University Archives


John Adams Lengthy Manifesto Defending American Sovereignty and Citizenship Rights, Supporting Jefferson, and Demolishing Apologists for King George III’s Proclamation Allowing Impressment of American Sailors

ADAMS, JOHN. Autograph Letter Signed, "John Adams", to Speaker of the House of Representatives, Joseph Bradley Varnum (1751-1821), Quincy, Massachusetts, January 9,1809, 16 pp., 7.75" x 9.25". Written on rectos and versos. First leaf folded twice horizontally with minor defects repaired. 

This Adams letter is one of the longest, if not the longest, in private hands. It was written for publication and was successful in its goal of affecting the debate on the Embargo and threats to national sovereignty. Adams, in entering the public fray, displayed his characteristic firm commitment to seeing the United States established on the world stage. 

Sovereignty, Impressment and Embargoes in a World at War

The 1783 Peace of Paris recognized the United States as an independent and sovereign nation-state. The “perpetual” alliance France and America established five years earlier had proven crucial to winning the Revolutionary War. However, the French Revolution, which began coincidentally close to George Washington’s inauguration as President in 1789, shook America’s attachment. Washington feared that American involvement would weaken the new nation before it had firmly established itself, and he abhorred the French terror.

A new war between England and France broke out in 1793, and the British Navy began targeting French vessels and trading interests across the Atlantic. Many Federalists thought America should aid its ally, but in April 1793, skeptical of the new French government, Washington proclaimed that the United States would be “friendly and impartial toward the belligerent parties.” The Neutrality Proclamation was ignored by Britain and angered France, which then allowed its navy and privateers to prey on American trade. To protect American sailors and merchants without provoking Britain, in March 1794, Congress passed a 30-day embargo, which it then extended. Meant to allow time to pursue negotiations and improve the nation’s defense, the Embargo did not succeed in doing so, while proving devastating to American merchants, particularly in the Northeast.

By the time John Adams assumed the presidency in 1797, the Napoleonic wars had fully spilled over into the New World. That June, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering reported to Congress that the French had captured 316 American merchant ships in the previous eleven months. Hundreds of ships were also lost to the British in the French Caribbean.

Elected in 1800, President Jefferson struggled to maintain the neutrality policy despite provocations from both sides. In 1804, Jefferson was reelected by a landslide, defeating Charles Cotesworth Pinckney 162-14 in the Electoral College. But his second term was much more difficult.

In November 1806, Napoleon’s Berlin Decree proclaimed a blockade of the British Isles. In November 1807 Britain responded with the Orders in Council, declaring a blockade of all ports from which British goods were excluded. The next month, Napoleon’s Milan Decree subjected to seizure any neutral vessel that submitted to Britain’s trade regulations.

Britain, the strongest sea power, began to seize American ships suspected of trading with France, and stepped up its practice of impressment. From 1806-1807, the British navy, in desperate need of men to oppose Napoleon, forced roughly 5,000 American sailors into service on the pretense that they were deserters. In 1807, King George III proclaimed his right to call any British subjects into war service and claimed that Britain had full discretion to determine who was a British citizen. The crisis reached one peak for America in June of 1807 when the HMS Leopard attacked the USS Chesapeake off the coast of Virginia. Three American sailors were killed, eighteen were wounded, and the Chesapeake surrendered after firing only one shot. The Leopard seized four American seaman, claimed as deserters from the British navy, and hanged one of them.

Jefferson and Madison, his Secretary of State, responded with the Embargo of 1807, a ban on all American vessels sailing for foreign ports. Meanwhile, Russia allied with Napoleon and pressed Denmark to turn over her fleet. In September 1807, Britain preemptively bombarded Copenhagen and seized the Danish-Norwegian fleet. While Jefferson’s Republicans still generally favored France, a schism grew in the Federalist party. Men like Timothy Pickering downplayed impressments while focusing on trade and access to British manufacturing.

Historic Background for this John Adams letter

On October 16, 1807, George III aggravated tensions with America by issuing a proclamation expanding the British right to impressment. News of the King’s Proclamation arrived in the United States in December 1807. Lacking military options, President Jefferson proposed responding with an embargo to ban all U.S. exports on American vessels. While intended to protect the lives and liberties of American sailors, the Act clearly would cripple American trade. The Embargo Act was signed on December 22, 1807, causing immediate economic devastation. In protesting the Embargo, rather than wrestling with the difficulty of defending American sovereignty, some opponents simply chose to declare the legality of impressments as defined by King George’s Royal Proclamation.

John Adams’ former Secretary of State, Timothy Pickering, took a leading role in fighting the embargo, arguing that Jefferson was using it to draw America closer to Napoleon’s France. Pickering’s opposition to all things Jefferson and Democratic-Republican went so far as to support the secession of New England and New York from the U.S. In a February 1808 letter to Massachusetts Governor James Sullivan, Pickering attacked Jefferson’s motives while asserting that the King’s Proclamation “could not furnish the slightest ground for an Embargo.” Given the devastating economic effects of the embargo, Pickering’s message found a wide audience. A notice in the March 25, 1808, issue of the Salem Gazette made the unlikely claim that 30,000 pamphlets had been printed of A Letter from the Hon. Timothy Pickering, a senator of the United States, from the state of Massachusetts, exhibiting to his constituents, a view of the imminent danger, of an unnecessary and ruinous war….

John Adams, on the other hand, recognized the dire threat the King’s Proclamation posed in denying America the right to determine its own rules for citizenship. In his own March 1808 private letter to Massachusetts Governor James Sullivan, Adams asserted that the need to protect American sovereignty should take precedence over British or French alliances.

In December, Adams took his arguments to Speaker of the House Joseph Varnum. He suggested repealing and replacing the Embargo Act with one that allowed international trade with all but the belligerents, while building up the navy. Varnum asked to publish it. Before assenting, Adams completely reworked his argument, mustering all the reason and rhetoric at his disposal into a stirring defense of sovereignty and citizenship, presented in the letter offered here.

“The King not only commands his Subjects to return, but he commands the officers of his Navy to Search the Merchant Ships of Neutrals (meaning Americans…) and impress all British Seamen they find on board, without regard to any Allegations of Naturalization; without regard to any Certificates of Citizenship…and without regard to any marriages, Families or Children they may have in America.”

Adams recognized that the need to protect American sailors against the “right” of impressment was becoming an urgent domestic as well as international policy issue. Given the extremity of Pickering’s position, Adams felt obligated to counter it publicly.

“He [Pickering] thinks that as every Nation has a Right to the Service of its Subjects, in time of War, the Proclamation of the King of Great Britain, commanding his Naval Officers to practice Such Impressments, on board, not the Vessells of his own Subjects, but of the United States, a foreign Nation could not furnish the Slightest ground for an Embargo! … But I Say with Confidence that it furnished a Sufficient ground for a Declaration of War. Not the Murder of Pierce nor all the Murders on board the Chesapeake, nor all the other Injuries and Insults We have received from foreign Nations, atrocious as they have been, can be of such dangerous, lasting, and pernicious Consequence to this Country, as this Proclamation, if We have Servility enough to Submit to it.”

Congress repealed the Embargo Act on March 1, 1809, following Adams’ suggestion to replace it with the Non-Intercourse Act, allowing trade with all nations except Britain and France.  As Adams anticipated, however, it took another war with Britain to overturn the practice of impressment and confirm American sovereignty.

A remarkably impassioned statement of principle, from a former President. 

This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.


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