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John and Abigail Adams | Article

John Adams' Diplomatic Missions

Between 1778 and 1788, John Adams served his country as a diplomat in France, the Netherlands, and Great Britain. His independent, unbending temperament was not ideal for diplomacy, and his diplomatic triumphs were offset by feelings of alienation.

Courtesy: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian

Recalled to America
In 1778, during the Revolutionary War, Adams sailed to France to join benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee on a three-man commission to negotiate an alliance with France. Devastating news greeted him upon his arrival: Franklin had already signed a pact. During the next year, Adam's hostility toward his fellow diplomat grew. Franklin was idolized in France, and it was he who was asked to remain as France's sole minister. In fact, when Adams was recalled to America, he wasn't even assigned a new post.

Return to France
Humiliated, Adams sailed for Massachusetts in 1779, vowing to return to private life. But he rarely left a political post without renouncing public service altogether, and this too was a vow he would not keep. Without consulting Abigail, Adams accepted Congress' offer to return to Europe as minister plenipotentiary to negotiate peace with Britain, whenever America's enemy was ready to come to the table. Adams hadn't sought the post, but reveled in Congress' nearly unanimous decision to appoint him.

A Disaster
Adams' second stay in France was disastrous. In July 1780 he wrote French Foreign Minister Vergennes that France was not doing enough to win the war. Affronted, Vergennes promptly severed communication with him. Franklin took the French Minister's side in a damning letter to Congress: "... [H]aving nothing else wherewith to employ himself, [Adams] seems to have endeavored to supply what he may suppose my negotiations defective in. ..." Adams had alienated his colleagues in France and in Congress, which revoked his commission to negotiate the peace treaty alone. However Adams didn't learn of Congress' decision for a year, during which time he traveled independently to the Netherlands to see, as he told Franklin, "whether something might be done to render us less dependent on France."

Amsterdam Port, Courtesy: Library of Congress

A Diplomatic Success
Congress had long talked of seeking a loan from the Netherlands, which had already been secretly supplying arms to America. The Dutch were hesitant. The worst American defeat of the war had just occurred at Charleston, South Carolina, and they didn't want to stake themselves to the losing side. Nor did they wish to jeopardize their commercial relations with the British. But news of the American victory at Yorktown, Virginia, as well as Adams' tireless efforts — now endorsed by Congress -- precipitated a change of heart. Adams secured a $2 million loan.

The Treaty of Paris
A revived Adams returned to Paris in 1782 to negotiate the peace treaty that would end the Revolutionary War. The task reunited him with Benjamin Franklin. Like Adams, John Jay, the third delegate, refused to negotiate until England recognized American independence. For once Franklin went against France's wishes and agreed to present a unified front. On September 3, 1783, the treat of Paris was signed, and the United States in the eyes of the world was officially in existence.

Courtesy: NARA

Ineffective in London
His part in peacemaking notwithstanding, Adams was despondent over Congress' lack of recognition of his deeds. He was crushed to learn that his appointment as the United States' first minister to Great Britain was not a unanimous decision. Some in Congress found Adams to be too independent and outspoken, and feared that his appointment might jeopardize the new nation's position abroad. They need not have worried. England was not amenable to the opening of British ports to American ships or to the removal of British troops from American soil. Adams' first private audience with King George III was cordial, but ineffective. While Adams loved London, he accomplished little during his five years there.

Return to Politics
In 1788 John and Abigail sailed for home, traveling as a couple at long last. (They had lived together in London for five years, then the longest stretch of their marriage.) Once again Adams vowed to live out his years as a Quincy farmer. Within a month of return, he ran for the office of vice president.

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