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  • Papers of John Adams, Volume 18, December, 1785–January, 1787 ed. by Gregg L. Lint, et al.
  • John E. Hill (bio)
Papers of John Adams, Volume 18, December, 1785–January, 1787
Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016

Any scholar analyzing the foreign relations of the early Republic, the weakness of the national government under the Articles of Confederation, or the origins of John Adams’s Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787) will find this excellent compilation of Adams’s public papers an invaluable resource.

Important issues for Adams as our first ambassador to the Court of St. James included normalizing relations with Great Britain (with unpaid debts from the prewar period, violations of the peace treaty, and negotiations on a treaty of commerce to be resolved), supporting trade, and dealing with the Barbary States. Expanding international commerce is extensively covered; neutrality, a major foreign policy principle well into the twentieth century, is the subject of a few documents. In addition, Adams continued as ambassador to the Netherlands; in that role, his main responsibility was maintaining the credit of the United States by ensuring timely payment of interest on the loans he had negotiated to help finance the Revolutionary War.

Adams was handicapped throughout his tenure in Britain by the weakness of the Articles of Confederation. The United States as we know it today, one nation, did not exist; instead there were thirteen semisovereign states, occasionally working together. One of Adams’s correspondents, James Sullivan, even labeled the states “separate sovereignties” (524). This issue permeates the volume; in a letter to John Jay, who was in effect our “secretary of state” at that time, Adams wrote: “It is now with the states to determine, whether there is or is not a Union in America.—If there is, they may, very easily make themselves respected in Europe. [I]f there is not, they will be little regarded, and very soon at War with England, as I verily believe” (17).

The Marquis of Carmarthen, Britain’s foreign minister, made it very clear to Adams that there would be no negotiations about American complaints [End Page 754] (over failure of the British to evacuate their western forts and compensation for wartime confiscation of property, both commercial goods and slaves) so long as individual states refused to settle prewar debts to British merchants (190–92). Congress had no authority to compel the states to resolve those debts. Thus, Adams had no leverage. He wrote that individual state laws prevented resolution of a long list of issues from the Revolutionary War as well as negotiation of a treaty of commerce (312–13). Adams also thought negotiations were impossible because of British jealousy of America as Britain’s “most formidable [commercial] Rival” throughout the world (326).

In addition, some states were delinquent in paying their share of national debts. Congress could do little about this, resulting in difficulties paying interest on Dutch Revolutionary War loans, as well as weakening our position in negotiations with the Barbary States. We did not have the resources to make “gifts” to Algeria or Tunis, for example, to prevent piracy, or the funds to build a navy to fight the pirates, or the funds to ransom American sailors enslaved by the pirates.

The Barbary States issue offers an ironic foretaste of the XYZ affair during Adams’s presidency. As ambassador, Adams thought strategically about options for protecting our commerce. Clearly Adams did not like the bribery option: “I presume We shall be compelled to follow the Base example of Submission and pay tributes or make Presents like the rest of Christians to the Mussulmen” (206). But in a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, he wrote that he would fight other nations if our liberty were threatened. However, balancing the costs of war with the five Barbary States against purchasing treaties (bribery), the best option was to negotiate: “I am alway’s mortified to hear Projects of War with the Algerines, because they appear to me to have a...


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