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SELECTIONS FROM ADAM'S CORRESSPONDENCE

by John Adams

 

SOON after the Reformationa few people came over into this new world forconscience' sake. Perhaps this apparently trivial incident may transfer thegreat seat of empire into America. It looks likely to me: for if we can removethe turbulent Gallicksour peopleaccording to the exactest computationswillin another century become more numerous than England itself. Should this be thecasesince we haveI may sayall the naval stores of the nation in our handsit will be easy to obtain the mastery of the seas; and then the united force ofall Europe will not be able to subdue us. The only way to keep us from settingup for ourselves is to disunite us. Divide et impera. Keep us in distinctcoloniesand thensome great men in each colony desiring the monarchyof thewholethey will destroy each others' influence and keep the country ineqilibrio.

Be not surprised that I am turned politician. This whole town is immersed inpolitics. The interests of nationsand all the dira of warmake the subject ofevery conversation. I sit and hearand after having been led through a maze ofsage observationsI sometimes retireand by laying things togetherform somereflections pleasing to myself. The produce of one of these reveries you haveread above. Different employments and different objects may have drawn yourthoughts other ways. I shall think myself happyif in your turn you communicateyour lucubrations to me.

I wrote you some time sinceand have waited with impatience for an answerbut have been disappointed.

I hope that the lady at Barnstable has not made you forget your friend.FriendshipI take itis one of the distinguishing glories of man; and thecreature that is insensible of its charmsthough he may wear the shape of amanis unworthy of the character. In thisperhapswe bear a nearerresemblance to unembodied intelligences than in anything else. From this Iexpect to receive the chief happiness of my future life; and am sorry thatfortune has thrown me at such a distance from those of my friends who have thehighest place in my affections. But thus it isand I must submit. But I hopeere long to returnand live in that familiarity that has from earliest infancysubsisted between yourself and affectionate friend

JOHN ADAMS. WORCESTER12 October1755.

To James Sullivanon Popular Suffrage

IT is certainin theorythat the only moral foundation of government isthe consent of the people. But to what an extent shall we carry this principle?Shall we say that every individual of the communityold and youngmale andfemaleas well as rich and poormust consentexpresslyto every act oflegislation? Noyou will saythis is impossible. Howthendoes the rightarise in the majority to govern the minorityagainst their will? Whence arisesthe right of the men to govern the womenwithout their consent? Whence theright of the old to bind the youngwithout theirs?

But let us first suppose that the whole communityof every ageranksexand conditionhas a right to vote. This community is assembled. A motion ismadeand carried by a majority of one voice. The minority will not agree tothis. Whence arises the right of the majority to governand the obligation ofthe minority to obey?

From necessityyou will saybecause there can be no other rule.

But why exclude women?

You will saybecause their delicacy renders them unfit for practice andexperience in the great businesses of lifeand the hardy enterprises of waraswell as the arduous cares of state. Besidestheir attention is so much engagedwith the necessary nurture of their childrenthat nature has made them fittestfor domestic cares. And children have not judgment or will of their own. True.But will not these reasons apply to others? Is it not equally truethat men ingeneralin every societywho are wholly destitute of propertyare also toolittle acquainted with public affairs to form a right judgmentand toodependent upon other men to have a will of their own? If this is a factif yougive to every man who has no propertya votewill you not make a fineencouraging provision for corruptionby your fundamental law? Such is thefrailty of the human heartthat very few men who have no propertyhave anyjudgment of their own. They talk and vote as they are directed by some man ofpropertywho has attached their minds to his interest

Upon my wordSirI have long thought an army a piece of clockworkand tobe governed only by principles and maximsas fixed as any in mechanics; andbyall that I have read in the history of mankindand in authors who havespeculated upon society and governmentI am much inclined to think a governmentmust manage a society in the same manner and that this is machinery too.

Harrington has shown that power always follows property. This I believe to beas infallible a maxim in politicsas that action and reaction are equalis inmechanics. NayI believe we may

advance one step fartherand affirm that the balance of power in a societyaccompanies the balance of property in land. The only possible waythenofpreserving the balance of power on the side of equal liberty and public virtueis to make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society; to make adivision of the land into small quantitiesso that the multitude may bepossessed of landed estates. If the multitude is possessed of the balance ofreal estatethe multitude will have the balance of powerand in that case themultitude will take care of the libertyvirtueand interest of the multitudein all acts of government

I believe these principles have been feltif not understoodin theMassachusetts Bayfrom the beginning; and therefore I should think that wisdomand policy would dictate in these times to be very cautious of makingalterations. Our people have never been very rigid in scrutinizing into thequalifications of votersand I presume they will not now begin to be so. But Iwould not advise them to make any alteration in the lawsat presentrespectingthe qualifications of voters.

Your idea that those laws which affect the lives and personal liberty of allor which inflict corporal punishmentaffect those who are not qualified tovoteas well as those who areis just. But so they do womenas well as men;childrenas well as adults. What reason should there be for excluding a man oftwenty years eleven months and twenty-seven days oldfrom a vote. when youadmit one who is twenty-one? The reason isyou must fix upon some period inlifewhen the understanding and will of men in generalis fit to be trusted bythe public. Will not the same reason justify the state in fixing upon somecertain quantity of propertyas a qualification?

The same reasoning which will induce you to admit all men who have nopropertyto votewith those who havefor those laws which affect the personwill prove that you ought to admit women and children; forgenerally speakingwomen and children have as good judgmentsand as independent mindsas thosemen who are wholly destitute of property; these last being to all intents andpurposes as much dependent upon otherswho will please to feedclotheandemploy themas women are upon their husbandsor children on their parents.PHILADELPHIA26 May1776.

To His Wifeon the Birth of the New Nation

YESTERDAYthe greatest question was decidedwhich ever was debated inAmericaand a greaterperhapsnever was nor will be decided among men. Aresolution was passed without one dissenting colony"that these UnitedColonies areand of right ought to befree and independent Statesand as suchthey haveand of right ought to havefull power to make warconclude peaceestablish commerceand to do all other acts and things which other States mayrightfully do." You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth thecauses which have impelled us to this mighty revolutionand the reasons whichwill justify it in the sight of God and man. A plan of confederation will betaken up in a few days.

When I look back to the year 1761and recollect the argument concerningwrits of assistance in the superior courtwhich I have hitherto considered asthe commencement of this controversy between Great Britain and Americaand runthrough the whole periodfrom that time to thisand recollect the series ofpolitical eventsthe chain of causes and effectsI am surprised at thesuddenness as well as greatness of this revolution. Britain has been filled withfollyand America with wisdom. At leastthis is my judgment. Time mustdetermine. It is the will of Heaven that the two countries should be sunderedforever. It may be the will of Heaven that America shall suffer calamities stillmore wastingand distresses yet more dreadful. If this is to be the caseitwill have this good effect at least. It will inspire us with many virtueswhichwe have notand correct many errorsfollies and vices which threaten todisturbdishonorand destroy us. The furnace of affliction produces refinementin States as well as individuals. And the new governments we are assuming inevery part will require a purification from our vicesand an augmentation ofour virtuesor they will be no blessings. The people will have unbounded powerand the people are extremely addicted to corruption and venalityas well as thegreat. But I must submit all my hopes and fears to an overruling Providenceinwhichunfashionable as the faith may beI firmly believe.

Had a Declaration of Independency been made seven months agoit would havebeen attended with many great and glorious effects. We mightbefore this hourhave formed alliances with foreign States. We should have mastered Quebecandbeen in possession of CanadaYou will perhaps wonder how such a declarationwould have influenced our affairs in Canadabut if I could write with freedomI could easily convince you that it wouldand explain to you the manner how.Many gentlemen in high stations and of great influence have been duped by theministerial bubble of commissioners to treat. And in realsincere expectationof this eventwhich they so fondly wishedthey have been slow and languid inpromoting measures for the reduction of that provinceOthers there are in thecolonies who really wished that our enterprise in Canada would be defeatedthatthe colonies might be brought into danger and distress between two firesand bethus induced to submit. Others really wished to defeat the expedition to Canadalest the conquest of it should elevate the minds of the people too much tohearken to those terms of reconciliationwhichthey believedwould be offeredus. These jarring viewswishesand designsoccasioned an opposition to manysalutary measureswhich were proposed for the support of that expeditionandcaused obstructionsembarrassmentsand studied delayswhich have finally lostus the province.

All these causeshoweverin conjunctionwould not have disappointed usifit had not been for a misfortune which could not be foreseenandperhapscould not have been prevented- I mean the prevalence of the small-pox among ourtroops. This fatal pestilence completed our destruction. It is a frown ofProvidence upon uswhich we ought to lay to heart.

Buton the other handthe delay of this declaration to this time has manygreat advantages attending it. The hopes of reconciliationwhich were fondlyentertained by multitudes of honest and well-meaningthough weak and mistakenpeoplehave been gradually andat lasttotally extinguished. Time has been

for the whole people maturely to consider the great question of independenceand to ripen their judgmentdissipate their fearsand allure their hopesbydiscussing it in newspapers and pamphletsby debating it in assembliesconventionscommittees of safety and inspectionin town and county meetingsas well as in private conversationsso that the whole peoplein every colonyof the thirteenhave now adopted it as their own act. This will cement theunionand avoid those heatsand perhaps convulsionswhich might have beenoccasioned by such a declaration six months ago.

But the day is past. The second day of July1776will be the most memorableepocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebratedby succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to becommemoratedas the day of deliveranceby solemn acts of devotion to GodAlmighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and paradewith showsgamessportsgunsbellsbonfiresand illuminationsfrom one end of this continentto the otherfrom this time forwardforevermore.

You will think me transported with enthusiasmbut I am not. I am well awareof the toiland bloodand treasurethat it will cost us to maintain thisdeclarationand support and defend these States. Yetthrough all the gloomIcan see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is morethan worth all the meansand that posterity will triumph in that day'stransactioneven although we should rue itwhich I trust in God we shall not.PHILADELPHIA3 July1776.

To Benjamin Rushon Mrs. Adam's Patriotism

WHEN I went home to my family in May1770from the town meeting in Bostonwhich was the first I had ever attendedand where I had been chosen in myabsencewithout any solicitationone of their representativesI said to mywife"I have accepted a seat in the House of Representativesand therebyhave consented to my own ruinto your ruinand the ruin of our children. Igive you this warningthat you may prepare your mind for your fate" Sheburst into tearsbut instantly cried out in a transport of magnanimity"WellI am willing in this cause to run all risks with youand be ruined with youifyou are ruined." These were timesmy friendin Bostonwhich triedwomen's souls as well as men's.... QUINCY12 April1809.

To Timothy Pickeringwith an Account of a Famous Document

YOU inquire why so young a man as Mr. Jefferson was placed at the head of theCommittee for preparing a Declaration of Inde- pendence? I answer: It was theFrankfort adviceto place Virginia at the head of everything. Mr. Richard HenryLee might be gone to Virginiato his sick familyfor aught I knowbut thatwas not the reason of Mr. Jefferson's appointment. There were three committeesappointed at the same time. One for the Declaration of Independenceanother forpreparing articles of Confederationand another for preparing a treaty to beproposed to France. Mr. Lee was chosen for the Committee of Confederationandit was not thought convenient that the same person should be upon both. Mr.Jefferson came into Congressin June1775and brought with him a reputationfor literaturescienceand a happy talent of composition. Writings of his werehanded aboutremarkable for the peculiar felicity of expression. Though asilent member in Congresshe was so promptfrankexplicitand decisive uponcom- mittees and in conversationnot even Samuel Adams was more sothat hesoon seized upon my heart; and upon this occasion I gave him my voteand didall in my power to procure the votes of others. I think he had one more votethan any otherand that placed him at the head of the committee. I had the nexthighest numberand that placed me the second. The committee metdiscussed thesubjectand then appointed Mr. Jefferson and me to make the draftI supposebecause we were the two first on the list.

The sub-committee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said"I will not." "You should do it." "Oh! no." "Whywill you not? You ought to do it." "I will not." "Why?""Reasons enough." "What can be your reasons?" "Reasonfirst - You are a Virginianand a Virginian ought to appear at the head of thisbusiness. Reason seeond - I am obnoxioussuspectedand unpopular. You are verymuch otherwise. Reason third - You can write ten times better than I can.""Well" said Jefferson"if you are decidedI will do as well asI can." "Very well. When you have drawn it upwe will have ameeting."

A meeting we accordingly hadand conned the paper over. I was delighted withits high tone and the flights of oratorywith which it aboundedespeciallythat concerning negro slaverywhichthough I knew his Southern brethren wouldnever suffer to pass in CongressI certainly never would oppose. There wereother expressions which I would not have insertedif I had drawn it upparticularly that which called the King tyrant. I thought this too personal; forI never believed George to be a tyrant in disposition and in nature; I alwaysbelieved him to be deceived by his courtiers on both sides of the Atlanticandin his official capacity onlycruel. I thought the expression too passionateand too much like scoldingfor so grave and solemn a document; but as Franklinand Sherman were to inspect it afterwardsI thought it would not become me tostrike it out. I consented to report itand do not now remember that I made orsuggested a single alteration.

We reported it to the committee of five. It was readand I do not rememberthat Franklin or Sherman criticised anything. We were all in haste. Congress wasimpatientand the instrument was reportedas I believein Jefferson'shandwritingas he first drew it. Congress cut off about a quarter of itas Iexpected they would; but they obliterated some of the best of itand left allthat was exceptionableif anything in it was. I have long wondered that theoriginal draft has not been published. I suppose the reason isthe vehementphilippic against negro slavery.

As you justly observethere is not an idea in it but what had been hackneyedin Congress for two years before. 'The substance of it is contained in thedeclaration of rights and the violation of those rightsin the Journals ofCongressin 1774. Indeedthe essence of it is contained in a pamphletvotedand printed by the town of Bostonbefore the first Congress metcomposed byJames

for the whole people maturely to consider the great question of independenceand to ripen their judgmentdissipate their fearsand allure their hopesbydiscussing it in newspapers and pamphletsby debating it in assembliesconventionscommittees of safety and inspectionin town and county meetingsas well as in private conversationsso that the whole peoplein every colonyof the thirteenhave now adopted it as their own act. This will cement theunionand avoid those heatsand perhaps convulsionswhich might have beenoccasioned by such a declaration six months ago.

But the day is past. The second day of July1776will be the most memorableepocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebratedby succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to becommemoratedas the day of deliveranceby solemn acts of devotion to GodAlmighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and paradewith showsgamessportsgunsbellsbonfiresand illuminationsfrom one end of this continentto the otherfrom this time forwardforevermore.

You will think me transported with enthusiasmbut I am not. I am well awareof the toiland bloodand treasurethat it will cost us to maintain thisdeclarationand support and defend these States. Yetthrough all the gloomIcan see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is morethan worth all the meansand that posterity will triumph in that day'stransactioneven although we should rue itwhich I trust in God we shall not.PHILADELPHIA3 July1776.

To Benjamin Rushon Mrs. Adam's Patriotism

WHEN I went home to my family in May1770from the town meeting in Bostonwhich was the first I had ever attendedand where I had been chosen in myabsencewithout any solicitationone of their representativesI said to mywife"I have accepted a seat in the House of Representativesand therebyhave consented to my own ruinto your ruinand the ruin of our children. Igive you this warningthat you may prepare your mind for your fate" Sheburst into tearsbut instantly cried out in a transport of magnanimity"WellI am willing in this cause to run all risks with youand be ruinedwith youif you are ruined." These were timesmy friendin Bostonwhichtried women's souls as well as men's.... QUINCY12 April1809.

To Timothy Pickeringwith an Account of a Famous Document

YOU inquire why so young a man as Mr. Jefferson was placed at the head of theCommittee for preparing a Declaration of Inde- pendence? I answer: It was theFrankfort adviceto place Virginia at the head of everything. Mr. Richard HenryLee might be gone to Virginiato his sick familyfor aught I knowbut thatwas not the reason of Mr. Jefferson's appointment. There were three committeesappointed at the same time. One for the Declaration of Independenceanother forpreparing articles of Confederationand another for preparing a treaty to beproposed to France. Mr. Lee was chosen for the Committee of Confederationandit was not thought convenient that the same person should be upon both. Mr.Jefferson came into Congressin June1775and brought with him a reputationfor literaturescienceand a happy talent of composition. Writings of his werehanded aboutremarkable for the peculiar felicity of expression. Though asilent member in Congresshe was so promptfrankexplicitand decisive uponcom- mittees and in conversationnot even Samuel Adams was more sothat hesoon seized upon my heart; and upon this occasion I gave him my voteand didall in my power to procure the votes of others. I think he had one more votethan any otherand that placed him at the head of the committee. I had the nexthighest numberand that placed me the second. The committee metdiscussed thesubjectand then appointed Mr. Jefferson and me to make the draftI supposebecause we were the two first on the list.

The sub-committee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said"I will not." "You should do it." "Oh! no.""Why will you not? You ought to do it." "I will not.""Why?" "Reasons enough." "What can be yourreasons?" "Reason first - You are a Virginianand a Virginian oughtto appear at the head of this business. Reason seeond - I am obnoxioussuspectedand unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third - You canwrite ten times better than I can." "Well" said Jefferson"if you are decidedI will do as well as I can." "Very well.When you have drawn it upwe will have a meeting."

A meeting we accordingly hadand conned the paper over. I was delighted withits high tone and the flights of oratorywith which it aboundedespeciallythat concerning negro slaverywhichthough I knew his Southern brethren wouldnever suffer to pass in CongressI certainly never would oppose. There wereother expressions which I would not have insertedif I had drawn it upparticularly that which called the King tyrant. I thought this too personal; forI never believed George to be a tyrant in disposition and in nature; I alwaysbelieved him to be deceived by his courtiers on both sides of the Atlanticandin his official capacity onlycruel. I thought the expression too passionateand too much like scoldingfor so grave and solemn a document; but as Franklinand Sherman were to inspect it afterwardsI thought it would not become me tostrike it out. I consented to report itand do not now remember that I made orsuggested a single alteration.

We reported it to the committee of five. It was readand I do not rememberthat Franklin or Sherman criticised anything. We were all in haste. Congress wasimpatientand the instrument was reportedas I believein Jefferson'shandwritingas he first drew it. Congress cut off about a quarter of itas Iexpected they would; but they obliterated some of the best of itand left allthat was exceptionableif anything in it was. I have long wondered that theoriginal draft has not been published. I suppose the reason isthe vehementphilippic against negro slavery.

As you justly observethere is not an idea in it but what had been hackneyedin Congress for two years before. 'The substance of it is contained in thedeclaration of rights and the violation of those rightsin the Journals ofCongressin 1774. Indeedthe essence of it is contained in a pamphletvotedand printed by the town of Bostonbefore the first Congress metcomposed byJames

Otisas I supposein one of his lucid intervalsand pruned and polished bySamuel Adams.

Your friend and humble servant 6 August1822.

To John Quincy Adamson His Election to the Presidency

MY DEAR SON: I have received your letter of the 9th. Never did I feel so muchsolemnity as upon this occasion. The multitude of my thoughtsand the intensityof my feelings are too much for a mind like minein its ninetieth year. May theblessing of God Almighty continue to protect you to the end of your lifeas ithas hereto- fore protected you in so remarkable a manner from your cradle! Ioffer the same prayer for your lady and your familyand am your affectionatefather

JOHN ADAMS. QUINCY18 February1825.

The End