Chapter VIII.: Illness In Europe—commercial Treaties—mission to the Court of Great Britain.
Immediately after the signature of the preliminary articles, in the manner already mentioned, Mr. Adams, in a dispatch to Mr. Livingston, transmitting them, announced his desire to resign all his employments. The principal objects for which he had consented to come to Europe at all, having been accomplished, and the definitive treaty being likely to be completed before a reply could return, he felt warranted in asking to be released from further service. Congress, however, was in no humor to comply with the request. Satisfied with the action of the commissioners in procuring the peace, they were now desirous to enlist them in the work of superadding a treaty of commerce with Great Britain. This idea had taken its rise in a suggestion made by Mr. Adams himself in a later dispatch, which lamented the revocation of the commission formerly given to him, and urged a reëstablishment of it at this auspicious moment, in the hands of one or more of the official representatives of the country, who might be left in Europe. Congress adopted it by giving the necessary powers to Messrs. Adams, Franklin, and Jay. And the receipt of this intelligence determined Mr. Adams to remain, after the signature of the definitive treaty.
But the labors, anxieties, and excitement of the trials through which he had passed, had acted strongly upon his physical frame, already weakened by one violent fever taken during his residence in Holland, two years before. Scarcely were the necessary dispatches, transmitting the history of the treaty of peace, fairly in the hands of Mr. Thaxter, his secretary, who was about to return home, when he was brought down again, in Paris, with a severe illness. Inasmuch as he has himself given a familiar, careless narrative of his adventures during the few months that ensued, which makes the last of the reminiscences supplied by him for the columns of the Boston Patriot, and in which one or two curious anecdotes are related, it may afford a refreshing transition to insert whatever portions of it appear to be of any interest.
“Whether the violence of exercise in riding more than a hundred miles a day, for so many days together, on my journey to Holland, in a sultry season, or whether the deleterious steams of marshes and canals in that country, so pestilential to foreigners, had filled me with the seeds of disease, I found myself, on my return to Paris, very unwell, and continued in a feeble, drooping condition till Mr. Thaxter’s departure. My disorder was, in part, occasioned, perhaps, or at least aggravated, by the sedentary and inactive life to which I was obliged to submit after my return from Holland. Travellers ought never to forget that, after a course of long journeys and uncommon exercise, their transition to a sedentary life and total inactivity ought not to be sudden. My duty demanded it of me, as I thought; for every moment of time that could be spared from meals and sleep was required of me and two clerks, Mr. Thaxter and Mr. Charles Storer, to copy my own papers, and those of Mr. Jay, who had no clerk or secretary.
“Mr. Thaxter was gone, and I soon fell down in a fever, not much less violent than that I had suffered two years before at Amsterdam. Sir James Jay, who had been some time in Paris, and had often visited at my house, became my physician, and I desired no better. The grand Hôtel du Roi, Place du Carousel, where I had apartments, was situated at the confluence of so many streets, that it was a kind of thoroughfare. A constant stream of carriages was rolling by it over the pavements for one and twenty hours out of the twenty-four. From two o’clock to five in the morning there was something like stillness and silence, but all the other one and twenty hours was a constant roar, like incessant rolls of thunder. When I was in my best health, I sometimes thought it would kill me; but now, reduced to extreme weakness, and burning with a violent fever, sleep was impossible. In this forlorn condition, Mr. Thaxter, who had been to me a nurse, a physician, and a comforter at Amsterdam, was separated from me forever. My American servant, Joseph Stevens, who had been useful to me in Amsterdam, had fallen in love with a pretty English girl, (how she came there, I know not,) and married her. Consequently he left my service, and soon after embarked for America, and perished at sea; at least he has never been heard of since. With none but French servants about me, of whom, however, I cannot complain, for their kindness, attention, and tenderness surprised me, I was in a deplorable condition, hopeless of life in that situation. In this critical and desperate moment, my friends all despairing of my recovery in that thoroughfare, Mr. Barclay offered me apartments in his hôtel at Auteuil, and Sir James Jay thought I might be removed, and advised it. With much difficulty it was accomplished. On the 22d of September I was removed, and the silence of Auteuil, exchanged for the roar of the Carousel, the pure air of a country garden, in place of the tainted atmosphere of Paris, procured me some sleep, and, with the skill of my physician, gradually dissipated the fever, though it left me extremely emaciated and weak.
“As I have never found, in the whole course of my life, any effectual resource for the preservation of health when enjoyed, or the recovery of it when lost, but exercise and simplicity of diet, as soon as I had strength, by the assistance of two servants to get into my carriage, I rode twice a day in the Bois de Boulogne. When my strength was sufficiently increased, I borrowed Mr. Jay’s horse, i. e. my colleague’s horse, and generally rode twice a day, until I had made myself master of that curious forest. . . . . .
“Lost health is not easily recovered. Neither medicine, nor diet, nor any thing would ever succeed with me, without exercise in open air. And although riding in a carriage has been found of some use, and on horseback still more, yet none of these have been found effectual with me in the last resort, but walking; walking four or five miles a day, sometimes for years together, with a patience, resolution, and perseverance, at the price of which many persons would think, and I have been sometimes inclined to think, life itself was scarcely worth purchasing. Not all the skill and kind assiduity of my physician, nor all the scrupulous care of my regimen, nor all my exercise in carriage and on the saddle, was found effectual for the restoration of my health. Still remaining feeble, emaciated, and languid to a great degree, my physician and all my friends advised me to go to England, and to Bath, to drink the waters and to bathe in them. The English gentlemen politely invited me, with apparent kindness, to undertake the journey.
“But before I set out, I ought not to forget my physician. Gratitude demands that I should remember his benevolence. His attendance had been voluntarily assiduous, punctual, and uniformly kind and obliging; and his success had been equal to his skill in breaking the force of the distemper, and giving me a chance of a complete recovery in time. I endeavored to put twenty guineas into his hand, but he positively refused to accept them. He said the pleasure of assisting a friend and countryman in distress, in a foreign country, was reward enough for him, and he would have no other. I employed all the arguments and persuasions with him in my power, at least to receive the purchase of his medicines. He said he had used no medicines but such as he had found in my house among my little stores, and peremptorily and finally refused to receive a farthing for any thing.
“As my health, though still very feeble, was now thought sufficient to bear the journey, on Monday, the 20th of October, 1783, I set out, with my son and one servant, on a journey to London. . . . . . .
“The post-boy (who, upon asking where I would be carried, was answered ‘to the best inn in London, for all are alike unknown to me,’) carried us to the Adelphi buildings in the Strand. Whether it was the boy’s cunning, or whether it was mere chance, I know not, but I found myself in a street which was marked John’s Street. The postilion turned a corner, and I was in Adam’s Street. He turned another corner, and I was in John Adam’s Street! I thought, surely we are arrived in Fairy land. How can all this be?
“Arrived at Osborne’s Adelphi Hotel, and having engaged convenient apartments, which was all I desired, and as much as my revenues could command, I inquired of Mr. Osborne, our landlord, about the oddity of meeting my own name in all the streets about his house. I was informed that the Adelphi Hotel and all the streets and buildings about it had been planned and executed by two architects by the name of Adams, two brothers from Scotland, the name of the oldest of whom was John, both under the protection and probably the support of the great Earl of Mansfield; that the hotel and many other of the buildings were elevated to a height in the air, so that the rooms for stables, stores and cellars, apparently under ground, were more spacious and capacious than all the buildings above ground; and that the elder brother, John Adams, had been permitted by Lord Mansfield to give his own name to all the streets he had erected, and the name of the Adelphi, the brothers, to the hotel.1
“I was not long at the Adelphi, but soon removed to private lodgings, which, by the way, were ten times more public, and took apartments at Mr. Stockdale’s, in Piccadilly, where Mr. Laurens had lately lodged before me. Here I had a great opportunity of learning (for Dr. Brett was at the next door) the state of the current literature of London. I will not enlarge upon this subject at present, if ever. I found it exactly similar to what I had seen in Paris. The newspapers, the magazines, the reviews, the daily pamphlets were all in the hands of hirelings, men of no character. I will sum up all upon this subject in the words of one of the most active and extensive among the printers and booksellers to me. ‘Sir,’ said he, ‘the men of learning are all stark mad. There are in this city at least one hundred men of the best education, the best classical students, the most accomplished writers, any one of whom I can hire for one guinea a day to go into my closet and write for me whatever I please, for or against any man or any cause. It is indifferent to them whether they write pro or con.’ These were the men, both in Paris and London, who preached about the progress of reason, the improvements of society, the liberty, equality, fraternity, and the rights of man. They made their experiment in France, and came very near it in England, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Geneva, and, indeed, in all the rest of Europe. It is no wonder that so many of them concurred with Tacitus and Quintilian, in avowing their doubts whether the world was governed by blind chance or eternal fate. If they had not discarded a much better and more divine philosophy, they would never have reduced the world to this anarchy and chaos.
“Curiosity prompted me to trot about London as fast as good horses, in a decent carriage, could carry me. I was introduced, by Mr. Hartley, on a merely ceremonious visit, to the Duke of Portland, Mr. Burke, and Mr. Fox; but finding nothing but ceremony there, I did not ask favors or receive any thing but cold formalities from ministers of state or ambassadors. I found that our American painters had more influence at court to procure all the favors I wanted, than all of them. Mr. West asked of their Majesties permission to show me and Mr. Jay the originals of the great productions of his pencil, such as Wolf, Bayard, Epaminondas, Regulus, &c., which were all displayed in the queen’s palace, called Buckingham House. The gracious answer of the king and queen was, that he might show us “the whole house.” Accordingly, in the absence of the royal family at Windsor, we had an opportunity, at leisure, to see all the apartments, even to the queen’s bedchamber, with all its furniture, to her Majesty’s German bible, which attracted my attention as much as any thing else. The king’s library struck me with admiration. I wished for a week’s time, but had but a few hours. The books were in perfect order, elegant in their editions, paper, binding, &c., but gaudy and extravagant in nothing. They were chosen with perfect taste and judgment; every book that a king ought to have always at hand, and so far as I could examine and could be supposed capable of judging, none other. Maps, charts, &c., of all his dominions in the four quarters of the world, and models of every fortress in his empire.
“In every apartment of the whole house, the same taste, the same judgment, the same elegance, the same simplicity, without the smallest affectation, ostentation, profusion, or meanness. I could not but compare it, in my own mind, with Versailles, and not at all to the advantage of the latter. I could not help comparing it with many of the gentlemen’s seats which I had seen in France, England, and even Holland. The interior of this palace was perfect. The exterior, both in extent, cost, and appearance, was far inferior not only to Versailles and the seats of the princes in France, but to the country houses of many of the nobility and gentry of Great Britain. The truth is, a minister can at any time obtain from parliament a hundred millions to support any war, just or unjust, in which he chooses to involve the nation, much more easily than he can procure one million for the decent accommodation of the court. We gazed at the great original paintings of our immortal countryman, West, with more delight than on the very celebrated pieces of Vandyke and Rubens, and with admiration not less than that inspired by the cartoons of Raphael.
“Mr. Copley, another of my countrymen, with whom I had been much longer acquainted, and who had obtained, without so much royal protection, a reputation not less glorious, and that by studies and labors not less masterly in his art, procured me, and that from the great Lord Mansfield, a place in the House of Lords, to hear the king’s speech at the opening of parliament, and to witness the introduction of the Prince of Wales, then arrived at the age of twenty-one. One circumstance, a striking example of the vicissitudes of life and the whimsical antitheses of politics, is too precious for its moral to be forgotten. Standing in the lobby of the House of Lords, surrounded by a hundred of the first people of the kingdom, Sir Francis Molineux, the gentleman usher of the black rod, appeared suddenly in the room with his long staff, and roared out, with a very loud voice: ‘Where is Mr. Adams, Lord Mansfield’s friend?’ I frankly avowed myself Lord Mansfield’s friend, and was politely conducted, by Sir Francis, to my place. A gentleman said to me the next day: ‘How short a time has passed since I heard that same Lord Mansfield say, in that same House of Lords, My Lords, if you do not kill him, he will kill you.’1 Mr. West said to me that this was one of the finest finishings in the picture of American Independence.
“Pope had given me, when a boy, an affection for Murray. When in the study and practice of the law, my admiration of the learning, talents, and eloquence of Mansfield had been constantly increasing, though some of his opinions I could not approve. His politics in American affairs I had always detested. But now I found more politeness and good-humor in him than in Richmond, Camden, Burke, or Fox.
“If my business had been travels, I might write a book. But I must be as brief as possible.
“I visited Sir Ashton Lever’s museum, where was a wonderful collection of natural and artificial curiosities from all parts and quarters of the globe. Here I saw again that collection of American birds, insects, and other rarities, which I had so often seen before at Norwalk, in Connecticut, collected and preserved by Mr. Arnold, and sold by him to Governor Tryon for Sir Ashton. Here, also, I saw Sir Ashton and some other knights, his friends, practising the ancient, but, as I thought, long forgotten art of archery. In his garden, with their bows and arrows, they hit as small a mark and at as great a distance as any of our sharp-shooters could have done with their rifles.
“I visited, also, Mr. Wedgwood’s manufactory, and was not less delighted with the elegance of his substitute for porcelain, than with his rich collection of utensils and furniture from the ruins of Herculaneum, bearing incontestable evidence, in their forms and figures, of the taste of the Greeks; a nation that seems to have existed for the purpose of teaching the arts, and furnishing models to all mankind of grace and beauty in the mechanic arts, no less than in statuary, architecture, history, oratory, and poetry.
“The manufactory of cut glass, to which some gentlemen introduced me, did as much honor to the English as the mirrors, the Sèvres china, or the Gobelin tapestry of France. It seemed to be the art of transmuting glass into diamonds.
“Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s, the Exchange, and other public buildings did not escape my attention. I made an excursion to Richmond Hill to visit Governor Pownall and Mr. Penn, but had not time to visit Twickenham. The grotto and the quincunx, the rendezvous of Swift, Bolingbroke, Arbuthnot, Gay, Prior, and even the surly Johnson and the haughty Warburton, will never be seen by me, though I ardently desired it.
“I went to Windsor, and saw the castle and its apartments, and enjoyed its vast prospect. I was anxiously shown the boasted chambers where Count Tallard, the captive of the Duke of Marlborough, had been confined. I visited the terrace and the environs; and, what is of more importance, I visited the Eaton school. And if I had been prudent enough to negotiate with my friend West, I doubt not I might have obtained permission to see the queen’s lodge. But as the solicitation of these little favors requires a great deal of delicacy and many prudent precautions, I did not think it proper to ask the favor of anybody. I must confess that all the pomps and pride of Windsor did not occupy my thoughts so much as the forest, and comparing it with what I remembered of Pope’s Windsor Forest.
“My health was very little improved by the exercise I had taken in and about London; nor did the entertainments and delights assist me much more. The change of air and of diet, from which I had entertained some hopes, had produced little effect. I continued feeble, low, and drooping. The waters of Bath were still represented to me as an almost certain resource. I shall take no notice of men or things on the road. I had not been twenty minutes at the hotel in Bath before my ancient friend and relation, Mr. John Boylston, called upon me, and dined with me. After dinner he was polite enough to walk with me about the town, showed me the Crescent, the public buildings, the card rooms, the assembly rooms, the dancing rooms, &c., objects about which I had little more curiosity than about the bricks and pavements. The baths, and the accommodations for using the waters, were reserved for another day. But before that day arrived, I received dispatches from America, from London, and from Amsterdam, informing me that the drafts of congress, by Mr. Morris, for money to be transmitted in silver through the house of Le Couteulx, at Paris, and through the Havana, to Philadelphia, together with the bills drawn in favor of individuals in France, England, and Holland, had exhausted all my loan of the last summer, which had cost me so much fatigue and ill health; that an immense flock of new bills had arrived, drawn in favor of Sir George Baring, or Sir Francis Baring, I forget which, of London, and many other persons; that these bills had been already presented, and protested for non-acceptance; and that they must be protested, in their time, for non-payment, unless I returned immediately to Amsterdam, and could be fortunate enough to obtain a new loan, of which my bankers gave me very faint hopes.
“It was winter. My health was very delicate. A journey and voyage to Holland at that season would very probably put an end to my labors. I scarcely saw a possibility of surviving it. Nevertheless, no man knows what he can bear till he tries. A few moments reflection determined me; for although I had little hope of getting the money, having experienced so many difficulties before, yet making the attempt and doing all in my power would discharge my own conscience, and ought to satisfy my responsibility to the public. I returned to London, and from thence repaired to Harwich. Here we found the packet detained by contrary winds and a violent storm. Detained in a very uncomfortable inn, ill accommodated and worse provided, I and my son, without society and without books, wore away three days of ennui, not a little chagrined with the unexpected interruption of our visit to England, and the disappointment of our journey to Bath; and not less anxious on account of our gloomy prospects for the future.
“On the fourth day, the wind having veered a little, we were summoned on board the packet. With great difficulty she turned the point and gained the open sea. In this channel, on both sides the island of Great Britain, there is, in bad weather, a tremulous, undulating, turbulent kind of irregular tumbling sea that disposes men more to the mal de mer than even the surges of the Gulf Stream, which are more majestic. The passengers were all at extremities for almost the whole of the three days that we were struggling with stormy weather and beating against contrary winds. The captain and his men, worn out with fatigue and want of sleep, despaired of reaching Helvoet Sluys, and determined to land us in the island of Goree. We found ourselves, upon landing, on a desolate shore, we knew not where. A fisherman’s hut was all the building we could see. There we were told it was five or six miles from the town of Goree. The man was not certain of the distance, but it was not less than four miles, nor more than six. No kind of conveyance could be had. In my weak state of health, rendered more impotent by bad nourishment, want of sleep, and wasting sickness on board the packet, I thought it almost impossible that in that severe weather I could walk through ice and snow four miles before I could find rest. As has been said before, human nature never knows what it can endure before it tries the experiment. My young companion was in fine spirits; his gayety, activity, and attention to me increased as difficulties multiplied, and I was determined not to despair. I walked on with caution and moderation, and survived much better than could have been expected, till we reached the town of Goree. When we had rested and refreshed ourselves at the inn, we made inquiries concerning our future route. It was pointed out to us, and we found we must cross over the whole island of Goree, then cross the arm of the sea to the island of Over Flackee, and run the whole length of that island to the point from whence the boats pass a very wide arm of the sea, to the continent, five or six miles from Helvoet Sluys.
“But we were told that the rivers and arms of the sea were all frozen over, so that we could not pass them but upon the ice, or in ice boats. Inquiring for a carriage of some kind or other, we were told that the place afforded none better, and, indeed, none other than boor’s wagons. That this word boor may not give offence to any one, it is necessary to say that it signifies no more in Dutch than peasant in France, or countryman, husbandman, or farmer in America. Finding no easier vehicle, we ordered a wagon, horses, and driver to be engaged for us, and departed on our journey. Our carriage had no springs to support, nor cushions to soften, the seats. On hard benches, in a wagon fixed to the axletree, we were trotted and jolted over the roughest road you can well imagine. The soil upon these islands is a stiff clay, and in rainy weather becomes as soft and miry as mortar. In this state they had been trodden by horses, and cut into deep ruts by wagon wheels, when a sudden change of the weather had frozen them as hard as rocks. Over this bowling green we rolled, or rather hopped and skipped, twelve miles in the island of Goree, and I know not how many more in Over Flackee, till we arrived at the inn at the ferry, where we again put up. Here we were obliged to wait several days, because the boats were all on the other side. The pains of waiting for a passage were much alleviated here by the inexpressible delight of rest, after such violent agitations by sea and land, by good fires, warm rooms, comfortable beds, and wholesome Dutch cheer. And all these were made more agreeable by the society of a young English gentleman, not more than twenty, who, happening to come to the inn, and finding we had the best room and the best fire, came in, and very modestly and respectfully requested to sit with us. We readily consented, and soon found ourselves very happy in his company. He was cheerful, gay, witty, perfectly well bred, and the best acquainted with English literature of any youth of his age I ever knew. The English classics, English history, and all the English poets were familiar to him. He breakfasted, dined, supped, and, in short, lived with us, and we could not be dull, and never wanted conversation while we stayed. As I never asked his name or his history, I cannot mention either.
“We were obliged to bid high for a passage, and promise them whatever they demanded. Signals were made, and at last an ice-boat appeared. An ice-boat is a large ferry-boat, placed and fastened on runners. We embarked early in the morning. The passage is very wide over this arm of the sea. We were rowed in the water till we came to the ice, when the skipper and his men, to the number of eight or ten, perhaps, leaped out upon the ice, and hauled the boat up after them, when the passengers were required to get out and walk upon the ice, while the boatmen dragged the boat upon her runners. Presently, they would come to a spot where the ice was thin and brittle, when all would give way, and down went the boat into the water. The men were so habituated to this service that they very dexterously laid hold of the sides, and leaped into the boat; then they broke away the thin ice till the boat came to a part thick enough for the passengers to leap in, when the men broke away the thin ice forward, and rowed the boat in the water till she came to a place again strong enough to bear, when all must disembark again, and march men and boat upon the ice. How many times we were obliged to embark and disembark, in the course of the voyage, I know not, but we were all day and till quite night in making the passage. The weather was cold; we were all frequently wet; I was chilled to the heart, and looked, I suppose, as I felt, like a withered old worn-out carcase. Our polite skipper frequently eyed me, and said he pitied the old man. When we got ashore, he said he must come and take the old man by the hand and wish him a safe journey to the Hague. He was sorry to see that I was in such bad health, and suffered so much as he had observed upon the passage. He had done every thing in his power, and so had his men, to make it easy and expeditious; but they could do no better. This I knew to be true. We parted very good friends, well satisfied with each other. I had given them what they very well loved, and they had done their best for me.
“I am weary of my journey, and shall hasten to its close. No carriage was to be had, and no person was to be seen. But, by accident, a boor came along with an empty wagon. We offered him any thing he would ask to take us to the Briel. Arrived there, we obtained a more convenient carriage, but the weather was so severe, and the roads so rough that we had a very uncomfortable journey to the Hague. Here I was at home in the Hôtel des États Unis, but could not indulge myself. My duty lay at Amsterdam, among undertakers and brokers, with very faint hopes of success. I was, however, successful beyond my most sanguine expectations, and obtained a loan of millions enough to prevent all the bills of congress from being protested for non-payment, and to preserve our credit in Europe for two or three years longer, after which another desperate draft of bills from congress obliged me once more to go over from England to Holland to borrow money. I succeeded also in that; which preserved our credit till my return to America, in 1788, and till the new government came into operation and found itself rich enough.
“Here ends the very rough and uncouth detail of my voyages, journeys, labors, perils, and sufferings under my commissions for making peace with Great Britain.
“I had ridden on horseback often to congress, over roads and across ferries, of which the present generation have no idea; and once, in 1777, in the dead of winter, from Braintree to Baltimore, five hundred miles, upon a trotting horse, as Dean Swift boasted that he had done, or could do. I had been three days in the Gulf Stream, in 1778, in a furious hurricane and a storm of thunder and lightning, which struck down our men upon deck, and cracked our mainmast; when the oldest officers and stoutest seamen stood aghast, at their last prayers, dreading every moment that a butt would start, and all perish. I had crossed the Atlantic, in 1779, in a leaky ship, with perhaps four hundred men on board, who were scarcely able, with two large pumps going all the twenty-four hours, to keep water from filling the hold, in hourly danger, for twenty days together, of foundering at sea. I had passed the mountains in Spain, in the winter, among ice and snow, partly on mule-back and partly on foot; yet I never suffered so much in any of these situations as in that jaunt from Bath to Amsterdam, in January, 1784. Nor did any of those adventures ever do such lasting injuries to my health. I never got over it till my return home, in 1788.”
Among the singular coincidences which occurred in the life of Mr. Adams, down to its very close, that which is alluded to in the preceding reminiscence is deserving to be dwelt upon for a moment. He came to England, for the first time, in no official capacity, but merely as a visitor, for the sake of his health. Here he saw the Duke of Portland, Mr. Fox, and Mr. Burke, in the short-lived enjoyment of office through the coalition, whom he found shy of acknowledging much acquaintance with the triumphant rebels; whilst, on the other hand he, one of the most distinguished of them, was indebted to the interference of a refugee for the privilege of being admitted by the Tory, Lord Mansfield, to witness the confession made to his parliament and people by George the Third himself, that he had made a treaty of peace with the colonies no longer, but now the independent States of North America. How different must have been the feelings of the two persons most deeply interested in the scene; the sovereign, who felt that he had lost the brightest jewel of his crown, and whose instinctive pride, rather than his forecast, taught him that he was marking the epoch of culmination in the fortunes of Britain; and the subject, at first reluctantly drawn in to resistance, but impelled by his sense of injustice, at every personal sacrifice, to undertake a part of the gigantic task of calling a new empire into being, and, once undertaken, to follow it up, in the face of every discouragement, with a soul undaunted by the comminations lanced against him as a traitor, who could securely occupy a place in the heart of Britain’s proudest assembly, in the very presence of the monarch, to hear him confess to the world that he had thrown away an empire. And instead of dishonoring the humble name of his American auditor, that name was henceforth to go out indelibly graven by his act upon the list of those who, by upholding fundamental principles at critical moments, originate the beneficial movements of the world!
The reckless and hap-hazard manner in which the financial officers of congress continued to overdraw the accounts of their bankers in Europe, had once more placed the credit of the United States at Amsterdam in the utmost jeopardy. It was the announcement of this fact, made to Mr. Adams by Messrs. Willink and others, the undertakers of the former loan, which had called him from London, to undertake, in the dead of winter, the journey to Amsterdam described in the preceding extract. On his first arrival he seems to have entertained no hope of being able to raise further means in season to meet the approaching liabilities. The United States had shown few signs of restoration from the exhaustion consequent upon the war, or of energy in reorganizing their finances. Neither did their practice, of drawing at random, recommend itself to the shrewd and careful habits of the Dutch. It is not too much to say that, had the operation been then to begin, scarcely any house would have been found daring enough to undertake it. But in the lucky moment of confidence inspired by the successful issue of the struggle, one loan had been taken up. This created in the creditors a new and strong class of motives to maintain, if possible, the solvency of the debtor State, and in the undertakers to exert themselves to persuade them to come to their aid. As a consequence, propositions for a new loan were started, varying from the old one only in the less advantageous terms obtained by the United States. Under the circumstances, nothing could be expected for a country which had placed itself so rashly at the mercy of its creditors, to save it from mercantile dishonor, better than that it should be made to pay a price for its improvidence. Mr. Adams, finding himself reduced to the painful dilemma of suffering the bills to be protested or of accepting the terms offered, very wisely decided for the latter. For this and all his services of the same kind in Holland, as well before as afterwards, by means of which the United States were carried through the period of social disorganization that intervened between the peace and the establishment of the federal constitution, Mr. Adams received the repeated thanks of Mr. Morris and his successors in the direction of the finances.
Whilst thus engaged in Holland, Frederick the Second, of Prussia, who had not been an inattentive observer of the course of events, directed his minister at the Hague to make overtures to Mr. Adams for the negotiation of a treaty of commerce. This proposal, so complimentary in its nature, was cordially received by him, though he had no powers to treat. With this understanding, and the assent of his colleagues in Europe, the form of the treaty just entered into with Sweden, by the agency of Dr. Franklin, was transmitted for the consideration of the king as a suitable basis of negotiation. The monarch soon returned it with but one or two material changes, drawn up by his own hand. After passing forward and backward once or twice, the plan was finally agreed upon and transmitted to congress for their approval. That body, however, had already established a new commission, by virtue of which Mr. Adams, Dr. Franklin, and Mr. Jefferson, who was sent out to take the place of Mr. Jay, were empowered to negotiate treaties of commerce with any and all foreign powers who should be disposed to enter into them. And on them the duty was devolved of continuing the Prussian negotiation upon a basis somewhat altered from that agreed upon in Europe.
Thus it was that Mr. Adams found himself engaged in new labors, that might extend his residence abroad for an indefinite time. How he might have welcomed this under other circumstances, is uncertain. Happily he had written out to America directions to Mrs. Adams, in case of any such event, to come out, with his only daughter, and join him, which she accordingly did during the summer of 1784. Her arrival completely altered the face of his affairs. He forgot the ten years of almost constant separation which had taken place, and became reconciled at once to a longer stay abroad. No man depended more than he upon the tranquil enjoyments of home for his happiness. He took the house at Auteuil, to which he had been removed in the preceding year for recovery from his illness, and returned to a state of life placid and serene. The anxieties and responsibilities, which had so long and so severely pressed upon him in his public life, were all removed. His country was free, and his mind was not so absorbed in what remained of his public avocations as to be closed against the impressions to be received from the neighborhood of the most refined, brilliant, and intellectual community in the world. Paris was just then in that stage of transition from the old to the new, which is apt to quicken whatever there may be of sprightly in society, without having yet materially impaired its stability. Literature and philosophy had become the rage even in fashionable circles. And the flippant ridicule of all things, sacred and profane, of which Voltaire had set a fascinating example, had supplied in zest what was subtracted from the dignified proprieties of ancient France. Mr. Adams saw something of the literary men of the day, of Marmontel, and Raynal, and De Mably, and he became quite intimate with the Abbés Chalut and Arnoux, and Count Sarsfield, men who lived for society, and who were fully able to open to him a view of its springs, ordinarily little obvious to foreigners. Deriving great enjoyment as he unquestionably did from these opportunities, his quick sagacity was not however less active in determining for himself the question, how far the nation he saw before him would be fitted for any other form of government than the one they had. From the opinion then formed he never changed through all the later vicissitudes which made the maintenance of it sometimes of serious import to himself. The lapse of three quarters of a century, during which almost every variety of experiment has been tried without success, has thus far only proved the correctness of his judgment.
The commissioners assembled, for the first time, for the transaction of business, at Paris, on the 30th of August, 1784, and they immediately adopted the requisite measures to apprise the representatives of the different maritime nations residing in Paris, of the nature and extent of their powers. Favorable answers were received from several governments; but Frederick the Second seems to have been the only sovereign who prosecuted the object with earnestness. Besides the continual exchange of official dispatches, touching the details of the proposed treaty, Baron de Thulemeier maintained his friendly private communications with Mr. Adams as the individual through whom the overture had first been made, and through whom he could best obtain the modifications his sovereign had at heart. Much time elapsed before all the trifling points of difference were adjusted, and in the interval Mr. Adams had been transferred to another scene, so that he was unable to meet the wishes of the worthy baron, to have the last act, the signature of the papers, executed on the same spot and by the same persons under whose auspices the first had been commenced. This treaty is sufficiently remarkable to merit to be distinguished from every other yet made. Free trade, freedom of neutrals, respect for individual property of enemies at sea, the abolition of privateering, and the limitation over the power to confiscate contraband of war, were new and bold steps in the progress of international civilization. Much of the honor of the suggestions designed to alleviate the ferocity of warfare is due to the original mind of Dr. Franklin. But, as Mr. Adams justly remarks, the lesson which they furnish to mankind will derive its greatest force from the fact that they were adopted by the hero of the seven years’ war.
It must be conceded that as yet the principles laid down have met with little response from the philanthropic ardor of the world. But in the progress of mankind the vicissitudes of nations play an important part. And Great Britain, which for a time formed the great obstacle to the improvement of the maritime law, has latterly shown a spirit auguring better things. The signature of the treaty was followed by a period, in which, instead of softening the harshness of the ancient rules, it seemed as if all restraints upon the passions of men had lost their force. Slowly does the statesman of any age resist the tendency of his position to fix skepticism in the possibility of any good. The hard realities of mortal conflict repel the gentle monitions of charity and brotherly love, as wild dreams of the enthusiast. And, what is worse, the hand which has grown to wield a giant’s strength, directs its power in a very different spirit from that which guided it in the weakness of infancy. Unfortunately the United States, at the time when they executed this treaty, were in a situation in which its provisions, if generally adopted, would have effectually protected their interests from the haughty domination of the sea, assumed by their ancient mistress. Hence their philanthropy was not wholly free from suspicion of incidental benefit to ensue to themselves. Time has altered this. The nation has now attained a great stature. It yet remains to be seen whether, in its mature vigor, it will adhere to a policy which shall protect the weak against it, as it sought to be protected against the strong, and, by voluntarily setting bounds to its ability to do mischief, furnish a real example of disinterestedness and magnanimity, for the benefit of all futurity.
It has been remarked that this time was to Mr. Adams one of the periods of his life of the most unmixed enjoyment. With his wife, his eldest son, John Quincy, then just rising into a youth of the greatest promise, and a daughter in whom anybody would have felt a pride, about him, near the society of a cultivated metropolis, into which his official position gave him free admission, he had little to do but to enjoy the day as it passed, heedless of the morrow. Some little notion of his way of life may be gathered from the fresh and sprightly letters of Mrs. Adams, addressed, during this time, to her friends and relatives at home, which have been already given to the world. He was not, however, reserved for satiety in this enjoyment. On the 24th of February, 1785, congress, not insensible of the injury committed by the revocation of his former commission, elected him to the post of Envoy to the court of St. James’s. The position was interesting and important. Count de Vergennes observed to him, that it was a marking event, to be the first representative of his country to that which had been its sovereign. The Duke of Dorset, then the British ambassador at Paris, remarked to him, that “he would be stared at a great deal.” Trifles indicate character. Without going the length of De Retz, in his judgment pronounced upon Cardinal Chigi, it will not be unsafe in this instance to measure the relative stature of those two men by this single specimen. Mr. Adams, on the other hand, saw in the result not simply a post of honor, but likewise a position of heavy responsibility.
In May of this year (1785) he transferred himself and his family to the other side of the channel, prepared to undertake the new duties to which he had been appointed. The first thing to be done was to go through the ceremony of presentation to the sovereign; to stand face to face with the man, whom he had for the first forty years of his life habitually regarded as his master, and who never ceased to regard him, and the rest of his countrymen, as no better than successful rebels against his legitimate authority. In his dispatch to Mr. Jay, then secretary of foreign affairs, Mr. Adams has left a very interesting account of this meeting. That paper is inserted, in its place, in another part of this work, so that its repetition here is needless. It is not difficult to conceive the varying and opposite emotions by which the parties must have been agitated. On the one side was the king, whose life was one resolute effort to maintain his will above all opposition, until his nervous structure sunk under the struggle. Never reconciled to failure, never yielding cheerfully to defeat, never abandoning a conviction, he was now condemned to the bitter mortification of recognizing an insurgent, whom he thought a traitor, as the representative of a country, the defection of which was, in his eyes, the great calamity of his reign. On the other side was a man with a will quite as stern, with opinions quite as deeply rooted, and an energy of execution far more vigorous, all however subordinated, at the moment, to the sense of a necessity of uniting a suitable deference to the monarch with the dignity becoming the representative of an equal power, so far as neither to offend Great Britain nor to degrade the United States. This delicate task was to be executed, too, in the home of George the Third, where every one around was a courtier sympathizing with his master’s mortification, and curious rather than concerned as to the mode in which the rebel might acquit himself. The Duke of Dorset knew his countrymen well when he predicted their stare, but there is a discrimination even in that, which at all courts is apt to depend upon the presumed temper of the ruler.
All this, however, was outside of the conference, no witness to which was admitted, excepting Lord Carmarthen, the official secretary of foreign affairs. The addresses are reported only by Mr. Adams. That made by himself, as he admits, with visible agitation, though concise, appears extremely appropriate. It is conciliatory in spirit, without betraying any sense of inferiority; holding out a hand as to a friend, and not to a patron. George the Third was not quite so successful. He betrayed that he had learned something of Mr. Adams’s lack of good will to the French court; and this impression, confirmed by the words of civility to himself as well as the allusion to ancient ties, appears to have raised in his mind an implication which the terms of the address itself did not justify. The difficulty was increased by the few sentences afterwards spoken to Mr. Adams. They made his position very delicate. It was of the utmost consequence to escape the imputation even of acquiescing in any idea derogatory to the impartial attitude of his countrymen as well as to his own, whilst it was equally important to avoid appearing to slight a civility. Mr. Adams extricated himself with great presence of mind. Apparently falling in with the sense of the king’s language, he nevertheless added the significant words: “I must avow to your Majesty, I have no attachment but to my own country.” They naturally harmonized with the rectitude of George’s character as a British statesman, and therefore brought from his heart the immediate reply: “An honest man will never have any other.” In this sense two more accordant minds were not to be found in the broad surface of both hemispheres. The meeting fitly terminated here. Seldom has it happened, with the empty ceremonials of court presentation, that the individualities of the respective actors have signified so much.
But although George the Third had submitted with dignity to the painful necessity of this conference, it was a sacrifice attended with no permanently favorable result either to America or to Mr. Adams. The Revolution and all connected with it was an unpleasant topic to which he never voluntarily turned his attention. The band of king’s friends, for which his reign is memorable in the British constitutional history, was sure to reflect the color of his opinions so long as he held the reins. Hence the obvious wisdom of conciliating the young and rising nation on the other side of the Atlantic was forgotten, and the error of supercilious neglect was preferred. Throughout the whole political history of Great Britain this marked fault may be traced in its relations with foreign nations, but it never showed itself in more striking colors than during the first half century after the independence of the United States. The effects of the mistake then committed have been perceptible ever since. Mr. Jefferson, who soon joined Mr. Adams in London, for the purpose of carrying out, in the case of the British government, the powers vested in the commission to negotiate commercial treaties, has left his testimony of the treatment he met with at court. The king turned his back upon the American commissioners, a hint which, of course, was not lost upon the circle of his subjects in attendance. Who can measure the extent of the influence which even so trifling an insult at this moment may have had in modifying the later opinions of the two men who were subjected to it? And in view of their subsequent career in the United States, who can fail to see how much those opinions have done to give to America the impressions respecting Great Britain that have prevailed down to this day? Often has it happened that the caprices of men in the highest stations have produced more serious effects upon the welfare of millions than the most elaborate policy of the wisest statesmen.
In truth, the leading minds in the government of Britain had been much occupied in deciding upon the course proper to adopt towards the new American nation, and on this subject a wide difference appeared among them. It was a critical moment. There was a choice to be made between opposite ideas; one, leading to hearty conciliation and the establishment of relations of true reciprocity; the other, removing further and further the distance between the kindred peoples, and confirming the alienation which warfare had begun. The majority decided; and they preferred the latter. A generous hand extended to the struggling young country, a liberal construction of treaty stipulations, and a frank concession of commercial privileges, might have won back the confidence of America, and have become the means of imposing upon her chains quite as durable, though by no means so galling, as any which Great Britain could ever have desired her to wear. Instead of this, she relapsed into a cold, distrustful, passive state, offering nothing, requiring every thing, waiting for events in order to see how much could be made out of the distresses of America, and indulging a hope that the prize might yet, by some accident or other, be thrown back into her hands. The policy which the three American negotiators of the treaty of peace marked out to Mr. Oswald, had it been followed out, would have kept the United States tributaries to the mother country for a century. That which was adopted by British ministers, under the instigation of discontented refugees who ever proved their most fatal counsellors, nursed the feelings of enmity already engendered, in such a manner as to break out a quarter of a century later into another conflict of arms, and as even now, after forty years of profound peace and much more conciliatory treatment, not to be altogether at rest.
It is no more than common justice, however, to one eminent statesman of that day, to add that this unfortunate decision was made in opposition to his better judgment. William Pitt, whilst acting as the youthful chancellor of the exchequer to Lord Shelburne, and not yet overwhelmed by the embarrassments that crushed him in after life, had shown an inclination to follow alike the impulses of his heart and the dictates of his education. His system, as first declared, was highly liberal, and, could he then have carried it into full execution, would have placed his name on a level quite as high as his father’s ever deserved to stand. Among its marked features, was the introduction of a bill into parliament, which, though it placed the ships of the United States on the footing of all other independent nations, at the same time laid no higher duties upon their products than those levied upon the British themselves. And with yet greater liberality, it threw open to them the commerce with the British colonies in America, thus removing at once a source of irritation which from the failure of this measure remained in activity for half a century. Regarded as a mere question of self-interest, this bill would have been of great advantage to Great Britain, independently of its effect in conciliating the temper of America. Perseverance in the policy it indicated would have anticipated the events of the last ten years, and averted the conflicts, and the waste of blood and treasure on both sides, which have occurred in the interval.
But the liberal ministry of Lord Shelburne survived the proposition scarcely a month, and its coalition successors listened to very different counsels. Lord Sheffield gave expression to the remonstrance of the navigating interest, which predicted its own downfall in the colonial trade as a consequence of such a policy. He borrowed the language of Deane, Galloway, and Oliver, when he painted in vivid colors, not quite harmonizing with the other picture, the ruin and confusion in which the colonists were involved by the state of anarchy consequent upon their independence. And then he ventured to whisper the prediction that, out of this chaos, New England, at least, would, in the end, solicit to come back as a repentant child to the maternal embrace. These arguments finally carried the day. In July of the year 1783, the exclusive system was decreed, first by orders in council, then by temporary acts of parliament. The United States were treated as utter strangers, and carefully shut out from trade with the colonies. Restriction and commercial jealousy were the order of the day. The demonstrations were viewed by all Americans as hostile in spirit, and therefore to be met in the same manner. The failure of all efforts to establish an effective counter-system of restriction went a great way to rouse them to a sense of the necessity of a better form of government. Pride came in aid of principle, stimulating the sluggish and quickening the timid, until the cry for a new confederation became general. The pamphlet of Lord Sheffield had its effect upon the formation and adoption of the federal constitution in 1788. Thus it often happens with nations that think to make a gain out of the embarrassments and miseries of their neighbors. Indignation at once supplies the vigor to apply a remedy, which, had the matter been left to reason alone, might have been put off a great while or never been resorted to at all. Lord Sheffield’s interference must be classed among the secondary misfortunes which befell Great Britain in the disastrous record of the American war; whilst, among the people of America, it deserves to be remembered with satisfaction as a conversion of what was intended to be a poison into a health-producing medicine.
The restrictive policy having been thus determined upon before Mr. Adams’s arrival, little prospect was left to him of effecting any beneficial change. His labors during his stay in Great Britain were therefore confined to fruitless solicitations for the execution of several articles of the treaty of peace. The posts which were to be surrendered had been retained, and no provision had been made to compensate for the slaves and property carried away by the military commanders, contrary to agreement. These complaints were certainly founded in justice; but, on the other hand, the British government were not without reasonable grounds of complaint for similar infractions committed by the Americans. So far from facilitating the recovery of British debts, several States had interposed further obstacles by legislation. The exhaustion of the people was great, and their feelings were still bitter. Poverty united with passion to keep up the hatred of refugees and Tories. The claims advanced by English creditors for interest during the whole period of the war, against merchants whose property had been sacrificed in the struggle, were regarded as little better than the demand of Shylock for the whole pound of flesh nearest the heart. Superadded to all this was the effect of the utter relaxation of the bonds of government, rendering a remedy for any existing evil difficult of attainment. No State was responsible for the acts of its neighbor, and each had within its power the means of rendering null the best-intended legislation of the rest. The confederation, hooped together by the bands of a common war, was falling to ruins in peace. In real truth, America could not, and Great Britain would not, because America did not, execute the treaty. Under such circumstances, effective negotiation was out of the question. Mr. Adams confined himself to the painful duty of remonstrating almost equally with both governments. His correspondence was of more service at home than abroad, for the letters, communicated from time to time by congress to the separate States, for the purpose of stimulating them to perform their duties, served to accelerate the state of public opinion which, in good time, brought effectual relief.
The situation of an envoy from one nation to another is likely to be made imposing as well as agreeable in direct proportion to the impression that prevails in the world of the power and the energy of the government by which he is sent. For a short time after the close of the struggle, the different sovereigns of Europe awaited with curiosity the results that were to follow the successful establishment of American Independence. But as the accounts came, symptomatic of nothing but anarchy and confusion, the inference grew general that the experiment of self-government had failed, and that the new nation would prove of little account in the affairs of the globe. To an indifferent observer looking from the English point of view, Mr. Adams soon ceased to appear as representing any thing but disorder. His people, impoverished by a nine years’ struggle for a fancied good, seemed plunged into an abyss of irremediable evil. The causes for this state of things were too far off to be analyzed. It was enough that the attempt to reëstablish the ordinary course of justice had been met with resistance, to convince a European that an aversion to paying debts honestly contracted had much more to do with American notions of liberty than principle. Hence he held up his hands in amazement at the profligacy of a community which refused to execute its recognized contracts, and determined to waste no more sympathy upon a people thus proving itself beneath his contempt. In Great Britain, especially, this spectacle was witnessed with a mixed feeling of disgust and exultation. No disposition existed to palliate faults or to overlook errors. The observation of them served rather as a relief to wounded pride. It was just what might have been expected. The contemptible rebels were served right. They were paying the penalty of their sedition and treason. Here was the natural end of all the fine professions about the love of liberty. The liberty wanted was of that kind which means license, which abhors the restraints of well-ordered society, which revels in impunity for criminal offences. To communities thus showing their incompetency to take care of themselves, what was the need of paying the smallest regard? And of him who came to London to represent them, what could be the importance? It would not be a great while before they would all be seen on their knees, supplicating to be taken back on any terms, repenting of their past sins, and promising that they would never commit the like again. Then would be the hour of just retribution. And the ways of Great Britain would go forth justified over the earth.
Such being the state of opinion, the situation of Mr. Adams may be easily imagined; a situation which, instead of growing better, became more hopeless of good in every hour of his stay. The monarch, never well reconciled to the triumph of his subjects, became less and less disposed to put restraint on his feelings. He was cold. Of course, his family were cold. Of course, the courtiers followed the example. What is not in vogue with the quality in England, is sure to be slighted by the commons. There was no cordiality anywhere excepting among the dissenters and the very few who leaned to republican doctrines; no better association than this to prove how unfashionable was every thing American. Of civility, cold and formal, such as only the English know how in perfection to make offensive, there was enough. No marked offence; but supercilious indifference. Official representations lay long unheeded. The courtesy of sending out a minister to America was left unregarded. Last of all, the commercial policy, which had been thus far kept in operation by temporary acts, was made permanent by parliament. This was in 1788, a few months after Mr. Adams had solicited permission to return home. His mission had only served to convince him that nothing was to be looked for in Great Britain but ill-will. Neither could he indulge even in the luxury of complaint, for he had it not to say that America had placed herself in a position void of offence.
Yet, apart from the embarrassments occasioned by the mortifying condition of his own country, the period passed by Mr. Adams in England was not without its agreeable compensations. The presence of his wife and daughter, and the marriage contracted by the latter with Colonel William Stephens Smith, whom, after many years of honorable service in the war, congress had sent out as secretary to the legation in London, afforded him the domestic society without which he never could be happy; and the leisure he enjoyed from pressing public business yielded an opportunity to turn his mind to other useful objects. Nothing affected him more than the accounts of the condition of the United States, threatening, as they seemed to do, the failure of all the bright hopes he had cherished of their career as an independent nation. The difficulties in their way were clearly enough to be traced to one source, the want of energetic government. It seemed therefore of importance that the true principles, at the foundation of a well-ordered system, should be fully explained. In the formation of the draft of a constitution for Massachusetts, in 1779, Mr. Adams had first labored to embody favorite ideas, which his later opportunities to view the practical operation of the British government had only tended more fully to confirm. He now directed his attention to the analysis of the theory upon which it rested, and to the possibility of stripping it of those appendages which foster a great inequality of social condition, so as to adapt it to purely republican habits. The experiment promised to be of use in confirming the popular mind in the United States, now showing tendencies to wild and dangerous errors, and he determined to make it. Inasmuch as later events tended greatly to distort a proper conception of his views, traces of which are thickly scattered in the writings left by some of his contemporaries, it will not be out of place here to give a brief and impartial summary of the principles that appear to constitute his system.
Unlike most speculators on the theory of government, Mr. Adams begins by assuming the imperfection of man’s nature, and introducing it at once as an element with which to compose his edifice. He finds the human race impelled by their passions as often as guided by their reason, sometimes led to good actions by scarcely corresponding motives, and sometimes to bad ones rather from inability to resist temptation than from natural propensity to evil. This is the corner-stone of his system. And any substitute for it which involves a different idea, such, for example, as that men will certainly do right from their love of it, or that they can only be deterred from evil by the fear of punishment; any substitute that omits to provide in as many ways as possible for the tremendous working of the passions which attends all contests for the possession of power, must, according to him, end in failure. The problem to be solved is, to what extent these adverse influences, not less than the virtues of all the citizens, can be made to subserve the purpose of supporting government instead of shaking it. This cannot be expected to be done by concentrating power in one place, to be acquired by efforts all exerted in one direction; for such a plan would expose the whole edifice to be submerged by every successive wave of opinion. Neither can it be hoped from the setting in opposition of forces nearly equal; for the conflicts that might result would inevitably be so violent as to threaten total ruin. The true course is, to find the means so to decentralize power, so to distribute it in a multiplicity of parts, as to give no undue preponderance in any single one, and yet to maintain the healthy energy of all.
To arrive at practical results, it is necessary, then, to classify powers. The interests of men in society are at the foundation of the attachment to property, through the unequal operation of which arises the distinction between the rich and poor. Their passions make themselves felt in the ambition of place as well as in the desire for fame. Out of these causes issue the three concentrated forms of social energy; the multitude, who must ever represent poverty and numbers; the rich, who represent education and property; and the chief, who symbolizes the aspirations of the whole. A wise forecast would then provide free play for the legitimate exercise of these several forces, in some shape or other; thus making each subservient to the common support, and yet placing careful limitations and restrictions around them all. Mr. Adams thought this admirably arranged in the constitution of Great Britain, and therefore worthy of imitation. The distribution of power in the three parts, executive, legislative, and judicial, with the introduction into the second of two opposing elements likely to reduce its otherwise dangerous preponderance over the others, seemed to promise security without the risk of feebleness. All this appeared quite as easy of execution under a system deriving its origin from the people, as under one born of feudal tenures. The required changes would only limit the extent of the powers conferred, and multiply the neutralizing forces. The subdivision as well as the balancing of opposite interests to effect the great purpose of preventing a concentration of too much power at any one point, might be carried as far as could be, consistently with the general good. Yet the rule was not to be applied in all cases equally. The executive, for example, was not to be subdivided in such a manner as to injure its energy, nor weakened so far as to impair its capacity of self-protection; whilst into the legislative was to be introduced a recognition of the interests of property so far as it might tend to keep in check the dangerous tendency to appeal exclusively to numerical strength.
Such is, in brief, the theory of Mr. Adams, as drawn from a review of his writings on the subject throughout his life, and illustrated as well by the early sketch which he drew for the use of the southern States as by the more mature model which he presented for the consideration of the Convention of Massachusetts. It fell in with the habits and prepossessions of his countrymen so far as to be made the foundation of most of the constitutions adopted in the several States. But there were great differences between them in the degree of attention paid to the organic principle, and two or three departed from it altogether. Not a few persons were disposed to regard the complicated machinery which it called into action as cumbrous, and its operations as unnecessarily expensive. The simplicity of an absolute monarchy or of a pure democracy will always have its charm with minds not kept awake to its susceptibility of abuse. As between these extremes, the Americans tended much the most towards democracy. One representative body, vested with powers barely sufficient to supply the need of government in every department, became not an uncommon demand. And it had been latterly growing into popular favor from the dissatisfaction prevailing with all existing institutions, upon which the responsibility for every grievance of the body politic was cast, without the smallest regard to the causes that might really have produced them.
But in addition to the various springs of discontent, which were combining to shake the doctrines of Mr. Adams in America, the state of affairs in Europe, and especially in France, was superinducing a novel disturbing force of extraordinary strength. Staggering under the combined weight of the moral corruptions and the financial complexities of the preceding reign, with religious institutions sapped by the indefatigable assiduity of the most brilliant minds of the kingdom, moved by the popular sympathies with the victory of liberty effected by French aid in America, that great edifice of European society, which it had taken ten centuries to consolidate, was toppling to its fall. This terrific event was, as usual in such cases, giving out its heralding signs. Prominent among them were the discussions touching the origin of government, in which the natural dryness of the topic was relieved to the general sense by fascinating charms of style and seductive pictures for the imagination. The dreamy enthusiasm of Rousseau combined with the epigrammatic wit of Voltaire to prepare a favorable reception for the more stately speculations of Turgot, De Mably, Mirabeau, and Condorcet. Differing in almost every other particular, there was one point in which these writers were found to agree. The iron hands and hearts of Louis the Eleventh and Henry the Fourth, Richelieu, and Mazarin, by rigidly adhering to one policy for two centuries, had succeeded in eradicating every germ of provincial or departmental independence out of France, and in sowing in its place a fixed attachment to centralization.
As a consequence, little favor has since been extended to any theory based upon a complicated subdivision of powers, and still less to any form of federation whatever. The fancy displayed by Montesquieu for the English system, though caught up by a limited number of disciples, has at no time taken root in the popular mind of France. Turgot, one of the clearest thinkers of his nation, seeing no possible benefit in it, took advantage of the publication by Dr. Price of his pamphlet upon the American governments, to address to him a letter, commenting with regret upon what he called the servility of the States in following the precedent set by the mother country. He was not disposed to admit merit in any system that departed from the utmost simplicity. Neither could he recognize a safer guide than that obtained by concentrating all power in one body directly representing the nation. The specious doctrine thus put forth was taken up and immediately repeated in the eloquent declamations of Mirabeau and the more logical reasoning of Condorcet, as it has of late been reproduced in the poetic prose of Lamartine; all equally symbolic of the ruling idea of France, but all, so far from proving its soundness, that it has condemned their country twice within a century to pay a fearful price for the lesson that the simplicity aimed at can only come, in its perfect form, in the person of an absolute king.
Alarmed, by the indications of opinion in various countries of Europe and in America, for the consequences that might ensue to his native State, then showing the most unequivocal tendencies to disorganization, Mr. Adams thought he might do service if, from his point of view, he should attempt to lay before the world something in the nature of a general defence of the theory so extensively assailed. He fixed upon the passage of Turgot’s letter which referred to the American States, as the text upon which to frame his observations. But not content with fortifying the reasons upon which their system rested, it occurred to him that a secondary class of arguments could be obtained from a wide examination and historical review of the operation of all known forms of government, ancient as well as modern. If, in the process, the truth could be made to appear, that many of them had owed their misfortunes and final ruin to the improper distribution of power, it might be of use as a warning against the repetition of similar experiments. The results of his labor were embraced in a work, entitled A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America against the attack of M. Turgot. It comprehended an analysis of the various free governments of ancient and modern times, with occasional summaries of their history, to illustrate the nature of the evils under which they had suffered and ultimately perished. It was comprised in three volumes, composed, printed, and published during the author’s residence in England. The first volume, which was issued before the others, came to the United States just as the Convention to frame a federal constitution was on the point of commencing its labors at Philadelphia. It was immediately put to press in the principal towns, and, owing to the excitement immediately occasioned by the anxiety for the success of that assembly, it was read by a number of persons far greater than is in ordinary times attracted to such discussions. Happening to fall in with the popular current just then setting with force against the disorders and commotions that had broken into open violence in some of the States and threatened them all, it did much to confirm many minds in the course of thought which ensured the acceptance of the constitution. This was particularly the case in Massachusetts, where the sentiments of the people were by no means settled. There was a wide diversity of opinion among them, one side, frightened by the prospect of anarchy, leaning to the conviction of a necessity of strong government almost like monarchy, whilst the other, relaxed by the license of the period, regarded with aversion any tendency to more effective restraints. The form of constitution agreed upon at Philadelphia, whilst it was hailed with delight by the commercial interests of the seaboard, was by no means equally relished in the agricultural regions, or by those who had been the most active in the early struggles of the Revolution. The consequence was, that the convention summoned to decide upon its merits on the part of Massachusetts, contained many hesitating members. Much depended upon the course taken by John Hancock and Samuel Adams. At this crisis, the voice of John Adams, warning them of the risk attending ill-balanced and feeble governments, came in happily from the other side of the water, to reinforce the argument for adopting something, and to dispel scruples of opponents, at least so far as to induce acquiescence in an experiment. It was only thus that the federal constitution escaped the jaws of death at its beginning; for there can be little doubt that, in the wavering state of opinion, the example of a positive rejection by Massachusetts would have been fatal to all prospect of its ratification by the requisite number of States.
If the eye of the critic be turned to the composition of this work, it must be conceded that it will be found defective in many particulars. No one was more conscious of this than the author. His own ideas of it are so characteristically expressed in a letter written at the time to his brother-in-law, Richard Cranch, himself a member of the Massachusetts convention the next year, as to deserve insertion at this place.
“Grosvenor Square, 15 January, 1787.
“My dear Brother,—
Dr. Tufts will give you a strange book. I know not whether the sentiments of it will be approved by the men of sense and letters in America. If they are, they will make themselves popular in time. If they are not, our countrymen have many miseries to go through. If the system attempted to be defended in these letters is not the system of the wisest men among us, I shall tremble for the consequences, and wish myself in any obscure hole in the world. I am myself as clearly satisfied of the infallible truth of the doctrines there contained as I am of any demonstration in Euclid; and if our countrymen are bent upon any wild schemes inconsistent with the substance of it, the sooner they remove me out of their sight the better; for I can be of no service to them in promoting their views. I shall be anxious to know how it is received, and shall be obliged to you to inform me.
“I lament that it is so hasty a production. It is only since my return from Holland, in September, that I began to collect the materials. But the disturbances in New England made it necessary to publish immediately, in order to do any good. My friends in Holland were much employed in revolutions. In several conversations there, I had occasion to mention some things respecting governments which some of those gentlemen wished to see on paper. Their desire, falling in with the seditious meetings in the Massachusetts, determined me to write. The field is vast enough, the materials are splendid enough, and the subject is of weight enough, to employ the greatest scholar of the age for seven years. I am no great scholar, and have had but a few months’ time; but I hope the men of genius and science in America will pursue the subject to more advantage. By the hurry and precipitation with which this work was undertaken, conducted and completed, I have been obliged to be too inattentive both to method and the ornaments of style for the present taste of our countrymen; for I perceive that taste and elegance are the cry. This appears to me like establishing manufactures of lace, fringe, and embroidery in a country, before there are any of silk, velvet, or cloth. Our countrymen are by no means advanced enough in solid science and learning, in mathematics and philosophy, in Greek and Latin, to devote so much of their time to rhetoric. The ignorance of old Mummius, who threatened a master of a ship to compel him to replace the paintings of Apelles, if he lost them, would become us much better. I am no enemy to elegance, but I say no man has a right to think of elegance till he has secured substance; nor then, to seek more of it than he can afford. That taste which, for its gratification, will commit knavery and run in debt beyond the ability to pay, merits execration. That elegance which devours honor, truth, and independency, which scorns reputations and can reconcile itself to ignominy, public or private, is a monster that Hercules ought to destroy. If the courts of justice must be stopped at the point of the bayonet, if the laws must be trampled under foot to satisfy elegance, it is a demon that ought to be sent back to hell.
“ ‘Libertatem, amicitiam, fidem, præcipua humani animi bona’—these are essential to human happiness. Finery of every kind may be dispensed with, until it can be reconciled to the other.”
It may be observed, in passing from this letter, that the passage from Tacitus, quoted at the close, became such a favorite with Mr. Adams that he selected the first three words and the governing verb retinebis, as a motto for himself, which he caused to be engraved in various forms for his private use. They are taken from the address put into the mouth of the Emperor Galba by the historian, upon the adoption of Piso, as his heir, according to the forms of the Roman law; a fatal gift, as it proved, but conveyed in an address breathing so much of the early spirit of the republic as to elevate the speaker far above those either before or after him on the imperial throne.
A few words more will close all that it is deemed necessary to say of the “Defence of the American Constitutions.” The transient interest in its pages, awakened by a sense of the necessities of government at the time, passed away with the adoption of the federal constitution. Another motive for perusing them succeeded, in the desire of political antagonists to find materials for impairing the influence of the author. To this end, not only the general tendency of the work was denounced as monarchical, but every passage in it was sedulously hunted up, which could be made to bear an invidious meaning. The obvious approbation of the distribution of powers in the British constitution was used to justify an accusation, at one moment of a desire to introduce absolutism, at another, of favoring an aristocracy. These representations were attended with a considerable share of success for the time. But a calmer examination of the whole work will serve to show that there is no just ground for them. The object of it is to show the great danger of power concentrated in any one quarter, whether it be in the hands of a single chief, or in a select number, or in the multitude, as well as to recommend precautions against it by subdividing and thus neutralizing as much of the excess as possible. Hence the book, if studied for that object, would be found to yield quite as many texts against absolutism or aristocracy as against democracy. Such a result must inevitably flow from any discussion of the rights of men carried on with regard only to general principles, and independent of all local or temporary considerations. In this, as in other instances in his life, Mr. Adams followed his own convictions, without seeking to accommodate them to prevailing ideas of any kind. His speculations have now gone into the immense reservoir of human thought accumulated by ages, there to take the chance of confirmation or otherwise, as the cumulative experience and the impassible judgment of later generations shall see fit to determine. No interest remains to pervert them. Whether pronounced right or wrong, the verdict can only affect the correctness of his doctrines. It can make no difference with the estimate of his motives or of his character.
Passing from the view of the substance to the form, it must be admitted, that as a specimen of style, it has few attractions for the general reader, being in this respect inferior to most of the author’s productions. It is defective in the arrangement, and in exposition of the arguments to establish the general conclusion. Much too great space is given to the minor details of the history of the small Italian republics of the middle ages, which were not necessary to prove what is made clear enough without them. For these reasons, it is not likely that it will attract to its pages many readers out of the limits of the very small class who study the science of government on a comprehensive scale. To these, this book will still recommend itself as a profound examination of the principles upon which mixed forms, like those of Great Britain and America, are established, and as a treasury of just reflections and striking illustrations, appropriate to the general subject. Nobody has done so much to prove the fatal effect of vesting power in great masses in any single agency. No one has shown so clearly the necessity of enlisting the aid of the various classes of society to the support of a common cause, by giving to each of them a legitimate field of exertion; and no one has more impressively warned posterity of the consequences of permitting the rise of distinctions, thus setting the rich and the poor, the educated and the ignorant, the gifted and the dull into opposition, without preserving ready means of restraint upon the violence of each. Over and above these recommendations, there are scattered here and there maxims of policy, and observations upon events and characters in history, both ancient and modern, well worthy to be stored in the mind of every man called to the office of a statesman. Strange as it may seem, this work supplied, in part, what was then a vacuum in literature, and what is not yet entirely filled. The later labors of Brougham, and Guizot, and De Tocqueville have added much to the stock of useful materials; but a philosophical and comprehensive treatment of all practicable forms of government, the joint offspring of learning and experience, remains to task the powers of some future genius, who, with the analytic power and the sententious wisdom of Montesquieu, will have a care to avoid his errors of precipitate generalization.
Whilst the leisure of Mr. Adams was thus absorbed in this interesting pursuit at home, it is not to be inferred that he did not derive much enjoyment from many of the events which were taking place in the world around him. The indifference of the court and ministers could not prevent him from enjoying the opportunities presented of witnessing the contests of eloquence almost daily occurring in the two houses of parliament. Mr. Adams heard Burke, and Pitt, and Fox, and Sheridan, and Camden, and was present at the opening of the solemn proceedings against Warren Hastings. It was the age of strong intellect in England. Nothing like it had occurred since the reign of Queen Anne, and nothing like it has been seen since. For the mind of the human race seems to be, in this respect, like the surface of the earth it inhabits, which must lie fallow at intervals between periods of excessive productiveness, in order to recruit from its exhaustion. In addition to all these occupations and diversions, Mr. Adams was engaged, in conjunction with Mr. Jefferson, then minister to France, with whom he had established agreeable social relations, in the duty of negotiating treaties with the Barbary powers and procuring the liberation of many unfortunate prisoners taken by them. This relation gave rise to an interesting correspondence between the two gentlemen, a large portion of which has been already laid before the world.
But much as Mr. Adams might enjoy these superior opportunities for study and recreation in Great Britain, there was a single drop of bitterness apart from every thing in Europe, which came in to spoil his pleasure. For the love or hate, the kindness or neglect of the English he cared little, so long as he could feel that the country which he represented, and for whose cause he had staked so much, was doing her duty in the new position assumed by her before the nations. It was during his residence here that he was compelled daily to receive new proofs of her reluctance to fulfil her solemn engagements, and of her neglect to sustain her honor as he would have wished her to do. In his situation, all the arguments in extenuation of her deficiencies, her poverty, her exhaustion, her inability to unite the several States in one policy, would have been of no avail, had he condescended to use them; but he never did. He would have been proud to defend her to the last drop of his blood against every unjust charge, but he would not stoop to palliate or equivocate about her short-comings, when they were undeniable. His feelings upon this subject he did not seek to conceal from his friends at home. In a letter, addressed to Dr. Tufts, an uncle of Mrs. Adams, at the time a member of the senate of Massachusetts, he thus expressed himself on this topic:—
“As to politics, all that can be said is summarily comprehended in a few words. Our country is grown, or at least has been dishonest. She has broke her faith with nations, and with her own citizens; and parties are all about for continuing this dishonorable course. She must become strictly honest and punctual to all the world before she can recover the confidence of anybody at home or abroad. The duty of all good men is to join in making this doctrine popular, and in discountenancing every attempt against it. This censure is too harsh, I suppose, for common ears, but the essence of these sentiments must be adopted throughout America before we can prosper. Have our people forgotten every principle of public and private credit? Do we trust a man in private life who is not punctual to his word? Who easily makes promises and is negligent to perform them? Especially if he makes promises knowing that he cannot perform them, or deliberately designing not to perform them?”
This was severe language towards his countrymen, but not unwarranted by much of the doctrine prevalent among the people of America at this period. A large number growing daily more restless under the bridle of the law, were encouraging each other to the last step of putting it at defiance, whilst others were resorting to more indirect but not less decisive means of annulling their obligations altogether. It was this relaxation of morals which gave Mr. Adams his moments of deep mortification as minister of the United States in London. Through life, his code as a public man was, on this subject, perfectly uniform. He never favored that species of logic, not infrequent among political leaders of all nations, whereby a different standard of right can be assumed at home from that which is proclaimed abroad, another rule acted upon individually from that which is presented in official station. He wished his country to be all that his dreams had pictured when advocating her independence; and finding that, as time went on, the prospect of his usefulness in his station became less and less, he determined, in 1787, to ask leave of congress to resign his trusts and to return home to private life. Letters of recall were accordingly sent out by congress in February, 1788. Not one of the important objects he had sought to gain in England had been effected. Supercilious indifference prevailed in the British councils. Alienation and not conciliation was the order of the day. The only compensation for a disappointment, which events rendered it utterly out of his power to prevent, was found in the receipt of a copy of a resolution adopted by congress, expressive of the sense entertained by that body of the value of his services during the ten years of his residence abroad. It was in these words:—
“Resolved, that congress entertain a high sense of the services which Mr. Adams has rendered to the United States, in the various important trusts which they have from time to time committed to him; and that the thanks of congress be presented to him for the patriotism, perseverance, integrity, and diligence, with which he hath ably and faithfully served his country.”
[1 ]There were four brothers instead of two; a street was named for each of them. The surname was Adam.
[1 ]This remark, applied to the Americans generally, was made at the beginning of the struggle, 20 December, 1775. Lord Campbell’s Life of Mansfield, in Lives of the Chief Justices of England, vol. ii. p. 499.
Editors Note: This is Volume 1 of the 10 Volume “The Works of John Adams”, (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). The author, Charles Henry Adams is John Adams grandson. The copyright for the original text is in the Public Domain because its copyright has expired. The font, and formatting of this version of The Works of John Adams, as well as all other Americanist Library and Founders Corner selections are, unless otherwise specified, Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell.