Daily Archives: July 17, 2007

Item of the Day: The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution (1829)

Full Title: The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution. Being the Letters of Benjamin Franklin, Silas Dean, John Adams, John Jay, Arthur Lee, Ralph Izard, Francis Dana, William Carmichael, Henry Laurens, John Laurens, M. Dumas, and Others, Concerning the Foreign Relations of the United States during the Whole Revolution; together with the Letters in Reply fromt he Secret Committee of Congress, and the Secretary of Foreign Affairs. also, the Entire Correspondence of the French Ministers, Gerard and Luzerne, with Congres. Edited by Jared Sparks. Vol. I. Boston: N. Hale and Gray & Bown; G. & C. & H. Carvill, New York, 1829.



The Correspondence between the old Congress and the American Agents, Commissioners, and Ministers in foreign countries, was secret and confidential during the whole revolution. The letters, as they arrived, were read in Congress, and referred to the standing Committee of Foreign Affairs, accompanied with requisite instructions, when necessary, as to the nature and substance of the replies. The papers embracing this correspondence, which swelled to a considerable mass before the end of the revolution, were removed to the department of State after the formation of the new government, where they have remained ever since, accessible to such persons as have wished to consult them for particualr purposes, but never before published. In compliance with the resolution of Congress, of March 27th, 1818, they are now laid before the public, under the direction of the President of the United States.

On the 29th of November, 1775, a Committee of five was appointed to correspond with the friends of America in other countries. It seems to have been the specific object of this Committee, to gain information in regard to the public feeling in Great Britain towards the Colonies, and also the degree of interest which was likely to be taken by other European powers in the contest, then beginning to grow warm on this side of the Atlantic. Certain commercial designs came also under its cognizance, such as procuring ammunition, arms, soldiers’ clothing, and other military stores from abroad. A secret correspondence was immediately opened with Arthur Lee in London, cheifly with the view of procuring intelligence. Early in the next year, Silas Deane was sent to France by the Committee, with instructions to act as a commercial or political agent for the American Colonies, as circumstances might dictate. This Committee was denominated the Committee of Secret Correspondence, and continued in operation till April 17th, 1777, when the name was changed to that of the Committee of Foreign Affairs. The duties and objects of the Committee appear to have remained as before, notwithstanding the change of name.

In the first years of the war, it was customary for the Commissioners and Ministers abroad to address their letters to the Committee, or to the President of Congress. In either case the letters were read in Congress, and answered only by the Committee, this body being the organ of all communicaions from Congress on foreign affairs. The proceedings of Congress in relation to these topics were recorded in a journal, kept separately from that in which the records of other transactions were entered, and called the Secret Journal. This Journal has recently been published, in conformity with the same resoluion of Congress, which directed the publication of the foreign correspondence.

Robert R. Livingston was chosen Secretary of Foreign Affairs on the 10th of August, 1781, when the Committee was dissolved, and the foreign correspondence from that time went through the hands of the Secretary. As the responsibility thus devolved on a single individual, instead of being divided among several, the business of the department was afterwards executed with much more promptness and efficiency.

The plan adopted, in arranging the papers for publication, has been to bring together those of each Commissioner, or Minister, in strict chronological order. As there is much looseness, and sometimes confusion in their arrangement as preserved in the Department of State, this plan has not always been easy to execute. The advantage of such a method, however is so great, the facility it affords for a ready reference and consultaion is so desirable, and the chain of events is thereby exhibited in a manner so much more connected and satisfactory, that no pains have been spared to bring every letter and doucment into its place in the exact order of its date. Thus the correspondence of each Commisssioner, or Minister, presents a continuous history of the acts in which he was concerned, and of the events to which he alludes.

It will be seen, that the letters are occasionally missing. These are not to be found in the archives of the government. The loss may be accounted for in several ways. In the first place, the modes of conveyance were precarious, and failures were frequent and unavoidable. The despatches were sometimes intrusted to the captains of such American vessels, merchantmen or privateers, as happened to be in port, and sometimes forwarded by regular express packets, but in both cases they were subject to be captured. Moreover, the despatches were ordered to be thrown overboard if the vessel conveying them should be pursued by an enemy, or exposed to the hazard of being taken. It thus happened, that many letters never arrived at their destination, although duplicates and triplicates were sent. Again, the Committee had no Secretary to take charge of the papers, and no regular place of deposit; the members themselves were perpetually changing, and each had equal access to the papers, and was equally responsible for their safe keeping. They were often in the hands of the Secretary of Congress, and of other membres who wished to consult them. Nor does it appear, that copies were methodically taken till after the war. In such a state of things, many letters must necessarily have been withdrawn and lost. When Mr Jay became Secretary of Foreign Affairs, in the year 1784, that office had been made the place of deposit for all the foreign correspndence which then remained. Under his direction, a large portion of it was copied into volumes, apparently with much care, both in regard to the search after papers, and the accuracy of the transcribers. These volumes are still retained in the archives of the Department of State, together with such originals as have escaped the perils of accident, and the negligence of their early keepers . . .


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Filed under American Revolution, Congress, Early Republic, Government, Letters, Posted by Caroline Fuchs