ADAMS, John. Autograph Letter Signed, as former president, to Speaker of the House of Representatives, Joseph Bradley Varnum (1751-1821), Quincy, Massachusetts, 9 January 1809. 16pp. (9 ¼ x 7 ¾; 230 x 195mm.). Written on rectos and versos (First leaf folded twice horizontally with minor defects repaired).
A SWEEPING, BITTER INDICTMENT OF THE BRITISH NAVAL PRACTICE OF IMPRESSMENT OF AMERICAN SAILORS ON THE HIGH SEAS. That brutal practice culminated in 1807 when four American sailors from the frigate Chesapeake were seized on the high seas, an incident provoked an international crisis and calls for war with Britain. Here, the former President appeals on historical and legal grounds for relief, in response to a recent royal proclamation justifying impressment.
The King’s recent Proclamation, he writes, “has a tendency to deceive many...and no doubt has deceived thousands. It is concealing the Asp in a basket of Figs..., and none of these Proclamations, till this last ever asserted a Right to take British Subjects by Force from the Ships of foreign Nations, any more than from the Cities and Provinces of foreign nations.”
He notes that “the President of the U.S. has legal authority to issue similar Proclamations...but every American would say his compliance was voluntary...” In addition, “Impressments of Seamen...in port or at sea, are no better than the Conscriptions of Napoleon, or Louis XVI who set him the example.” Ships are to be searched for sailors and “all British sailors they find on board...without regard to any Certificates of Citizenship; without regard to any contracts, covenants or connections...any marriages, Families or Children they may have in America...And in what principle or Law is this founded? Is there any Law of God to support it? Is there any Law of England to authorize it? Certainly not. The laws have no binding force, on board American Ships; no more than the Laws of China.”
He dismisses the British claim that these Men are the Kings Subjects; asserting “Our Laws acknowledge no divine Right of Kings, greater than those Subjects,” and assails “these Remnants of Feudal Tyranny and Ecclesiastical Superstition [that] have been long since exploded in America.” The Royal Proclamation is “in direct contradiction of every Principle of English Liberty. It is a direct violation of Magna Charta...as well as the Habeas Corpus Act. It deprives them of the Trial by Jury.” Then, Adams relates a famous incident of impressment in 1769: the case of The Rose and four Irish sailors accused and acquitted on a charge of murder, in a celebrated case tried before the court of the Admiralty in Boston. In conclusion, “I shall say nothing of Mr Jefferson’s Administration, because the Negotiations already made public sufficiently show, that he has not been behind either of his Predecessors in his Zeal for the Liberty of American Seamen...”
A remarkably impassioned statement of principle, from a former President. The Boston Patriot, established in March 1809, published a series of four letters between April 1809 and May 1812, including recollections of John Adams. 20pp. Sabin 245. It was issued as England's Proclamation of Oct 16, 1807, considered. Boston, 1809. Reprinted in The Correspondence of John Adams ... concerning the British Doctrine of Impressment, Baltimore, 1809, pp. 1–18.