Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite: The American Revolution & the European Response

By Charles W. Toth | Go to book overview

The Dutch response to the American Revolution is of two-fold interest. It produced the first recognition of the independence of the colonies after the alliance with France thus inspiring a number of bicentennial celebrations in 1982. It was also the "baptism" in diplomacy for John Adams who would later join Franklin and Jay in drawing up the Treaty of Paris.

During the revolutionary period the United Provinces as the Netherlands was officially called, was still a major commercial and financial entrepôt. When hostilities broke out between England and France in 1778 the States General resisted the pressures from London to close all Dutch ports, including its islands in the West Indies, to American vessels. As a concession to peace the States General promised that no contraband would be transshipped. By 1780, when Adams arrived, the island of St. Eustatius had become, as Ambassador Yorke wrote to London, "a rendezvous of everything and everybody that was meant to be conveyed clandestinely to the continent of America." In addition the merchants of Amsterdam carried contraband destined for America to French ports, and even transferred goods to American vessels on the high seas. For the English the last straw, perhaps, was the generosity extended to John Paul Jones in allowing him to bring English prizes into Dutch waters.

The arrival of John Adams in the midst of this growing crisis is not only an interesting chapter in the early history of American diplomacy, but a revealing episode with respect to the character and personality of one of the leading revolutionary figures. Distrusting the French and envious of Franklin, Adams, with no official authority as yet from Congress, decided to take the Netherlands by storm. Flouting the practices of traditional European diplomacy, Adams gave a name still current in the diplomatic texts: "militia diplomacy." As Adams wrote in 1782 from Holland, "militia sometimes gain victories over regular troops even by departing from the rules." And Adams justified his decision to go in order "to try whether something might not be done to render us less dependent on France." John Adams consequently made Amsterdam his base of operations to avoid contact with the French Embassy, and to avoid the agents and

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