FROM John Adams by David McCullough
A HARD NORTH SEA WINTER set in to match Adams’s mood. Days were bitterly cold and raw, with darkness descending at four in the afternoon and the air of Amsterdam thick with chimney smoke. With the canals frozen, thousands of skaters took to the ice, a spectacle that provided what little cheer Adams found in life.
His health was suffering. He worried about his sons. At the Latin School, because he spoke no Dutch, John Quincy had been placed with elementary students. The boy grew restless and disheartened. The rector of the school thought him impertinent and merited a thrashing, as he informed his father. Adams’s response was exactly what his own father’s would have been. “Send the boys to me this evening,” he answered. He had no wish to see his children subjected to such “littleness of soul,” he explained to Abigail in a letter in which he gave vent not only to his indignation at the schoolmaster, but at what he had come to see as a decidedly unattractive side to the Dutch character that he had no desire to see rub off on his sons. “The masters are mean-spirited wretches, punching, kicking, and boxing the children upon every turn,” he wrote.
No longer did he see the Dutch as “examples to the world,” but perceived now, bitterly, “a general littleness arising from the incessant contemplation of stivers and doits [pennies and nickels], which pervades the whole people.” Frugality and industry were virtues everywhere, but avarice and stinginess were not frugality.
The Dutch say that without a habit of thinking of every doit before you spend it, no man can be a good merchant or conduct trade with success. This I believe is a just maxim in general. But I would never wish to see a son of mine govern himself by it. It is the sure and certain way for an industrious man to be rich. It is the only possible way for a merchant to become the first merchant or the richest man in the place. But this is an object that I hope none of my children will ever aim at.
Through a young American named Benjamin Waterhouse, a student of medicine at the University of Leyden, Adams arranged for tutors for the two boys, and the opportunity for them to attend lectures at the university.
Such was the turmoil of Amsterdam that Adams now found it impossible even to arrange meetings. “Very few dare to see me,” he reported. Searching desperately for a sign that all was not lost, the best he could come up with was the popularity of new songs full of patriotic resentment toward the English. A woman who sang one such song on an Amsterdam street corner sold six hundred copies in an hour, he informed Congress. But the hard truth was that after five months in the Dutch Republic, Adams had yet to meet a single government official of any importance.
In December, the veteran British ambassador to the Netherlands, Sir Joseph Yorke, began openly threatening the Dutch, setting off something very like panic. “War is to a Dutchman the greatest of evils,” Adams wrote. “Yorke is so sensible of this that he keeps alive a continual fear of it.” At year’s end, “the high and mighty” Yorke abruptly departed and Britain commenced an undeclared war on Dutch shipping.
Convinced he must now gain recognition of American independence and arrange a Dutch-American alliance—and thus only, he had concluded, could he obtain a loan—Adams pressed Congress for greater authority. As winter progressed, his new commission arrived; Congress had designated him minister plenipotentiary to the Dutch Republic, which provided all the authority to be wished for.
Through February and March, despite the weather, Adams kept on the move, traveling back and forth between Amsterdam, Leyden, and The Hague, conferring with as many of his Dutch friends and contacts as possible. Again, as at Paris, the question was the timing of a formal announcement of his new powers.
Advised that his Amsterdam lodgings were too “obscure” for his new position, and that his effectiveness was being hurt by talk of this, Adams arranged for an American firm in Amsterdam to “hire” a suitable house—“the best house that is to be had at as cheap a rate as may be,” he wrote—and to have it furnished “decent enough for any character in Europe to dine in with a republican citizen.” In lengthy correspondence on the matter, he specified that the house be “large, roomy, and handsome, fit for the Hôtel des États-Unis d’Amérique.” He would need two manservants and a “good cook” (whether male or female he did not care). A “genteel carriage” would be required, as well as a coachman, and Adams was particular that the livery be in the Paris mode: deep blue coat and breeches, scarlet cape and waistcoats. (He also wanted the clothes returned when the time came for the servants to leave.) This was “new work” for him, he added, having never set up housekeeping before.
At Versailles, meanwhile, the Comte de Vergennes was writing to his ambassador at Philadelphia to say that Adams, in his role in the Netherlands, had become an embarrassment, an observation that La Luzerne was expected to pass along to his numerous friends in Congress. Especially distressing to Vergennes was the thought of Adams ever having any say in a peace settlement. “[He] has a rigidity, an arrogance, and an obstinacy that will cause him to foment a thousand unfortunate incidents…”