When we last left the Continental Congress in Episode 222, the delegates had received word that Spain had joined with France in the war against Britain. Delegates thought this would be the final nail in the coffin for Britain, and that Congress could come to peace terms that would recognize American Independence.
I talked about the efforts by Congress to come up with a set of negotiable and non-negotiable terms on which to settle the war. With the entry of Spain into the war in 1779, many leaders hoped that Britain would be willing to bring the war to a quicker end.
New French Minister
The fall of 1779 would prove to be a major shift in Congress’ diplomatic relations with Europe. Earlier in the year, it had ended the three-man delegation in France. Originally Silas Deane had gone to France on his own. He had been joined by Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee. Eventually, Congress recalled Deane over false allegations made by Arthur Lee. Congress sent John Adams as Deane’s replacement. By early 1779, Congress gave full authority to Benjamin Franklin in France, making the roles for Adams and Lee redundant.
In the late summer of 1779, France sent a new minister to America. French minister Conrad Gérard, who had served in that role for just over a year, had requested to return to France, citing health reasons. Gérard had proven popular with the delegates, mostly working behind the scenes in private meetings. He had also developed a relationship with George Washington.
But with the war in Europe growing larger, the diplomatic post in America was a bit of a backwater. Gérard had also grown tired of the continuing fights over Silas Deane. Gérard had made abundantly clear that the charges Lee had leveled against Deane were false. A big part of Lee’s charges was that early French loans to America were actually gifts that did not need to be repaid. Gérard stressed emphatically that these were, in fact, loans, and did need to be repaid. While trying to remain neutral in what was an internal American political squabble, Gérard was clearly a supporter of Deane. While I discussed the Deane affair back in Episode 193, it’s important to remember that the battle was still raging. Congress only finally dismissed Deane in August 1779, from having to remain in Philadelphia for the hearings against him, and the parties were still fighting over compensation.
Gérard’s replacement Anne-César de La Luzerne had recently arrived in Philadelphia, taking over his duties. Luzerne came from a French noble family. He had spent most of his life in the military, rising to the rank of major general. He had briefly served as a diplomat in Bavaria, before being assigned to the United States in 1779. Luzerne was welcomed into Philadelphia society, and we will get into his exploits in future episodes.
John Adams, Minister to Britain
During this transition period with the French Minister, Congress also continued to focus on its diplomatic initiatives. One of the most important was selecting the person who would lead the direct treaty negotiations with Britain.
New England was focused on its border with Canada and the fishing rights of Newfoundland. The southern states were much more interested in their western border with Spain, and navigation of the Mississippi River. The chief treaty negotiator would have a huge influence on which interests received priority.
The New England delegates wanted John Adams to receive the appointment. Adams had recently returned to Massachusetts from France, after Congress gave full authority to Franklin to serve as minister plenipotentiary with France. Adams’ services were no longer needed in France, so he returned home on the same ship as the new French minister, Luzerne. Adams had returned to his private law practice, but also worked on a new constitution for Massachusetts, the one state that had not adopted a Constitution since declaring independence.
Adams and Franklin had not gotten along particularly well in France. The two men had very different styles of diplomacy. Adams tended to be all business, while Franklin understood that going to parties and being part of the Paris social scene was an important part of the diplomatic process. Neither Franklin nor Adams liked Arthur Lee very much. Lee had also seemed to be disliked in most of the European courts. On top of that, many in Congress thought that Lee’s false attacks on Silas Deane had created a diplomatic incident that had hurt relations with France. As a result, Lee would also be recalled to America and not given any new position, but he still had supporters in Congress and remained a point of contention.
Congress voted to give Franklin full ministerial powers in France. No longer would diplomatic relations be handled by a dysfunctional and divided committee. Franklin would be in charge of all major decisions.
The recall of Lee and the appointment of Franklin, however, left a minority in Congress rather upset. New Englanders and much of the Virginia delegation tended to support Lee, especially in the ongoing dispute with Silas Deane. The fact that John Adams of New England was also losing his position in France rankled mostly this same minority within Congress.
It was in this backdrop that Congress began debate over a minister to open negotiations with Britain. As usual, delegates were divided. Six states wanted to select John Adams to be the chief negotiator. Five states wanted to select outgoing President John Jay for the position. After some debate, the two sides reached a compromise. Adams would get the position as minister plenipotentiary to Great Britain to negotiate terms of peace. Jay would get the consolation prize, being appointed minister to Spain.
Adams had not sought out the position to which Congress appointed him. In fact, he was happy to be home in Massachusetts again, with his family and working on the state constitution. But when he received the appointment, Adams prepared to return to Europe. He would sail back to France because, even though he was tasked with negotiating with Britain, the ministry in Britain had not agreed to receive American delegates. In London, Adams was still a traitor to the crown and would be subject to arrest. Adams would have to get some diplomatic recognition in order to travel to Britain, and British authorities were not there yet. So, Adams was returning to France.
After a return home of only about three months, Adams boarded the same ship that had brought him from France to Massachusetts, for his return trip to France. Adams never made it to Philadelphia, but had received his written instructions from Congress and dutifully returned to diplomatic service.
Adams’ return journey to Europe proved rather difficult. They managed to avoid any British warships, but the vessel that carried him, the Sensible, sprang a pretty bad leak only a few days after leaving port. The crew had to man two pumps day and night to keep the ship afloat. Even Adams’ son, John Quincy, had to take a shift at the pumps in order to keep from sinking.
Given the ship’s condition, they would have been in no position to put up a fight or escape a British warship. The captain opted to avoid any British contact by sailing further south to Spain. The ship arrived safely in late December 1779. From there, Adams, his two sons: John Quincy and Charles, his aides, and the rest of his delegation had to ride mules through rocky and treacherous terrain, over the mountains that separate Spain and France. Finally after arriving in France, the delegation was able to board coaches for the rest of the ride to Paris. Adams finally arrived in mid-January 1780.
Jay to Spain
During this same time John Jay accepted his appointment as Minister to Spain and prepared for his own journey. Jay had planned to resign from Congress and to return home to New York and resume private practice. Congress’ decision to send him to Spain was met with mixed feelings. It would be a challenge, and being a Minister would mean better pay than he would receive as a delegate to Congress (one of his reasons for resigning) but Jay had no diplomatic experience and was taking on a very difficult job.
Spain had not agreed to become an ally of the United States. Spain was allied with France. France was allied with the United States, and all three were at war with Britain. That did not mean that Spain recognized American independence. It did not.
Spain and the US fought a common enemy, but did not fight together. Spanish officers in America had instructions not to work directly with the American military.
While Spain stood by its traditional ally, France, and hoped to take advantage of the weakness of its traditional enemy, Britain, Spain was reluctant to support an independent United States. We cannot forget that Spain was the largest colonizer in the Americas. Supporting a precedent for American colonies breaking away from their mother country and declaring independence would destroy Spain's economy. Further, an independent United States might inevitably push further west, threatening Spanish land west of the Mississippi River.
Congress had attempted to send Arthur Lee as a delegate to Spain in 1777. Spain had refused to receive him, at that time worried about provoking a war with Britain. Spain had a lot to lose in a war, particularly in its American colonies. Wars were expensive and risky. Spain had been caught unprepared when the Seven Years War began, resulting in its loss of Cuba and other territories. The Spanish economy also relied heavily on treasure ships full of silver and other valuables to be shipped from America to Spain each year. Open war threatened the ability to transport those valuable resources.
Spain had, of course, provided some covert military aid, and also allowed American ships to use its ports throughout the empire, hoping the ongoing rebellion would weaken Britain. But it was reluctant to jump into another war. Once Spain entered the war in 1779, at practically the begging of Frence, it was still reluctant to get too close to the United States. Spain’s primary focus seemed to be to use Britain’s distraction to retake Gibraltar, Minorca, and the Floridas.
After Spain declared War in 1779 The Governor of Cuba, Diego Jose Navarrow sent a memorandum to other Spanish officials in America trying to define Spain’s relationship to the United States.
There is no positive order of political basis for the United States of America to be seen or considered under any other concept but that of neutrality, since, not acting as subjects of Great Britain, they do not deserve our hostility; and not openly being friends of the Spanish nation, they should not benefit from our war efforts. Thus you will observe with them, their ships, and [their] vassals the orders issued last November 6, limiting aid to them to what may be demanded by the right of hospitality.
In other words, Spain and the United States were not enemies, but they were not allies either.
The United States, of course, was overjoyed that Spain entered the war against Britain. But the Continental Congress still had its own concerns. It did not particularly want Spain to regain control of the Floridas, which would put them in possible future conflict with the United States. It also had potential disputes over navigation on the Mississippi River. Of even greater concern to many delegates was that France’s treaty with Spain recognized Spain’s interest in fishing rights off Newfoundland. That was something New Englanders wanted for themselves.
It was in the fall of 1779, during the debate to send a minister to Britain, that Congress decided, once again, to send a minister to Spain. After giving Adams the post with Britain, Congress offered the diplomatic post with Spain to Jay.
Accepting the appointment, Jay submitted his resignation as President of Congress. In his place, Congress selected Samuel Huntington of Connecticut as the presiding officer. Huntington began his term in October, just after Jay’s resignation.
For his mission to Spain, Congress provided Jay with his instructions: First, beg for money. Congress hoped to get a loan of 5 million. The Congress also hoped to acquire a port in Spanish Territory on the Mississippi River, and full navigation rights of the river. More broadly, Jay was to attempt a commercial treaty with Spain, similar to that with France, allowing trade between the two countries.
Jay left for Europe only a couple of weeks after his appointment. French minister Gérard was returning to France, and Jay would accompany him. Gérard and Jay set sail for France aboard the Confederacy a ship of the Continental Navy commanded by Captain Seth Harding. Jay’s wife also accompanied him.
The trip did not get off to a good start. A storm hit the ship several days out, causing it to lose its main mast. The damaged ship was able to make it to the French island of Martinique in the West Indies, where Jay and Gérard had to find a new passage to France. The Governor of Martinique provided them with space on a ship headed for France. In the end, the ship ended up sailing directly to Spain to avoid the British Navy. Jay arrived in Cadiz in January of 1780.
The Court of King Carlos III refused to recognize Jay’s credentials. The Spanish Court did, however, permit him to remain in Spain and to meet with some key officials in the government. I’ll leave the details about Jay’s years in Spain for a future episode, but Jay’s career as a diplomat had begun.
Laurens to the Netherlands
Meanwhile, Congress had one more important appointment to make that fall. In October, 1779, Congress sent a delegate to the Netherlands. They chose Henry Laurens to be the first American Minister to that country.
The Netherlands was a tricky diplomatic situation. The Dutch Republic, as it was known, was ruled by a group of nobility, who essentially cooperated with one another on matters of national policy. In truth, the leaders of the local states, known as stadtholders, were all members of one noble family, the House of Orange. By the 1770’s almost all the states were ruled by a single member of that family, William V.
Traditionally, the Netherlands tended to ally itself with Britain in wars against France and Spain. In this case, the Netherlands remained neutral. It did not formally recognize American independence,
Since the rebellion in America began, Dutch merchants were selling arms and gunpowder to the colonies. Dutch ports received American ships. Dutch bankers had provided the Americans with loans. I mentioned in a recent episode that the Dutch had given protection to John Paul Jones after he captured the British ship Serapis, and had allowed him to repair and sail his new prize away from a Dutch port. So, even if the Dutch government officially remained neutral, it tolerated a great deal of business that benefited the American cause.
Congress hoped to build an alliance with the Netherlands. But the primary goal of Lauren’s mission was to secure cash. Congress hoped to secure a desperately needed loan of $10 million in specie to help shore up the economy and to continue the war effort. Dutch bankers seemed willing to underwrite such a loan, but it would take negotiation.
Congress appointed Laurens to the position in October, about a month after the appointments of Adams and Jay. Laurens then traveled to Charleston to put his affairs in order before leaving for his new mission. He hoped to catch a ship to France in January 1780, but could not find one leaving Charleston.
After a few months, he traveled to Wilmington, North Carolina, on word that a ship there was bound for France. That ship did not leave either, but Laurens had managed to get out of Charleston before the British began to lay siege to the city, something I will discuss in a future episode. By June of 1780, more than six months after his appointment, he found himself back in Philadelphia, still trying to find a way to get to Europe. With his plantations in South Carolina having fallen under British control, Laurens tried to resign his appointment, by this time unsure how he could support himself in Europe. Congress, however, rejected his resignation.
Since he had been unable to make it to Europe, and since John Adams was already over there and without much to do until the British agreed to begin negotiations, Adams went to the Netherlands in place of Laurens to obtain the needed loans.
In place of seeking loans, Congress encouraged Laurens to begin efforts for a treaty of amity and commerce between the United States and the Netherlands.
Finally, in August of 1780, Laurens found a small, but relatively fast ship, the Mercury, to take him to Europe. The ship sailed up the coast just off Newfoundland, in hopes of making a quick dash across the Atlantic. Several days out, a British warship spotted the Mercury and gave chase. While trying to outrun the British, Laurens threw overboard most of the important papers that he had with him to avoid them being captured.
One of the chests he had originally planned to keep was a chest that contained some private papers. He ended up throwing it overboard as well, but only after the British were practically on them. The chest did not sink as planned, and British sailors were able to recover it.
Among Laurens’ papers was a draft treaty created by William Lee (Arthur Lee’s brother) who was also serving as an American Agent in Europe. Lee had worked with several Dutch officials unofficially to draft a treaty. Neither Congress nor anyone in the Netherlands had ever received it, so it was not an official document of any time, merely the product of discussion between a few men who were not authorized to do anything. Laurens had probably gotten if from Richard Henry Lee or Francis Lightfoot Lee - two other Lee brothers serving in Congress. It had no real importance.
Even so, the British would use it as a basis to go to war with the Netherlands. As for Laurens, he was now a British prisoner. Because he was not part of the military, he was not subject to any agreement regarding captured officers. He was taken first to Newfoundland then shipped to London where he would serve time in the Tower of London, awaiting royal justice as a traitor to the crown.
Next Week, King George III attempts to rally flagging political support in London to continue the war against his rebellious colonies.
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“From George Washington to Conrad-Alexandre Gérard, 12 September 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-22-02-0327
“To Benjamin Franklin from John Jay, 26 September 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-30-02-0321
John Adams appointed to negotiate peace terms with British https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/john-adams-appointed-to-negotiate-peace-terms-with-british
“To John Adams from James Lovell : Confidential, 27 September 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-08-02-0120
“To John Adams from James Lovell: Confidential, 28 September 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-08-02-0121
“To Benjamin Franklin from Arthur Lee: Two Letters, 26 September 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-30-02-0322
Richard B. Morris Richard B. “The Jay Papers I: Mission To Spain” American Heritage Magazine, Volume 19, Issue 2, Feb. 1968. https://www.americanheritage.com/jay-papers-i-mission-spain
“To Benjamin Franklin from the Continental Congress: Instructions, [14 August–16 October 1779],” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-30-02-0172
“Commission to the Minister Plenipotentiary to Spain, 29 September 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jay/01-01-02-0410
“From John Jay to Robert R. Livingston and Gouverneur Morris, 29 September 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jay/01-01-02-0411
“To John Adams from James Lovell, 1 October 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-08-02-0127
The Netherland in the American Revolution: https://www.amrevmuseum.org/the-netherlands-and-the-american-revolution
Dutch Participation In The American Revolution: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/dutch-participation-american-revolution
Ruppert, Bob “Henry Laurens’ 15 Months in the Tower” Journal of the American Revolution, Sept. 23, 2015. https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/09/henry-laurens-15-months-in-the-tower
(from archive.org unless noted)
Journals of Congress, Vol. 5, Philadelphia: Claypoole, 1782.
Jay, William The Life of John Jay: with selections from his correspondence and miscellaneous papers, New York, J. & J. Harper, 1833.
Lee, Richard Henry (ed) Life of Arthur Lee, LL. D., joint commissioner of the United States to the court of France, and sole commissioner to the courts of Spain and Prussia, during the Revolutionary War, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2, Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1829.
Meng, John J. (ed) Despatches and instructions of Conrad Alexandre Gérard, 1778-1780; correspondence of the first French minister to the United States with the Comte de Vergennes, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1939.
Pellew, George John Jay, Boston, New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. 1890.
Wallace, David D. The Life Of Henry Laurens, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Burnett, Edmund Cody, The Continental Congress, Macmillan Co. 1941
McCullough, David John Adams, Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Montross, Lynn The Reluctant Rebels, Harper & Brothers, 1950.
Paquette, Gabriel (ed) & Gonzalo M. Quintero Saravia (Editor) Spain and the American Revolution: New Approaches and Perspectives, Routledge, 2019.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.