Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER V.: Conference with Lord Howe—Origin of Parties—Foreign and Domestic Policy—Services in Congress, from July, 1776, until November, 1777. - The Works of John Adams, vol. 1 (Life of the Author)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER V.: Conference with Lord Howe—Origin of Parties—Foreign and Domestic Policy—Services in Congress, from July, 1776, until November, 1777. - John Adams, The Works of John Adams, vol. 1 (Life of the Author) 
The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). 10 volumes. Vol. 1.
Part of: The Works of John Adams, 10 vols.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Conference with Lord Howe—Origin of Parties—Foreign and Domestic Policy—Services in Congress, from July, 1776, until November, 1777.
The declaration of the causes which justified the separation from Great Britain was but a form; yet it was of that sort of forms which sometimes produce greater effects even than the substance. It was then, and has ever since been confounded in many minds with the act itself for which it assigned the justification. Its influence at the moment was strictly subordinate to that of the event it defended, and it has only been in later times that the living force of its abstract principles has been perceived to expand beyond the nation over the ever widening circle of mankind. The reading of it was hailed with the utmost satisfaction in the Southern States and in New England, in which the public expectation had already anticipated the result. The army seems to have accepted it as a matter of course; whilst, in the Middle States, the event absorbed by far the greatest share of attention, because it brought to a crisis the long standing differences of sentiment among the population. It was the signal for an open secession of a few men of property who had till now gone with the movement, but who made it the excuse either for joining the British forces, or for shrinking into seclusion. The members of the Society of Friends, always averse to war, and at no time cordial to any measure suspected to come from Massachusetts, henceforward assumed a state of cautious neutrality. With these exceptions, the communities in question entered upon their new condition cheerfully enough. Some leading men still thought it all premature, but they preferred to follow the lead of their countrymen to the purchase of British leniency by deserting them. Among these were John Dickinson and Robert Morris, John Jay, William Livingston, and James Duane, men whose purity of motive in the course they marked out for themselves, was thus placed beyond the reach of suspicion. Yet honest and capable as they ever had been, their power was no longer in the ascendant in the federal assembly. It had at last given way before that of the Lees and the Adamses, the persons whom they had always most deeply distrusted, and whose system of policy had met with their unvarying opposition.
Most particularly had this great event established the position of John Adams in congress and in the country. The masculine energy of his eloquence, developed, as it had been, in the steady exposition of a consistent course of action, had placed him in the highest rank among the leaders of the movement. The immediate consequences were made visible in the multitude of duties showered upon him from this time until he left the body in the autumn of the succeeding year. Notwithstanding the burden under which he continually labored as chairman of the board of war, through the most disastrous and gloomy period of the struggle, his name and his agency are visible in shaping, to some extent, every part of the rising system. His own record may be consulted to furnish an idea how various and extensive were the calls upon him. He is to be traced, in the journals of congress, as a member of more than ninety different committees, and he served in others which do not appear, as sometimes the names are not there recorded. He was the chairman of at least twenty-five. As the head of the committee already mentioned, which reported the rules concerning allegiance, he was instructed to draw up, anew, the articles of war. He took a leading part in that which was directed to pave the way for alliances with foreign states, as will presently be made more fully to appear. He shared in the discussions upon the proposed form of confederation between the States, and bare record against some of the defects which ultimately brought it to nothing. He animated the organization of a naval force, which from that day to the end of his life was ever a cherished feature of his national system. And all this, during the period of almost constant reverses, in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, which ended in the possession of Philadelphia by the British commander, and the hasty dispersion of the members into the interior, until they could reassemble at York. More than once, in this space of time, even his undaunted spirit was brought to admit that the chances of ultimate defeat were preponderant. But it made not the smallest difference in his exertions. Throughout the period of sixteen months, until the victory over General Burgoyne, which, in its connection with the French alliance, is now known to have turned the scale in the minds of the British minister, dispelling his last hopes of recovering America, all the energies of Mr. Adams, body and soul, were devoted to the maintenance of the cause in which every thing to him worth living for was irretrievably embarked.
One special occasion for action happened not long after the decision in favor of independence. At the very moment of voting, General Howe was landing his troops at Staten Island, whilst his brother, the Admiral, was rapidly nearing the coast, charged with what was called the true olive branch, in contradistinction to that other one which had been brought from America by Richard Penn, and which had been so summarily rejected. It was the expectation of such a mission that had done much to protract the resistance which delayed the declaration; and even the interposition of that obstacle did not quite do away with a hope in some breasts that a reconciliation might yet be effected in spite of it. That hope was still alive in congress, animating a few of its members, and rendering them earnest to keep open the avenues of negotiation. Yet although Lord Howe’s delay was imputed by himself to his labors to obtain from ministers more liberal powers to treat, the sum of them all, as ascertained from his own admissions, seems to have fallen infinitely below the expectations of those most favorably disposed to listen to him in America. Hence it happened that his first indirect communications with congress were conducted in a manner that cut off all prospect of success by such means. His proclamation showed him standing as one armed with the ability to compel obedience, but yet empowered to temper justice with mercy, upon evidence of suitable contrition for past errors. With such pretensions, no member of congress, however much disposed to enter into negotiation with him, could venture to whisper a word in his behalf. Neither were his later measures a whit more skilfully taken. With the peculiar formality of that day, he stuck at the threshold of etiquette in refusing to acknowledge an organization called out by the voice of a continent in arms, and directly before his eyes, though it was all along his intention and desire ultimately to negotiate with it. Thus even the victory on Long Island, upon which he had most surely counted to bring the rebellious to reason, was deprived of the force which it might have had but for the want of direct and manly frankness. During this period, Mr. Adams was on the watch for every symptom of vacillation, and earnestly exerting himself to keep up the tone of congress to absolute preclusion of any opening for it. And when at last General John Sullivan, one of the prisoners taken on Long Island, was sent to Philadelphia the bearer of a proposal of a conference, on terms which he either misinterpreted, or which were afterwards disavowed, Howe was fated to find that defeat had done little to damp their courage.
Mr. Adams strenuously insisted that the overture should be permitted to pass wholly without notice. But in this he found himself once more outrunning the disposition of the majority. When New Hampshire, Connecticut, and even Virginia gave way, it was of no use for him further to resist. He has given an account of this matter, so clear that it supersedes the necessity of adding to it. He wrote to Mrs. Adams, on the 6th of September, as follows:—
“This day, I think, has been the most remarkable of all. Sullivan came here from Lord Howe, five days ago, with a message, that his lordship desired a half hour’s conversation with some of the members of congress in their private capacities. We have spent three or four days in debating whether we should take any notice of it. I have, to the utmost of my abilities, during the whole time, opposed our taking any notice of it. But at last it was determined by a majority that ‘the congress being the representatives of the free and independent States of America, it was improper to appoint any of their members to confer in their private characters with his lordship. But they would appoint a committee of their body to wait on him, to know whether he had power to treat with congress upon terms of peace, and to hear any propositions that his lordship may think proper to make.’
“When the committee came to be balloted for, Dr. Franklin and your humble servant were unanimously chosen. Colonel R. H. Lee and Mr. Rutledge had an equal number; but upon a second vote, Mr. Rutledge was chosen. I requested to be excused, but was desired to consider of it until to-morrow. My friends here advise me to go. All the stanch and intrepid are very earnest with me to go, and the timid and wavering, if any such there are, agree in the request. So I believe I shall undertake the journey. I doubt whether his lordship will see us, but the same committee will be directed to inquire into the state of the army at New York, so that there will be business enough, if his lordship makes none. It would fill this letter-book to give you all the arguments for and against this measure, if I had liberty to attempt it. His lordship seems to have been playing off a number of Machiavelian manœuvres, in order to throw upon us the odium of continuing this war. Those who have been advocates for the appointment of this committee are for opposing manœuvre to manœuvre, and are confident that the consequence will be that the odium will fall upon him. However this may be, my lesson is plain, to ask a few questions and take his answers.”
Whatever else may be said of Lord Howe, it is certainly a mistake to suppose him to have been possessed of the arts taught by Machiavel. He was a plain, well-meaning man, disposed, as far as he knew how, to restore peace and reconcile conflicting interests. His mission was but the natural sequence of certain efforts which had been initiated with Franklin before his departure from London. It forms a part of a series of inadequate concessions, always coming a day too late, which will render the policy of Lord North ever a memorable lesson to statesmen. It might in stronger hands have proved a formidable engine, not so much of conciliation as of division among the Americans. As it was, it was shivered to atoms upon a scruple of form! From the tone of a letter to John Adams, it is certain that the announcement of the conference had excited serious concern in the mind of Samuel Adams. The resolution of congress, accepting it, had carefully avoided mentioning independence as an obstacle to peace. The popular confidence, in the Middle States, never very firm, had fallen very considerably, under the effect of General Howe’s easy triumph around New York, and the advance of the war into the heart of New Jersey. It must then have been with great satisfaction that Samuel Adams, at this time at home, received from his correspondent his account of the termination of the conference. That account is given elsewhere in these volumes.1 Nothing more is necessary to prove the utter incompetency of Howe to the task which he had assumed. He had not taken the trouble to understand the causes of the difference. To him it stood merely as a quarrel in the family, where he might come in as intercessor, and beg the father not to be hard upon the children, provided he could persuade them, in their turn, to pray forgiveness and promise amendment. All this kind of reasoning, if it ever could have had any force, was utterly thrown away after the Fourth of July. The colonies had gone too far, longer to consent to be regarded as a wayward progeny. They now asked to be recognized as having reached the age of maturity, and as responsible for their own acts. To such a request, Lord Howe could not assent even in form, much less in substance, so that the mighty edifice of conciliation proved to be a mere castle in the air. Then it was that the Lees and the Adamses could take pleasure in the reflection, that mainly by their efforts independence had not been put off. They might, indeed, have included in their gratulation the listlessness of the minister at home, and the mild inertness of his diplomatic agents. Some men might even then have at least sown the seeds of discord, to germinate and bear fruit at later stages of the war. What they actually did, was to prevent their growing. The result of the conference with Lord Howe only tended the more to convince the doubting that reconciliation was out of the question. Mr. Adams returned to his duties, fortified by the prediction he had made that the conference would end in nothing, and that Great Britain would not prove in earnest in her offers. Indeed, throughout this history, it was the fate of that country never to be in season with any measure, either of restraint or conciliation. The amiable Lord Howe had been sent with an olive branch whilst his brother held the sword, and neither proved a true symbol, in the way that they chose respectively to wield them.
In all of the discussions which had preceded the Declaration of Independence, one argument had been urged in its favor with great earnestness and no trifling effect. This was, that neither France nor Spain, to whom the patriots might look with not ill-grounded hopes of aid, could be relied upon to deviate from the policy of neutrality, so long as the disruption between the mother country and the colonies should not be placed beyond recall. Hence it happened that independence and foreign alliances were terms almost always used in the same breath, and the second step was viewed as an inevitable consequence of taking the first. No sooner was the sense of the majority gathered from the debate that took place upon Mr. Lee’s first resolution of the seventh of June, than, in the contemplation of its passage, a committee was appointed to mature a form of treaty to be proposed to foreign powers. The names and the political character of this committee have been given already. Mr. Adams, who had been strenuous in advocating the policy which it proposed to initiate, was one of its members, in conjunction, however, with persons, most of whom could scarcely be regarded as likely to take the burden of measures legitimately the consequence of that policy. The responsibility of action seems in this way to have been shared between Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams, and the greater part of the labor to have fallen upon the latter. The form of a treaty was drawn, and the extent to which the policy of alliance was to be carried, was substantially defined by him. This is a point very material to a right comprehension of his later career in the foreign service of his country.
This form was, after consultation with Dr. Franklin, reported to congress on the 18th of July. It was composed of articles purely commercial in their nature, and contemplated no connection beyond a reciprocation of the benefits of trade, and a mutual assurance of protection against the annoyances likely to interrupt it. Further than this, Mr. Adams was not disposed to involve the country in any engagement. It is interesting to observe, by a confidential dispatch of Count de Vergennes, after the proposal had been submitted to him, how great was his surprise at its moderation, and how accurately he penetrated the motives at the bottom of it. But some of the members, with whom Mr. Adams was habitually acting, feared that it would not present inducements enough to tempt France to swerve from her neutrality. The subject was earnestly debated on the 27th of August, and sundry amendments adopted, which were referred to the same committee, enlarged by the addition of Richard Henry Lee and James Wilson, with directions to embody them in the shape of instructions for the government of the individual who should be intrusted with the duty of opening negotiations. Two days later, power was given to frame further instructions. Soon afterwards, Mr. Adams was called away to the duty of waiting upon Lord Howe, and he did not return until the committee had reported. It is fair, then, to assume that the instructions did not have the same origin with the treaty, although they can scarcely be said to contravene its spirit. They only betrayed the anxiety of congress to let no precise form of stipulations stand in the way of an alliance; an anxiety that ultimately led to the negotiation of a treaty on a different principle from that now reported, and one which, twenty years later, helped to bring on that complication of affairs with France, which proved the most serious cause of embarrassment that happened to the government, whilst it had Mr. Adams for its head.
The Declaration of Independence had changed the nature of the divisions in congress. Up to that moment, they had been formed upon the single point of reconciliation; one side pressing for a decree of final separation, reversible only by the armed hand, the other still anxious to leave open some avenues by which a return to kindlier feelings in Great Britain might, with honor to both parties, save the resort to force. That question once settled, a few, who yet remained dissatisfied, retired from public action. The rest embarked with more or less cheerfulness upon the hazardous voyage, sharing its perils, its disasters, and its successes, to the end. But although the original grounds of difference had been thus removed, the past had not been without its effect in marking the affinities of individuals. The general outlines of parties soon made themselves visible in the new discussions which arose. The Lees and the Adamses, Virginia and New England, though not without individual exceptions, reinforced by Pennsylvania, Delaware, and scattering members of other States, held the undisputed lead, though an opposition yet existed from New York, combined with many representatives of the Southern States. These distinctions acquired, in time, more consistency, by connecting themselves with the position, prejudices, and passions of the military officers, in their various commands, and with the influences gradually brought to bear from beyond sea. They wound themselves around the movements of the commander-in-chief, and they seriously impaired the efficiency of the negotiations with foreign powers. This is a subject which has not yet been fully analyzed. And inasmuch as it involves a correct apprehension of all later party divisions down to the present day, it would seem to deserve an extended consideration. The task is appropriate to this biography only so far as it affected the fortunes of its subject. To that extent, which is not a small one, it may naturally be assumed.
The Revolution found the States homogeneous in language, religion, and origin, but greatly differing in habits of thought, in manners, and feelings. Their social forms, their sectarian views of religion, and their ideas on government, though all bearing the general character impressed upon them by the superior influence of the mother country, yet equally drew the differences between them from the same source. In Virginia, and in New England, the population had been the most exclusively derived from Great Britain; but it had come from very opposite classes of its society. The one had emigrated during a period, when the passions both in church and state had been stimulated to the utmost. They cherished the extreme ideas of the extreme reformers, as little idolaters of the crown as of the hierarchy. The other had borne the impress of the cavalier, holding his loyalty as a sentiment rather than a principle, revering the authority of the church, and the established order of ranks in the state, though never surrendering that spirit of personal independence which yet characterizes the higher classes of the mother country. Between these two communities, which combined to form the main body of resistance, were interposed the proprietary governments, composed of more miscellaneous materials, and, therefore, marked by less unity of character. One feature was common to these, however, and that was the monopoly in few hands of extensive landed property, which vested estates in the original grantees or their successors that affected the whole structure of society. Out of this grew distinctions between the proprietaries and the immigrating poor of different European nations, which savored more of aristocracy than is usual in communities of comparatively late date. Hence it happened that public sentiment, which is in every part of the world formed out of the feelings and interests of the preponderating class, had shaped for itself a system peculiar to the circumstances of each. However opposite in other respects, the leading men concurred in this, that they sympathized far more with the Cavalier tendencies of their southern neighbors than with the Roundhead equalization of Puritan New England. So strong was this tendency at the commencement of the difficulties, that even the predominating indignation with the common oppressors in Great Britain, and the natural enthusiasm awakened by the advocacy of the common liberties, were not quite sufficient to overcome the prejudices, and allay the suspicions entertained of the motives of the Massachusetts men. This made itself visible at the very opening of the first congress; nor would the feeling have been softened, had it not been for the sagacity of the latter in covering their action with the shield of Virginia names. By this process it happened, that whilst Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington were on their side types of the same spirit which animated the barons in their victory over King John, Hancock, the Adamses, and Sherman, were equally sustaining the relation of Lenthal, Pym, and St. John towards Charles the First. It was the accordance of these forms of opinion in working for one object prized equally by both, personal and political freedom to America, which finally carried the continent in the same direction. But this union could not take place without much friction in all minor details, neither did it outlast the hour of victory. The first jar in the movement made itself felt in the organization of the military force, as will be here explained.
The news of the attack upon Lexington and Concord had not become diffused over the agricultural region of New England, before the great mass of its active men flew to arms. Some of them had served in the wars with the French, many had had a turn of militia-schooling, and all were familiar with the use of the musket. As a consequence, there clustered around the scene of hostilities at Boston, perhaps twenty thousand men, composing no army in the technical sense of the word, but yet a body of farmers, mechanics, seamen, and laborers, with their guns, and powder-horns, and shot-bags, the companions of their occasional pursuit of game, among whom General Gage could scarcely venture to trust his small force with much prospect of ever seeing it return. These men understood little of the distinction of ranks. They had learned service in border wars with Indians, or the hardy life of the forest and the sea. They recognized little authority but what was self-imposed at the moment. Their officers were of their own choosing, and from among their own companions; obeyed in cases of obvious necessity, but not to the implicit subjection of their personal liberty, which they prized above all things. Even what organization there was, sprung from so many different sources as to defy reduction to system. Acute, discriminating, shrewd, not always scrupulous or direct in the use of means, possessing an unimpassioned tenacity of purpose in the attainment of any object, whether good or bad, and withal a little addicted to money for its own sake, the assembled multitude manifested as well the virtues as the vices of their national character. Impatient of the authority of leaders, whom they scanned too narrowly not to understand their defects and to play upon them, any attempt, on their part, to convert them into an army of regulars like those of the old world, would have been attended by but one result, their early dispersion.
Aware of this, the Massachusetts delegates in congress finally accepted the hazardous expedient of calling an utter stranger to take the chief command under the general authority of the continent. The inducements to this course were not merely the high personal reputation which he enjoyed, but the confidence that, in his person, Virginia and the other colonies were pledging themselves to maintain the cause of New England as their own. The advent of General Washington, and of the train of officers he brought with him, was the infusion of a wholly new element into the military circle. It made itself immediately felt in the undertaking to mould the motley assemblage into one army. The mass melted in the process, like snow before the sun. And all the officers, who came from abroad, not excepting even the commander-in-chief, received shocks to their feelings, and formed impressions, which time confirmed into prejudices, that had a material influence upon the train of subsequent events. This is clearly perceptible in the whole tenor of the correspondence of the time. The mutual repulsion became much more fixed in the course of the defeats experienced at New York, and the calamities of the expedition to Canada; and from the camp it spread into the councils of the Union. The northern troops gradually imbibed so great an aversion to General Schuyler, that the New England delegates, in order to get round the difficulty, exerted themselves to substitute General Gates, a more acceptable leader. Gates’s successes in the north soon concentrated around him the elements of discontent with the commander-in-chief. And these became, in time, identified with those members of congress, who had either been the active promoters of his rise, or whose confidence in the military capacity of Washington had become shaken by his defeats. On the other hand, the impressions received by the numerous officers who clustered around Washington, of the ill-will borne by the same men to him, gained strength from the alleged hesitation of Samuel and John Adams, and others of their friends, to confer almost dictatorial authority on him, not less than from the rumors set afloat that they favored none but annual enlistments. Thus it fell out, in course of time, that the line became very marked, both in congress and the army, between the friends of General Washington and those who were considered averse to him. After the success of Gates in the north, whom the latter class had succeeded in placing in command there, these became known as his partisans. Although this distinction had not obtained at the moment of Mr. Adams’s retirement from service in congress, and though it is certain that his feelings were never enlisted either way, yet as his affinities in congress had always been with those who favored Gates, he was associated, in the minds of many in and out of the army, with that class. Among the young persons who received this impression was Alexander Hamilton, just commencing his career, already a decided friend of Schuyler, whose daughter he afterwards married, and equally determined against Gates. This siding had no consequences at the time. But its effects became perceptible a quarter of a century later, in a manner that will be explained as this narrative proceeds.
But the differences, which at one moment threatened the most painful consequences from this state of things, lost all their immediate importance from the failure of Gates to sustain in the south the reputation he had gained in the north, as well as from the exposure of the intrigues of several of the military adventurers who had come out from France to advance their fortunes in America. The line of division, however, continued in congress, which other influences soon helped to render more and more permanent. As a general thing, those who had been most in advance in the popular movement of independence, formed the nucleus of one set of opinions, whilst those who had held back, became component parts of the other. The former naturally feared, the latter as naturally inclined to repose great power in the military chief. Had no other circumstances occurred, this alone would have given shape to parties; but there were others, and very material ones, which came from beyond the water.
The foreign policy of the new country soon infused elements of discord, which mingled with and gave color to the current of events. Quite early in the difficulties, intimations had been very guardedly given to leading Americans, through persons in communication with, though not avowed agents of the French government, that aid would be afforded, provided that proper channels could be secured to elude observation. For the sake of opening these, the secret committee, heretofore mentioned, had been raised in 1775. This committee, composed in great part of the most conservative class, had manifested but little energy in the execution of their labors. The chief result to which they came was the institution of an agency, which they conferred upon Silas Deane, with authority to go first to the French West Indies and thence to France, and, if he found it practicable, to open the desired avenues of communication between the countries. Deane was directed to solicit aid from the government of France, and from individuals, as well as to sound the disposition of the former to enter into relations, commercial or political, with the colonies. Whilst this operation was contriving on one side, Dr. Arthur Lee, who had been for some years known in London as an active friend of America, very indiscreetly transmitted to Dr. Franklin papers purporting to be anonymously addressed to a royalist, Lieutenant-Governor Colden, but actually written by himself with the intent to inspire distrust in the fidelity of a portion of the secret committee. Messrs. Dickinson and Jay were designated as leaning too much to Great Britain, and it was explicitly declared that nothing but the substitution of men like the Adamses and Lees, known to be identified with the whole process of resistance to the crown, would avail to unlock the bosoms of sympathizers on that side of the ocean.1 Though Dr. Lee added a special injunction that these papers should be shown only to his brother, Richard Henry, the substance of them, nevertheless, leaked out, which, coming upon earlier difficulties between the parties, accumulated causes of dissension in congress. The first occasion upon which they produced sensible effects, happened upon the nomination of three commissioners to go to France. Dr. Franklin was chosen, of course; Mr. Jefferson was next elected, and not until he declined could Dr. Lee come in. For the third place, Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and Gerry had earnestly pressed upon John Adams to accept a nomination; but as he refused to listen to the proposal, the lot fell, out of that connection, upon Silas Deane, even though he had already lost the confidence of his own State of Connecticut. At the instance of those who sympathized with Lee, however, the policy was adopted of extending applications to other European powers, in consequence of which William Lee and Ralph Izard were added as agents to go to Holland, to Prussia, and to Italy. Thus it happened that each side alternately prevailed, and the seeds were freely sown of other differences, which, in no long time, fructified abundantly on both sides of the ocean.
But out of all the diplomatic appointments, made by this remarkable assembly from among men wholly new and untrained in the arts of this peculiar profession, it is a singular fact that only that of Silas Deane proved discreditable to their choice. And even this error can scarcely be said to have originated with them. It was rather the adoption of a prior act of the secret committee, not improbably wrung from them by personal address and over-solicitation. In truth, the duties with which Deane had been charged were of the most delicate and difficult nature, requiring a combination of talents seldom to be met with in one man. They called for knowledge, capacity, and address, with sagacity in penetrating the motives of others, as well as moral elevation in his own. Mr. Deane had little or nothing of all this. With some mercantile information, and a readiness, by many denominated practical talent, he united that species of dexterity, not uncommon in the political affairs of America, which is often mistaken for statesmanship, although it seldom deserves to be so much honored. This had brought him into notice in Connecticut, through his success in procuring his own election as a delegate to the first congress. It likewise secured him sufficient reputation, while he remained a member, to fortify his claim to a post which no more capable person was found eager to contest. He went to France, and immediately entered upon a scene wholly novel to him, with the brilliancy of which he seems to have been early dazzled. Adventures of all sorts crowded around him, ready to offer their valuable services to the great cause of liberty at a much higher price than they could get by remaining to serve despotism at home. Shrewd traders offered to enter into lucrative contracts to any amount with him. Enthusiastic projectors were at his feet, with plans, for an adequate consideration, to build up a great State in America by the shortest possible process in the safest possible way. Exalted by finding himself in such vogue, too vain to be aware of the thorough analysis which was making of his own character among the trained agents of the power to which he had been sent, and wholly unequal to threading the mazes of the crafty and corrupt society around him, he seems to have resigned himself to the enjoyments put in his way; enjoyments, too, which he could more readily obtain, the more he would exercise of the powers supposed to be vested in him. As an inevitable consequence, he plunged into contracts, and authorized agencies, with little regard to the extent to which he embarrassed his principals, and precipitated upon them a set of turbulent and rapacious foreign officers, whose demands to outrank natives gave rise to some of the most grave and perplexing difficulties of the war.
Neither was this the worst of the troubles he occasioned. When joined in the commission with his two colleagues, by paying court to Dr. Franklin, as the natural centre of a greater influence, and neglecting Arthur Lee, he managed to sow discord abundantly between them. Whilst his exclusive deference, on one side, secured for him the easy sympathy of Franklin in all his plans, his inattention, on the other, roused Lee’s sensitive jealousy against both his colleagues. Lee’s cause was taken up by his brother William, and by Ralph Izard, who happened to be in Europe, both of them provided with commissions to other powers, which they could not yet use, whilst Deane became the centre around whom the friends of Franklin rallied. The dissensions thus begun in France were not long in spreading to America, and to the heart of congress. And here, again, the Lees and the Adamses, Virginia, New England and Pennsylvania, became ranged in opposition to New York, with many members of the Southern States. These results, however, did not appear until some time later than the period immediately under consideration. They will be more fully explained in the sequel. The reference to them is made now only to show in one view the rise and progress of parties from the date of the Declaration of Independence.
It remains in this chapter briefly to sum up the services of Mr. Adams during the sixteen months that he continued in congress. To this end it will not be necessary minutely to recapitulate from the journal the important duties committed to the board of war, over which he presided, much less the labors he performed on many other committees. It is sufficient to say, from his own account, that from four o’clock in the morning until ten at night he had not a single moment that he could call his own. So exhausting was this toil, that at one time he sent to Massachusetts an earnest request to have the service relieved by dividing it among a greater number of members, and failing in this he offered his resignation. But it was not accepted, and he obtained, instead, a leave of absence for some months during the latter part of the year 1776.
With the exception of the brilliant actions at Trenton and Princeton, there was little in the military department, while he had the superintendence of it, that was calculated to cheer his spirits. But he never despaired. The loss of New York and the retreat through Jersey excited in him more indignation than discouragement. The advance of Howe on Philadelphia, causing the flight of the congress from that city to the borough of York, instead of depressing him, was correctly viewed as placing the British force in a position to do the least possible mischief. He took comfort in every item of favorable intelligence, and made out of every disaster an occasion for urging amendment in those particulars in which errors had become apparent. His spirit may be best gathered from his private correspondence with officers of the army, particularly with those from New England, who communicated confidentially to him their causes of complaint. In answer to a letter from General Greene, which pointed out one of these, an alleged unfair system of promotion, Mr. Adams wrote the following:—
“Philadelphia, 4 August, 1776.
“Your favor of the 14th of July is before me. I am happy to find your sentiments concerning the rewards of the army and the promotion of officers so nearly agreeable to mine. I wish the general sense here was more nearly agreeable to them. Time, I hope, will introduce a proper sense of justice in those cases where it may, for want of knowledge and experience, be wanting.
“The New England colonels, you observe, are jealous, that southern officers are treated with more attention than they, because several of the southern colonels have been made generals, but not one of them.
“Thompson was, somehow or other, the first colonel upon the establishment, and so entitled to promotion by succession, and it was also supposed, by ability and merit. This ought not, therefore, to give offence. Mercer, Lewis, Howe, Moore were veteran officers, and stood in the light of Putnam, Thomas, Frye, Whitcomb, &c., among the New England officers. Added to this, we have endeavored to give colonies general officers in some proportion to their troops; and colonies have nice feelings about rank, as well as colonels. So that I do not think our colonels have just cause to complain of these promotions.
“Lord Stirling was a person so distinguished by fortune, family, and the rank and employments he had held in civil life, added to his experience in military life, that it was thought no great uneasiness would be occasioned by his advancement. Mifflin was a gentleman of family and fortune in his country, of the best education and abilities, of great knowledge of the world, and remarkable activity. Besides this, the rank he had held as a member of the legislature of this province, and a member of congress, and his great merit in the civil department in subduing the Quaker and proprietarian interests, added to the Tory interests of this province, to the American system of union, and, especially, his activity and success in infusing into this province a martial spirit and ambition, which it never felt before, were thought sufficient causes for his advancement.
“Besides all this, my dear Sir, there is a political motive. Military characters in the southern colonies are few. They have never known much of war, and it is not easy to make a people warlike who have never been so. All the encouragement and every incentive, therefore, which can be given with justice, ought to be given, in order to excite an ambition among them for military honors.
“But, after all, my dear Sir, I wish I could have a few hours free conversation with you upon this important subject. A general officer ought to be a gentleman of letters and general knowledge, a man of address and knowledge of the world. He should carry with him authority and command. There are among the New England officers gentlemen who are equal to all this; Parsons, Hitchcock, Varnum, and others younger than they, and inferior to them too in command; but these are a great way down in the list of colonels, and to promote them over the heads of so many veterans would throw all into confusion. Reed, Nixon, and Prescott are the oldest colonels. They are allowed to be experienced officers and brave men; but I believe there is not one member of congress who knows the face of either of them; and what their accomplishments are, I know not. I really wish you would give me your advice freely upon these subjects, in confidence. It is not every piece of wood that will do to make a Mercury; and bravery alone is not a sufficient qualification for a general officer. Name me a New England colonel, of whose real qualifications I can speak with confidence, who is entitled to promotion by succession, and if I do not get him made a general officer, I will join the New England colonels in their jealousy, and outclamor the loudest of them. There is a real difficulty attending this subject, which I know not how to get over. Pray help me. I believe there would be no difficulty in obtaining advancement for some of the New England colonels here. But by promoting them over the heads of so many, there would be a difficulty in the army. Poor Massachusetts will fare the worst.”
The letter of General Green, to which this is a reply, contains a sentence, not without its meaning, as addressed to Mr. Adams at this time. Alluding to the arrival of the Howes, he says:—
“I wrote you, some time past, I thought you were playing a desperate game. I still think so.”
Such was never the opinion of Mr. Adams. But the sentence seems to have had its effect in preparing him for the defeats that followed. On the 17th of August he wrote to James Warren of his wish to be relieved.
“I must entreat you to embrace the earliest opportunity after the General Court shall assemble, to elect some new members to attend here; at least, one to attend instead of me. As to others, they will follow their own inclinations. If it had not been for the critical state of things, I should have been at Boston ere now. But a battle being expected at New York, as it is every day, and has been for some time, I thought it would not be well to leave my station here. Indeed, if the decision should be unfortunate for America, it will be absolutely necessary for a congress to be sitting, and perhaps I may be as well calculated to sustain such a shock as some others. It will be necessary to have some persons here who will not be seized with an ague-fit upon the occasion.”
He goes on to complain of omissions on the part of Massachusetts:—
“Our province have neglected some particular measures, apparently of small moment, which are really important. One, in particular, let me mention at present. You should have numbered your regiments, and arranged all your officers according to their rank, and transmitted the accounts to congress, at least to your delegates here. I assure you I have suffered much for want of this information. Besides, this has a great effect upon the public. The five and twentieth regiment from the commonwealth of Massachusetts Bay would make a sound. New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, &c., are very sensible of this. They have taken this political precaution, and they have found its advantage. It has a good effect, too, upon officers. It makes them think themselves men of consequence. It excites their ambition, and makes them stand upon their honor.
“Another subject, of great importance, we ought to have been informed of. I mean your navy. We ought to have known the number of your armed vessels, their tonnage, their number of guns, weight of metal, number of men, officers’ names, ranks and characters. In short, you should have given us your complete army and navy lists. Besides this, one would have thought we should have been informed, by some means or other, of the privateers fitted out in your State, their size, tonnage, guns, men, officers’ names and character. But in all these respects I declare myself as ignorant as the Duke of Choiseul, and, I suspect, much more so.
“Our people have a curious way of telling a story. ‘The continental cruisers, Hancock and Franklin, took a noble prize.’ Ay! but who knows any thing about the said cruisers? How large are they? How many guns? Six, nine, twelve, eighteen, or twenty-four pounders? How many men? Who was the commander? These questions are asked me so often, that I am ashamed to repeat my answer: I do not know; I cannot tell; I have not heard; our province have never informed me. The reputation of the province, the character of your officers, and the real interests of both suffer inexpressibly by this inaccuracy and negligence. Look into Colonel Campbell’s letter. With what precision he states every particular of his own force, of the force of his adversary, and how exact is his narration of circumstances, step by step! When shall we acquire equal wisdom? We must take more pains to get men of thorough education and accomplishment into every department, civil, military, and naval.”
The news of the action of the 15th of September, at New York, came, with censures, long and loud, cast upon two New England regiments for delinquency. They roused Mr. Adams much. On the 26th, he wrote to William Tudor, who was then serving on the spot, the following letter:—
“The picture you draw of the army, and the disorders which prevail in it, is shocking, but I believe it is just. But we often find in the variegated scene of human life that much good grows out of great evil. A few disgraces and defeats have done more towards convincing the congress than the rhetoric of many months, assisted by frequent letters from the General and many other officers of the army, was able to effect. Before this time you have been informed that the articles of war are passed and printed, and a new plan for the formation of a permanent and regular army is adopted. I wish it may have success. Pray, give me your opinion of it.
“The late events at New York have almost overcome my utmost patience. I can bear the conflagration of towns, any, almost any thing else, public or private, better than disgrace. The cowardice of New England men is an unexpected discovery to me, and, I confess, has put my philosophy to the trial. If I had heard that Parsons’s and Fellows’s brigades had been cut to pieces, and had my father, my brother, and my son been among the slain, I sincerely believe, upon a cool examination of my own heart, it would not have given me so much grief as the shameful flight of the 15th instant. I hope that God will forgive the guilty in the next world; but should any question concerning this transaction come into any place where I have a voice, I should think it my duty to be inexorable in this. We have none of the particulars; but I conclude that such detestable behavior of whole brigades could not have happened without the worst examples in some officers of rank. These, if any such there are, shall never want my voice for sending them to another world. If the best friend I have should prove to be one of them, I should think myself guilty of his crime, and that I deserved his punishment, if I interposed one word between him and death.
“I lament the fall of the young hero, Henley, but I wish you had been more particular in your narration of the enterprise which proved so glorious and so fatal to him. You are much mistaken in your apprehension that we are minutely informed of such events. We suffer great anxiety, and the public suffer many misfortunes, for want of information. The post-office, which has been in fault, is now beginning to do its duty. Don’t you neglect yours.”
In the following letter to Henry Knox, he manifests some soreness under the representations of the commander-in-chief, which bore severely, though not undeservedly, upon the delinquent troops. Knox had expressed the opinion that the American forces had been saved by the sluggishness of the British general.
“I agree with you that there is nothing of the vast in the characters of the enemy’s general or admiral. But I differ in opinion from you when you think that if there had been, they would have annihilated your army. It is very true that a silly panic has been spread in your army, and from thence even to Philadelphia. But Hannibal spread as great a panic once at Rome, without daring to attempt to take advantage of it. If he had, his own army would have been annihilated, and he knew it. A panic in an army, when pushed to desperation, becomes heroism.
“However, I despise that panic, and those who have been infected with it; and I could almost consent that the good old Roman fashion of decimation should be introduced. The legion which ran away had the name of every man in it put into a box, and then drawn out, and every tenth man was put to death. The terror of this uncertainty whose lot it would be to die, restrained the whole in the time of danger from indulging their fears.
“Pray tell me, Colonel Knox, does every man to the southward of Hudson’s River behave like a hero, and every man to the northward of it like a poltroon, or not? The rumors, reports, and letters which come here upon every occasion represent the New England troops as cowards running away perpetually, and the southern troops as standing bravely. I wish I could know whether it is true. I want to know for the government of my own conduct; because, if the New England men are a pack of cowards, I would resign my place in congress, where I should not choose to represent poltroons, and remove to some southern colony, where I could enjoy the society of heroes, and have a chance of learning some time or other to be part of a hero myself. I must say that your amiable General gives too much occasion for these reports by his letters, in which he often mentions things to the disadvantage of some part of New England, but seldom any thing of the kind about any other part of the continent.
“You complain of the popular plan of raising the new army. But if you make the plan as unpopular as you please, you will not mend the matter. If you leave the appointment of officers to the General or to the congress, it will not be so well done as if left to the assemblies. The true cause of the want of good officers in the army is not because the appointment is left to the assemblies, but because such officers in sufficient numbers are not in America. Without materials, the best workman can do nothing. Time, study, and experience alone must make a sufficient number of able officers.
“I wish we had a military academy, and should be obliged to you for a plan of such an institution. The expense would be a trifle—no object at all with me.”
To this letter is appended the following postscript, which shows that Mr. Adams, in 1776, was the first mover in the measure, which more than twenty years later, under his administration, it fell to his share to carry into effective execution.
“This day I had the honor of making a motion for the appointment of a committee to consider of a plan for the establishment of a military academy in the army. The committee was appointed, and your servant was one. Write me your sentiments upon the subject.”
Worn out with constant labors in his department and in congress, after the adoption of the measures to reorganize the army, which were the most urgent, Mr. Adams, availing himself of his leave of absence for the rest of the year, on the 13th of the same month mounted his horse and returned home. During this interval from his duties, the events at Trenton and Princeton happened, to give breathing time to the hard pressed and almost despairing American troops. Congress conferred powers almost dictatorial upon General Washington, and removed to Baltimore, whither Mr. Adams directed his steps on the 9th of January, 1777. Again he was on horseback, winding his way through Connecticut to Fishkill, finding, as he said, not one half of the discontent nor of the terror among the people that he left in the Massachusetts. From thence he rode up to Poughkeepsie, and crossing the river on the ice, followed its course on the west side down to New Windsor, five miles below Newburgh. From this place he crossed the country to Easton, in Pennsylvania, passing through Sussex county, the stronghold of the Tories in New Jersey. Of this he wrote to his wife as follows: “We met with no molestation nor insult. We stopped at some of the most noted Tory houses, and were treated everywhere with the utmost respect. Upon the strictest inquiry I could make, I was assured that a great majority of the inhabitants are stanch Whigs. Sussex, they say, can take care of Sussex. And yet all agree that there are more Tories in that county than in any other. If the British army should get into that county in sufficient numbers to protect the Tories, there is no doubt to be made they would be insolent enough, and malicious and revengeful. But there is no danger at present, and will be none, until that event takes place. The weather has been sometimes bitterly cold, sometimes warm, sometimes rainy, and sometimes snowy, and the roads abominably hard and rough, so that this journey has been the most tedious I ever attempted.”
This roundabout journey to Baltimore took just three weeks to accomplish. He arrived on the evening of the 1st of February, and on the 3d wrote to James Warren the gratifying intelligence that New England was once more in high estimation. “Our troops have behaved nobly, and turned the fortune of the war. Pray let us keep our credit, as I am sure we can.”
The provincial congress of Massachusetts had regularly rechosen Mr. Adams every year a delegate to the federal assembly, notwithstanding the fact that he continued to hold the commission of chief justice of the superior court. That court had now become so well established, through the character of its judges, as no longer to need extraneous aid to its authority. He therefore decided upon resigning his place in it, and to apply himself once more to the routine of the war office, and other congressional duty. Very naturally, he resumed his private correspondence with the New England officers, in which he dealt with them in his usual frank and decided way. To John Sullivan, he wrote, on the 22d of February, as follows:—
“I had this evening the pleasure of your favor of the 14th, and a great pleasure it was; as it was an evidence that my old friends were beginning to recollect me. I have been so long absent that I seemed to have lost all my correspondents in the army. It would be at all times an obligation upon me to hear of the motions of the armies, and of our prosperous or adverse situations, of our good or ill success.
“The account you give of the good behavior of our countrymen is very pleasing to me, but it is equally so to hear of the good behavior of the troops of any other State in the Union. It is good behavior that I wish to hear of; and it is quite immaterial to me where the officer or man was born, or where he lives, provided he behaves ill. The sordid prejudices, which are carefully fomented, and the malicious slanders which are industriously propagated, I both despise and detest, if contempt and hatred can exist together.
“In truth, my old friend, I wish to hear, more than I do, of the vigilance, activity, enterprise, and valor of some of our New England generals, as well as others. What is the army at Providence about? What is become of the army at Peekskill or on the White Plains? What numbers have they? Are we to go on forever in this way, maintaining vast armies in idleness, and losing the fairest opportunity that ever offered, of destroying an enemy completely in our power? We have no returns of any army. We know not what force is on foot anywhere. Yet we have reason to believe that our constituents are paying for a very great force.
“Posterity will never blame the men. They will lay all their censures upon the general officers. All history has done so; and future historians will do the same. The general officers, if they understand themselves, and have a suitable code of military laws, will make a good army, if you give them human nature only to work upon. It behoves you all, then, to look out. I do not mean this as a censure, but as a stimulus. I hope to hear from you often; and wishing you as many laurels as you please, I remain your friend.”
General Green continued to write as he had done the year before. He repeated his conviction that the game was desperate, though this would make no difference in his resolution to see it out. He likewise alluded to the low opinion of the military officers, understood to be entertained by Mr. Adams, in a manner which led to the following long and bold letter:—
“I am not yet entirely convinced that we are playing a desperate game, though I must confess that my feelings are somewhat less sanguine than they were last June. This diminution of confidence is owing to disappointment. I then expected that the enemy would have seen two or three Bunker Hills between the point of Long Island and the banks of the Delaware River. Two or three such actions would have answered my purpose. Perhaps one alone.
“I have derived consolation, however, from these disappointments, because the people have discovered a patience under them greater than might have been expected. It was not very surprising to me that our troops should fly in certain situations, and abandon lines of such extent, at the sudden appearance of a formidable enemy in unexpected places, because I had learned from Marshal Saxe and from others that such behavior was not only common, but almost constant, among the best regular troops. But there was reason to apprehend that the people would be seized with such a panic upon such a series of ill success, that in the fright and confusion whole States would have revolted, instead of a few paltry individuals; whereas every State has stood firm, and even the most confused and wavering of them have gained strength and improved in order under all this adversity. I therefore do not yet despair.
“You say you ‘are sensible I have not the most exalted opinion of our generals.’ From this expression I suspect that some busybody has been endeavoring to do mischief by misrepresentation. Be this as it may, I am generally so well satisfied in my own opinions as to avow them.
“I do not expect to see characters, either among the statesmen or the soldiers of a young and tender State like ours, equal to some who were bred to the contemplation of great objects from their childhood in older and more powerful nations. Our education, our travel, our experience have not been equal to the production of such characters, whatever our genius may be, which I have no reason to suspect to be less than that of any nation under the sun. I do not expect to see an Epaminondas, to be sure; because, in the opinion of Dr. Swift, all the ages of the world have produced but six such characters, which makes the chances much against our seeing any such. When such shall appear, I shall certainly have an exalted opinion.
“Notwithstanding this, I have a sincere esteem of our general officers, taken together as a body; and believe them, upon the whole, the best men for the purpose that America affords. I think them gentlemen of as good sense, education, morals, taste, and spirit as any we can find; and if this opinion of them is not exalted enough, I am sorry for it, but cannot help it. I hope, however, that my opinion, as well as that of the world in general, will be somewhat more sublimated before next winter. I do assure you, that two or three Bunker Hill battles, although they might be as unsuccessful as that was, would do it. I lament the inexperience of all of them, and I am sure they have all reason to lament mine. But not to disguise my sentiments at all, there are some of them, particularly from New England, that I begin to think quite unequal to the high command they hold.
“It is very true that ‘success generally marks the man of wisdom,’ and, in some instances, injustice is done to unsuccessful merit. But still, it is generally true that success is a mark of wisdom, and that misfortunes are owing to misconduct. The sense of mankind has uniformly supported this opinion, and therefore I cannot but think it just. The same sense has uniformly attributed the ill success of armies to the incapacity or other imperfections of the general officers, a truth which I have sometimes presumed to hint to some of our general officers, with whom I could make so free. There seems to be justice in this, because the glory of successful wars is as uniformly attributed to them.
“I shall join with you very cheerfully in ‘burying past errors,’ and in wishing to ‘concert and execute the most effectual measures to free America from her cruel oppressors.’
“You ask why General Lee is denied his request.1 You ask, Can any injury arise? Will it reflect any dishonor upon congress? I do not know that it would reflect any dishonor, nor was it refused upon that principle. But congress was of opinion that great injuries would arise. It would take up too much time to recapitulate all the arguments which were used upon occasion of his letter. But congress was never more unanimous than upon that question. Nobody, I believe, would have objected against a conference concerning his private affairs or his particular case. But it was inconceivable that a conference should be necessary upon such subjects. Any thing relative to these might have been conveyed by letter. But it appears to be an artful stratagem of the two grateful brothers to hold up to the public view the phantom of a negotiation, in order to give spirits and courage to the Tories, to distract and divide the Whigs at a critical moment, when the utmost exertions are necessary to draw together an army. They meant, further, to amuse opposition in England, and to amuse foreign nations by this manœuvre, as well as the Whigs in America, and I confess it is not without indignation that I see such a man as Lee suffer himself to be duped by their policy so far as to become the instrument of it, as Sullivan was upon a former occasion. The words of the Count La Tour, upon a similar occasion, ought to be adopted by us.1 ‘Remember that now there is room neither for repentance nor for pardon. We must no longer reason nor deliberate. We only want concord and steadiness. The lot is cast. If we prove victorious, we shall be a just, free, and sovereign people. If we are conquered, we shall be traitors, perjured persons, and rebels.’
“But further. We see what use government and the two houses make of the former conference with Lord Howe. What a storm in England they are endeavoring to raise against us from that circumstance.
“But another thing. We have undoubted intelligence from Europe that the ambassadors and other instruments of the British ministry at foreign courts made the worst use of the former conference. That conference did us a great and essential injury at the French court, you may depend upon it. Lord Howe knows it, and wishes to repeat it.
“Congress is under no concern about any use that the disaffected can make of this refusal. They would have made the worst use of a conference. As to any terms of peace, look into the speech to both Houses, the answers of both Houses. Look into the proclamations. It is needless to enumerate particulars which prove that the Howes have no power but to murder or disgrace us.
“The retaliation that is to be practised on Lee’s account, was determined on when I was absent, so that I can give no account of the reasons for that measure. Yet I have no doubt of the right; and as to the disagreeable consequences you mention, these, I hope and presume, will not take place. If they do, they will be wholly chargeable on the enemy. The end of retaliation is to prevent a repetition of the injury. A threat of retaliation is to prevent an injury, and it seldom fails of its design. In Lee’s case, I am confident, it will secure him good treatment. If Lee’s confinement is not strict, that of Campbell and the Hessians ought not to be. The intention was that they should be treated exactly as Lee is.
“Our late promotions may possibly give disgust; but that cannot be avoided. This delicate point of honor, which is really one of the most putrid corruptions of absolute monarchy, I mean the honor of maintaining a rank superior to abler men, I mean the honor of preferring a single step of promotion to the service of the public, must be bridled. It is incompatible with republican principles. I hope, for my own part, that congress will elect annually all the general officers. If, in consequence of this, some great men should be obliged, at the year’s end, to go home and serve their country in some other capacity, not less necessary, and better adapted to their genius, I do not think the public would be ruined. Perhaps it would be no harm. The officers of the army ought to consider that the rank, the dignity, and the rights of whole States are of more importance than this point of honor; more, indeed, than the solid glory of any particular officer. The States insist, with great justice and sound policy, on having a share of the general officers in some proportion to the quotas of troops they are to raise. This principle has occasioned many of our late promotions, and it ought to satisfy gentlemen. But if it does not, they, as well as the public, must abide the consequences of their discontent.
“I shall at all times think myself happy to hear from you, my dear Sir, and to give the utmost attention to whatever you may suggest. I hope I shall not often trouble you to read so long a lurry of small talk.”
One of the most difficult portions of the duty of the board of war was to maintain the authority of congress in the disputes which were constantly taking place among the general officers. On the 15th of March, the board reported resolutions of censure upon General Schuyler, for the tone taken by him in his letters to congress. They were adopted, and are recorded in the journal of that day. But this incident did not compare in difficulty with that created by the concerted threats of resignation made by Green, Knox, and Sullivan, all of them confidential correspondents of Mr. Adams, upon the bare rumor that Ducoudray, the French engineer, engaged, without authority, by Silas Deane in France, was about to be set over their heads. This act was the more remarkable on the part of Green, as he had, more than a month before, in a private letter to Mr. Adams, protested with great freedom against it, and had received private assurances from him that congress was in no disposition to sanction the contract. The event caused Mr. Adams great pain, as he had a strong partiality for that officer. Nevertheless, he did not hesitate to address him a frank remonstrance, and to place before him at once the alternative of withdrawing his act, or of giving in his resignation. In spirit, it is so similar to the resolution which congress unanimously adopted, that there can be little doubt the latter was equally his. Congress voted:—
“That the President transmit to General Washington copies of the letters from Generals Sullivan, Green, and Knox to congress, with directions to him to let those officers know that congress consider the said letters as an attempt to influence their decisions, an invasion of the liberties of the people, and indicating a want of confidence in the justice of congress; that it is expected by congress the said officers will make proper acknowledgments for an interference of so dangerous a tendency; but if any of those officers are unwilling to serve their country under the authority of congress, they shall be at liberty to resign their commissions, and retire.”
It does not appear that any of them made the apology expected. Green never answered Mr. Adams’s private letter, nor did he resume the correspondence. The officers did not, however, resign their posts, and congress, in a few days, decided not to ratify Mr. Deane’s engagement, so that the difficulty was removed. Considering the helpless situation of congress, it is quite surprising that they should have succeeded even so well as they did, in maintaining their influence over the army. The current of late years has been setting against them, as if they, as a body, had failed in their duty, and had consumed the time, which they should have spent in active support of the war, in maturing factious combinations against the commander-in-chief. There is no just foundation for these strictures, however they may apply to individual members. The army, although at heart patriotic, was all the time filled with personal jealousies and discontents, which nothing kept within reasonable bounds but the impassible moderation of Washington. Herein it was that he saved the country, far more than by any act of his military campaigns. Neither is it any cause of wonder or censure, that the patriots in congress, who had not yet had any decisive experience of his true qualities, should have viewed with much uneasiness the power which circumstances were accumulating in his hands. History had no lesson to prompt confidence in him, and, on the other hand, it was full of warnings. In this light, the attempt, whilst organizing another army in the north, to raise up a second chief, as a resource, in case of failure with the first, must be viewed as a measure not without much precautionary wisdom. The conception, probably, belonged to Samuel Adams, who, in the absence of his kinsman, had been added to the board of war; but it was actively promoted by both. The consequence was the removal of Schuyler, who, in spite of his useful services, had become obnoxious to New England, the establishment of General Gates in command of the army, largely composed of the New England forces summoned to resist Burgoyne, and the prosecution of the northern campaign. This constituted one of the great labors of the summer of 1777, labors which cut off Mr. Adams from the ability to keep copies of his letters and to continue his diary, to such a degree that it is impossible here to give the evidence to show their extent.
Congress remained but a short time at Baltimore. Yet their return to Philadelphia was not destined to be permanent. Early in August Mr. Adams foresaw that they would be driven away by Howe, and prepared his wife for it in the following lively way:—
“Do not be anxious for my safety. If Howe comes here, I shall run away, I suppose, with the rest. We are too brittle ware, you know, to stand the dashing of balls and bombs. I wonder upon what principle the Roman senators refused to fly from the Gauls, and determined to sit, with their ivory staves and hoary beards, in the porticos of their houses, until the enemy entered the city, and, although they confessed they resembled the gods, put them to the sword. I should not choose to indulge this sort of dignity; but I confess myself so much injured by these barbarian Britons, that I have a strong inclination to meet them in the field. This is not revenge, I believe, but there is something sweet and delicious in the contemplation of it. There is in our hearts an indignation against wrong, that is righteous and benevolent, and he who is destitute of it, is defective in the balance of his affections, and in his moral character.”
His spirit was not cast down, however, by the imminent danger. Thus he speculates, in another letter:—
“The moments are critical here. We know not but the next will bring us an account of a general engagement begun; and when once begun, we know not how it will end, for the battle is not always to the strong. The events of war are uncertain. All that we can do is to pray, as I do most devoutly, that we may be victorious, at least that we may not be vanquished. But if it should be the will of Heaven that our army should be defeated, our artillery lost, our best generals killed, and Philadelphia fall into Mr. Howe’s hands, still, America is not conquered. America would yet be possessed of great resources, and capable of great exertions, as mankind would see. It may, for what I know, be the design of Providence that this should be the case; because it would only lay the foundations of American independence deeper, and cement them stronger. It would cure Americans of their vicious, and luxurious, and effeminate appetites, passions, and habits, a more dangerous army to American liberty than Mr. Howe’s.”
Although the result was not quite so bad as here apprehended, it was bad enough. Before daylight of the morning of the 19th of September, news came from the commander-in-chief that the British had it in their power, if they pleased, to enter Philadelphia forthwith. Not at all unprepared for this, Mr. Adams was up betimes, mounted his horse, and in company with his friend, Marchant, a delegate from Rhode Island, arrived early that day at Trenton. Two days later they resumed their journey, passing through Easton, Bethlehem, and Reading, to Lancaster, in Pennsylvania, at which last place congress reassembled on the 27th. But finding this place not convenient, they passed on the next day to York. The course had been circuitous enough, more than doubling the direct distance between the ends of the journey, but it was attended with no annoyance from the enemy, and it enabled the members to keep an eye upon the transportation of the public papers. Arrived at York, Mr. Adams found comfortable quarters in the house of General Roberdeau, one of the Pennsylvania delegates, “an Israelite indeed,” and he assured his wife that his spirit was not the worse for the loss of Philadelphia.
Yet the state of things was rather gloomy. General Howe had made his way to that city with little difficulty. The disaffection prevailing in the lower counties had become manifest, the moment it could avail itself of British protection. Washington had failed to make good his ground of defence, and there was every reason to believe that the seaboard of the Middle States must henceforth be entirely abandoned. The number of members now assembled, upon whom devolved the responsibility of continuing the struggle, had become quite small, seldom exceeding thirty, often falling as low as twenty-three. The duties to be performed by this handful were never heavier. They acted as administrative, and executive, and judicial officers, not less than as legislators. The country has retained a very feeble idea of their labors, and historians, led away by the more stirring events of the battle-field, have by no means done justice to the intellectual and moral qualities that were giving, at this time, its shape and destiny to the systematic independence which was the object of the struggle. Mr. Adams still remained at the head of the board of war, which, by reason of the severity of its labors, had been more than once enlarged, but this did not save him from the necessity of taking his turn in other departments. A great proportion of the whole number of members were enrolled in the service of the war and treasury committees; but there was another, charged with the correspondence from abroad, which was every day growing in importance; and still another had been established to hear and decide upon appeals from the admiralty courts. Of such a committee Mr. Adams, from his professional fitness, almost unavoidably became a member, and he was ultimately made its chairman. It is no cause for surprise, then, that he should say to his wife that he was “oppressed with public cares.” But he was not discouraged.
“I have long foreseen,” he wrote, “that we should be brought down to a great degree of depression before the people of America would be convinced of their real danger, of the true causes of it, and be stimulated to take the necessary steps for a reformation. Government and law in the States, large taxation and strict discipline in our armies, are the only things wanting as human means. These, with the blessings of Heaven, will certainly produce glory, triumph, liberty, and safety, and peace. And nothing but these will do.”
One branch of the great system, originally contemplated, yet remained incomplete. The plan of confederation, the main spring of the united movement of the States, had not been brought to any positive shape. The pressure of subjects demanding an immediate decision, had interposed delays that had been increased by the differences of opinion naturally springing out of a topic so momentous. In this way, fifteen months had been suffered to intervene, and the confederation still remained an undetermined question. Nor yet had the time been altogether lost. At intervals, the main principles at the foundation of the system had been presented for consideration, freely discussed, and permanently settled. The territorial limits of the States, their rights of representation, and liabilities to be taxed, had been the most difficult points to be harmoniously arranged. Through all these questions Mr. Adams had taken an active and leading part in debate. Sometimes he was fortunate enough to agree with the greater number, and at others he adhered to his own judgment against that even of his immediate colleagues and friends. Although most of the final votes were taken after the adjournment to York, there is no trace left of any discussions at that place. Upon one point Mr. Adams was steady in his opposition to the last. He could not consent to the seventeenth article, which provided that the States should have an equal vote in congress without regard to their extent or population. In this he stood alone among the delegates of the States north of Virginia. He likewise stood alone in voting for a representation apportioned to population, each delegate of which should have a separate vote. Again he so stood in favor of a representation proportioned to the annual contributions of the States to the federal treasury. In the first two cases, at least, there can be little doubt at this time of the correctness of his views. No permanency could have been obtained by any plan which would forever continue the power of New York and Pennsylvania on the same level with that of Delaware and Rhode Island. Very justly did he immediately prognosticate, from this decision, the speedy failure of the whole experiment. Mr. Marchant, a delegate present, has described the occasion, and thus rescued from oblivion one of the most characteristic anecdotes that has been told of him.1 Upon another question he stood, in conjunction with the rest of New England, in opposition to all the other members but two. That question touched the proper apportionment of the public charges. The plan proposed and adopted was to base it exclusively upon land and buildings. New England would have extended it to other property, including in the term African slaves. The other States, in which this description of population was mostly found, preferred then to exempt themselves from charge by considering them as exclusively persons. This distinction should always be kept in mind, in connection with the language of the constitution, framed eleven years afterwards.
The confederation, from its outset, was placed on a wrong basis. It was a league of States, creating a mere outward form of sovereignty, with all effective powers reserved to themselves. The consequence naturally followed that the States, never having advanced to the recognition of any common system of performing obligations, gradually receded to the fulfilment of none at all. This might have been, and probably was, foreseen by some of those concerned in the construction of it. And yet they were right in thinking the experiment worth making. In the then state of opinion, there is no reason for believing that any thing better could have been obtained. The jealousies between the States were not to be overcome by any thing short of a surrender, on the part of the large ones, of their undefined claims to territory, and an organization of the ceded lands in a separate and distinct shape. These were objects which the confederated system secured, and which removed obstacles and paved the way to something better. But over and above the advantages gained from this positive action, there were others, of not less importance, drawn from the experience obtained of its negative character. The people of the thirteen States needed the conviction that such a plan would not do, before they could be persuaded to proceed to a better. This was purchased by the sacrifice of ten years, a short period in the progress of nations. And even this interval was partially improved; for at least that portion of it devoted to the war was not passed without favoring the steady growth of a national spirit and a decline of local prejudices, through the union of the common forces, raised without discrimination, and contending for a common cause.
Whilst engaged in perfecting the details of this experiment, and in the midst of the gloom caused by the misfortunes in eastern Pennsylvania, came a ray of light from the north. For nearly a week it appeared so doubtfully as to cause only painful anxiety. On the 24th of October, Mr. Adams wrote thus:—
“From last Sunday to this moment, Friday afternoon, four o’clock, we have been in a state of tormenting uncertainty concerning our affairs at the northward. On Sunday, we had news from the committee of Albany, through Governor Clinton and General Washington, of a capitulation of Burgoyne and his whole army. To this moment we have no express from Gates, nor any authentic confirmation.”
The express-rider, Wilkinson, though not so expeditious as he should have been, came at last, and the news was all and more than all that was hoped for. To Mr. Adams it was particularly grateful, inasmuch as it redeemed the reputation of the New England troops. It was clear that the work of subjugation was to begin anew. So far the congress felt that they had cause for profound congratulation. But not one of the members imagined, neither has it, until very lately, come to light, that this event made the turning-point in the struggle. It determined the wavering counsels of France to an alliance, which, in its turn, baffled Lord North’s last scheme of conciliation by sending commissioners, and filled him with despair. From this date he was no more a responsible minister, although the facility of his nature led him to consent, for several years longer, to appear one. The obstinacy of the sovereign demanded a further perseverance in the war, and, merely to please him, North sacrificed his own convictions and the lives of thousands of his fellow-beings. This is the feature of the character of that minister, which should bring down upon him the most unequivocal condemnation. The conscientious statesman, who acts upon positive ideas, may, indeed, prove the cause of many misfortunes to his country from mistaking his policy, but when convinced of error, he will either frankly retrace his steps or give way to others disposed to adopt a different system. In no case will he consent to carry on the government, for a moment, upon measures, in the favorable issue of which he has lost his faith. Had Lord North been of this class, he would have insisted upon the monarch’s accepting his resignation forthwith. Although the issue of such a decision might not have been immediate peace, at any rate it would have removed from his shoulders the burden of all later consequences of perseverance in a hopeless war.
But Lord North was not of the sensitive race who study responsibility in the schools. He was of those, not rare in every country, who boast of being practical statesmen; in other words, who do what is in the line of their official duty without looking before or after, without caring nicely to analyze the reasons for or against any part of the measures, which accident or power prescribes. From this time forward he consented to remain prime minister so long as the king could command a majority in parliament, although he had no belief in the ability to recover the object for which the war was first waged, and though he foresaw that its prolongation might involve an expansion of the struggle over France and perhaps other great powers of Europe. More of the evils of public measures are chargeable to the weakness than to the wickedness of statesmen. The inability of Lord North to resist the solicitations of a monarch whose reason was even then tottering on its throne, was what upheld a policy which immediately wasted millions of the earnings of honest labor, and thousands of precious lives, in four of the most civilized and Christian countries of the globe, and the later effects of which, in embroiling the peace of nations and shaking the foundations of government itself, great as they have already proved, have as yet been but imperfectly developed.1
All these things were, however, to Mr. Adams as a sealed book, at the moment when he prayed for leave of absence from congress to visit his home, which he had not seen since the beginning of the year, and to look after his affairs, his children, and his business. He began, indeed, to feel as if the time had come when he might be entirely released from this scene of labor, and return to the practice of his profession, once more open to receive him. The labors to which he had at first devoted himself, were, in a degree, accomplished. Independence, the first and main object, had been declared; and the capture of Burgoyne’s army had rendered the prospect of its ultimate establishment probable, if not sure. The practice of self-government had been earnestly entered upon, in accordance with his views, in many of the States, and the general bond of a confederation between them all had been at last matured, and submitted to their approval by congress. All the measures necessary to solicit alliances with foreign states had likewise been adopted, a favorable issue from which, no longer dependent upon them, was yet reasonably anticipated, at least in the case of France, from the accounts transmitted by the commissioners. Even the management of the war was assuming a more pleasing aspect. Nothing was left to do but to go on in the course marked out, and, with the smiles of Providence, a favorable issue of the adventurous experiment might be fairly hoped for. The moment was then propitious for retreat from this scene upon which he had been acting almost without respite for nearly four years. From being one of the most feared and distrusted of the members, he had, by degrees, risen to a position of high and leading influence. From the Declaration of Independence his policy had been, undisputedly, in the ascendant. If his boldness had done much to accelerate that crisis, his never-doubting confidence had been scarcely less effective, afterwards, in sustaining the spirit of the assembly under the many and grievous discouragements of the unequal struggle. It was of him that one of its members, this year, deliberately wrote to Dr. Gordon, afterwards the historian of the war, in these words: “I never can think we shall finally fail of success while Heaven continues to the congress the life and abilities of Mr. John Adams. He is equal to the controversy in all its stages. He stood upon the shoulders of the whole congress when reconciliation was the wish of all America. He was equally conspicuous in cutting the knot which tied the colonies to Great Britain. In a word, I deliver to you the opinion of every man in the House, when I add that he possesses the clearest head and firmest heart of any man in the congress.”
Thus far the union of Virginia and Massachusetts, with Pennsylvania since July, 1776, originally centred around the Lees and the Adamses, had continued, and the success of the northern army, which, in the end, caused the decline of its power, might, for the moment, be regarded as placing it at its point of culmination. Had the subject of this memoir been of those who studiously consult the dignity of historical attitude, in regulating their public career, he could not have selected a more appropriate hour to retire. But, in truth, he was not at all of this sort. His single idea in returning home, was that his term of service was fairly over, and others might now come in to take their share of the labor. To his profession, his main dependence for the future as it had been prior to the troubles, he was determined to keep open a way. His domestic attachments were altogether too strong to permit him to watch, without uneasiness, the lapse of years spent in absence and under a steady decline of his resources for the support and education of his children. It was such motives as these, that were leading him to the decision to quit congress, certainly for a time, perhaps forever, when an event unexpectedly occurred, which, whilst it as effectually put an end to his congressional career, transferred his public service to a new scene, and a widely different and more extended range of action.
On the 11th of November, Samuel and John Adams set out from York together, on their way home. They had been steadily acting in concert, for the same objects, ever since the day of their appearance in Philadelphia, in 1774, and fortune had thus far singularly smiled on their labors. More than once, in that time, the maintenance of the policy of Massachusetts itself had depended upon them alone; and the tone of the congress had ever been, to a great extent, affected by that of Massachusetts. The two men were, in many respects, different from each other; and yet, in some, they were singularly alike. The same strength of will and earnestness of purpose; the same purity of public motive and of private life. If the one was more remarkable for the comprehensiveness of his speculation, the other excelled in the faculty of interweaving his theory with the passions and principles of those associated with him. If the one was the most powerful in debate, the other was the most persuasive in counsel. John Adams had already done his work. A longer stay in the same sphere would not have been productive of services which might not equally be rendered by a person of inferior powers. Samuel Adams still remained to infuse into the general councils the same tenacity of purpose which had marked the policy of his people from the day that he had been admitted to their confidence. Although the kinsmen were about to part, it was only the more effectively to carry out the great objects for which both had been drawn into action. Neither was it until all of them had been secured, until victory had crowned the efforts for American independence, that those diversities of temperament which mark the earlier, reappear in the later period of their career. It needed the conjoint effort of the minds and hearts of both to set the stamp of Massachusetts upon the great movement of the western hemisphere, and accordingly they were earnestly, strongly, and perseveringly combined to that end. There are many honorable pages in the annals of the commonwealth; none in which the type of her character is more shiningly illustrated than by the revolutionary services of these two of her sons.
[1 ]Vol. ix. p. 443.
[1 ]The sentence expressing this opinion, and the injunction of secrecy upon Franklin, do not appear in the papers as printed in the Diplomatic Correspondence of the Revolution, vol. ii. p. 7. They are found in Force’s American Archives, 4th series, vol. iv. pp. 1125-1126.
[1 ]General Charles Lee, after he was taken prisoner, through Richard Henry Lee and his brother Francis, then in congress, made a request to that body that two or three gentlemen should be sent to New York to confer with him “on matters deeply interesting to him, and full as much to the public.” This application was made with the knowledge and consent of the brothers Howe. Congress declined to grant the request, for the reasons stated above. Charles Lee’s letter and Richard Henry’s reply are to be found in Lee’s Memoir of R. H. Lee, vol. i. pp. 180, 181.
[1 ]“The princes of the union were not diligent enough in preparing for war. They suffered themselves to be amused with proposals of accommodation. They gave the League time to bring together great forces, and, after that, they could no longer brave it. They committed the fault, which is very common in civil wars, namely, that people endeavor to save appearances. If a party would save appearances, they must lie quiet; but if they will not lie quiet, they must push things to an extremity, without keeping any measures. It rarely happens but that otherwise they are at once both criminal and unfortunate.”
[1 ]Vol. iii. p. 70, note.
[1 ]The strictures of Lord Brougham, upon this behavior of Lord North, are palpably just. The significant thing is, his incidental admission that his maxims have not generally guided the action of public men in Great Britain.