Quarterly 15, no. 2 (1952): 185.

[6] DeConde, “The Role of William Vans Murray,” 186.

[7] William Stinchcombe, “The Diplomacy of the WXYZ Affair.” The William and Mary Quarterly 34, no. 4 (1977): 590.

[8] DeConde, “The Role of William Vans Murray,” 187.

[9] Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 3, 1799, Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society,

[10] Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord to Louis-André Pichon, August 28, 1798, American State Papers, Foreign Relations II.

[11] DeConde, “The Role of William Vans Murray,” 188.

[12] William Vans Murray to John Adams, July 17, 1798, Founders Online,

[13] Talleyrand to Pichon, July 17, 1798. American State Papers, Foreign Relations II.

[14] DeConde, “The Role of William Vans Murray,” 194.

One thought on “John Adams and the Molding of William Vans Murray, Peacemaker

  • Greetings, Re: Blacks compelled to row Royal Navy Galleys.

    The galleys shown are not Royal Navy.
    They are the fleet Benedict Arnold had built and were used at the Battle of Valcour Island.

    U S Navy Vet.

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