No. 518.
Mr. Birney to Mr. Blaine.

No. 178.]

Sir: * * * During my residence here, while making historical investigations, I have ascertained two facts that I think of sufficient value to have a place upon the records of the Department of State. One is that the flag of the United States received the first formal salute from an official of the Dutch Republic. The other is that the first republic that sent an ambassador to the United States was the Dutch Republic, and he was accredited before the declaration of peace.*

I will take this opportunity to give some details of the appointment and reception of the Dutch ambassador, and make the saluting of the flag the subject of another dispatch.

For the facts in regard to the ambassador I am much indebted to the “Vaderlandsche Historie,” vols. 13 and 14, published’ in Amsterdam in 1794. It is to be remembered that at that time the Netherlands, consisting of several provinces or states, represented in the legislative body, known as the “Staats General,” was a republic.

In the year 1782, John Adams, who, as, a commissioner with Franklin and Jay, had been at Paris for some time to negotiate the treaty with Great Britain that was signed September 3, 1783, visited the Netherlands and spent some time at the Hague. He came for the purpose of effecting a loan in behalf of the United States and succeeded in obtaining one of 5,000,000 florins. While here he did much by personal intercourse with leading men to excite a desire for commercial intercourse with the United States. In the state archives I saw an outline draft of a treaty in the handwriting of John Adams, though, if I mistake not, at the time he was first here he was not commissioned to execute a treaty. It is, however, substantially the same as that signed on the 8th of October, 1783. When he returned to Paris, he left American interests in charge of a Mr. Dumas, an educated Frenchman, who had been his secretary.

[Page 848]

The first movement in favor of sending a minister plenipotentiary came from the city of Dadrecht. It was promoted on the ground of commercial advantages and as an acknowledgment of courtesies received. The Staats General readily acceded to the plan and announced that it was designed to send a plenipotentiary for the purpose of cultivating good relations between the two republics, and to settle questions of commerce and of “sailing matters.” It was concluded that the expenses should be chargeable to the War Department. The yearly salary was fixed at 20,000 florins, and for outfit and traveling expenses, 24,000 florins were allowed, together with 12 florins per day from that date until the salary commenced running.

There was a general concurrence of expression in favor of Mr. Pieter Johan van Berckel as the most approved man for the mission. He had been a judge as well as burgomaster of Amsterdam, and was brother of the burgomaster of Rotterdam, it was said of him that he was a native Netherlander; that he ardently maintained the greatness of his vaderland; that he was one who had not been spoiled through pride of position, and that neither himself nor family was controlled by any man; that he had a good many ways suited for success in the new part of the world, and to obtain the favorable regard of a growing people; and that also he understood commercial business.

The Staats General ordered that the government man of-war, the Overissel, commander Captain Riemersma, should be in readiness for the conveyance of Minister van Berckel and his suite. The committee of the navy advised the high officers in charge of the preparation that it would be safer, as well as more respectful to the new republic, to send with the minister a convoy of war ships. In accordance with the suggestion, the man of-war, the Erf Prius, of fifty guns, under the command of Captain Aberson, together with a frigate of thirty-six guns, the Briel, under Captain Bols, and the brigantine, the Windhame, under Lieutenant Coverts, accompanied the minister’s ship to North America to secure for him a safe voyage and to add dignity to his mission and to the country that sent him.

When taking his leave of the Staats General he delivered a parting address, which seems greatly to have pleased the Netherlanders. Here it may be remarked that at the period mentioned ministers from abroad when arriving and home ministers when setting off were received ill open session of the Staats General, and this was also the usage in the United States until the Constitution was adopted.

The spirit of Mr. van Berckel’s address may be inferred from some of its leading ideas, thus substantially expressed:

High and Mighty Seigneurs: I cannot deny that the commission with which you have intrusted me gives me great pleasure. It will afford me opportunity to look at a people who are commencing to grow, and who are in the eye of all Europe, and for the founders of whose government every free Netherlander feels the greatest sympathy—a [Page 849]government organized much like that which our forefathers have bequeathed to us.

These people have shown bravery enough to fight against the greatest power of the earth and have also sacrificed their blood and their treasure to gain their independence. It will be pleasant to me to make known your good feelings to them and to do al in my power to bring closer the friendship of the two republics and to build up the commerce of the two countries. I think that such a mission, sent by order of your highnesses will be received with open arms by a people who have shown since the commencement of the war for independence a feeling to be in close alliance with the government of your highnesses.

In concluding his address, he said:

The fact that I am first selected to go to the new-born among the independent states of high rank—one with which all the nations of Europe are seeking to make treaties—will not blind me from looking carefully to the duties of the new career now opened to me. Setting off in a new way, with no precedents to guide me, I must look diligently to my work.

Gentlemen, it is not strange, therefore, that sometimes I fear I will not be able to meet your expectations. The only thing that can make me easy is this: It is to have your good wishes. My firm resolve is to do all I can to make my mission result in benefit to my vaderland and to secure for commercial citizens all the gains that can be derived. May this new opportunity enable us to recover some of the loss lately experienced.

The portrait of the minister represents him as wearing the gray wig in fashion at that time, with cue pendant, ruffles of lace, and full diplomatic costume.

During the latter part of the summer of 1783, Mr. Pieter Johan van Berckel sailed, attended by the fleet of war ships, and arrived safely at Philadelphia. Before he reached port, news had arrived in America of the signing of the treaty of peace at Paris between the United States and Great Britain. He gave notice of his arrival to the presiding officers of Congress, which was then in session at Princeton, N. J., and asked to be informed when his reception would take place. The last of the month was appointed, at Princeton, a place the historian describes as not much known, but at which Congress was sitting temporarily. The day before the time appointed, Mr. van Berckel set off in his own coach, attended by his suite. When within four miles of Princeton, a company of the Life Guards of Washington met him and escorted him to town, where General Lincoln, Acting Secretary of War, and some prominent members of Congress, received him in the name of Congress and conducted him to the house of the minister of the gospel, which had been made ready for his accommodation. Soon after the presiding officer of Congress called upon him. The next day [October 31, 1783] he drove to the house of Congress in his coach. General Washington, the Minister of Finance, other gentlemen of high position, and ladies of distinction were present to witness the ceremony and to show respect to the first minister from Netherlands.

When the minister was presented to Congress, he addressed the body in the Dutch language. It is stated that although few present understood him clearly, yet that his manner was so pleasant that the impression he made was very good. His exordium was in this strain:

Gentlemen and Members of Congress: Before I make known the duty with which my masters have honored me, allow me to express on this occasion the very great happiness it gives me, not only to be allowed to come before these honorable members, but also to see in the persons of these same honorable members the brave people upon whom the present generation looks with such great admiration, a people who will always be looked upon as model lovers of their country, and whose services can only be rewarded in Heaven. While the whole of Europe is looking upon your undertaking, my masters have felt special sympathy when they remembered the dangers and trials their own forefathers had before they were able to throw off the burden that had so long kept them down. They knew more than other people the value of independence, and could well understand your wishes. They were happy in [Page 850]all your successes with true love for your country, and rejoice in the result which has crowned your labor.

He continued in this agreeable style for some time, and concluded by saying:

For myself I shall try, without secret ways and with that true uprightness which best shows the character of a true republican, to gain the confidence and friendship of your members and the respect of the entire American nation.

When Mr. van Berckel closed he delivered his credentials to Mr. Boudinots as chairman of the body. The book at this stage gives an engraved picture of the minister in the attitude of addressing Congress. While speaking, his chapeau is held under his left arm, and the members are in the continental costume.

Mr. Boudinots in behalf of Congress made an appropriate reply. After this presentation there was a dinner given by order of Congress to the Netherlands minister. Washington, Boudinots, Greene, Wayne, officials of the government, and others were present. On the two following days, Washington and Boudinots each invited the minister to dine, and in great style, as it is stated. Very soon after Mr. van Berckel reciprocated these compliments by giving a grand dinner to officials and the members of Congress.

As confirming this account of the excitement which the arrival of a foreign minister at that time made, I find, by turning to the Madison Papers, that in a letter written by Mr. Madison to Edmund Randolph, and dated, “Princeton, August 30, 1783,” he makes this remark:

During this contest among the rival seats, we are kept in the most awkward situation that can be imagined, and it is the more so, as we every moment expect the Dutch ambassador.

In another letter to Mr. Randolph, dated October 13, 1783, Mr. Madison says:

Mr. van Berckel arrived a few days since. Congress are in a charming situation to receive him, being in an obscure village, undetermined where they will spend the winter, and without a minister of foreign affairs.

As indicating the style which the minister from the Dutch Republic thought would accord with the demands of his position, another letter of Mr. Madison to the same gentleman may be quoted. He says:

In answer to the comment in your last letter on the reception of a minister from the economical republic to which we are allied, it will suffice to inform you that, in pursuance of a commission from him, six elegant horses are provided for his coach, as was to have been one of the best houses in the most fashionable part of the city. Wherever commerce prevails, there will be an inequality of wealth, and wherever the latter does, a simplicity of manners must decline.

Mr. van Berckel continued to serve the Netherlands as minister plenipotentiary for four years, after which he made his residence in Newark N. J., until 1800, when he died.

Some two years ago I collated the facts in regard to Mr. van Berckel at the solicitation of a member of the Historical Society of New York. I have no knowledge of their having been published.

I am, &c.,

  1. Note by the Department of State.—While Mr. van Berckel was the first minister accredited by a republic to the United States, Mr. Conrad Alexander Gerard was the first minister received. Mr. Gerard presented his credentials to the President of Congress as minister plenipotentiary of France July 14, and had his public reception by Congress August 6, 1778. He signed, at Paris February 6, 1778, with Franklin, Deane, and Lee, the treaties of alliance and of amity and commerce between the United States and France. Mr. van Berckel was admitted to an audience by Congress October 31, 1783.
  2. It is deserving of note that the copy of the treaty above referred to, on file in the archives here, shows that the version in English is only signed by John Adams, and the Dutch version only by Dutch plenipotentiaries, and it has been so published in the Dutch books. This oversight would not be tolerated in a modern diplomat. He could at least have it in a neutral language.

    When it reached the Congress of the United States the question arose whether it could be ratified, as neither version was sufficiently signed.

    Mr. Madison in his report of the debates of Congress under date January 23, 1783, speaking of the report of the committee to whom the treaty had been referred, says: “Both the committee and Congress were exceedingly chagrined at the extreme incorrectness of the American copy of this national act, and it was privately talked of as necessary to admonish Mr. Adams therof, and to direct him to procure with the concurrence of the other party a more correct and perspicuous copy. The secretary asked the direction of Congress whether both columns or the American only ought to be inserted. In general, the members seemed to disapprove of the mode used.”

    On the 29th of the same month the errors of the American copy were severely criticised, and Mr. Fitzsimmons proposed to have a revision, and called upon the committee to give some explanation. Mr. Madison, as chairman of the committee, said that besides the incomplete signing, “the inaccuracies and errors consisted of misspelling, foreign idioms, and foreign words, obscurity of the sense, and there would be no objection if Congress were disposed to instruct Mr. Adams to substitute a more correct counterpart in the American language.” Mr. Adams was then a younger man than when he became President.