NEW YORK STATE made Van der Kemp a citizen less than a year after his arrival in America. The federal government recognized such citizenship as binding on the nation. Van der Kemp valued his citizenship as an opportunity for service as well as a privilege conveying human rights.
His education was superior to that of most Americans and his view was worldwide. He had experienced the interrelationships of political, economic and cultural affairs in Europe and recognized the ties of the new United States with the system. He could evaluate relations with the rest of the western world better than Washington or Clinton, perhaps better than even Adams and Jefferson who had gained breadth through their diplomatic posts. Van der Kemp knew Europe well through books as well as experience. He had studied political philosophy both ancient and modern.
In late 1789 Van der Kemp decided it was time for him to make his experience and learning useful to America. After all, he had met and conversed with a number of its leaders. He had become a property owner (with a mortgage). He was on a firm basis of friendship with the vice president and with the governor of New York State. Adams and Van der Kemp exchanged frequent letters in this period. The letters indicate clearly that Adams appreciated his friend’s advice.
Van der Kemp became interested in John Adams’ three-volume work, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, against the Attack of M. Turgot. The French statesman and scholar had criticized the American people for following too closely the English pattern of constitutional government and for setting up a separation of powers. He stated in a letter to Richard Price in England that the American states should have cast off the English system and established a single house of representatives with no “competing” executive or judiciary branches of government. Price published Turgot’s letter appended to a small book of his own containing advice to the Americans on government. Adams in London felt that he had to defend the American system of balance of powers, particularly since the constitutional convention was meeting. Adams advocated two or three legislative bodies chosen independently of each other, and executive and judiciary branches with independent powers. He believed these powers could be balanced and checked in a way that would insure freedom, protect property and encourage progress.
In the Defence Adams stated his views on checks and balances and supported the balanced plans of most of the thirteen states. The work also contained analyses of the governments of Europe since the Middle Ages plus some consideration of the ancient Greek and Roman states. He thought his examples were proof that the three branches of power existed in “every society natural and artificial.”1 He looked upon the executive as “the natural friend of the people, and the only defense which they or their representatives can have against the avarice and ambition of the rich and distinguished citizens.”2 The writing was not as scholarly as Adams wished but the occasion demanded a speedy publication. The first volume was published in London in 1787 and reached the members of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia before they adjourned.
Reviewers were critical, particularly in Europe, some of them because Adams showed too ardent a love for democracy, or at least had too much democratic support to be acceptable to the aristocracy. Van der Kemp read the reviews and the complete Defence as soon as he could get it. He had approved of a strong executive in Holland but not a tyrant. The Defence convinced him of the wisdom in checks and balances. He intended to study thoroughly the whole doctrine of republican government.
By this time (1790) the new Constitution was in effect and working successfully. However, the French Revolution had begun and Francis was reminded anew of the difficulties and dangers of regaining lost liberties. He asked Adams to give the Americans a warning, however disagreeable, as to what courses they must follow to retain “political and civil liberty.”3 Francis felt the French could have avoided violence if they had translated and heeded the Defence.4 Van der Kemp expressed his sincere wish that every sensible American would read the work and that every lover of religious and civil liberty would “devour” it. The scholar’s letter then proceeded to four and a half pages of detailed criticisms and comments.5
If the American cause looked hopeful, the French situation looked full of trouble and sorrow. The Revolution had brought forth and firmly established the Declaration of the Rights of Man and had destroyed the Bastille, symbol of despotism. But it had also made virtual prisoners of the king and royal family, and had incurred the enmity of other nations. Van der Kemp was hopeful at first for the rights of all men in France but soon became pessimistic. He regretted the bloodshed and was convinced the French had missed a great opportunity to secure their rights and liberties by establishing a strong constitutional government with checks and balances. When the prominent editor, Jacques Pierre Brissot, and others fled to escape the French oligarchy, Van der Kemp was sure it was only the vanguard of émigrés.6
Adams was at the national capital, New York, and answered Van der Kemp’s letters in late February in spite of busy schedules. He commented briefly on the criticisms of his Defence and boldly declared his view on the American Government.
I will candidly confess, that an hereditary Senate, without an hereditary Executive, would diminish the Prerogatives of the President and the Liberties of the People. But I contend that hereditary descent in both, when controled by an independent Representation of the People, is better than corrupted, turbulent and bloody Elections. And the knowledge you have of the human heart will concur with your knowledge of the History of nations to convince you that Elections of Presidents and Senitors, cannot be long conducted in a populous, oppulent and commercial Nation, without corruption, Sedition and Civil War.7
Adams mentioned numerous letters of commendation and flattery received from Europe on the Defence but doubted that his books would be widely read. They were too offensive to kings and senators, to democrats and rabble. “A wish for Unlimited Power is the natural Passion of each of these orders, and no Doctrine pleases but that which flatters the ruling Passion.” He ended the letter with the declaration, “I will never cease to preach my favourite Doctrine [checks and balances], untill I die.”8
In a letter the following month, Adams again commented pessimistically on French developments, especially the single assembly. He compared a number of French leaders to various American leaders. He mentioned disorders and threats of disorder in America, telling of a political quarrel in Massachusetts in which one man was burned in effigy and another was threatened with tar and feathers. He feared that a trifle could have started killing and sedition, just as in France. He described an intrigue intended to deprive him of the vice-presidency in 1788. He contended that senatorial elections had been notoriously corrupt, and continued vehemently:
When Bribery, Corruption, Intrigue, Manoeuvre Violence, Force, shall render Elections too troublesome and too dangerous, another Convention must be called, who may prolong the Period of Senators from Six Years to twelve or twenty or thirty or forty or for Life, or if necessary propose the Establishment of hereditary Senators…. And if the Election of President should become terrible, I can conceive of no other method to preserve Liberty: but to have a national Convention called for the express purpose of electing an hereditary President. These appear to me to be the only Hopes of our Posterity. While Washington lives Elections may answer….9
The bloody French Revolution alarmed Adams during this time when his own country was still in the throes of adjusting to its first major change of operation. When some of his thoughts on hereditary officials became known to his enemies, he was openly accused of being a monarchist. Van der Kemp probably discussed Adams’ opinions with other people but specifically denied on one occasion quoting or showing confidential statements. Van der Kemp, himself, was not disturbed by Adams’ ideas because he believed in freedom of political thought. He agreed that the French Revolution had demonstrated the irresponsibility of the rabble and Adams had pointed out signs of intrigue and violence in America. Van der Kemp did not know enough of public elections in his adopted country to condemn or defend them but he pursued the topic.
Van der Kemp wrote that he wished Adams had explained how the election of senators and president could be changed without sedition and civil war. He had doubts. It seemed to him also that the elections for members of the House of Representatives might be corrupt even though Adams saw no danger of it. Shouldn’t there be fear of bribery and corruption “when but one representative can be chosen for 30 or 40,000 Citizens?” And wouldn’t there be troubles in the continuation of hereditary offices in large land-holding families? How would a vacancy be filled? It might be a useful experiment to recognize Kentucky and Vermont as independent nations in alliance with the United States on the condition that they try a system of hereditary president, senators and representatives. Then it would be seen if this removed bribery, corruption and sedition and promoted civil liberty. Perhaps a division of the whole country would be preferable whenever the population multiplied sufficiently.10 Thus Van der Kemp, living in an age when a republican form of government was often a questionable experiment, questioned but did not condemn elections.
Van der Kemp expressed further concern over the French Revolution. “Love of mankind and Liberty make me wish that Liberty may prevail in every part, althoug I fear that she is more and more declining in Europe. The French people are the last to enjoy it … [on the continent].” He feared that the bulk of the French, after the delirium passed, would join some foreign power in restoring a monarchy with the old despotism unless they were awakened to the dangers of their present course. He still thought the French should read the Defence and had recommended it to Baron Jean Dauerhoult (of Dutch origin) in Champagne. He was impatient for an answer, yet how could he expect the French to appreciate it when “American scriblers” were abusing the work so roundly?11
When Adams won the very close vice-presidential contest with George Clinton in 1792, Van der Kemp congratulated the winner but stated clearly his respect for his good friend, the loser: “I am not angry that men of principles and character honour Governour Clinton with their suffrage—He is it worth in my opinion….” He believed Clinton had been unfairly treated in the campaign by some of his enemies. Adams replied that he, too, was a friend of Clinton but regretted that Clinton lent his name and influence to the opponents of the Constitution and the administration, inviting anarchy by their notions.12
In the winter of 1792–93 Van der Kemp read from the works of Machiavelli, including The Prince. He thought the work was instructive and that “modern politicians could learn a great deal of sound reasoning by this so universally damn’d Italian—” He agreed with Adams that the writer actually favored democracy. Adams remarked that the French had adopted one of the alternatives suggested by a Machiavellian maxim, to either destroy or be very generous to defeated enemies, when they got rid of their nobility. He still doubted the success of the French unicameral system and thought France would be a “shambles of Carnage” until she changed it.13
When Adams became vice president in 1789, he recognized a need for a sequel to his Defence. The new Constitution had been formed only by much compromising. Even at this time Rhode Island had not ratified the document and New York State had voted for ratification very reluctantly. Many important leaders still believed in a dominant national legislature and a weak executive. Adams was obligated to defend the balanced system again, to defend his ideas against attacks of Condorcet and to make obvious the weaknesses of the French system which was influencing Americans. He published a series of papers in the Gazette of the United States at Philadelphia. These were in the form of commentaries on the French history written by the Italian historian Enrico Caterino Davila. The Discourses on Davila were rejected by Adams’ political opponents, who selected isolated statements to use against him. Van der Kemp was anxious to get not only the Discourses on Davila but also Davila’s history. References in letters and newspapers were not enough.
Adams wrote in further support of his thesis, “The French Revolution is every day furnishing the World with fresh Proofs of the Necessity of Checks and Ballances. Unlimited Power is as dangerous in many as in one. … I have no Idea of any greater Wickedness, than an attempt to govern Societies by single Assemblies.”14 Van der Kemp agreed in principle. He thought Louis XVI deserved some punishment but he doubted the wisdom of destroying the king and the nobility. Nor was he yet “an adept at their levelling system,” a total lack of respect for property as well as lack of respect for position. Van der Kemp wanted the French people to be free but also secure under a sound constitution, enabling France to serve as an example for the rest of Europe.15 Later in the year Louis was beheaded. Van der Kemp heard the news with regret, as he thought Louis, with his power controlled and limited, could have been a competent constitutional monarch: “France would have been in Europe what America is in the New World independent and free—a scourge to despotism, and asylum for the oppressed.”16
But not all was perfect in America. Van der Kemp warned Adams that, if he “had not such a high opinion of the good Sense and Political ability” of the government of the United States, he “should be fearfull indeed that the Americans should be seduced to some rash steps by the cunning intrigues of a French Minister [Genêt].”17 A few months later he advised Adams more directly about Genêt. “I hope that Congress will not leave unnoticed the daring attacks with which a foreign Minister insulted our Constitution, by libelling the Executive Power with desultory adpellations, for whose excuse no shadow shall be adduced.” He strongly opposed having a French emissary give orders to the United States;18 the hatred of foreign domination learned in his military school days had been reinforced when he had seen his native Holland submit to the French and the British.
Genêt continued his agitation until it appeared that he would push America into war with Great Britain. When Van der Kemp heard that a declaration of war had been defeated by only two votes in Congress, he had mixed emotions. He knew a war would be sure to hinder the progress of the new country, even threaten its existence. However, the threat of such a war might cause Britain to give up its western posts, including Oswego, near the site for his new home, and restrain British cruisers and privateers from attacking American commerce. He felt France was not to be trusted because it was headed for an oligarchy backed by the army. Van der Kemp offered an idea that probably deserved more consideration than Adams gave it.
He suggested that our government offer to mediate between the French and the combined powers for the practical purpose of gaining time, depending on the emotionalism of some of the partisans in the United States to insure public support of the idea. If we could avoid war for a year, affairs in Europe might be considerably changed and the pressures on Congress considerably lessened.19 Adams rejected the proposal on the basis that he dreaded contagion by contact. He said the United States ought “if possible, keep wholly out of the Vortex. Enthusiasm is as contagious as Mesmerism alias Animal Magnetism [a fad at the time].”20
When Van der Kemp moved to Oneida Lake in 1794, he immediately became more conscious of threats of war with Great Britain. His land was only 25 or 30 miles through the woods from Lake Ontario, a few more to Fort Oswego. The British had closed the Oswego River in 1793 and, in case of war, this river and Oneida Lake might be a path of invasion for both British and Indians. Saint Leger’s attack on Fort Stanwix and the Battle of Oriskany were fresh in the minds of frontier families. Van der Kemp hoped for peace, and tried to be confident that peace would continue, but admitted that “in case of war the neighbourhood of Oswego would not be desirable.”21
Van der Kemp was in favor of John Jay’s mission to England in May, 1794, to draw up a treaty. He probably did not know that Jay planned to use the threat of war as a weight against English demands, much as Van der Kemp had suggested. Jay had little with which to bargain when Hamilton got word to the British that the United States would not declare war.
One of Van der Kemp’s business friends on the frontier was Leonard Gansevoort of Albany. In October, 1794, Van der Kemp included in a letter to Ganesvoort, “I congratulate you, with the joyful tidings from our ambassador at the British Court—I hope in that part, our most sanguine expectations may be fulfilled, and Jay—may—at his return, receive the thankful applauses of America—once more.”22 This was premature. In August, 1795, Van der Kemp wrote to Gansevoort again, saying: “The prospects of peace seem not to be so near at hand, … but how ardently I wished it universally established. I shall consider America happy if ours is not disturbed or infected by European influence.”23 At last the treaty was official and Van der Kemp wrote: “I wish you joy with the ratified British Treaty, here [at Oneida Lake] every one considers it as an eminent blessing.”24
Not everyone in the state of New York or elsewhere shared the view that the treaty was a blessing. Van der Kemp himself considered it a mixed blessing in his correspondence with Adams. “I rejoice with the ratification of the treaty, though I could have wished it more favourable…. Washington and the Senate have merited our confidence. [T]hey would have been unworthy of it, if the clamorous vociferations of a considerable Party could have intimidated them….”25
The clamors of Jay’s vilifiers, the hangings in effigy, the heckling and stoning of those who spoke in favor of the treaty, all reminded Van der Kemp of the violent French mobs in the Revolution and the swift changes of public sentiment. Jay had been elected governor of New York before the treaty was made public. Was there danger to Jay, to Washington and the Senate? Every time that Van der Kemp commented on the troubles of France, he must have said a silent prayer that the same thing was not beginning in America. Throughout the country there was violent debate. In France, the Directory was forbidding the expression of opposition to its policies. Despotic leaders were displaced by other despotic leaders. In 1796 Van der Kemp predicted that the despotism of the French oligarchy would lead ultimately to a crown for a “Disinterested Patriot.”26 He deduced from his study of ancient and modern history that from such unstable conditions a new Julius Caesar would arise.
The puzzling political situation in the Netherlands interested Van der Kemp as much as the French turmoil. The French had assisted in the ousting of the stadholder, but had made a severe treaty with the Dutch. Heavy payments were required in return for the assistance and for further French protection. The little country was reorganized by Patriots on a French pattern, with “liberty, equality and fraternity,” a constitution, and a single national assembly. Peter Paulus, an old friend of Van der Kemp, led the reorganization and was chosen president of the Assembly. The nobility was abolished, public gallows and whipping posts were removed, coats of arms were taken from the churches, tolls were abolished and taxation exemptions were eliminated.27 The constitution of the new Batavian Republic was much like the old Articles of Confederation of the United States. Van der Kemp approved of these democratic actions but doubted that his native country could prosper under the direction of a violent, treacherous France. He thought the Dutch would feel the expense of the settlement with the French for a long time if they were forced to join in “Proclamations of liberty, equality or death.” He was not sure the reorganized government held promise.
If the Dutch people had preserved more of a National character and Patriotism than I believed in the years 81–87—If they can become superior to party prejudices, … If the majority as wel[l] as the pars potior are united without any controul from abroad—if they are sure that France never will … betray the Dutch to England and Prussia—just as she betrayed them in 87—and if the Dutch then can agree to adopt a good constitution and return to the good faith—industry—and frugal life of their ancestors … [they will again be prosperous].
In spite of his concern and hope for the future of his fatherland, Van der Kemp told Adams that he never wished to return “though the most scanty circumstances may be my share—through the rest of my days—in the lonely woods—” But he said he would rejoice if the Dutch became a “free independent People” with a good constitution.28 Not until 1814 was he able to rejoice for Dutch freedom.
When George Washington delivered his Farewell Address, Van der Kemp immediately thought of Adams as the probable successor to Washington, and wrote to him:
Washington’s resignation, which crowns that Excellent man with glory, opens the career for my worthy and much respected friend, to bestow new obligations upon his countrymen, if they are wise enough to take hold of this favourable opportunity. Can your Excell[ency]—without compromitting yourself procure your old friend a place among the Electors in this State—you know upon whom he shall pay the tribute, which every American owes to your meritorious character.29
Realizing that Adams had relatively little control of the choice of electors, Van der Kemp wrote a month later that though he had wanted to contribute in this way to Adams’ election, he could understand that it was necessary to choose someone else to be elector in order to keep his support. He said he would be satisfied if it worked out successfully.30 The election was very close, Adams receiving 71 votes while Jefferson had 68. The “someone else” chosen from Western New York was Van der Kemp’s friend, Peter Smith,31 an important land speculator. Smith voted for Adams and Pinckney as did all twelve of the New York electors. Van der Kemp was satisfied.
When Adams became president, Van der Kemp corresponded less with him. The life in the wilderness was hard and it was difficult to get the information that was needed to keep himself informed. Van der Kemp was too proud to waste the time of Adams as president even though he had offered advice and guidance to Adams as vice president.
On March 4, he sent his congratulations to Adams:
Permit me to address you with [a] few words upon your election to the Presidency of the United States. My wishes in this part are certainly accomplished—May America remain happy in peace and prosper under your administration—So that the name of Washington and Adams may be combined at every new election—as those of August and Trajan … Sensible of my obligations towards you in so many respects, and of my duty with regard to your exalted station in not abusing your precious time.
I am with sentiments of the highest esteem and regard
Your Most obed. and oblgd st
Fr. Adr. Van der Kemp 32