*Editor’s Note: Chronicles of an American Diplomat: John Quincy Adams is a series following John Quincy Adams from his education at his father’s side through the American Founding Period though to his own official embarkment on a diplomatic career, and the events that transpired during the era that he had to navigate. We know much of John Quincy Adams, and his times, from his massive writings, which collectively constitute an American Classic. This offers a chronicle of the opening of his public career from 1794-1801. The following is the third post in the series.
In “Dispatch #1”, covering June 3-29, 1794, John Quincy Adams learned that President George Washington had chosen him to serve as Minister Resident to the United Provinces of the Netherlands. The appointment was unexpected and unnerving. John Quincy did not think himself qualified, even though he had spent much time in Europe as a child with his diplomat-father, John Adams. The elder Adams, now vice president under the new Constitution, provided him with extensive advice based on his own time as minister to the Netherlands. He discussed the management of American governmental loans, the means of gathering and reporting foreign intelligence, and the character of various political factions in that country. John Adams regarded it as the start of his son’s diplomatic career; John Quincy thought of it as a short-term duty and expected to return home as soon as possible.
Monday June 30, 1794. At six in the morning, John Quincy boarded the stage to Providence, en route to Philadelphia, where he would receive instructions for his diplomatic assignment to the Netherlands. “The idea of leaving all my friends very painful.” He carried with him letters of introduction from his father to Secretary Randolph, Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Mifflin, French Minister Joseph Fauchet, and the Spanish resident ministers. “The rest of the Gentlemen, I shall know sufficiently to appear before them without an introduction.” He might be a novice diplomat but he was proud to say he was not without his own connections in the world.
He carried with him other, more personal correspondence. John Adams wrote to John Quincy’s younger brother, Thomas Boylston Adams, who had just finished his law studies in Philadelphia, to propose that he take over John Quincy’s established practice in Boston. And Abigail asked John Quincy to carry a letter to Martha Washington:
I cannot omit so good an opportunity as the present by my son of paying my respects to you and of acknowledging the honor done him by the unsolicited appointment conferd upon him by the president. At a very early period of Life I devoted him to the publick, and in the most dangerous and hazardous time of the war consented that he accompany his Father in his embassys abroad. Considering it of the most importance that he should receive his early education & principles under his immediate eye, and I have the satisffaction to say to you madam, perhaps with the fond partiality of a parent, that I do not know in any one instance of his conduct either at home or abroad, he has given me any occasion of regret, and I hope from his prudence honour integrity & fidelity that he will never discredit the character so honourably conferd upon him. Painful as the circumstance of a separation from him will be to me Madam I derive a satisffaction from the hope of his becoming eminently useful to his Country whether destined to publick; or to private Life.
Tuesday, July 1-Saturday, July 5, 1794. John Quincy sailed on a packet from Providence — “Dined on board. Food wretched. Company barely so.” He was detained in Newport by contrary winds. He passed the time by reading, playing draughts and attending a play. In his shorthand diary on July 4, he underlined, “Independence Day.”
Sunday, July 6, 1794. With the winds finally favorable, John Quincy reached New York and went to the house of his sister Abigail, Mrs. William Smith, known in the family as Nabby. Her husband, Colonel William Smith, who had served as an aide de camp to General Washington, had proven to be a tremendous disappointment — improvident, mixed up in all sorts of shady financial and political schemes, and frequently absent.
Monday, July 7, 1794. John Quincy dined with his brother-in-law, William Smith, and his acquaintances, including several French exiles. John Quincy was already familiar with such men. Refugees from the continent and particularly from the West Indies had sought asylum in Boston. His dislike of the (French) revolution had been hardened by the time he spent with them. He heard first-hand reports of narrow escapes from radical mobs in France and, in the case of a man who introduced himself as Monsier le Comte d’Hauteval, from insurgent slaves in Saint-Dominque. D’Hauteval had been a planter and member of the colonial Assembly there before losing untold millions of livres in the black revolt. D’Hauteval had written a summary account of the French Revolution for publications in a French and English newspaper, the Courier Politique de L’Univers (Courier de L’Univers), which had recently been established in Boston. John Quincy had translated the document into English.
This particular dinner company proved to be an interesting mix. He chatted amiably with one gentleman for a half an hour before realizing that they had sailed together to Europe in 1779 aboard La Sensible, when John Quincy was twelve. (He was Louis Saint Ange Morel, Chevalier de La Colombe, who had served as the Marquis de Lafayette’s aide-de-camp.)
Two other men, once prominent supporters of the French Revolution, attracted his particular attention: the former Bishop of Autun, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, and Bon Albert Briois de Beaumetz, one-time president of the Constituent Assembly. John Quincy found Talleyrand to be reserved and distant; Beaumetz more sociable and talkative. Their situation caused John Quincy to reflect on the recent events in France and especially the Terror, then still raging, under Maximillian Robespierre.
It is natural to look with reverence, at least with curiosity, upon men who have been so highly and so recently conspicuous upon the most splendid theatre of human affairs. If indeed success is the criterion of political excellence, not one individual that has been hitherto actively engaged in the progress of the French Revolution has been equal to the situation in which he has been placed. The parties have successively destroyed one another, and in the general wreck it is not easy to distinguish between those whose fall has been the effect of their own incapacity, and those who have been only unfortunate. Perhaps there never has been a period in the history of mankind, when Fortune has sported so wantonly with reputation, as of late in France. The tide of popularity has ebbed and flowed with nearly the same frequency as that of the ocean, though not with the same regularity. Necker, Bailly, La Fayette , Barnave, Pétion, Condorcet, Brissot, Danton, and innumerable others, have in their turns been at one moment the idols, and at the next the victims, of the popular clamor. In the distribution of fame, as in everything else, they have been always in extremes.
John Quincy might have expected that Talleyrand would be grateful to “this country of universal liberty, this asylum from the most opposite descriptions of oppression, […] the only one in which they can find rest.” Talleyrand, as it turned out, did not. He disliked the materialism and unbridled pursuit of wealth for its own sake, so characteristic of America, which he believed retarded the development of true society and improvements in the arts and sciences. Talleyrand, of course, was hardly above seeking money for himself, by hook or crook – he was actively pursuing business opportunities in the United States — but he shared the disillusionment with America that many Frenchmen were beginning to experience. Beyond that, Talleyrand concluded that what he regarded as the tilt of the Washington administration towards Britain reflected more than economic self-interest. The United States was so closely tied culturally to England that there was an irreconcilable chasm between Americans and Frenchmen. Talleyrand did think very highly of Alexander Hamilton, whom he met in New York, but was singularly unimpressed with John Quincy during their brief meeting. He regarded him as a typically disagreeable New Englander.
Tuesday, July 8, 1794. John Quincy missed the morning stage. He took advantage of the time to write a letter to his mother, to be delivered to her by his brother Charles, a New York attorney, who planned to depart shortly to spend part of the summer in Quincy. John Quincy took a later stage that brought him to Woodbridge, where he spent the night.
Wednesday, July 9, 1794. The stage left at 3:00 in the morning, and arrived in Philadelphia at sunset. He was met by his brother, Thomas, with whom he would stay. Much to the family’s relief, Thomas had moved out of the city and survived the terrible yellow fever epidemic during the previous fall, which killed thousands, sending back detailed reports on the carnage.
Thursday, July 10, 1794. Secretary of State Randolph took John Quincy to meet President Washington, who was suffering wrenched back pain caused by an accident with a horse. John Quincy had dined with the president on several previous occasions when he had visited his father at the national capital (New York, then Philadelphia). While studying law in Newburyport, he played a prominent role in welcoming Washington during his tour of New England in 1789. He had even drafted the town’s fulsome welcome then:
When by the unanimous suffrages of your countrymen, you were called to preside over their public councils, the citizens of the Town of Newbury-Port participated in the general joy that arose from anticipating an administration conducted by the Man, to whose wisdom and valour they owed their liberties. . . . They have seen you, victorious, leave the field, followed with the applauses of a grateful country, and they now see you giving security and happiness to a People whom, in war, you covered with glory. At the present moment they indulge themselves in sentiments of joy, resulting from a principle, perhaps less elevated, but exceedingly dear to their hearts; from a gratification of their affection in beholding personally among them, the friend, the benefactor, the father of their Country [. . .].
The address was similar to others made to Washington throughout his tour, and John Quincy acknowledged that “many alterations and additions” had been made by the town fathers to his original draft. Still, there is every reason to believe that John Quincy was being sincere and not simply courting Washington’s favor.
The president was polite as usual, inquiring about John and Abigail’s health. He said little or nothing about the particulars of John Quincy’s assignment — that would be left to the responsible cabinet officers, Randolph and Treasury Secretary Hamilton. Washington and the secretary of state wanted John Quincy to depart as soon as possible. John Quincy told Randolph he preferred to return to Boston first, to finish up his personal affairs. Was this “indispensable?” Randolph pressed him. “I replied that in my present situation, I could view nothing as indispensable, that could relate to my own affairs; and if the public service required it, I should be prepared to go from hence or from New-York.” Randolph said he could give John Quincy ten days to bring himself up to speed on the current state of affairs, through a study of the department’s records. He had dinner with Washington, Randolph, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General William Bradford.
Friday, July 11, 1794. John Quincy turned twenty-seven. He paid the obligatory courtesy call on Mrs. Washington, and delivered his mother’s letter to her. He received his commission from Secretary Randolph, and began reading six large folio volumes, containing the dispatches from his father during his negotiations in Europe, including the peace talks with Britain and the Dutch loans.
Oddly enough, John Quincy’s introduction to Washington’s diplomacy came when the president invited him to witness a reception for a delegation of Chickasaw Indians. Indian delegations were nothing new at the capital – Abigail Adams memorably described several of them in her letters – but this was John Quincy’s first experience with the uneasy relations between the federal government and the various tribes along America’s still-insecure frontier. The United States, Spain, and Britain vied for influence among the various Indian nations and among the whites in the loosely-organized northwest and south. American settlement and sovereignty on the frontier depended on peaceful relations with the Indians. And if the United States found itself at war with one or more European powers, the allegiance or hostility of these tribes would become especially critical.
The Chickasaws, led by Chief Piomingo, were dressed in coarse jackets and trousers or in U.S. Army uniforms. Some wore shirts; others did not. They wore no paint and had no visible ceremonial scars. Four of five had rings in their noses. The ceremony began with the smoking of a pipe, a leather tube about twelve to fifteen feet in length. “The President began, and after two or three whiffs, passed the tube to Piomingo; he to the next Chief, and so all around.” John Quincy had a wild thought. “These Indians appeared to be quite unused to it, and from their manner of going through it, looked as if they were submitting to a process in compliance with our custom. Some of them, I thought, smiled with such an expression of countenance as denoted a sense of novelty, and of frivilolity too; as if the ceremony struck them, not only as new, but also as ridiculous.”
Washington, through a translator, addressed his “children” (as he called them) in a formal speech that John Quincy thought was well received, at least based on the affirmative nods and sounds of the chiefs. Piomingo declined to reply formally that day, pleading indisposition. As cake and punch were served Washington tried to strike up a conversation. The Chickasaws had always been sincere and faithful friends, the President said, and the United States valued such friends highly. The chiefs, John Quincy observed, said nothing of their own sincerity and did not reply to the President’s compliment. They did ask questions about a Cherokee delegation that had recently been in Philadelphia. “These two nations are at war, and the Chickasaws spoke of the others as a perfidious people,” John Quincy noted wryly. “The fides punica, it seems, is not confined to civilized people.”
John Quincy dined with Secretary of War Knox and another illustrious French exile — Vicomte de Noailles, once President of the Constituent Assembly, who moved for the abolition of the feudal rights of the nobility, and who now planned to settle with other Frenchmen on the Susquehanna, which they called the Asylum. John Quincy accompanied Knox and his wife to the theater, where he found himself seated next to France’s Minister to the United States, Joseph Fauchet, who had recently arrived to replace Citizen Genet. The two spoke in French, as John Quincy was fluent in the universal language of diplomacy. Fauchet was “tolerably conversable, but reserved.”
The two danced around the subject of the French Revolution and the Terror. John Quincy asked about the fate of Abbé Barthélemi, one person whom he had heard had lately “suffered” – “I hardly knew how to express, with the delicate ambiguity which I thought necessary, the operation of the guillotine.” In this particular case, Fauchet assured him that all was well, that Barthélemi was in good standing with the present ruling powers. Milton ‘s masque of Comus was one part of the evening’s performance. “It is the work of a great man,” said Mr. Fauchet. “Aye,” said John Quincy, “and of a great republican. He wrote a book in defence of the people of England for beheading Charles the 1st.”
The French Minister expressed considerable confidence about the success of his country’s arms in Europe. As John Quincy would have been aware, the Committee on Public Safety had turned around the Republic’s strategic fortunes after the near-disasters of 1793. The currency had been stabilized, citizen armies mobilized and supplied, internal revolts neutralized, and the British expelled from Toulon. The French were on the offensive. In June 1794, they defeated the Combined Powers at the battle of Fleurus. The Austrians were on the verge of abandoning Belgium. By the time John Quincy reached The Hague, Fauchet predicted, the French would be entirely in control of the Low Countries and the Stadtholder driven out of the Netherlands. “I have great hopes of that country,” Fauchet said. “I think the seeds of a happy revolution are there; and always regretted that the patriots were abandoned and sacrificed” by France in 1787.
Fauchet told John Quincy that the major continental powers that were aligned against France – Prussia, Austria and Spain – would soon realize that they were fighting Britain’s war, not their own. These powers must understand that if France suffered ruin, Britain would reign supreme, an outcome which was in no nation’s interest. Fauchet’s strategic logic, extended to the United States, was easily discernible to John Quincy: “As a commercial people, we must very soon be their most dangerous rivals. As a naval power, we must in time be their superiors; and France being the only country in Europe that can pretend to cope with them on the sea at this time, their claim to the dominion of the ocean would be established beyond control by the destruction of the French power. In the triumphs of Britain, it would be absurd to expect moderation; and if, by the ruin of her rival, she could effectually secure the lordship of the waves, the United States would certainly be among the first to feel the insolence of her supremacy.” John Quincy had to admit that Fauchet’s argument “has too much foundation” — although he noted that some of Prime Minister Pitt’s domestic opponents argued that with the destruction of France, the power of Russia would be so promoted and strengthened, that it would become the tyrant of Europe.
Saturday, July 12, 1794. John Quincy had an opportunity to explore the other side of the diplomatic ledger during a private dinner with George Hammond, the British Minister. He had first met Hammond in 1783 in Paris, where the Englishman had been a secretary to the British peace delegation. The preliminary personal formalities could therefore be dispensed with. Nevertheless, John Quincy was determined to be “peculiarly cautious with the Minister of a Foreign Nation, with whom the United States are now engaged in a controversy which bears a very serious aspect.” In the spring, as the crisis with Britain accelerated over British seizures of American merchant vessels, and with London’s failure to adhere to the terms of the peace treaty of 1783, John and John Quincy concurred in the need to avoid war if it could be done honorably. They felt they had no illusions about British hostility to the United States, but had opposed what they regarded as extreme efforts advocated by the Republicans to coerce Britain, such as the sequestration of British debts.
John Quincy was well aware of the low standing that Hammond held in Randolph’s eyes, as the latter unsuccessfully sought satisfaction from the British Minister on the blatant violations of America’s neutral standing. “The Secretary of State and Hammond continue bickering and recriminating,” he later reported to Abigail. “If the latter is not absolutely instructed to pick a quarrel with us at all hazards his conduct is very indiscreet.”
Hammond did not improve the atmosphere at dinner when he attacked a recent speech by Samuel Adams, now governor of Massachusetts, in which Samuel had excoriated Lord Dorchester, the Governor-General of Canada, for his provocations of the frontier Indians. Hammond seemed to think this line of argument might sit well with John Quincy, since it was well known that John Adams and his cousin Samuel no longer saw eye to eye on political matters. John Quincy declined to play that game: “I did not choose to gratify him; but spoke of the Governor in general terms, and with respect.” Mindful of Fauchet’s prediction of France’s impending triumphs in the Low Countries, John Quincy pointedly asked whether Hammond had any late news on the war. Hammond said he did not, although he dismissed reports of setbacks suffered there by British forces.
Hammond also discounted reports of serious popular unrest in Britain – perhaps the forerunner of revolution – that had recently reached the United States. “The Government there, he said, was infinitely stronger than ours, and even had fewer opposers,” John Quincy noted. The British Minister said he wished well to the American government and hoped that it would continue “but he believed that two-thirds of the people were opposed to it, whereas in Great Britain there was not more than one in a hundred hostile to their Government.” John Quincy responded “that for the employment of force, the observation was just, and that our constituted authority could not venture upon measures so decisive as were adopted by theirs; but that as to a spirit of real hostility, I did not think it existed in the proportion of two-thirds, nor even of one, in this country.”
Meanwhile, the question of John Quincy’s means of transportation to Europe was still uncertain. He wrote to Thomas Welsh, a family friend in Boston, asking him to look for ships sailing from either Boston or New York to London or Amsterdam. Meanwhile, John Quincy had begun to think about the party that might travel with him. Before he left Boston, he had engaged a manservant — Tilly Whitcomb, who was then undergoing the smallpox inoculation process that John Quincy had to endure as a child. But John Quincy certainly would want a secretary to copy correspondence and otherwise aid him, as he had done as a teenager for his father and Francis Dana in Europe. Unfortunately, as he understood it, there was no salary for such a position.
But since Thomas Welsh had ruled out moving to Boston to take over his law practice — a decision with which John Quincy concurred — perhaps he would go, assuming their father approved. “The expences of travelling and of his board and lodging there, I would defray with pleasure: and if my father would make him the same allowance which he does at present, I think Tom would be glad to go with me, and spend nine or twelve months in Europe,” John Quincy wrote to Abigail, asking her to bring the matter up with her husband. John Adams had paid for his three sons’ expenses during their legal training, and subsidized them while they developed their businesses, which was always a slow go for an apprentice attorney, as the elder Adams well knew. “I think it could not possibly be a material injury to his prospects. He certainly never will have an opportunity when he can spare a year of his time with so little inconvenience and very possibly, he might while in Holland meet with some chance of pursuing a profitable business for himself, in a line at least as well suited to his genius & inclination as his present profession.” He knew his mother favored the idea — she had already raised the possibility before John Quincy had left for Philadelphia. Abigail had never thought that Thomas was suited to the law, and that he might do better in business or another profession.
A Note About the Construction: In attempting to provide chronicles of John Quincy’s early diplomatic career, we utilize his daily diary (journal) entries as the foundation, but group these and other material so as to provide a coherent narrative, while still retaining an “as it happened” framework. For instance, he often reflects on events, and the contents of letters and documents, days after they occurred or were received. We provide footnotes to give the reader an accurate account of the sources and their dates.
APM — Adams Family Papers, Microfilm Edition Massachusetts Historical Society, with Reel Number. The indicated transcripts were prepared from this source.
DJQA — Diary, from the Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, comprising portions of his diary from 1795 to 1848, edited by Charles Francis Adams, volume 1.
FOL — Founders Online, National Archives https://founders.archives.gov.
LD/SE — Line-a-day and short entries from his diary, APM, and available online through the Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/jqadiaries/php/ The indicated transcripts were prepared from this source.
WJQA — Writings of John Quincy Adams, edited by Worthington C. Ford.
 GW to the Citizens of Newburyport, and Address of the Citizens of Newburyport, 30 October 1789, Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 4: 259-60; JQA (Newburyport) to AA, December 5, 1789, FOL.
 All events reported in July 11, 1794, DJQA. In subsequent days Washington signed a formal agreement (though not a treaty) granting the Chickasaw protection over their land and forbidding U.S. purchase of or settlement on it. James R. Atkinson, Splendid Land, Splendid People: The Chickasaw Indians to Removal (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 2004), 125–126, 163–166, 179), cited in footnote, JQA (Philadelphia) to AA July 18, 1794, FOL.