*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 during 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, and his times from his massive writings, which collectively constitute an American Classic. This is a chronicle of the opening of his public career from 1794-1801. The following is the fourth post in the series.
In Dispatch #2, John Quincy traveled from Boston to Philadelphia, where he received instructions for his unexpected diplomatic assignment to the Netherlands. En route he encountered interesting characters such as Talleyrand, then in American exile. Arriving at the national capital, he met with President Washington and Secretary of State Randolph, but his trip overseas was delayed pending discussions with Treasury Secretary Hamilton. He also met informally with the minister from France, Joseph Fouché, who touted the success of the French armies in Europe and confidently predicted the imminent fall of the Dutch Republic. The British Minister, George Hammond, discounted this prediction — and also dismissed rumors of dissent in England that had shaken the government. What all this meant for his Dutch mission, or for John Jay’s critical negotiations ongoing in London, John Quincy could only surmise.
Sunday, July 13-Thursday July 17, 1794. John Quincy continued to work through the diplomatic records in the State Department archives, dining with various notables and attending the theater. He had yet to see Treasury Secretary Hamilton, who had left a few days earlier to tend to a sick child in New York.
Friday, July 18, 1794. John Quincy took a break from the necessary round of visits and dinners to write John Adams about his research into his father’s diplomatic dispatches during the Revolutionary War, particularly those of his time in France. John Quincy had been present as well but his impressions were those of a child; he could now consider them as an adult. “They can have but little relation to the business upon which I am about to proceed; but they have proved such a fund of information and of entertainment to me as I have seldom met with in the course of my life. So long as these books exist, they will be the highest eulogium that can be passed upon your conduct in Europe; but whenever they shall be made public, they will make breaches of a very serious Nature in the artificial reputation of some other Diplomatic characters.”
There was the contemptuous insolence of Vergennes, the French foreign minister, with “his base malignity as well as his fear of you, and his perfidy to this Country.”
What a conflict of passions would be discernible in the countenance of the Frenchman!— An affected superciliousness to you; an obsequiousness equally affected, to your colleague, a real respect and fear in the first case, and a real contempt for the tool of his adulation in the second piercing through the deep disguise of the sentiments assumed; a pretended regard and a real malevolence towards the country which you represented; all this clearly detected, and exposed by you [. . .].
Then there was “the miserable dupery, if it was not something worse, of ‘papa F.’”
“Papa F.” was Benjamin Franklin, John Adams’s diplomatic colleague and bête noire of the negotiations with the French during the American Revolution. “Your co-patriot in his total blindness, and his small envy, cordially assist[ed] the pretended friend in carrying on the imposture.” It was a “morçeau exquis pour les amateurs,” (emphasis added).
John Quincy had been curious about what Franklin might have written about the matter in his dispatches, but he had hesitated to ask for access to those records, “as I presume Mr. Randolph would suspect, that information as to the subject of my own mission would not be my only inducement.”
Had John Quincy been able to access Franklin’s records, he would have found a different story. He was undoubtedly aware of Franklin’s famous bon mot — “I am persuaded however that he [John Adams] means well for his Country, is always an honest Man, often a Wise One, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his Senses.” Both men had agreed on the value of the French alliance during the Revolutionary War, but John Adams had insisted that the United States rigidly and loudly insist on being an equal partner because of its commercial importance. John Adams had argued that the United States should establish its own independent relations with other nations in Europe, if necessary through “militia diplomacy.”
Franklin, on the other hand, had believed that his colleague fundamentally misunderstood France’s motivation in supporting American independence. Frenchmen, whether of enlightened or traditional views, thought of themselves as magnanimous. As a people they were susceptible to emotional appeals made by the apparently weak and oppressed, but not to threats or to material inducements. American gratitude, not American commerce, would be the essential binding agent of the relationship for the immediate future. For the cold-eyed realists like Vergennes who actually implemented French policy, such gratitude also demonstrated America’s appreciation of the proper power-political relationship between France and the United States. John Adams’s bull-in-the-China-shop approach, therefore, seemed entirely misplaced and counterproductive. Franklin thought he knew his own place, and that of his nation, whereas Adams did not. Franklin had believed that America’s time would come and he had tried to protect the new country’s future interests, especially in the peace negotiations, but he had thought it best to hide one’s light under a bushel, for now.
Whether John Quincy would have been persuaded by Franklin’s account is doubtful.
But his reflections were more than those of filial admiration. His father’s old correspondence strengthened his own view that French diplomacy, and French diplomats, were inherently perfidious, whatever the domestic character of the regime. “The ars celare artem is as much the ambition of the present french negotiations as it was under their former government; but I think they are still less successful in the attempt.”
Saturday, July 19, 1794. John Quincy dined with President Washington and a large company. Martha Washington penned a response to Abigail’s letter, which she may have asked John Quincy to carry or forward to his parents. John and Abigail would surely miss their son, “but as there is no trial bereft of consolation, so in the one before you, you have [a] flattering view of his future welfare. The prudence, good sense and high estimation in which he stands, leaves you nothing to apprehend on his account,” she wrote. John Quincy’s abilities, “exerted in the road in which he is placed, affords him the fairest prospect [of] lending eminent services to his country; and of being, in time, among the fore most in her councils. This I know is the opinion of my husband, from whom I have imbibed the idea.”
Sunday, July 20, 1794. John Quincy informed his father that he hoped to leave Philadelphia for Boston by the end of the week or the start of the next, to sail from there to London at the first opportunity. That, rather than passage to Amsterdam, was now “expressly preferred” by Washington and Randolph. But if an earlier opportunity opened up from New York, he would take that, “for at present the object of my greatest anxiety is to reach the place of my residence.”
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Randolph informed him that there was a salary allocated for a secretary ($1,350). That would obviate the need for John Adams to subsidize brother Thomas, who had accepted the position. Randolph approved the choice. “My brother hesitated for some time, from a reluctance to decide upon a measure so important to himself without previously consulting you and obtaining your approbation. But as the time cannot admit of this, he has concluded to take it by anticipation, and if he should find himself disappointed in his hopes that this step will be agreeable to you, he will make his stay in Europe the shorter. . . . He does not consider this as offering any thing permanent to him, or as giving him an opportunity to make money, but as a decent support for a short period of Time, an opportunity of seeing part of Europe, and perhaps of making some improvements which would not be so easily attainable at home.”
Sunday, July 27, 1794. ‘Hurry up and wait’ was the name of the game. Hamilton had yet to arrive — “In the mean while I am here lolling away my time, and sweating away my person, with nothing to do, and waiting with as much patience, as I have at command.” It was a brutally hot summer. Secretary Randolph finally gave John Quincy an intimation about his duties — “the mission is almost exclusively reduced to a pecuniary negotiation.” That is, John Quincy would be managing the Dutch loans.
John Quincy was undoubtedly relieved with this news. He had feared that he might be asked to take on a larger diplomatic role or some special assignment for which he was unprepared. He did not think that these financial matters would be too difficult to manage. The international credit of the United States had been solidly established since the difficult days under the Articles of Confederation. From his time in the Netherlands with his father a decade previously, he was already acquainted with most of the men who made up the Amsterdam Bankers, the consortium that managed the American accounts. “To have nothing further to do but to borrow money and superintend the loans already existing, is an employment to which for a certain time I have no reluctance in submitting,” he wrote to John Adams. “It is a situation in which my services may be of some small utility to my country, and may afford me a valuable opportunity to improve information and talents.”
Now that he had some clarification of his position, he began to think of his future. He did not believe that the government would keep a diplomat permanently at The Hague merely to borrow money occasionally. So his tenure might not be long. But if it were extended, how long was he willing to remain in a “state of nominal respectability and real insignificance.” His law practice had finally begun to be on solid footing, after tedious and frustrating years (subsidized by his father). “At this critical moment, when all the materials for a valuable reputation at the bar were collected, and had just began to operate favourably for me, I have stopped short in my career; forsaken the path which would have led me to independence and security in private life; and stepped into a totally different direction. To that profession I can never return without losing many of the advantages, which rendered its practice tolerable.” He could not maintain his essential legal studies while abroad, and his peers and even juniors would surpass him.
But — he had no other way to make a living, unless he sought to remain in the public service “to perform duties which may be executed equally well by any other man; and with the consciousness of holding a public office without confidence, without utility, and for no other purpose than barely to give me a subsistence.” That put a time limit on his stay abroad, beyond which he could not expect to recover his practice. “If after three years residence at the Hague, I should see no particular object requiring my further continuance there; if the business of an American Minister there should continue to be the mere agency of a broker, and my office be of no benefit but to me, I shall feel myself under an obligation to return home; and resume my profession or any other employment in private life, that shall afford me an honourable support.”
There was another factor, of equal or even greater importance.
The distance between the two Countries is so great and the communication of course so small, that it is hardly possible for an American to be long in Europe, without losing in some measure his national character. The habits, the manners and affections insensibly undergo an alteration; the common changes to which Society is incident remove many of the friends and connections which he left behind him, and no others are substituted in their stead; his own propensities are so liable to follow the course of the stream into which he has been launched, that he gradually takes an European disposition, becomes a stranger to his own Country, and when at length he returns finds himself an alien in the midst of his own fellow-citizens.
The attachment which I feel for my native Land, is not merely a sentiment of the Heart; it is also a principle dictated by my Reason. Independant of my feelings and Inclinations, I hold it to be a duty of the most rigid obligation, to make the place of my birth, the centre of all my wishes and the chief object of all my pursuits. Wherever my lot may be cast; I hope I shall always turn towards it with as much frequency of devotion and as constant veneration as that with which the most faithful disciple of Mahomet presents his face towards the tomb of his prophet. I cannot therefore look forward with indifference to any situation that shall have a tendency to loosen the ties which connect me with my Country. I cannot anticipate without concern a length of absence, which may give my inclinations a bias different from that of my duty.
Tuesday, July 29, 1794. Secretary Randolph finally provided John Quincy with his specific written instructions. He would mange the existing financial obligations of the United States in Europe and if possible facilitate a new loan of eight hundred thousand dollars, which was to be applied to ransom Americans held captive by the Bey of Algiers and to obtain peace with that Barbary leader. The money was to be made available to David Humphreys, the American Minister to Portugal, who had responsibility for Barbary affairs. John Quincy was also requested to deal with the case of an American ship captured by a Dutch privateer, and to insure that commercial relations between the Netherlands and the United States remained on a positive footing.
In general terms, John Quincy was instructed to provide the State Department with intelligence about changes in Dutch government and policy; about significant alterations in the strategic situation in Europe (especially if any member of the anti-French coalition, known as the Combined Powers, sought a separate peace); and about developments relating to the emergence of an armed neutrality among the non-belligerents. Randolph – undoubtedly familiar with John Adams’s reputation as something of a loose-cannon diplomat – offered an “intimation” to John Quincy to avoid indiscreet comments on people and events in his official correspondence. But John Quincy still could not leave until Hamilton briefed him in detail about the financial arrangements.
There is no indication that Randolph discussed with John Quincy the broader elements of the administration’s foreign policy, such as instructions to John Jay or James Monroe, and how the policies with respect to Britain and France fit together.
John Quincy reported to Abigail that a recent French convoy of forty merchant ships, sailing from Philadelphia, had recently run into a British squadron off the coast. Few had escaped. “There is some suspicion I believe of treachery among the french, or by the American Pilots who were with them; but I know not exactly what it is.” But that was about the only good news for the British — “the combined armies in Europe, have no reason to boast of their success. Their situation is even extremely critical. And the violent measures pursued by the ministry in England, indicate a consciousness of internal weakness more than any thing that has hitherto occurred.” John Quincy may well have picked up on the sense among the Federalists and even some Republicans, that given the setbacks suffered by the Combined Powers against the French on the continent, and the domestic turmoil in Britain, Jay was in a strong negotiating position. But as of now, there was no word if Jay had even reached France.
He also noted another violent event, this one at home. “A very serious opposition to the collection of the Excise has taken place in three of the western Counties of this State. The Collector’s House has been burnt down, and an action between the insurgents and a company of soldiers terminated in the loss of several lives.” The western insurrection – soon known as the Whiskey Rebellion – had begun. The backcountry of Pennsylvania rose up in protest against federal taxes on distilled spirits.
It must have seemed to John Quincy as if the ghost of Daniel Shays had been resurrected. As a student at Harvard in 1786-1787, he had been a witness to the turmoil it caused, as a seminal event that provoked the Constitutional Convention. He had been highly critical of the insurrectionists and had not taken into account the grievances they had about excessive taxes and tight money imposed by the state legislature; but he had been equally critical of the dawdling response of the Massachusetts establishment.
There was an even more dangerous twist here. George Washington and his supporters believed that the Pennsylvania insurrection had been fomented by the radical Democratic Societies as part of a wider conspiracy to undermine the Constitution and throw the United States into the European war on the side of France. They could point to the resolution of the Washington County Democratic Society in western Pennsylvania, that “we are almost ready to wish for a state of revolution and the guillotine of France for a short space in order to inflict punishment on the miscreants that enervate and disgrace our government.”
If John Quincy had inquired outside his circle of Federalist officials and friends, he would have discovered that those sympathetic to the insurrectionists, if not the insurrection itself, argued on the contrary that this violence was the inevitable result of the expensive and corrupt British-dominated financial system of the Treasury Secretary. They claimed that, under the current administration, the tax collectors of London had merely been replaced by the tax collectors of Philadelphia; that Hamilton was far too solicitous of bankers and not solicitous enough to men of common means. If the federal government acted like an imperious monarchy it should not be surprised at such manifestations of popular resistance—so went this line of argument.
Thursday, July 31-Monday August 4, 1794. Thomas left for New York but John Quincy was still “in a state of suspense, very unpleasant, expecting daily to go but cannot get dismissed.” The air was oppressive — “the greatest heat by far that I ever knew.”
Tuesday, August 5, 1794. John Quincy finally achieved a lengthy meeting with Alexander Hamilton, who went over the details of his assignment, and which he would document before John Quincy departed. John Quincy did not record any impression of Hamilton, and had seldom if at all had remarked on him in his prior correspondence with the family. He undoubtedly knew of his father’s suspicions that, behind the scenes, Hamilton had maneuvered to suppress the vote for John Adams in the elections of 1788 and 1792. On the other hand, his brother Charles had briefly studied law under Hamilton in New York before Hamilton became Secretary of the Treasury, and Charles seems to have kept in touch with Hamilton, or at least his friends.
Wednesday, August 6, 1794. The weather was finally cooling. John Quincy began reading through the Treasury Secretary’s correspondence with his predecessor at The Hague, William Short. He dined with Hamilton and spent a pleasant evening at the home of James Wilson, the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
Friday, August 8, 1794. Hamilton provided him with his formal instructions and all the relevant documents. “This as well as the future ones which may be directed, you will consider as subject to your superintendence, as our Commissioners at Amsterdam [the Bankers] will be informed. The instruction to them will in this particular be your guide. In the situation in which this object has been placed, you will easily appreciate what propriety towards those Gentlemen demands. And in general I may observe respecting them, that while you ought not to lose sight of the possibility of their having sometimes a personal interest, different from that of the Government, you ought to consider them as men who have established a well founded Claim to its confidence.” John Quincy took this to mean, to defer to the Bankers.
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.
 Among the numerous important studies of Franklin relative to his diplomacy, see Gerald Stourzh, Benjamin Franklin and American Foreign Policy (Chicago, 1954); and H.W. Brands, The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (New York, 2000).
 The Democratic-Republican Societies, 1790-1800: A Documentary Sourcebook of Constitutions, Declarations, Addresses, Resolutions, and Toasts, ed. Philip S. Foner and Elizabeth Vandepaer (New York, 1976), 133.
 Hamilton’s instructions of August 8 and 9, 1794, with useful references, are in FOL. Hamilton indicated the loan amount to be raised was one million dollars. They may have been forwarded to JQA after he left Philadelphia.