President Adams Advises his Son, and Awaits News from France
“We are all in suspense … without news from Europe. We learn that General Buonaparte has been at Paris and is gone to the Congress. But we know no more.”
At the height of the war scare with France, John Adams writes to his son, Thomas Boylston Adams (1772-1832), then accompanying Adams’ eldest son, John Quincy, who had just been commissioned Minister to Prussia, a neutral power in the ongoing war between France and Britain. He encourages brevity in his correspondence, given the tense nature of European diplomacy and the seeming imminence of war between France and the United States.
JOHN ADAMS. Autograph Letter Signed as President, to son, Thomas Boylston Adams, March 1, 1798, Philadelphia, [Pa.] 3 pp., 9¾ x 8 in. #21464 $40,000
Philadelphia March 1, 1798
My dear Sir
I congratulate you on your Passage to Hamburgh and your Journey to Berlin. Pray how does that Country please you?
I am almost afraid to ask you any questions about the Religion, the Government the Policy or the Morals or Manners of that or any other Country at present, least in your answers you should indulge in Speculations which might, if your Letters should be intercepted, give offence. But the Architecture, Painting Statuary in short the fine arts and the belles letters surely may be discanted on with Safety. The agriculture too will be pleasing, the roads, the internal commerce &c.
You will now make yourself master of the German language and literature, which I hope will one day be useful to you. Mr Regal represented your situation as very desireable.  Alass! That worthy Man is no more. He has left in the minds of all his acquaintance, as pleasing Impressions as any gentleman from any part of Europe ever did in America.
We are all in Suspence. We are without news from Europe. We learn that General Buonaparte has been at Paris and is gone to the Congress. But we know no more.
If nothing happens, of a very serious nature to prevent it, I shall go to Quincy as soon as Congress rises, which will be, in June I suppose, and stay till the Fall. – You may write however to any part of America and your Letters will come to me by the post.
We have had a long cold winter it began the middle of November and a fresh snow has fallen to day.
I long for your Company but have not yet been able to find a Secretary for your Brother. Our friends are all well and not so gloomy or low spirited as you may imagine.
I am, my dear Son your affectionate
Thomas B. Adams
[Docketing:] My Father / 1 March 1798 / 17 May Recd / 15 June Acknd
In March 1798, Adams and his Cabinet received reports of the humiliation suffered by John Marshall, Charles C. Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry in Paris. French Foreign Minister Charles Talleyrand told the three diplomats through French officials indentified in the United States as “X,” “Y,” and “Z” that negotiations would not proceed unless they paid a personal bribe of $250,000. France, in the midst of war with Britain, had authorized its naval vessels to seize American shipping. A small American Navy was beginning to respond in kind in this “Quasi-War.” In hopes of avoiding open war with their old revolutionary allies, Adams had sent Marshall, Pinckney, and Gerry, but now, as of March 1798, it appeared a declaration of war might be necessary. Adams called a special session of Congress in hopes of mobilizing for war while also sending new diplomatic envoys to France. On March 16, he addressed Congress, informing them of the XYZ affair, all of which sparked the bitterest partisanship the young republic had yet seen, but also making Adams, for once in his life, “popular.”
Congress responded swiftly in April 1798, apportioning money for munitions, foundries, and harbor fortifications, empowering privateers and U.S. naval vessels to attack French ships in American waters, and creating a 10,000-man Provisional Army. The Federalist-controlled Fifth Congress went further, passing the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts and an oppressive direct tax on houses, slaves, and other property to help pay for mobilization. The “Quasi-War” with France featured many engagements on the high seas, both in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, but neither side declared war. Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the French Directory in the coup d’etat of 18 Brumaire (November 9, 1799).