Private Letters and Public Diplomacy: The Adams Network and the Quasi-War, 1797-1798


Drawing primarily on the unpublished Adams Family Papers, this essay reconstructs the correspondence-based political and diplomatic information networks that John Adams employed in 1797 and 1798. It show that Adams had two networks, an official one built around the cabinet and an unofficial one dominated by family members and friends, which had distinct approaches to gathering information and different assumptions about how to interpret it. The members of the private network collectively created shared standards for determining what constituted reliable information and sound political principles. Though Adams employed both networks, he had greater confidence in the private one. In early 1797, when Adams had to decide how to respond to the French government's rejection of U.S. emissary Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, it was the private network that persuaded him to send a new mission to France. Adams then sought to create a new mission that was composed of individuals who were part of the private network or closely connected to it. In both cases, however, Adams incorporated advice from the official network as well. The essay reinterprets Adams's diplomacy, showing that it was more consistent and less shaped by his cabinet's advice than has been thought. It also illustrates how political decision-making in the early republic drew on multiple interacting correspondence networks, suggesting the need for further study of the epistolary habits of political leaders.