*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 seventh post in the series.
In Dispatch #6, John Quincy had been briefed by John Jay and Thomas Pinckney on the preliminary terms of a treaty that would resolve the outstanding issues between the United States and Britain. John Quincy found that the draft had made a surprising number of concessions, but he judged it to be minimally acceptable and better than war. He so informed Secretary of State Randolph in his first official dispatch, without elaboration. As to his future post at The Hague — the news about the state of affairs in the Netherlands was disquieting, to say the least.
Friday, October 24, 1794. John Quincy undoubtedly realized that Jay’s treaty would receive a difficult reception from his countrymen. Before he had left America, he sensed the general expectation that the talks would be highly favorable to the United States. The final results were bound to be disappointing to friends of the administration and inflammatory to its opponents. John Quincy thought it imperative to provide his father with a first-hand assessment as soon as possible, even if he could not go into details for reasons of propriety and security. The vice president would not have a vote in the Senate when the agreement was submitted for that body’s consent, but John Adams’ views would surely be solicited. At the margin they might become critically important. He sent a letter to his father that was more detailed than the dispatch he had sent to Secretary Randolph (see Dispatch 6).
The terms are such as will not suit many people in America, and yet the stipulations on our part appear to me to be no more than honor and honesty dictate, and the satisfaction to be made by them almost as much (setting aside the further delay as to the delivery of the posts, I should say quite as much) as we are fairly entitled to require. The national honor will be maintained, the national interest will suffer infinitely less than it would by the most successful war we could wage; and is it in the heart of an American to derive an objection from the consideration that by this treaty the national justice will be fully complied with and performed? . . . When Mr. Jay, therefore, condescended to take my opinion, I told him that as to the whole project, I felt myself inadequate to the decision from my own mind, and I could but assent to the idea in which he and Mr. [Pinckney] concurred, that it was better than war.
John Quincy gave himself some room for maneuver. This judgment, he told his father, was provisional. “I have not supposed myself competent to form a proper judgment upon the subject of this magnitude without longer time and more extensive information than I have been able to command.” Although he did not say as much, however, John Quincy could not swear that a better deal might have been made, especially given British external and internal weakness.
He went on to detail the situation in the Netherlands and Europe as he had done to Randolph, adding a few details. A petition in Amsterdam against the admission of their allied troops into the city, and against inundation of the countryside as a means of defense, had been presented by a delegation of three, including one of the bankers responsible for managing American finances, Nicholas Van Staphorst. It was delivered in defiance of a law against petitions in times of danger. Van Staphorst had reportedly been imprisoned as a result. “Troops of Cavalry have been introduced into the City and parade the Streets. Cannon are placed at the Stadthouse, and attended with lighted matches, and the Stadtholder has declared that any man who shall discover the smallest sign of opposition to the regular authority, shall be punished with death.”
John Quincy reported on recent development in France—the execution of Robespierre and the rise of an ostensibly moderate government—along the lines of his diary entries of October 15 and 16. He added here: “But the violent party, are far from being crushed: in the Convention it still struggles; and by the Jacobins and most of the popular Societies it is still supported. A rupture between the Convention and the Jacobins has widened so much, that it must before long come to a crisis. Such is the succession of anarchical factions which alternately bear sway in the centre, while at the borders all the armies of the Republic, with a combination of order and enthusiasm, of severe discipline, and irresistible impetuosity, pass from Victory to victory, and have almost laid the whole alliance of their enemies, prostrate at the feet of the Convention.”
As to the situation in Britain, although there was interest in the government for peace with France, no one expected it and the war was still popular with the public, at least to outward appearance. “But the reins of Government have been drawn so tight here, that it would not be surprising if they should break. Thirteen persons [he amended this in a postscript to nine] are to be tried for high-treason the next week.”
The trials are expected to take up a month, and there is much more agitation in the public mind, upon the subject, than appears. Loyalty at this moment is strong, and yet it is in terror; Opposition gnashes its teeth; but is silent or joins in the general cry. Suspicion, jealousy, and a want of mutual confidence betray themselves in the conduct and conversation of every one. These things are not heard; they are not seen: they can only be felt. In short the present state of Society in this Land of Freedoms has almost every mark of a severe despotism. But it is certainly an unnatural state of temper to this people, and it cannot continue long.
On the military front, excepting their naval successes, notably the glorious First of June, the British had only shared in the defeats of their allies on the continent, who were now at the point of leaving them, allowing France to turn its attention to the sea. “For the future in this War, every advantage seems to be on the side of France. Their numbers are inexhaustible, and the loss of ten thousand men, has no other effect than that of calling out myriads more. Every thing that can be the subject of human possession, belongs to the Nation, and this maxim is most thoroughly reduced to practice. Of every species of property, and of human life, their prodigality exceeds the bounds of Imagination itself. They have no commerce to lose. They have a most inveterate animosity against this Nation; and above all they have to establish upon the Sea, a reputation to bear a parallel with that of their armies upon the Land.”
Comparatively speaking, Britain’s resources were small. Money was not a problem, but the lack of seamen was.
Their commerce suffers severely, and the moment they lose their naval superiority must be annihilated. Strongly as they are bent upon the success of the war, and inveterate as they always are against the French they have not that enthusiasm which in France has levelled all the boundaries of private property, and put the whole mass of physical force in the Nation into the hands of the Government. They contend with an Enemy, whom repeated defeats will not discourage, but who would be irresistible after a single victory. In short, Sir, the situation of this Country, external and internal appears to be perilous, and its prospects gloomy in the extreme.
Which again, at least implicitly raised the question — could and should Jay have done better?
Saturday, October 25, 1794. John Quincy sent a short dispatch to Secretary Randolph, mentioning Van Staphorst’s reported arrest and rumors that the King of Prussia had made a separate peace with France. As of yet, he had heard nothing from his inquiry to the Amsterdam Bankers about the situation there. He wrote to a Boston merchant who had a ship seized by the British in the West Indies and had requested assistance—the best John Quincy could do was to turn the documentation over to Jay. He added: “Two days hence I will set out for The Hague, where in the present situation of things it is very uncertain how long I shall continue.”
He sent a more optimistic assessment to his mother, perhaps to reassure her:
The situation of that Country is so very critical, that I cannot omit going over without an hour of unnecessary delay. You will not harbor any anxiety on our account from the French Armies being there. We are Neutrals, and peaceable men; friends of both parties, and shall take no share in their contests on either side. Our rights therefore will undoubtedly be respected. The French armies are said to be under the severest discipline, and observe the most perfect regularity and order. The British troops there, have a reputation so different, that the Hollanders are much more afraid of their allies, than of their Enemies.
Edmund Jennings called on John Quincy. John Quincy was acquainted with Jennings, a friend of Benjamin Franklin, who served as something of a go-between with British officials and the American peace delegation in 1781-83 (John Adams had considered him at best a shady character—in fact, he was a double agent). “He thinks that this nation, from the sovereign to the beggar, have a most inveterate hatred against America.”
John Quincy did not think things were that extreme, “but it is nearer the truth than another opinion which I have frequently heard advanced, since my arrival; that this people are uniformly friendly to us, and scarcely consider us as a different nation from themselves. We have abundant reason to be convinced to the contrary of this, and I am satisfied they have not yet forgiven us the injuries we have suffered at their hands.” Jennings claimed that he had it from good authority that in the autumn of 1793, when it appeared that the armies of the Combined Powers were about to triumph over France, George III “expected that as soon as that scheme should be accomplished, the force of the same alliance would be applied to the restoration of his dominion in America.”
Sunday, October 26, 1794. John Quincy dined with the Hallowell family. The husband had been collector of the customs at Boston prior to the Revolution, but left the position as he was a Loyalist. His wife and John Quincy Adams’s fraternal grandmother were kinswomen (named Boylston). The daughter “spoke of my mother in terms so affectionate, as could not fail to give me the highest pleasure; for I know of nothing that can give more sincere delight, than to hear the praise of those we love. That heart must in deed be strangely constituted, that can know my mother with out being sensible of her excellence.”
During his stay, American merchants pressed John Quincy for his assistance with the Dutch commercial authorities once he was in place. Joshua Johnson, the American consul in London, asked for John Quincy’s help with his consignments of tobacco in the Netherlands. John Quincy agreed to do what he could. Johnson, a merchant from Maryland, had long served as an American agent in various locations in Europe, and the Adams family knew him well from their time on the continent. In return for John Quincy’s help, Johnson would be in a position to pass along various dispatches to America and elsewhere if John Quincy could not find a direct route from The Hague.
Thomas Adams dined at Johnson’s home, where his three eldest daughters were well known for their musical abilities and fashionable appearance. John Quincy was otherwise engaged and thus missed meeting his wife-to-be.
Monday, October 27, 1794. John Quincy wrote to Thomas Welch, a family friend in Boston with whom John Quincy had boarded while practicing law. Welch had arranged passage for him on the Alfred. John Quincy reviewed the European situation and offered an assessment of the treaty negotiations. “I hope they will be satisfactory in General to the people of America. I never expected that they would be so entirely advantageous as some of our Countrymen demanded.” Americans needed to consider that “they had satisfaction to make as well as to obtain.”
He then discussed the factors that had to be taken into account. On the positive side: “Ministers profess the most friendly disposition possible, and I really believe that at this time they have War enough on their hands without wishing to quarrel with us. They persist in a total disavowal of any instructions that could have authorized Lord Dorchester’s speech.” Dorchester, the British Governor in Canada, had reportedly made inflammatory remarks to a deputation of Indian tribes in February 1794. He was said to have predicted war with the United States and to have expressed his willingness to allow the Indians to reclaim lands that had been ceded by Britain to the United States in the peace treaty of 1783. These comments had inflamed Americans.
Further, the British acknowledged to him that most of the captures of American merchant vessels in the West Indies “have been without the faintest colour of justification.” But there were limits—“neither government nor people have any real friendship for America. Some individuals may have liberal sentiments; but the general inclination is to be amicable only so far as their interest makes it so. It would be absurd and ridiculous for us to expect anything more. For we certainly do not love them.”
For my own part I think it a happy circumstance for our Country that this mutual disposition is such as it is. For I fear the influence of Great Britain, would be much too great among us if she would take real pains to Court our Affections. A commercial intercourse as free as we can make it, and a mere State of Peace, between us, is all that can be beneficial to us. I care not how great the national coolness, provided it do not amount to actual hostility.
John Quincy did not give Welch any indication of the terms of the treaty, much less that he had seen the draft, which was near completion. In a private letter to a friend, he could only hint at what was to come (knowing that such letters were often circulated; and he did not enjoin Welch not to do so). But it was a way of rehearsing the arguments that would be needed to support the treaty when it reached the United States.
He dined at the house of John Singleton Copley, a prominent American artist. One of the young ladies in attendance caught his attention—she was “handsome, if not beautiful, and is very pleasing in her manners. There is something so fascinating in the women I meet with in this country, that it is well for me I am obliged immediately to leave it.”
Tuesday, October 28, 1794. Finishing his business, John Quincy was hard pressed to make the stage to Harwich to catch the Wednesday afternoon packet to Helvoetsluys, the Dutch port most convenient to The Hague. He called on Jay, a bit embarrassed. He had still not heard from the Amsterdam Bankers as to whether they were authorized to pay him, and he was running short of cash. Jay readily provided him a draft on his own account for immediate expenses and generously offered more, but John Quincy gratefully thought it best to leave it at that.
He also sought the advice of his experienced diplomatic colleague on his conduct as a public character during the current crisis. Jay said it was a delicate situation, that John Quincy ought to avoid any partiality, and take no part in internal Dutch political controversies. Should a domestic revolution in government take place, the operation of his functions would cease, and it would not be advisable to do business until he should receive instructions from the American government. If the French should obtain complete possession of the Netherlands, and the Dutch government actually dissolve, the best course would be to stay there, if possible. But if it was necessary to leave, Jay recommended he retire to Hamburg, a neutral city, rather than go to England or France. If the conquest was so thorough as to extinguish Dutch independence, he should return home, rather than wait any great length of time for the regular recall.
John Quincy finally managed to leave on the stage late in the afternoon, staying overnight en route to Harwich.
A Note About the Construction: In attempting to provide chronicles of John Quincy’s early diplomatic career, I 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. I 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.
 John Adams wrote to his wife: “But a Treaty concluded by Mr. Jay is announced to the Public, in the News Papers: and this Report, whether true or not, will excite such Expectation, that I suppose I must Stay here till the End of the Chapter. My Presence or Absence is indeed immaterial because I can in no Case have a Vote, two thirds of the Senate being required to ratify a Treaty: nevertheless both my Friends and my Enemies, would remark my Absence the former with regret the latter with Malignity. Indeed I have Some scruples in my own Mind, whether I ought not to be present— It may be in my Power to explain some things, and to give some hints which perhaps might not occur to others, as the subject has been so long under my immediate Consideration.” JA to AA, February 1, 1795, APM 378.
 QA to JA, November 11, 1794, APM 378; Louisa Catherine Adams, Record of My Life, APM 265; TBA Journal, cited by Paul Nagel, John Quincy Adams, A Public Life, A Private Life (New York, 1996), 86; October 28, 1794, DJQA (original manuscript); JQA (The Hague) to Joshua Johnson (London), November 5, 1794, APM 127.