When the World Turned Upside Down

Sara Georgini

A rare Arabic-language manuscript in the Adams Papers at Massachusetts Historical Society: Moroccan ambassador Sidi Haj Tahar Ben Abdulhaq Fennish’s [28 June 1786] letter to the American Commissioners (Adams and Jefferson) about negotiations for the Moroccan‒American Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Adams and Jefferson took a spring break tour of English gardens. Franklin narrowly evaded pirates on the high seas (again). Abigail marveled at Notre Dame’s Gothic glory. If these boldfaced names are familiar to scholars and fans of early American history, then their lives abroad in the riotous 1780s may be less so. It’s important to recall how much time “the founders” spent outside America, especially in the years that we use to frame the Articles of Confederation era, roughly 1777 to 1789. As we bring these primary sources to the page, documentary editors face the chance to interpret the 1780s anew. In their letters and diaries, we see that the emergent culture of confederation often had a foreign accent. Deep immersion in European life supplied a finishing school for American revolutionaries’ thought, connecting them to people and places they had only pored over in books. A reverse migration, from former colony to rejected empire, led Adams and his compatriots to question every channel of influence: church, state, press. Energized by the exchange, they came back reborn. Or, as Adams put it when he booked his passage home to Quincy: “Huzza for the new World and farewell to the Old One.”[1]

I’ve had the pleasure of spending the past decade with John Adams, adventuring through the 1780s from Amsterdam and Paris, then on to London, and back to Quincy. For all his candor, John Adams is not always a very patient—or very clear—tour guide. That means we needed to expand our research bases in order to place his diplomatic labor in better context. To get at the story of America in the 1780s, we worked from the outside in, capturing the perspective from Europe as the new nation took shape. We chronicled Adams’s interest in Dutch Patriot political philosophy; worked through his intellectual contacts in Paris; tracked down some of the more obscure antiquarian references that he deployed to dazzle his colleagues in London. To do this, we also followed in the very helpful footsteps of fellow documentary editors, building on decades of work done by the Jefferson, Franklin, and Jay Papers editorial projects. As we moved from transcribingoriginal documents and writing annotation, to indexing all the ways that researchers might navigate this swath of material, our process changed, too. That’s something I want to underline here: There are wide-open gaps in our scholarship of the 1780s as a critical period for early American diplomatic history. And we have sources available to mine!

Interpreting the culture of confederation poses several unique challenges for researchers. First, to access the historical consciousness of the period, we need to acknowledge the hazy approach to recordkeeping that governed the pre-federal entity established under the Articles of Confederation. The Papers and Journals of the Continental Congress supply a foothold in reconstructing the legislative process, as do the journals of state assemblies. But that can be a tenuous record to rely on. Newspapers, similarly, let us listen in on shifting public attitudes. But the press can also tilt toward a distinctly partisan side. While we enjoy a cornucopia of digital resources—here I’m thinking of the excellent America’s Historical Newspapers, the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress, and others—they can be regionally bound. Finding digitized southern or French newspapers in the 1780s, for example, can be tough. This means we must annotate with great care, pointing out when American “public attitudes” are drawn from a base of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston newspapers. Southern, western, and Native voices need representation, too.

Second, we need to think about how we cover the many government entities in play. This means accurately rendering the political architecture drawn by the Articles for the reader. At the most basic structure of our annotation and captioning of documents, this calls for extra clarity. Not all of the Articles’ infrastructure survives in the Constitution. Nor did the process operate swimmingly at the time. But there was a functioning government, replete with republican ideals and concrete plans, that was more than a federal prequel. Some of the best back-and-forth dialogues we’ve had in the last few Papers of John Adams volumes were between John Adams, the U.S. Board of Treasury, and the Dutch bankers who were largely subsidizing the early American government. These letters illustrate a set of concerns that dominated the 1780s: How much should we rely on Europe for moral and financial aid? Would the United States’ foreign credit survive? Could Congress achieve the quorum needed to make decisions about raising money and ratifying treaties? Who, exactly, should foreign entities write their letters to at Congress, if they wanted results? As we selected the volumes, these documents generally made the cut for publication. All of those questions were still on the table when Adams, eyeing Shays’ Rebellion from London, sat down to write his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. The Articles offered a hazy blueprint of how to run a government, yes. More significantly, I think, they gave that first corps of statesmen like Adams, Jefferson, and Jay the chance to beta-test the connection between federalism and foreign policy.

John Adams, John Singleton Copley, 1783, Harvard Art Museums.

Finally, we ought to consider how to expand the story of early American diplomacy by identifying the 1780s as a pivotal period. This calls for great care as documentary editors. When we talked about the Moroccan‒American Treaty, we needed to parse the imperial overtones of competing strands of British and French historiography—and then make a definitive choice as to how we spell colonial place names. When we delved into the Nootka Sound crisis, we needed to think about the importance of the two coalitions at odds (a new Triple Alliance versus the old Family Compact), as well as recent current events that diplomats like Adams knew of, and factored in. Take the year of 1786 alone, but put it all in global context, as Adams did: Massachusetts farmers rioting; Barbary corsairs seizing and enslaving American sailors; while the monarchs of Britain and Spain slipped in and out of madness. A difficult peace with Britain, a new office for foreign affairs, and a thorny set of French and Dutch agreements also incited fresh dilemmas. For, even as the new nation was opening to the world, lawmakers like John Adams carefully measured the limits of that engagement. Reeling from Revolutionary War debt, merchants were enmeshed in an Anglo‒American trade war that ate their meager profits. American entrepreneurs braved Barbary depredations, skyrocketing marine insurance rates, and the daily hazards of doing business without the protection of the British Navy. Meanwhile, the first federal Congress, anxious to recoup public confidence, adopted a wary approach to the twin goals of expansion and diplomacy. The U.S. confederation was just one more power in a fluctuating world of agreements, alliances, and compacts.

Our next contribution, Volume 20 of The Papers of John Adams, tells that saga, running from June 1789 to February 1791. Some of the stories we gave grown accustomed to have faded; others surge forward. Shays’ Rebellion shook up the local legislature. Bigger trouble for Congress came from citizens in North Carolina and Rhode Island, rogue holdouts to the Constitution who favored the emission of their own paper money. The French Revolution, secure in the promise of a constitutional monarchy, sounded stately and felt distant. Elsewhere, rattled by Anglo‒Spanish rivalry, Americans faced their first test of neutrality in the Nootka Sound crisis. This time, they met the world with a Constitution. To see how U.S. diplomatic relations evolved, let’s re-approach the 1780s from foreign territory. That’s where the minds and hearts of the people changed, again.


[1] John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, Dec, 10, 1787, in The Papers of John Adams, ed. Sara Georgini, Sara Martin, et al. (20 vols., Cambridge, MA, 2018), 19: 231.

19 October 2020

About the Author

Sara Georgini is series editor for The Papers of John Adams, part of The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Share this Post