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John Adams Repeats Good Battle News Including Capture of 55 British Ships, but Warns Not to Expect Peace: “The Heads of a King and Ministers is at Stake...”
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“You will not mistake this for a Promise or an Hope of Peace. This cannot be. The Heads of a King and Ministers is at Stake ... the Capture of 55 ships at once by the combined Fleets of France and Spain … have cast down the English Cause to such a degree, as to put them upon the compassionate List, even with some who detest their Tyranny.” 

On the same day that John Adams received news that his fundraising mission to the Netherlands had been approved by Congress, he received more qualified news from William Churchill Houston, a member of Congress from New Jersey. Houston’s letter, sent from Philadelphia on July 11, 1780, informed Adams of Charleston’s occupation by the British, but also of a reawakening of patriotic spirit “that is fast pervading the whole Comunity, a Spirit which enlivens and encreases every Day.”[1] On September 17, Adams responded to Houston in the letter offered here, and presented him with the more immediate news of military victory.

JOHN ADAMS. Autograph Letter Signed, to William Churchill Houston. Amsterdam, Netherlands, September 17, 1780. 2 pp., with integral blank with recipient’s docket, 7½ x 9 in.

Inventory #23797       Price: $46,500

Complete Transcript

                                                                        Amsterdam Septr. 17. 1780

Sir

            Last night Mr. Dana[2] arrived here, from Paris and brought me your Favour of the 11. of July. You cannot imagine, Sir how much Pleasure, this Letter gave me. I shall make a good Use of this and every other authentic Information, in order to prevent the unfavourable Impressions, you are aware of. It has been my greatest Affliction Since I have been in Europe that I have had so seldom Letters from my friends, or Intelligence from America of any Kind. That Business which is every Bodeys, is never done. Most of the Letters I receive tell me, “you will be so fully informed, both officially, and by your other Friends, that I shall not trouble you with public Affairs.” And thus it is that I learn, nothing. My Friend Lovel,[3] indeed remembers me, now and then, and considering his indefatigable Labours in other Things, is very good. Heaven reward him for his Virtues, Exertions and sufferings! And Earth too Say I!

            General Greens[4] Report, of Kniphausens[5] Exploit is much admired in Europe. Yet I am almost wicked enough to wish that even my friend Green had been beaten, because his defeat would have insured the Captivity of Kniphausen and all his Banditti.

            The late Accounts from America, from all Quarters, have had a good Effect in Europe. And the Capture of 55 ships at once by the combined Fleets of France and Spain, with the Captures by Don Barcelo[6] and that of the Quebec Fleet, have cast down the English Cause to such a degree, as to put them upon the compassionate List, even with some who detest their Tyranny.

You will not mistake this for a Promise or an Hope of Peace. This cannot be. The Heads of a King and Ministers is at Stake, in the negotiation for Peace, at least they Suspect so. The new Parliament, will not alter the System, unless it should make it more insidious.

            As to Money, I can promise nothing but my Utmost Exertions to procure it. It is lucky that I had been here 4 or 5 Weeks before my Commission arrived, because I have had an opportunity to reconnoitre the Country.

            Mr. Searle,[7] shall have every Attention and Assistance, from me that may be in my Power.

I most earnestly request the Continuance of your Correspondence, and remain, with the highest Esteem, sir your very humble svt

                                                                        John Adams

In 1780, Adams travelled to Holland on a mission to secure war financing. A Massachusetts Yankee who had struggled with the torturous intrigue of the French Court two years earlier, Adams proved much more effective in Amsterdam. On September 16, Francis Dana arrived there from Paris with two letters for Adams. The first brought news that Congress had approved Adams’ mission. The second, from William Churchill Houston, informed Adams of the loss of Charleston, but also emphasized an unprecedented revival of patriotism. Adams’s return of optimistic news in this letter was well placed. Spain had joined the war on the American side in 1779, and Barceló—a lieutenant general in the Spanish armada—captured several English ships with provisions headed for the British colony at Gibraltar. Meanwhile, a combined Spanish and French fleet off the coasts of France and Spain had “taken almost the whole of a fleet … to the amount of about 50” English ships.[8]

For Adams in Holland, military victories translated into investor confidence. His negotiations came to fruition after sixteen months, securing both loans and a treaty with the Dutch. Although the loans were not obtained until after the war, they proved important in establishing the new nation’s credit. Dutch recognition of the United States as an independent nation also provided critical international legitimacy.

William Churchill Houston (1746-1788), was born in South Carolina, the son of Scots-Irish immigrants. He graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1768, andmet John Adams in 1774 through his early patriot activities. In 1779, he was chosen as a delegate to Congress from New Jersey. In Congress, he applied his mathematical skills to issues of public finance and taxation. Houston was named a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, but left the Convention after a week due to tuberculosis, which took his life a year later.


[1] William Churchill to John Adams, July 11, 1780, in the Papers of John Adams, Vol. 9: https://goo.gl/E6QENU.

[2] Francis Dana, Massachusetts lawyer, newly appointed secretary of Adams’ diplomatic mission, and soon to be appointed American minister to Russia

[3] James Lovell, Member of Congress from Massachusetts

[4] Major General (and Quartermaster General) Nathanael Greene.

[5] Lt. General, Baron Wilhelm von Knyphausen, senior officer of Hessian troops in America.

[6] Don Antonio Barcelo commanded the Spanish squadron blockading Gibraltar. The Sept. 5, 1780 Gazette de Leyde reported his capture of 4 ships, while that of Sept. 8noted he had captured 7 ships attempting to run the blockade.

[7] Col. James Searle, member of Congress from Pennsylvania.

[8] See Theodorick Bland to St. George Tucker, Oct. 27, 1780, in Letters of the Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1989), vol. 16: 278-79.


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