'The insolence of the French themselves': Henrietta Marchant Liston and the decline of Franco-American relations, ca 1796-1798

Christopher Minty

Christopher Minty obtained his BA (Hons) and PhD from the University of Stirling. Between 2014 and 2015, he was a Bernard and Irene Schwartz Fellow at the New-York Historical Society and Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School. He is currently an Assistant Editor at 'The Adams Papers' at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. This essay looks at the Franco-American relations that to a certain extent defined the Liston's experience of the United States and that defined John Adams' presidency. Dr Minty writes particularly on the first two years of Henrietta Liston's time in America, a time throughout which she was concerned and fascinated by Franco-American relations.

Unless otherwise stated, all quotes from Henrietta Marchant Liston are taken from MS.5696, National Library of Scotland, and MS.5699, National Library of Scotland.

On May 1, 1796, Henrietta Marchant Liston arrived in New York City. She took in the cityscape, noting privately, 'the City of Newyork appeared infront, exhibiting a very fine situation, & neat Brick Houses, which gave it an English appearance. The surrounding Scenery was gay & cheerful, & indeed few Harbours afford more picturesque Beauty.' For the next two years Liston monitored the Americans' political sentiments, jotting down her thoughts and ideas in historically significant yet underused travel journals. Well written, emotive, and powerful, Liston's journals show us how Americans sought to establish their country 'among the powers of the earth.' [See note 1]

Then, as now, the United States was divided. Some identified as Federalists, including Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. Others identified as Democratic-Republicans, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Between May 1796 and November 1798, those political identities became more engrained, more absolute. The two groups drifted further apart: Federalists moved away from supporting the French but the Democratic-Republicans' support seldom wavered. Henrietta Liston watched the popular politics whirl up into frenzy as diplomatic relations with Great Britain and France divided Americans all over the East Coast. Liston was there for much of it, and she always had something to say.

Indeed, shortly after her arrival in New York City, on May 4 Congress moved forward to implement the Jay Treaty, a piece of legislation that resolved many longstanding sources of conflict with Great Britain. At the same time, however, it damaged relations with France, America's first ally. An author in the New York 'Herald', 15 June 1796, wrote of the Treaty's impact: 'the name of American is despised, more than that of any other nation'. Liston recognized the issues the Jay Treaty caused, too, noting that although the implementation of the Treaty would be 'a propitious event', mobs formed and New Yorkers' minds were 'a little agitated'. As she soon found out, some people supported the treaty, while others did not.

With the Jay Treaty, Robert and Henrietta Liston's places within the political climate of the United States became increasingly important. Her daily routine was nevertheless 'crowded all the morning' and she and her husband received so many dinner invitations she 'could not be accepted in a Months residence'. It was busy work.

By late May, the Listons' schedule took them to Philadelphia, where Congress convened. Henrietta was excited, particularly at the prospect of meeting America's first President, George Washington, on whom she noted: 'Washington has made to himself a name remarkable in Europe; but of peculiar Magic in America.' If it were possible, meeting him exceeded her expectations. He was 'Tall, Majestic, & well proportioned'. She continued:

'… his face at the age of sixty three rather pleasing, particularly when he smiles, — In his air & movements, there was a dignity which, even the general coldness of his address did not lessen — to me he was affable & kind & when we arose to take leave, requested to see us often, without ceremony or reserve.'

And by the time the Listons were dining with the Washingtons, those 'sombre & formal' nights 'had an air of Magnificence'. Washington had a 'look of respectability & perfect propriety'. He did not need to toast. He commanded the room, socialising with 'every Lady, & with most of the Gentlemen.' George Washington was a natural president. It appeared to come to him with a degree of ease.

But the opposition to the Jay Treaty was in Philadelphia, too. On April 16, 1796, Vice-President John Adams wrote of 'a mortified Party' within the country. They were 'so bitter rancorous and desperate', according to Adams, that they could leave the government 'very much embarrassed.' [See note 2] The Democratic-Republicans opposed the Treaty, viewing it as a betrayal of America's commitment to France’s turn toward republicanism and recognition of France's invaluable assistance during the War for American Independence. The federal government, they argued, were courting British interests, and it was shifting the country toward monarchical government and an aristocratic government. Put bluntly, it was a move against the republicanism of the American Revolution.

At this stage, the political balance of power was Washington's responsibility. But less than a year later, he was out of office. Vice-President John Adams thought Franco-American relations affected Washington, telling his wife Abigail: 'the Turpitude of the Jacobins touches him more nearly than he owns in Words.' But he was unsure whether the presidency was right for him. He continued: 'I hate Speeches, Messages Addresses & answers, Proclamations and such Affected, studied constrained Things — I hate Levees & Drawing Rooms — I hate to Speak to a 1000 People to whom I have nothing to Say — Yet all this I can do.' And so he did. [See note 3]

Adams was inaugurated as president on March 4, 1797. Just over two months later he addressed Congress on the worsening status of Franco-American relations, something which became the defining feature of his presidency. Two weeks later, Adams nominated Francis Dana and John Marshall to join Charles C Pinckney as Envoys-Extraordinary and Ministers-Plenipotentiary to France. By June, the Senate had added Elbridge Gerry in place of Dana. The main feature of their journey to France was their attempted bribery by several anonymous Frenchmen. When news of the XYZ Affair, as it was known, became public on 3 April 1798, America's relations with France were at a low point.

By November, things had only gotten worse. Henrietta Liston wrote: 'This Country is preparing for War with France. — & it is a circumstance worthy observation, how suddenly a whole nation can change their Sentiments with thier Politics.' To her, it seemed as if American sentiments had completely reversed. In 1796, she thought, Americans were supportive of the French Revolution. Two years later, things had changed. It filled her with 'astonishment.' She found it difficult to understand the u-turn, writing, 'so violently does the tide now flow in favor of the English nation & against the French, — that there are moments when I think Magic-art must have worked it.'

On April 24, 1798, Gilbert Fox, a singer in Philadelphia, declared his intention to write a 'New Song' as part of the program for the New Theatre. The song became known as 'Hail Columbia'. First Lady Abigail Adams, with 'a Great curiosity' to see and hear the song herself, attended. In her letter of April 26 to her sister, Mary Smith Cranch, Adams wrote: 'At every Choruss the most unbounded applause ensued', and at the conclusion the entire audience 'rose gave 3 Huzzas, that you might have heard a mile'. John Adams was 'the rock on which the storm will beat'. 'Hail Columbia' was considered a national anthem until it was formally supplanted by 'The Star Spangled Banner'. [See note 4]

Henrietta Liston had her own thoughts on the song and what it represented within American politics. She went to the New Theatre on May 2, the same day John Adams went for the first time. 'He is a Presbiterian and goes seldomer into publick than Washington did,' Liston told her uncle, James Jackson. Adams was sat opposite Liston. She watched everyone rally around the President, telling Jackson, 'surely if any thing can surprise the General Directory, it must be the present apparent Unanimity of the Americans against them: — North to south — East and West; — The despatches from the Commissioners have acted like Magic, & to be sure affords a good opportunity to those who waited for one, to turn around. America having determined to stand on her defence.' [See note 5]

Franco-American relations defined Adams' presidency and, at that point, he was riding a wave of popularity. Liston knew that French overtures to America's diplomats were the cause of Adams' newfound popularity. They gave 'the death blow to the French interest' in the United States, she noted in her journal. And as she told her uncle: '[T]he tide is turned.' Henrietta was along for the ride. [See note 6]


Note 1

See Eliga H Gould, 'Among the powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the making of a new world empire' (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012).

Note 2

John Adams to Abigail Adams. April 16, 1796. In 'Adams family correspondence', edited by C James Taylor, Sara Martin, and others, 12 vols to date. (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963-), 11:251-52.

Note 3

Ibid., 197-98.

Note 4

See Ibid., vol 12:xvi-xvi

Note 5

Liston to Jackson, MS.5591, f.36-37, National Library of Scotland.

Note 6


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