- Papers of John Adams. Volume 12: October 1781-April 1782
Reading John Adams's writing in this twelfth volume of the Papers of John Adams has been both pleasurable and instructive. Adams's abilities have long been recognized: his intelligence, his mental energy, his broad knowledge, his capacity for work. He had less attractive traits as well: vanity, hypersensitivity to slight, and, in his later years, an obsession with reputation. In the seven months between October 1781 and April 1782, which this volume covers, Adams and his correspondents produced enough writing to fill 500 pages of printed text. Throughout, Adams's unique qualities of personality and character that make him such a notable and interesting person are vividly displayed.
The papers published in volume 12 continue the story of Adams's diplomatic assignment in the Netherlands begun in volumes 10 and 11. The items cover a variety of subjects and include most importantly Adams's correspondence with Congress and Secretary for Foreign Affairs Robert R. Livingston; with U.S. envoys John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, and Francis Dana; with various Dutch and French officials and notables; with Dutch bankers about an American loan; and Adams's letters critiquing a recently published history of the American Revolution.
Adams was alone in the Netherlands, without wife or sons, commissioned by Congress to negotiate treaties of commerce and alliance with the Dutch States General. Although at war with Great Britain, the Netherlands had not recognized U.S. independence, and Adams was in the awkward position of serving as an informal envoy of the United States without official recognition. As such, he could talk informally with Dutch authorities but could not conduct official business. On his own initiative, without instructions, Adams insisted that formal recognition of U.S. independence must precede any treaty negotiation. To this end, Adams wrote and dispatched memorials, lobbied Dutch officials, courted the French ambassador at The Hague, cultivated Dutch and French politicians and newspaper editors, and wrote and circulated anonymous articles advocating recognition. Success finally came in the spring of 1782 when the States General officially recognized the independence of the United States and received Adams. This set the stage for subsequent [End Page 300] Dutch loans that provided crucial financial aid to Congress during the Confederation era.
Adams's quest for his country's recognition was the more complicated because of Holland's decentralized government. Power was exercised by an oligarchy of mercantile and financial elites and by the stadtholder, William V, Prince of Orange, George III's pro-British nephew. Power was diffused both at the top and throughout the provinces where local assemblies and municipal governments were key. Complicating matters further was the existence of rival factions of Patriots and Orangists predisposed for and against the United States. Adams thus had to deal with a bewildering array of authorities, bodies, officials, and groups, all of whom had to approve whether the United States should be recognized. As Adams wryly noted, the government of the United Provinces was "so complicated and whimsical a thing, and the Temper and Character of the Nation so peculiar, that this is conceded every where as the most difficult Embassy in Europe" (190).
Adams's letters reveal some interesting personal traits. Always short of public funds, Adams generously contributed money out of his own pocket toward the relief of American prisoners of war held in England. He also displayed notable sensitivity when he replied reassuringly to the daughter of Henry Laurens that he would do all possible for her prisoner-of-war father, then imprisoned in the Tower of London. He could also play the courtier, as his flowery verbal and written exchanges with the Prince and Princess of Orange testify.
Adams's famous vanity occasionally showed itself, but for the most part he kept it in check. Thus he resisted the flattering idea, put forth by admirers, that he had...