Frustrated by Articles of Confederation, America’s Credit and Inability to Regulate Commerce, Adams Fails to Negotiate Treaty with Britain
“A more disagreable Situation than mine no Man ever held in Life…. Making brick without Straw, which has been my Employment ever since I have been in Europe…was never reckoned an easy, or pleasant Task, from the Days of the Israelites in Egypt…”
In London to negotiate a commercial treaty with Britain, Adams writes of his inability to succeed with the British ministry because the states are not strong enough to support their own credit and regulate their own trade. Addressing his critics in Congress, Adams says anyone who thinks he can do better is welcome to his job.
JOHN ADAMS. Autograph Letter Signed, to Elbridge Gerry, May 24, 1786, Grosvenor Square [London]. 4 pp., 7⅞ x 12⅝ in. #21463 $90,000
Grosvenor Square May 24, 1786
I have just now received your Favour of the 12th of April. The arrets I inclosed to [Rufus] King, to be delivered to you, if not at New York, and to be sent to you if gone to N. England, unless he should have occasion to use them in Congress. I now inclose you some Papers relating to the British Whale Fisheries by which you will see what forced Plants they are, and how easily we may rival them. When you have made your Speculations on them will you be so good as to send them to King.
The issue of all my “Negotiations respecting the Interest of British Debts, during the War, and respecting every Thing else, is just nothing at all. I have done all in my Power to do to no purpose, and I tell you freely, that the British Ministry will do nothing about this or any Thing else until the States Shall Support their Credit, and regulate their own trade, in a manner that shall shew them that it is not left to British Merchants and Politicians to manage as they please. Nor then in my opinion will they ever intermeddle, or agree to relinquish the Interest. It will finally be left to every Debtor to make the best agreement he can with his Creditor, or to dispute it at Law, and avoid the Payment of the Interest by the Verdict of a Jury. If the juries give it against our Merchants, they will never find any other Remedy. As to any Clamour that may be raised by my concealed competitors, it will do them no good nor me any harm, if they want my Place, and Congress give it them it will be with my hearty consent, without any Clamour at all. A more disagreable Situation than mine no Man ever held in Life and whoever succeeds me, will not find it more pleasant.
If any one thinks he can do better in mercy, let him put up, and if anybody thinks of any other who can do more let him vote for him in the name of freedom. Old as I am, I had rather draw Writs and Pleas in abatement than do suffer what is now my Lot. Making brick without Straw, which has been my Employment ever since I have been in Europe, and is more so now than ever, was never reckoned an easy, or pleasant Task, from the Days of the Israelites in Egypt to this moment. Untill I came to England I was as little apprised as you of the Extent of this evil of Interest. It was too carefully concealed, by American Debtors, until it was past a Remedy. The time is long since perfectly past, for doing any Thing in the Country, and another opportunity will never arrive, until after a long and arduous Struggle.
You and our Friend King, by marrying the two finest Girls in New York, are in a way to make federal Ideas, grow, and may they prosper untill Congress shall have the Power and the Will, to form a System, which shall bring this Country to think. You may depend upon it every Man who expects any Thing from my Negotiations will be disappointed. I am not an Idler. My whole Time is employed to the utmost of my Strength and Capacity, and to no more purpose, than if I were at Horse Races or State Plays, and this will assuredly continue to be the Case, until the Trade and Revennue of the Country shall be made to feel the Effect of the Conduct of Congress and the States in regulating their Trade. – if it is not thought worth while to continue me here until that event takes Place, I am myself fully of that mind, and am quite prepared to be recalled.
With great Esteem and Affection, your / Friend
[Docketing:] London Leter / His Excy Mr. Adams / 24 May 1786
Adams, struggling in London to negotiate a commercial treaty with Britain, offers a penetrating analysis of the failure of government under the Articles of Confederation to establish a creditable system of regulating trade and finances. He cannot be taken seriously by the British government in his efforts until the power of financial regulation is assumed by Congress. Adams feels his own time and effort are wasted, and in frustration tells Gerry that he would gladly be recalled. However, Adams remained as minister to London until 1788. Despite criticism from Congress, no one took up Adams’s offer to replace him.
When Adams learned of Shay’s Rebellion—an armed uprising by small farmers in Massachusetts who rebelled against the burdens of taxes and overwhelming debt— in the fall of 1786, his frustration boiled over. He wrote his famous attack on the Articles of Confederation, called Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America... (1787). Adams was still abroad when the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in May 1787 and finally brought “this country to think” about a new political system. But his Defence was crucial to the ratification of the new charter.
Adams closes the letter by jibing Gerry and their friend Rufus King for marrying “the two finest Girls in New York,” wealthy women who could provide the resources to help their husbands promote the “federal Ideas” that Adams believed could set the country on its proper path.
Elbridge Thomas Gerry (1744-1814) was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and a delegate from Massachusetts to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He refused to sign the Constitution without a Bill of Rights. Later he was elected governor of Massachusetts and then served as vice president under James Madison. Gerry’s reputation became tarnished when he engaged in redistricting to favor the political party in power, which coined the term gerrymandering.