Letter to Thomas Jefferson From John Adams

Writer: John Adams

Recipient: Thomas Jefferson

Date: August 7, 1785


While negotiating with Britain over easing the Navigation Acts, John Adams wrote Thomas Jefferson detailing the positions of the British delegates as well as his own thoughts on what actions to take. By making a strong argument in favor of retaliatory trade policies against Britain, Adams intended for Jefferson to take the matter to Congress and by extension the states in the hopes that a substantial trade policy could be enacted.

I thought of proposing a Tariff of Duties, that We might pay no more in their Ports than they should pay in ours. But their Taxes are so essential to their Credit, that it is impossible for them to part with any of them, and We should not choose to oblige ourselves to lay on as heavy ones. We are at Liberty to do it, however, when We please.

If the English will not abolish their Aliens Duty, relatively to us, We must establish an Alien Duty in all the United States. An Alien Duty against England alone will not answer the End. She will elude it by employing Dutch, French, Sweedish, or any other ships, and by frenchifying, dutchifying, or Sweedishizing her own Ships. If the English will persevere in excluding our Ships from their West India Islands, Canada, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland, and in demanding any Alien Duty of us in their Ports within the Realm, and in refusing to american built Ships the Priviledges of british built Ships, We must take an higher Ground, a Vantage Ground. We must do more than lay on Alien Duties. We must take measures by which the Increase of Shipping and Seamen will be not only encouraged, but rendered inevitable. We must adopt in all the States the Regulations which were once made in England 5. Ric. 2. c. 3., and ordain that no American Citizen, or Denizen, or alien friend or Ennemy, shall ship any Merchandise out of, or into the United States and navigated with an American Captain and three fourths American Seamen. I should be sorry to adopt a Monopoly. But, driven to the necessity of it, I would not do Business by the Halves. The French deserve it of us as much as the English; for they are as much Ennemies to our Ships and Mariners. Their Navigation Acts are not quite so severe as those of Spain, Portugal and England, as they relate to their Colonies I mean. But they are not much less so. And they discover as strong a Lust to annihilate our navigation as any body.

I hope the Members of Congress and the Legislatures of the States will study the British Acts of Navigation, and make themselves Masters of their Letter and Spirit, that they may judge how far they can be adopted by us, and indeed whether they are sufficient to do Justice to our Citizens in their Commerce with Great Britain.

Full Text can be found here.


With Britain unwilling to repeal the Navigation Acts, John Adams fervently argued that the United States should enact its own trade exclusion act to punish Britain. Calling upon all the states to stand against Britain, he demanded the recognition of American ships, and called for the states to lead the fight against those who intend to "annihilate our navigation." While he fervently pushed for Congress to enact a retaliatory policy against Britain, the lack of political will in Congress prevented any action against Britain, thus neglecting Adams's plea.

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