J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

John Adams and Admiral Howe

Here are two connected anecdotes from John Adams’s autobiography which didn’t make it into the H.B.O. miniseries, no doubt for lack of time.

The first occurred in September 1776 when Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Edward Rutledge met with British commanders on Staten Island, New York, in a last-ditch effort to find a settlement both sides could accept. The leader of the British military expedition was Adm. Richard Howe, the first Earl Howe (thumbnail portrait here courtesy of Britain’s National Maritime Museum).

Since the Continental Congress had just declared independence and Howe was under orders not to acknowledge its emissaries or appointees (including Gen. George Washington) as official in any way, this effort was doomed. But the men still had to talk. (Adams’s autobiographical text quotes from a memorandum on the discussion, which is why it shifts from third-person to first.)

When his Lordship observed to Us, that he could not...confer with Us as Members of Congress, or public Characters, but only as private Persons and British Subjects, Mr. John Adams answered somewhat quickly, “Your Lordship may consider me, in what light you please; and indeed I should be willing to consider myself, for a few moments, in any Character which would be agreable to your Lordship, except that of a British Subject.”

His Lordship at these Words turn’d to Dr. Franklin and Mr. Rutledge and said “Mr. Adams is a decided Character:” with so much gravity and solemnity: that I now believe it meant more, than either of my Colleagues or myself understood at the time.

In our report to Congress We supposed that the Commissioners, Lord and General [William] Howe, had by their Commission Power to [except] from Pardon all that they should think proper. But I was informed in England, afterwards, that a Number were expressly excepted by Name from Pardon, by the privy Council, and that John Adams was one of them, and that this List of Exceptions was given as an Instruction to the two Howes, with their Commission.

When I was afterwards a Minister Plenipotentiary, at the Court of St. James’s The King and the Ministry, were often insulted, ridiculed and reproached in the Newspapers, for having conducted with so much folly as to be reduced to the humiliating Necessity of receiving as an Ambassador a Man who stood recorded by the privy Council as a Rebell expressly excepted from Pardon. If this is true it will account for his Lordships gloomy denunciation of me, as “a decided Character.”—

Some years afterwards, when I resided in England as a public Minister, his Lordship recollected and alluded to this Conversation with great politeness and much good humour. Att the Ball, on the Queens Birthnight, I was at a Loss for the Seats assigned to the foreign Ambassadors and their Ladies. Fortunately meeting Lord How at the Door I asked his Lordship, where were the Ambassadors Seats. His Lordship with his usual politeness, and an unusual Smile of good humour, pointed to the Seats, and manifestly alluding to the Conversation on Staten Island said, “Aye! Now, We must turn you away among the foreigners.”

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