*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 through 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 fifth post in the series.
In the Dispatch #4, after completing his briefings in Philadelphia on his assignment as minister to the Netherlands, John Quincy returned to Boston through New York City. Secretary of State Randolph instructed him to wait to sail in order to receive last-minute dispatches for special envoy, John Jay, in London. Randolph was particularly anxious to convey the latest information on the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. John Quincy was delayed further as he was unable to find a reliable ship for the passage. But, given the urgency, he finally decided with brother Thomas, his secretary, to risk sailing on the merchant ship Alfred, despite its dubious reputation.
September 18-October 13, 1794. The passage to England was fast but precarious “considering the flimsy, crazy conditions of the old ship, her uncommon dullness of sailing, and the mistakes of our Captain.” On September 24, there was an extremely violent squall in the night and the Alfred was nearly run down by another ship. John Quincy was convinced that another heavy gale would have sent the ship straight to the bottom. He vowed never to sail on such an “eggshell” again. “It is the second time I have been in jeopardy from a leaky vessel. It behooves me to beware of a third.”
Tuesday, October 14, 1794. “Discovered the Light House at Dungeness, at about 11, passed it between 12 and 1— soon came abreast of the White Cliffs, so celebrated in song, and just after three were opposite Dover.” The ship signaled for a pilot. The men in the boat that conveyed the pilot to the Alfred offered to carry the passengers ashore, “and after a little chaffering whether their extortion should amount to a guinea, or only half a guinea, for each passenger, they came to the latter price.” During these negotiations, the wind and tide took them north of Dover, and the swell was so high they could not go back. So, they were given a choice — land four miles above Dover and walk the distance or pay an additional guinea to land at Deal, where there was an inn and regular carriage traffic to London. “Expostulation was useless, and, as the least of two evils, we chose to land at Deal.” Fortunately, the swell was relatively small, and they did not get wet embarking. At five in the evening, they took a room at the Royal Exchange Inn. “From such a situation, it may well be supposed, I rejoice in being delivered; and the moment of landing this day, was one of those instants of real and perfect satisfaction which occur seldom in the course of human life.”
Wednesday, October 15, 1794. The Adams brothers departed Deal for London on a private carriage at three in the morning. They took two small trunks, one containing the official dispatches for John Jay. Their servant, Tilly Whitcomb, would follow the next day with the heavy baggage. John Quincy found the country had very perceptibly improved since he last travelled this road as a child thirteen years previously. “The appearance of the country . . . is beautiful beyond description. The verdure of the fields, the luxuriance of the harvest, the infinite variety of delightful prospects, the apparent opulence of the Cities, the unrivalled excellence of the roads, of the travelling carriages and horses, the neatness and elegance of accommodations at the Inns, and the vast numbers of travellers, who seem to make the way, through the whole distance, little different from a street of public resort, all combining together, convey an idea of perfect enchantment.” The country certainly seemed prosperous.
But the traveler could not fully enjoy the experience because he was inundated by the demands of postilions, waiters, hostlers, and the “whole tribe of servants, whose subsistence, by the custom of the country, is palmed upon the generosity of travellers and guests.” But there were no standards for compensation, “and four times in five these insatiable leeches are discontented with what is given them, and beg for more; which if refused, they turn away with an insolence of air and manner, not sufficient to warrant resentment, but always enough to be offensive.” John Quincy thought he was being generous and heard “their subsequent importunity with philosophical indifference.”
But annoyance became sheer panic as the carriage arrived at London Bridge at seven in the evening. Somehow over the bustle of the London streets and despite the loud rattling of twenty other vehicles, John Quincy thought he heard a noise. He glanced forward, where his trunks were stored, including the one that contained the official dispatches. They were gone. Brother Thomas Adams, thinking quickly, jumped out and halted the carriage. One trunk had snagged under the carriage, and the other was in the street ten yards or so behind. It was seconds away from being crushed by oncoming traffic.
What had happened? An accident? Surely not. The straps had been cut away. The carriage had just stopped to pay a turnpike poll. John Quincy speculated that a small child might have crept under the carriage and severed the straps. His accomplices would follow to pick up the fallen goods, dodging the traffic. Apparently enterprising thieves commonly used this tactic. Perhaps the postillion had been involved, too.
John Quincy’s diplomatic life had flashed before his eyes. How could he have explained the loss to Jay, much less to the secretary of state? The documents would almost certainly have wound up in the hands of the British ministry, perhaps fatally compromising the negotiations. Rumors would have flown — inexcusable incompetence. Or worse — he had served as a British agent, and the purported loss of the documents was just a cover story.
Taking no chances, the brothers held on to the luggage inside the chaise for the remainder of the journey. They stopped to secure a chamber for the night at the Virginia Coffee House, but John Quincy did not expect to sleep after such a scare. He hired a coach to take him immediately to Jay’s lodgings at the Royal Hotel in Pall Mall. Jay was ill in bed when John Quincy arrived – and it was late at night – but this was no time for niceties. Jay’s servant admitted him, and Adams delivered the documents, finally relieved of this responsibility.
The Chief Justice, despite his indisposition, was undoubtedly pleased to see his newly arrived American colleague. “His Talents, Education, & Attention to Business promises utility to his country, honor to himself, and satisfaction to all,” Jay wrote to John Adams when he first learned of John Quincy’s appointment.
Jay had unexpected news. He asked whether the death of Robespierre was known in America. At first John Quincy did not believe he heard correctly, but Jay assured him it was true. Utterly astonished, John Quincy kept repeating: “Robespierre dead.” According to Jay, about six weeks or two months previously, Robespierre, with a considerable number of his partisans, were accused, tried, condemned, and executed, in less than twenty-four hours by a party of moderates, “who had succeeded to his power, and from that day to this have loaded his memory with every possible execration, calling him by scarce any other name than the Tyrant, and imputing to him, and his system, all the horrible cruelties which have desolated the country for the last two years.”
Thursday, October 16, 1794. Whitcomb arrived from Deal with the remainder of the luggage. The Adams brothers breakfasted with Jay and a Mr. Pierpont, just arrived from France, who gave an account of recent events in Paris. John Quincy had had an evening to reflect on the coup of 9 Thermidor (July 27, 1794). “The party which began its career of power by ridding the earth of such a scourge, cannot fairly, on that account, be charged with having falsely assumed the title of moderates. And their conduct since that time has been such as to give them a real claim to the epithet.” From the reports he heard, there had been scarcely any public executions, few arrests, and a great number of prisoners had been released. The Terror, apparently, was over.
After breakfast, John Trumbull, a noted American artist serving as Jay’s secretary, took John Quincy to meet Thomas Pinckney, the regular American minister to Britain. He delivered dispatches addressed specifically to Pinckney.
Any American traveling to Europe was typically tasked to deliver private mail and documents. Harrison Gray (Harry) Otis, a Boston friend of John Quincy and a rising Federalist political star, gave him a packet with £70 sterling in Bank of England bills for the son of Harrison Gray. Harry Otis was the elder Gray’s grandson. During the American Revolution, Harrison Gray had chosen the Loyalist (Tory) side of the fight and had fled to England.
Friday, October 17, 1794. John Quincy took up more comfortable lodgings at Osborne’s Hotel on the Strand, where he had stayed with his father a decade before. He delivered letters, paid visits and had meals with American ex-pats (including Loyalists). One gentleman had just arrived from Holland.
From such men and the newspapers, John Quincy began to piece together the political and military situation at his future post. He wrote to the Amsterdam Bankers in charge of American finances in that country: “From our news the situation in Holland is so critical, that I wish if possible before I go on to have some intelligence. I find an opinion here that the French are, or in a short time will be, in possession of the Hague, if not of Amsterdam.” Thomas noted reports that “the Stadtholder [the ruling executive] is at present invested with absolute power, & the only question seems to be, whether he shall capitulate for his Country & surrender it under the best terms he can make to the French, or make the attempt to save it by inundation—a measure to which we are told the Dutch are less inclined at this moment, than at any former period.” It seemed the prediction that the French minister in Philadelphia made to John Quincy, about the quick conquest of the Netherlands, was going to be proven correct.
The chaotic situation in the Netherlands hardly seemed an auspicious place for an American diplomat — particularly one whose father had been openly sympathetic with the old liberal Patriot movement in the Dutch Republic (which opposed the Stadtholder’s House of Orange) but who had since become a prominent opponent of the French Revolution. Neither side might want John Quincy. He might be refused admission or recognition — or worse.
But he still had his instructions. He asked the Bankers if they had taken any action on the American loan, as they should already have received notice from the United States on that matter. He also requested confirmation they had received authority from Treasury Secretary Hamilton to pay his salary and expenses.
Saturday, October 18, 1794. More visits, letter deliveries, and dinner with an old friend, Tom Crofts, recalling pleasant days together in their Saturday night club in Boston. John Quincy went to Drury Lane Theatre in the evening, to see Henry the Eighth and a contemporary play called, The Glorious First of June. The building had undergone a thorough alteration since he had been there as a child, reportedly at the expense of one hundred thousand pounds. The audience was light despite the appearance of the celebrated actress, Sarah Siddons, who appeared in the character of Queen Catherine. “She is as much as ever, and as deservedly, the favorite of the public, but the enthusiasm of novelty is past, and her appearance alone no longer crowds the houses, as it was wont in the autumn of 1783,” when John Quincy first visited London as a child. “She performed the part of Catherine to great perfection; much beyond the excellence of Mrs. Yates, whom I once saw and admired in the same character.”
As to the second play, (which John Quincy termed a farce), it dramatized the events of June 1, 1794, the first decisive meeting between the fleets of Britain and the French Republic. The battle took place in the North Atlantic, four hundred miles west of Ushant, off the Irish coast. The British victory was a major boost to the nation’s morale as it removed any immediate fear of French invasion.
John Quincy found this play “a miserable compound of dulness and gasconade upon the subject of their late naval victory, which nothing but the ostrich stomach of national vanity could ever have digested, and for which even the undistinguishing palate of their heavy pride was obliged to affect a relish higher than it felt.” The applause was frequent but faint — “very evidently bestowed by patriotism, at the expense of taste; for it is doubtless an unequivocal proof of patriotism to clap the hands at the stupid fustian of national adulation; and the puny cits and courtiers, who are idling in the arms of my Lady Peace at a play-house, think when they applaud this nonsense that they are rendering important services to their King and Country.” Adams walked out halfway through.
Sunday, October 19, 1794. More visits to Americans, including one with his colleague, Thomas Pinckney, whose manners he found soft and amiable, but also gloomy and melancholy. Understandably so, as he recently had lost his wife.
Thomas Adams wrote to their father, reporting their safe arrival and catching him up on recent developments in Europe, as the brothers understood them, including France’s military success on the continent. As to the state of British domestic politics, the government appeared “to have terrors and apprehensions, which are real, or they are merely fictitious, and are to be used as the signals of destruction to some of the most obnoxious characters in this Kingdom. Under an accusation of Treason several persons are now in confinement; Bills of Indictment have been found against them & their trials are shortly to come on.”
There were also rumors of “a Battle having been fought by Genl Wayne, & the Canadians in conjunction with the Indians.” Thomas was skeptical — “scarce a day passes but some story of this sort is buffeted about, to keep the mind in agitation, or to answer some stock jobbing purpose.” But the story was in fact true. In the Battle of Fallen Timbers, near present-day Toledo Ohio, General Anthony Wayne (Mad Anthony) successfully led an American force in a major battle for control of the Northwest Territory, against the native tribes, who were supported by Britain. It would not prove decisive, however, if Jay was unable to negotiate removal of the British military posts on American soil.
As to how those negotiations stood, Thomas had nothing to report to his father. Jay had not said anything when they arrived, and no one they spoke with seemed to know. “I have heard but one sentiment expressed upon the subject by the people I have seen; it is, that the dispute may be amicably adjusted; the expectation however of the sudden accomplishment of so vast an object, is not so sanguine here, as with you— Diplomatic delay is perhaps better understood.”
Perhaps they would know more tomorrow— Jay asked John Quincy to come by his lodgings for a meeting.
A Note About the Construction: To write the chronicles of John Quincy’s early diplomatic career, I utilized his daily diary (journal) entries as the foundation, grouping the entries and other material to provide context for a coherent narrative, while 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.
DJQA (original manuscript). Material not included in the Charles Francis Adams printed version. The indicated transcripts were prepared from this source.
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.
 October 17, 1794, DJQA (original manuscript). JQA (London) to Willinks et al., October 17, 1794, APM 127. He made a similar request to the American consul in Amsterdam. JQA (London) to Sylvanus Bourne, October 17, 1794, APM 127. TBA (London) to JA, October 19, 1794, FOL.