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John Quincy Adams to John Adams

21 Sep. 1797

My dear Sir. London 21. September 1797.

I received yesterday your favour of \July 15, which/ General Marshall brought I suppose and forwarded from Amsterdam. His arrival without bringing me any other dispatches has much increased the anxiety with which I have long been waiting for my Commission, Credentials, and Instructions, neither of which I have yet received.

You enquire whether France is to establish an universal domination over the whole Globe? by Land and by Sea?—Probably such is the design of her present Rulers; or rather it is their wish to ruin all other Nations as completely as France is ruined herself. You say you hope they will not push us beyond our bearing:—I know not how much we can bear—But I can say without hesitation that the result of the late session of Congress together with their own recent Revolution, has encouraged and probably confirmed them in that system of iniquity, of insult and of robbery, which they have pursued during the last nine or twelve months.—They think themselves now sure of a majority in one branch of our legislature.—I am obliged however reluctantly to be a prophet of bad prediction.—You must know what conclusion to draw though it be ever so unpleasant. I have not any hopes that the new Commission will succeed to make any satisfactory arrangement.

This opinion is principally founded upon the issue of the late revolutionary struggle in Paris. It has expelled from the Legislative and Executive assemblies all the men of moderation and talents, from whose sentiments of Justice and Honour we might have expected some return to friendship; some atonement for the past and some rational hope of decency for the future; it has introduced others, and placed at the summit of their affairs Men without principle, and without feeling, and the most inveterate Enemies of America.

The french Constitution of the third year as they call it has established a supreme Executive of five members, and has made it subordinate to the Legislative Power, over the acts of which it is not invested with a Negative. The experience of all former ages and other Nations had taught that such an Executive would inevitably be very shortly divided against itself and at War with the Legislature; that it would immediately fall in consequence of this double State of Warfare, or at least that the Constitution itself was totally inadequate to protect and defend it.—It was while Barère was writing in admiration of this sublime invention, this dazzling glory of french ingenuity, this last and greatest result of philosophical & political illumination, that the natural seeds of discord and hostility so thick sown in the plan, spring to maturity. The issue has been, that two of the five directors, and about one half of the Legislative body have been expelled from the exercise of their functions, by military force, and that between sixty and seventy persons of the first reputation, characters and talents in France have been sentenced \to transportation/ by the Legislative body, or rather, by less than one half of it, without the pretence of a trial; and that many other violences of a similar nature have been committed in the face of the Constitution, for the purpose or with the pretext of defending it against a royalist conspiracy.

I have in former Letters informed you of the negotiations whereby the majority of the Directory were endeavouring to procure the support of the bayonet as a substitute for that which they could not derive from the Constitution. I had mentioned their success in this undertaking: their abortive attempt to introduce troops into Paris, and the reported resignation of General Hoche, which did not however take place. The breach between the Directory and the Councils continued to widen, and the 4th: of this month was the day upon which the citizens were to be registered upon the new organization of the national guard.—Had this taken place, the Legislative body would have had a weapon in its hands, which the Directory knew they should not be able to subdue; perhaps not to resist.

At 4 o’clock in the morning therefore, on the 4th: of September, General Augereau, under the orders of the majority of the Directory, surrounded with a military force, the Halls in which both the Legislative Councils were in session, entered the Halls and by force of arms turned out the Presidents, Secretaries, and all the members of the two Councils, and arrested a considerable number of them.

At noon of the same day, a minority of the two Councils, who doubtless had concerted their plans with the triumvirate, met not at the ordinary places of their sittings, but at others designated by the three, and there proceeded on the subsequent day to pass under the name of a law, the decree contained in the Papers enclosed, and which therefore I shall not copy here; but will only observe some of its most striking provisions.

It annuls all the elections of forty nine departments including among the rest the populous Cities of Paris, Bordeaux, Lyons & Nantes, and prohibits all the individuals chosen at those elections from performing their respective functions.

It confiscates anew the property of all relations of Emigrants within a certain degree, which had recently been restored to them by Law.

It orders the transportation of sixty four individuals, to such place as the directory shall designate, and sequesters their property. Of these individuals forty one were members of the council of 500. eleven, members of the Council of Ancients, two members of the Directory: and ten officers and private citizens—Among them are six persons who voted for the Death of Louis the 16th.—This transportation is ordered without bringing the persons to trial, and even without pretending to make any charge against them.

It places the Journals and other periodical papers, and their printing presses under the inspection of the police for one year, and gives the police the power of prohibiting them.

Among the individuals thus proscribed are Boissy d’Anglas celebrated for the firmness and intrepidity with which he presided the National Convention at one of the most critical and dangerous convulsions to which the Republic has ever been exposed: one of the principal authors and the Reporter of this very Constitution, for a pretended conspiracy against which he now suffers. Carnot who very narrowly escaped transportation with Collot and Billaud: and the reputed author of all the plans of campaign, which have been crowned with victory. Cochon, who as commissioner from the Convention, defended Valenciennes and sustained the siege within the Walls, untill it was nearly reduced to ashes; when Valenciennes was the key of France. And Barthelemy, who negotiated and signed the Treaties of Peace with Prussia and with Spain; the first that gave any appearance of stability to the Republic, and that gave the death wound to the system of the coalised powers: I have not mentioned Pichegru, the general under whose command the conquest of the Netherlands and of Holland was affected, because of him and of him alone, the Directory have produced something approaching towards evidence, that he had really been willing at least to take measures for promoting a counter revolution.

All these things have been done by a military officer and a few hundred soldiers, while the People of Paris and of all France have looked on with as much indifference, or at least with a submission as passive, as they beheld the massacres of September, the beheading of the late king, the proscription and decapitation of the successive parties of Brissot, of Hebert, of Danton and of Robespierre, and all the innumerable other Events which have been the peculiar characteristic of their Revolution.

One of the first consequences which have followed this Event has been the rupture of the negotiations at Lille; and Lord Malmsbury has been ordered to quit France, a second time, and has arrived here yesterday. What the fate of the negotiations with the Emperor will be does not yet appear; but the prospects of Peace which have never been bright, seem now to disappear entirely.—You will observe that at the head of the Committee for \converting measures of safety/ in the Council of 500, after the purge, the name of Sieyes creeps out again from the dark hole in which it has long been burrowing. It was seen however but for an instant, and then slunk back again to its lurking place. But Merlin de Douai, that burlesque upon the name and functions of Justice, who wrote to the American Consul that if we would break our Treaty with Britain, the french tribunals would cease their unjust condemnations of our property, Merlin the man mentioned in the Letter to Coll: Fulton which was published in some of our newspapers, and who from that may be inferred to have entered long since into an organized plan for dismembering our union, has been placed in the station from which Carnot has been thus forcibly expelled. From the Councils of such Men as Sieyes, and Merlin de Douai, we are to expect nothing but the most unqualified injustice, under the Machiavelian mockery with which they have so long duped the world—Every thing that envy and malice both against our Country and against you personally can suggest, they will attempt. . . . . . I speak it now without hesitation, because I am convinced that all the preparation possible to meet such conduct on their part must be made. But if our House of Representatives and Executive do not harmonize together for the protection and defence of our Citizens and \their/ property better than they have done for the last two or three years, we may boast of our Government and Constitution as much as we will, the plain, unequivocal and lamentable fact will be that neither of them will be adequate to the purposes for which all Governments ought to exist, and we shall be plundered and insulted at the pleasure of every foreign robber or bully who may find a profit or a pleasure in attacking us.

Your observations with respect to the consequences of a revolution in England are undoubtedly just: should it be produced by the violence or the intrigues of France, it would never remove the deadly national hatred, that burns at this moment with more violence than ever; but the french politicians are of opinion, and perhaps justly, that as a State, England will be much less formidable after a Revolution, than she now is, or than she has been for many years.—A Revolution they believe, would draw as it its inevitable attendant, a long bloody, and desolating civil War, which neither the population nor the wealth of this Country, can bear as France has done. They suppose that it would lead to the destruction of the British Colonies in the West Indies, as it has to those of France, and from the same causes.—That it would soon annihilate the British Empire in India, which at this moment hangs by the thread of a spider’s web, and as the commerce and manufactures of this Country lean entirely on those two frail crutches, a Revolution, in the opinion of the frenchmen would snatch these supporters from the tottering hands of their rival, and down she would tumble with all her dropsical bulkiness, never to rise again. . . . . It is therefore as the profoundly inveterate Enemies of this Nation, that the French Statesmen who now rule, are desirous of producing a Revolution here.—It is true that Cromwell was much more formidable than either of the Charles’s, and a Revolution would at this day call forth the operations of another sort of energy than that with which France has had hitherto to contend; but they have abundant confidence in themselves, and they have openly avowed a maxim sufficient to make them easy. It is that their superiority of population and territory, must always prove \too/ strong for the mere ships of England. As to the miseries of War, they feel no sort of concern on their account. It is one of their opinions that some foreign War will always be necessary to secure them their existence. They are thoroughly convinced that their own Nation will never forgive them for the irreparable calamities which they have brought upon their Country, and would soon call them to the most rigorous account if once relieved from the pressure of external War.—These Men have declared themselves in a State of implacable unrelenting War with all the rest of mankind—They have advanced so far in the career of their hostilities, that they know their retreat is for ever cut off, and their only hopes of life are in the violence of desperation. . . . . I am not exaggerating the statement of their views: you will see them exposed in all their depravity in the pamphlet of Benjamin Constant, one of their Court writers, which I now send for your perusal. There you will find the People of France urged to submission to their rulers, because the atrocious crimes of these rulers are beyond the reach of punishment. There you will find laid down as a principle in so many words that “when the wicked are powerful, far from unmasking them we ought rather to add to their disguise.” There he tells the french Government and their adherents that there is for them no amnesty but victory, and threatens all their opponents of \with/ an association of the Directory and the Terrorists to grind their adversaries to dust.

The french Revolution was commenced in the name of the People—in their name all its horrors have been palliated and excused—in their name the Guillotine has mowed its thousands, \and/ the grapeshot have swept off its \their/ tens of thousands. In their name, in that of their Liberty, their Equality, their Fraternity, have the sublime inventions of the noyades and of the republican nuptials shed a new gleam of light upon the brilliant illumination of the eighteenth century.. For them, for their unlimited and unalienable sovereignty have these deeds without a name which make an humane mind ready to deny its own nature and shrink from the name of Man, been almost justifed, always palliated, as the unpleasant but necessary means for the attainment of a glorious end. The supreme dominion of the People, exercised by a Representative Government.

They have got their Representative Government, but even at the moment of establishing it they discovered their dread and Jealousy of that very People, who had been the perpetual burden of their whoop. They dared not go out of power at once, and contrary to the tenor of their boasted Constitution forcibly continued two thirds of themselves in the Legislative body, allowing the People only the choice of one third new members. When the sovereign People resisted this provision, and insisted upon the exercise of their whole right, their arguments were answered by Cannon Balls, and between five and ten thousand of the sovereign People were slaughtered in the very streets of Paris as a propitiatory sacrifice to the Genius of the dying Convention.—The subsequent Election was protracted to the period of eighteen months, though the Constitution had directed an annual choice. One third more of the Legislature is renewed, and no sooner have the Conventional leaders lost their majority by the succession of the two new thirds, than the Representatives of the People, express in every act their abhorrence and detestation of the Revolution and its conductors. The counter-Revolution was advancing with such rapidity, that nothing could prevent it but a new Revolution, a Revolution annulling all the choices of two thirds of the Sovereign People.

It is therefore unquestionably the merciless Policy of Fear, that dictates all the measures of the French Government both external and internal. It is by its Necessity, the Tyrant’s plea, that they would excuse their devilish deeds. As they are more and more sensible that they have offended beyond all hopes of forgiveness, the People, they now fly for refuge and succour to the armies: The armies shew themselves willing enough to follow their trade of oppression, and in the late transactions have made no scruple of discovering their contempt both for the People and their Representatives. All this while they are using the names of Liberty and Equality, and the Republican Constitution of the 3d: year with as much assurance, and probably as much efficacy, as if they had never been abused.

I have stated fully to you my opinion upon this State of things, because I am persuaded they \it/ will require the most serious consideration in our own Country—All the Nations of the Earth must be prepared to see France, under a military Government by turns anarchical and despotic, and perhaps with all the democratical forms: with a country ruined, desolated, incapable of supporting a large part of its population.—With an immense army inured to every danger: habituated to consider life as the cheapest of all human possessions; at once poor and prodigal, rapacious and dissolute. Elated by extraordinary victories, and considering itself as the champion for the Liberties of the human race. With a corps of Officers partaking of all these qualities; and with Generals of the first rate talents, unrestrained by any principle human or divine. I believe, (and this opinion though necessarily conjectural, is founded upon long reflection, and the most attentive observation of which I am capable,) that nothing in Europe will stand before them; it is a grapple for life and Death between all the antient Establishments, and a new single military Government, of which France is to be the head, as Italy was that of the Roman Empire.—But Europe at this time enjoys scarcely any liberties worth fighting for. The change will be for the worse, but probably not much.—Our case is widely different, our Laws, our Liberties, every thing that has ever been dear to our hearts will be brought in question—That we must contend for them, I have little doubt: that we shall eventually secure them, rescued from all the disgraceful fetters of foreign influence, I most firmly believe.—The cause is substantially the same with that for which we have once fought and triumphed—It is the first and dearest of our earthly interests, the possession of our rights; our means are great and only require to be brought into operation, and I have an undoubting confidence in the protection and favour of Providence to support the real cause of Justice and Virtue.

I remain ever affectionately your’s.

John Q. Adams.

RC (MHi: Adams Papers).
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