Front Page Titles (by Subject) 19 April 1790: TO RICHARD PRICE. - The Works of John Adams, vol. 9 (Letters and State Papers 1799-1811)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
19 April 1790: TO RICHARD PRICE. - John Adams, The Works of John Adams, vol. 9 (Letters and State Papers 1799-1811) 
The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). 10 volumes. Vol. 9.
Part of: The Works of John Adams, 10 vols.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
TO RICHARD PRICE.
New York, 19 April, 1790.
My dear Friend,—
Accept of my best thanks for your favor of February 1st, and the excellent discourse1 that came with it. I love the zeal and the spirit which dictated this discourse, and admire the general sentiments of it. From the year 1760 to this hour, the whole scope of my life has been to support such principles and propagate such sentiments. No sacrifices of myself or my family, no dangers, no labors, have been too much for me in this great cause. The revolution in France could not therefore be indifferent to me; but I have learned by awful experience to rejoice with trembling. I know that encyclopedists and economists, Diderot and D’Alembert, Voltaire and Rousseau, have contributed to this great event more than Sidney, Locke, or Hoadley, perhaps more than the American revolution; and I own to you, I know not what to make of a republic of thirty million atheists. The Constitution is but an experiment, and must and will be altered. I know it to be impossible that France should be long governed by it. If the sovereignty is to reside in one assembly, the king, princes of the blood, and principal quality, will govern it at their pleasure as long as they can agree; when they differ, they will go to war, and act over again all the tragedies of Valois, Bourbons, Lorraines, Guises, and Colignis, two hundred years ago. The Greeks sung the praises of Harmodius and Aristogiton for restoring equal laws. Too many Frenchmen, after the example of too many Americans, pant for equality of persons and property. The impracticability of this, God Almighty has decreed, and the advocates for liberty, who attempt it, will surely suffer for it.
I thank you, Sir, for your kind compliment. As it has been the great aim of my life to be useful, if I had any reason to think I was so, as you seem to suppose, it would make me happy. For “eminence” I care nothing; for though I pretend not to be exempt from ambition, or any other human passion, I have been convinced from my infancy and have been confirmed every year and day of my life, that the mechanic and peasant are happier than any nobleman, or magistrate, or king, and that the higher a man rises, if he has any sense of duty, the more anxious he must be. Our new government is an attempt to divide a sovereignty; a fresh essay at imperium in imperio. It cannot, therefore, be expected to be very stable or very firm. It will prevent us for a time from drawing our swords upon each other, and when it will do that no longer, we must call a new Convention to reform it. The difficulty of bringing millions to agree in any measures, to act by any rule, can never be conceived by him who has not tried it. It is incredible how small is the number, in any nation, of those who comprehend any system of constitution or administration, and those few it is wholly impossible to unite. I am a sincere inquirer after truth, but I find very few who discover the same truths. The king of Prussia has found one which has also fallen in my way. “That it is the peculiar quality of the human understanding, that example should correct no man. The blunders of the father are lost to his children, and every generation must commit its own.” I have never sacrificed my judgment to kings, ministers, nor people, and I never will. When either shall see as I do, I shall rejoice in their protection, aid, and honor; but I see no prospect that either will ever think as I do, and therefore I shall never be a favorite with either. I do not desire to be; but I sincerely wish and devoutly pray, that a hundred years of civil wars may not be the portion of all Europe for want of a little attention to the true elements of the science of government. With sentiments, moral sentiments, which are and must be eternal, I am your friend, &c.
TO BENJAMIN RUSH.
New York, 18 April, 1790.
Your letter of April 13th soars above the visible, diurnal sphere. I own to you that avarice, ambition, the love of fame, &c., are all mysterious passions. They are the greatest absurdities, delusions, and follies that can be imagined, if in this life only we had hope. In the boat, on our return from Point-no-Point, the principal topic of conversation was independence. My sentiments on this head were no secret in Congress from May, 1775. An intercepted letter early in 1775 had informed the world that I was for independence. But I was left too much alone. The company in the boat appeared to me then and ever since to have invited me to be of their party that they might all assure me in that confidential manner that they were of my mind and would ultimately support me. There was not one of the company, I believe, who in the course of the passage did not repeatedly assure me that in his opinion we must be independent. That evening’s conversation was a great comfort to me ever after.
How many follies and indiscreet speeches do your minutes in your note-book bring to my recollection, which I had forgotten forever! Alas! I fear I am not yet much more prudent Your character of Mr. Paine is very well and very just. To the accusation against me which you have recorded in your notebook of the 17th of March last, I plead not guilty. I deny an attachment to monarchy, and I deny that I have changed my principles since 1776. No letter of mine to Mr. Hooper was ever printed that I know of. Indeed, I have but a very confused recollection of having ever written him any letter. If any letter has been printed in my name, I desire to see it. You know that a letter of mine to Mr. Wythe was printed by Dunlap, in January, 1776, under the title of “Thoughts on Government, in a letter from a gentleman to his friend.” In that pamphlet I recommended a legislature in three independent branches, and to such a legislature I am still attached. But I own that at that time I understood very little of the subject, and, if I had changed my opinions, should have no scruple to avow it. I own that awful experience has concurred with reading and reflection, to convince me that Americans are more rapidly disposed to corruption in elections that I thought they were fourteen years ago.
My friend Dr. Rush will excuse me, if I caution him against a fraudulent use of the words monarchy and republic. I am a mortal and irreconcilable enemy to monarchy. I am no friend to hereditary limited monarchy in America. This I know can never be admitted without an hereditary Senate to control it, and a hereditary nobility or Senate in America I know to be unattainable and impracticable. I should scarcely be for it, if it were. Do not, therefore, my friend, misunderstand me and misrepresent me to posterity. I am for a balance between the legislative and executive powers, and I am for enabling the executive to be at all times capable of maintaining the balance between the Senate and House, or in other words, between the aristocratical and democratical interests. Yet I am for having all three branches elected at stated periods, and these elections, I hope, will continue until the people shall be convinced that fortune, providence, or chance, call it which you will, is better than election. If the time should come when corruption shall be added to intrigue and manœuvre in elections, and produce civil war, then, in my opinion, chance will be better than choice for all but the House of Representatives.
Accept my thanks for your polite and obliging invitation to Philadelphia. Nothing would give me more pleasure than such a visit; but I must deny myself that satisfaction. I know I have friends in Pennsylvania, and such as I esteem very much as friends of virtue, liberty, and good government. What you mean by “more than British degrees of corruption” at New York, and by “sophisticated government,” I know not. The continent is a kind of whispering gallery, and acts and speeches are reverberated round from New York in all directions. The report is very loud at a distance, when the whisper is very gentle in the centre. But if you see such corruption in your countrymen, on what do you found your hopes? I lament the deplorable condition of my country, which seems to be under such a fatality that the people can agree upon nothing. When they seem to agree, they are so unsteady that it is but for a moment. That changes may be made for the better, is probable. I know of no change that would occasion much danger, but that of President. I wish very heartily that a change of Vice-President could be made to-morrow. I have been too ill-used in the office to be fond of it;—if I had not been introduced into it in a manner that made it a disgrace. I will never serve in it again upon such terms. Though I have acted in public with immense multitudes, I have had few friends, and those certainly not interested ones. These I shall love in public or private. Adieu,
TO ALEXANDER JARDINE.
New York, 1 June, 1790.
I take the opportunity by General Mansell to acknowledge the receipt of your polite letter of the 29th May, 1789, and to present you my thanks for the valuable present of your entertaining travels.1 Your compliments upon so hasty a production as my book, are very flattering. It would give me pleasure to pursue the subject through all the known governments, and to correct or rather new-make the whole work. But my life is destined to labor of a much less agreeable kind. I know not how it is, but mankind have an aversion to the study of the science of government. Is it because the subject is dry? To me, no romance is more entertaining. Those who take the lead in revolutions are seldom well informed, and they commonly take more pains to inflame their own passions and those of society, than to discover truth; and very few of those who have just ideas have the courage to pursue them. I know by experience that in revolutions the most fiery spirits and flighty geniuses frequently obtain more influence than men of sense and judgment, and the weakest men may carry foolish measures in opposition to wise ones proposed by the ablest. France is in great danger from this quarter. The desire of change in Europe is not wonderful. Abuses in religion and government are so numerous and oppressive to the people, that a reformation must take place, or a general decline. The armies of monks, soldiers, and courtiers were become so numerous and costly, that the labor of the rest was not enough to maintain them. Either reformation or depopulation must come.
I am so well satisfied of my own principles, that I think them as eternal and unchangeable as the earth and its inhabitants. I know mankind must finally adopt a balance between the executive and legislative powers, and another balance between the poor and the rich in the legislature, and quarrel till they come to that conclusion. But how long they must quarrel before they agree in the inference, I know not.
TO THOMAS BRAND-HOLLIS.
New York, 1 June, 1790.
Nothing mortifies me more than the difficulty I find to maintain that correspondence with you, which, when I left England, I thought would be some consolation to me for the loss of your conversation.
We proceed by degrees to introduce a little order into this country, and my public duties require so much of my time that I have little left for private friendships, however dear to me. By General Mansell I send you a small packet which will give you some idea of our proceedings. The French seem to be very zealous to follow our example. I wish they may not too exactly copy our greatest errors, and suffer in consequence of them greater misfortunes than ours. They will find themselves under a necessity of treading back some of their too nasty steps, as we have done.
I am situated on the majestic banks of the Hudson, in comparison of which your Thames is but a rivulet, and surrounded with all the beauties and sublimities of nature. Never did I live in so delightful a spot. I would give, what would I not give to see you here? Your library and your cabinets of elegant and costly curiosities would be an addition to such a situation, which in this country would attract the attention of all. In Europe they are lost in the crowd. Come over and purchase a paradise here, and be the delight and admiration of a new world. Marry one of our fine girls, and leave a family to do honor to human nature, when you can do it no longer in person. Franklin is no more, and we have lately trembled for Washington. Thank God, he has recovered from a dangerous sickness and is likely now to continue many years. His life is of vast importance for us. Is there any probability of a fermentation in England, sufficient to carry off any of her distempers? I wish her happy and prosperous, but I wish she would adopt the old maxim, “Live and let live.” Will there be a complete revolution in Europe, both in religion and government? Where will the present passions and principles lead, and in what will they end? In more freedom and humanity, I am clear. But when or how? My affectionate regards to Dr. Price, and all our good friends; and believe me yours dum spiro, &c.
Rhode Island is to become one of us, on the 29th May.
TO THOMAS BRAND-HOLLIS.
New York, 11 June, 1790.
I have received your kind letter of March 29th, and the packet of pamphlets, and I pray you to accept of my best thanks for both. I sent you lately, by General Mansell, some of our rough matters. The boxes of books you sent by Captain Bernard, arrived safely, I know. You seem to suppose our coast in danger from African pirates. In this I presume you are deceived by the artifices of the London insurance offices, for we are in no more danger than the empire of China is. The great revolution in France is wonderful, but not supernatural. The hand of Providence is in it, I doubt not, working, however, by natural and ordinary means, such as produced the reformation in religion in the sixteenth century. That all men have one common nature, is a principle which will now universally prevail, and equal rights and equal duties will in a just sense, I hope, be inferred from it. But equal ranks and equal property never can be inferred from it, any more than equal understanding, agility, vigor, or beauty. Equal laws are all that ever can be derived from human equality. I am delighted with Doctor Price’s sermon on patriotism; but there is a sentiment or two which I should explain a little. He guards his hearers and readers very judiciously against the extreme of adulation and contempt. “The former is the extreme,” he says, “to which mankind in general have been most prone.” The generality of rulers have treated men as your English jockeys treat their horses, convinced them first that they were their masters, and next that they were their friends; at least they have pretended to do so. Mankind have, I agree, behaved too much like horses; been rude, wild, and mad, until they were mastered, and then been too tame, gentle, and dull. I think our friend should have stated it thus. The great and perpetual distinction in civilized societies, has been between the rich, who are few, and the poor, who are many. When the many are masters, they are too unruly, and then the few are too tame, and afraid to speak out the truth. When the few are masters, they are too severe, and then the many are too servile. This is the strict truth. The few have had most art and union, and therefore have generally prevailed in the end. The inference of wisdom from these premises is, that neither the poor nor the rich should ever be suffered to be masters. They should have equal power to defend themselves; and that their power may be always equal, there should be an independent mediator between them, always ready, always able, and always interested to assist the weakest. Equal laws can never be made or maintained without this balance. You see I still hold fast my scales, and weigh every thing in them. The French must finally become my disciples, or rather the disciples of Zeno, or they will have no equal laws, no personal liberty, no property, no lives.
I am very much employed in business, and this must be my apology for neglecting so much to write to you; but I will be as good a correspondent as I can. I hope you will not forget your old friend. In this country the pendulum has vibrated too far to the popular side, driven by men without experience or judgment, and horrid ravages have been made upon property by arbitrary multitudes or majorities of multitudes. France has severe trials to endure from the same cause. Both have found, or will find, that to place property at the mercy of a majority who have no property, is “committere agnum lupo.” My fundamental maxim of government is, never to trust the lamb to the custody of the wolf. If you are not perfectly of my mind at present, I hereby promise and assure you that you will live to see that I am precisely right. Thus arrogantly concludes your assured friend.
TO THOMAS WELSH.
New York, 13 September, 1790.
My dear Dr. Welsh,—
I received your letter before my departure for Philadelphia, but had not time to answer it. It is not probable that any special agents will be employed in the business you had in contemplation. The board consists of men who will study economy in that as well as in all other affairs committed to their charge, and therefore the loan officers or collectors, or some other known character, will have this additional duty annexed to him without any other reward than the honor of it, as I suppose. I have much satisfaction in finding my son in your family. What the conjunctions and oppositions of two such political planets may produce, I know not. Politics are bred in the bones of both of you; but your good example will teach him, I hope, to take politics by way of amusement or spectacle, without ever suffering their interference with your professions. I recollect the painful years I suffered from 1758, when I was sworn at Boston, to the year 1761, too perfectly not to sympathize with John. Do not let him flatter himself with hopes of a run of business, which is neither to be expected, nor would be beneficial. His business is to study and be constant to his office, and in court. Causes and clients will come soon enough for his benefit, if he does that. “My knowledge of the law cost me seven years’ hard study in that great chair,” said John Read, who had as great a genius and became as eminent as any man. “Attend to the study of the law rather than the gain of it,” said my master Gridley to me; and I recollect the precept with sufficient pleasure to recommend it to any of my sons. I can ill afford to maintain my sons at their studies, but I had rather do that than have them overwhelmed with a run of business, at first, which must put an end to their studies. If a father’s partiality has not deceived me very much, John is as great a scholar as this country has produced at his age, and I know he possesses a spirit that will not stoop to dishonorable practice or conduct. I am therefore perfectly at ease in my mind about his success. Whether his reputation spreads this year, or two or three years hence, is indifferent to me, provided his anxiety does not injure his health. I have seen too many flashing insects in my day glitter and glare for a moment, and then disappear, to wish that my sons may add to the number.
[1 ]On the Love of Country. This sermon was the occasion of Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution.
[1 ]Letters from Barbary, France, Spain, Portugal, &c., in two volumes.