Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1 May 1807: TO BENJAMIN RUSH. - The Works of John Adams, vol. 9 (Letters and State Papers 1799-1811)
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1 May 1807: TO BENJAMIN RUSH. - 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.
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TO BENJAMIN RUSH.
Quincy, 1 May, 1807.
* * * * * * * * * * *
If credit can be given to Judge Innes’s deposition and Sebastian’s conviction, it is certain that Spain has tampered in the United States, and if she tampered once before with others, she might a second time with Burr. If I was convinced of his guilt of treason or treasonable intentions, I should infer that he was employed by Spain.
You ask me, if I do not sometimes imprecate evils on the day on which I became a politician. I have endeavored to recollect that day. It is a remote one. A mighty impression was made upon my little head at the time of the expedition against Cape Breton under General Pepperell in 1745, and on the approach of the Duke d’Enville’s armament against Boston. But I have only my memory to testify so early. An odd accident has within a month brought to light the inclosed letter, which has lain fifty-one years and a half in darkness and silence, in dust and oblivion.1 Pray tell me your reflections on the sight of this droll phenomenon. I fancy they will be, first, what would our tories and quakers and proprietors have said of this letter, had it been published in 1774, 5, or 6? But I will not guess at any more of your observations. You shall make them yourself and relate them to me. But I will make my own remarks first, and submit them to you.
1. Paine, in “Common Sense,” says, that nobody in America ever thought, till he revealed to them the mighty truth, that America would ever be independent. I remember not the words, but this is the sense as I remember it. This I have always, at all times and in all places, contradicted, and have affirmed that the idea of American independence, sooner or later, and of the necessity of it some time or other, was always familiar to gentlemen of reflection in all parts of America, and I spoke of my own knowledge in this province.
2. I very distinctly remember, that in the war of 1755, a union of the colonies, to defend themselves against the encroachments of the French, was the general wish of the gentlemen with whom I conversed, and it was the opinion of some that we could defend ourselves, and even conquer Canada, better without England than with her, if she would but allow us to unite and exert our strength, courage, and skill, diffident as we were of the last.
3. It was the fear of this union of the colonies, which was indeed commenced in a Congress at Albany, which induced the English to take the war into their own hands.
4. The war was so ill conducted by Shirley, Lord Loudon, Braddock, and all other British commanders, till Wolfe and Amherst came forward, that the utmost anxiety prevailed, and a thousand panics were spread lest the French should overrun us all. All this time I was not alone in wishing that we were unshackled by Britain, and left to defend ourselves.
5. The treatment of the provincial officers and soldiers by the British officers during that war made the blood boil in my veins.
6. Notwithstanding all this, I had no desire of independence as long as Britain would do us justice. I knew it must be an obstinate struggle, and saw no advantage in it as long as Britain should leave our liberties inviolate.
7. Jefferson has acquired such glory by his declaration of independence in 1776, that I think I may boast of my declaration of independence in 1755, twenty-one years older than his.
8. Our governor elect, in his biographical sketch of Samuel Adams, ascribes to him the honor of the first idea and project of independence. In 1755, when my letter to Dr. Webb was written, I had never seen the face of Samuel Adams.
9. The English, the Scotch, the tories, and hyperfederalists will rebellow their execrations against me as a rebel from my infancy, and a plotter of independence more than half a hundred years ago.
10. The present ruling party in the United States will repeat, renew, and redouble their curses and sarcasms against me for having meditated the ruin of this country from a boy, from a mere chicken in the eggshell, by building a navy under pretence of protecting our commerce and seaports, but in reality only as a hobby-horse for myself to ride and to increase my patronage. For there can be no doubt but the boy, though not yet twenty years old, and though pinched and starved in a stingy country school, fully expected to be King of North America, and to marry his daughter to the Prince of Wales, and his son, John Quincy, to the princess royal of England.
11. There can be no doubt but this letter, puerile and childish as it is, will make a distinguished figure in the memoirs of my life. A grave and important question arises on a point of chronology, whether it should be inserted in the month of October, 1755, the time of its birth, or in the month of April, 1807, the time of its resurrection. As you have advised me to write my own life, you must resolve this question for me, for it is too perplexed for my judgment to determine.
12. You may depend upon its authenticity, for I have copied it from the original, to every word and almost every letter of which I can attest, and so might any one else, who should compare it with this, from the similarity of hand and composition.
13. Vive la bagatelle!
Now, Sir, to be serious, I do not curse the day when I engaged in public affairs. I do not say when I became a politician, for that I never was. I cannot repent of any thing I ever did conscientiously and from a sense of duty. I never engaged in public affairs for my own interest, pleasure, envy, jealousy, avarice, or ambition, or even the desire of fame. If any of these had been my motive, my conduct would have been very different. In every considerable transaction of my public life, I have invariably acted according to my best judgment, and I can look up to God for the sincerity of my intentions. How, then, is it possible I can repent? Notwithstanding this, I have an immense load of errors, weaknesses, follies, and sins to mourn over and repent of, and these are the only afflictions of my present life.
But, notwithstanding all, St. Paul and Dr. Barrow have taught me to rejoice evermore, and be content. This phrase, “rejoice evermore,” shall never be out of my heart, memory, or mouth again, as long as I live, if I can help it. This is my perfectibility of man.
Your “palace of ice” is a most admirable image. I agree that you and I have been employed in building a palace of ice. However, if we did not believe it to be marble, or silver, or gold, or ivory, or alabaster, or stone, or brick, we both thought it good, sound white oak, which would shelter its inhabitants from the inclemency of the weather, and last a long time. But the heat of the climate in summer has proved it to have been ice. It is all melted to water.
P. S. I forgot a principal point I had in view when I sat down; that is, to congratulate you that the Queen of Etruria has fallen in love with you. Tell Mrs. Rush that I congratulate her that the Queen of Sheba is not likely to visit Solomon at Philadelphia.
TO WILLIAM HEATH.
Quincy, 11 May, 1807.
I read in the Chronicle, some time ago, two speculations with the signature of A Military Countryman, and I read them with great pleasure for two very substantial reasons, one of which is that I cordially approved and coincided with every sentiment and every expression in them. The other was, that I knew at once that General Heath was the writer of them. How did you know that, you will ask. I answer, by the style, by the signature, and by the motto. I need not enlarge on the two former, but of the latter I can give you a piece of history. Not much less than thirty years ago, you wrote me a letter in which you quoted the King of Prussia’s maxim, “that the entire prosperity of every State rests on the discipline of its armies.” I had read this in the King of Prussia’s writings before, and was now so struck with it, and thought it so apposite to the exigencies of the times, that I made Edes and Gill insert it as a motto to their Boston Gazette, where it shone to the end of the war. You never knew till now from whence it came, and perhaps least of all suspected that it came from yourself. The maxim is certainly true in a sense; but what is that sense? The King of Prussia was a soldier, a general, and an absolute monarch, whose existence depended on the discipline of his armies, and therefore might adopt this maxim in a sense too absolute. The Pope and his cardinals would probably say that “the entire prosperity of every State depends upon the discipline of the Catholic church.” The archbishops and bishops of England would say, “the entire prosperity of every State depends on subscription to the thirty-nine articles.” The Presbyterians in America might say, the entire prosperity of the State depends on observance of the result of synods, assemblies of the clergy, &c. Christians in general might say, that the entire prosperity of the State depends on the religious observation of the sabbath. Men of the most enlarged minds and extensive views may say that the entire prosperity of a State depends on a strict attention in making matrimony be honored and respected. The abuses of marriage, these men will say, are the original source of all corruptions of morals; and without pure morals there can be no prosperity. The American yeomanry say at this day, the entire prosperity of the State depends on agriculture. The American merchants say that it depends on commerce. The lawyers say that it depends on a government of laws and not of men. Philosophers of the deepest reflection will say that wealth and power are not prosperity, and that pure prosperity depends on pure morals. The King of Prussia’s maxim is a remnant of the old system, that that order of men who have for their object the defence of the State, ought to enjoy its principal honors, dignities, and emoluments. But, my friend, let me observe to you that on this principle have been founded systems, which will not succeed in this age, either in America or Europe. Hereditary monarchies, hereditary nobilities, originate from this source. Of all professions in society, the military have the most to fear from luxury and effeminacy. Military men, therefore, have been forbidden commerce and all other means of acquiring wealth. Glory has been the only object permitted them. But no men were found who would fight for mere personal glory; and therefore they have been permitted to glory in their birth, and in transmitting their honors to posterity.
But commerce has produced an entire revolution in the sentiments of mankind. Honor and glory are too meagre a diet to feed officers or soldiers in this age. Money they will have, or you will have neither discipline nor army. Even in England, and much more in France, the reward of nobility will not do to excite exertion without money, in the shape of prizes, plunder, or pillage.
These, however, are but airy amusements of speculation; my principal design was to express to you my thanks for communicating your sentiments to the public, and to assure you that I think with you. Some fortifications to our seaports I think indispensable; some soldiers, especially artillery men, to garrison the fortresses. Armies were always my aversion, however I may have been belied. Some frigates to defend our sea-coasts from insult, and protect our commerce in the West Indies from pirates. Seventy-fours never had my approbation. My judgment was always in favor of frigates, and of them but a moderate number. A general attention to the militia and its instruction and discipline. In these sentiments, if I understand you, we are agreed; and I think it is time for the antediluvian patriarchs to interchange sentiments with each other. We have passed the river and the Red Sea, and escaped from the house of bondage, but we shall never see the promised land. We are still wandering in the wilderness, however secure we may think ourselves.
TO BENJAMIN RUSH.
Quincy, 21 May, 1807.
My not preserving a copy of my letter to Doctor Nathan Webb (for he was a physician) is no wonder, for I never kept a copy of any letter till I became a member of Congress, in 1774. The observation of your son Richard is very shrewd, and, unfortunately for me, very just. There are the same marks of haste, and heedless inattention to style, which have characterized all my writings to this day.
I have always laughed at the affectation of representing American independence as a novel idea, as a modern discovery, as a late invention. The idea of it as a possible thing, as a probable event, nay, as a necessary and unavoidable measure, in case Great Britain should assume an unconstitutional authority over us, has been familiar to Americans from the first settlement of the country, and was as well understood by Governor Winthrop in 1675,1 as by Governor Samuel Adams, when he told you that independence had been the first wish of his heart for seven years. I suppose he dated from 1768, when the board of commissioners arrived and landed in Boston under the protection of nine ships of war and four thousand regular troops. A couplet has been repeated with rapture, as long as I can remember, which was imputed to Dean Berkeley. The first line I have forgot, but the last was,
“And empire rises where the sun descends;1
This was public many years before my letter of 1755 to Doctor Webb. In 1760, Colonel Josiah Quincy, the grandfather of Josiah Quincy, now a member of Congress from Boston, read to me a letter he had then just received from a Mr. Turner, I believe one of the first mercantile houses in London, congratulating him on the surrender of Montreal to General Amherst, and the final conquest of Canada, “as a great event to America, not only by insuring her tranquillity and repose, but as facilitating and advancing your (Colonel Quincy’s) country’s rise to independence and empire.” Within the course of the year before the meeting of Congress, in 1774, on a journey to some of our circuit courts in Massachusetts, I stopped one night at a tavern in Shrewsbury, about forty miles from Boston, and as I was cold and wet, I sat down at a good fire in the bar-room to dry my great coat and saddle-bags till a fire could be made in my chamber. There presently came in, one after another, half a dozen, or half a score, substantial yeomen of the neighborhood, who, sitting down to the fire after lighting their pipes, began a lively conversation upon politics. As I believed I was unknown to all of them, I sat in total silence to hear them. One said, “The people of Boston are distracted!” Another answered, “No wonder the people of Boston are distracted. Oppression will make wise men mad.” A third said, “What would you say, if a fellow should come to your house and tell you he was come to take a list of your cattle, that parliament might tax you for them at so much a head? and how should you feel, if he was to go and break open your barn, to take down your oxen, cows, horses, and sheep?” “What should I say?” replied the first; “I would knock him in the head.” “Well,” said a fourth, “if parliament can take away Mr. Hancock’s wharf and Mr. Rowe’s wharf, they can take away your barn and my house.” After much more reasoning in this style, a fifth, who had as yet been silent, broke out, “Well, it is high time for us to rebel; we must rebel some time or other, and we had better rebel now than at any time to come. If we put it off for ten or twenty years, and let them go on as they have begun, they will get a strong party among us, and plague us a great deal more than they can now. As yet, they have but a small party on their side.” I was disgusted with his word rebel, because I was determined never to rebel, as much as I was to resist rebellion against the fundamental privileges of the Constitution, whenever British generals or governors should begin it. I mention this anecdote to show that the idea of independence was familiar, even among the common people, much earlier than some persons pretend. I have heard some gentlemen of education say, that the first idea of independence was suggested to them by the pamphlet “Common Sense;” and others, that they were first converted by it to that doctrine; but these were men of very little conversation with the world, and men of very narrow views and very little reflection.
Your enemies are only your would-be rivals; they can never hurt you. Envy is a foul fiend that is only to be defied. You read Sully. His memoirs are a pretty specimen. Every honest, virtuous, and able man that ever existed, from Abel down to Doctor Rush, has had this enemy to combat through life. “Envy does merit as its shade pursue.” You need not fear the charge of vanity. Vanity is really what the French call it, amour propre, self-love, and it is a universal passion. All men have it in an equal degree. Honest men do not always disguise it. Knaves often do, if not always. When you see or hear a man pique himself upon his modesty, you may depend upon it, he is as vain a fellow as lives, and very probably a great villain. I would advise you to communicate freely all the compliments you have had or may have from Europe. Defy the foul fiend. Do not infer from this that I think there is no such thing as modesty or decency. On the contrary, it is the duty of every man to respect the self-love of every other man, and not to disgust him by any ostentatious display of his own. But in your case, surrounded as you are with jealous competitors, always intriguing to depress you, it is your right and your duty to mortify their invidious impertinence by a free communication of all your trophies to your friends without any injunctions of secrecy.
I have not seen the pamphlet, entitled “The dangers of the country,” but my mind is deeply impressed with the dangers of our country, and all other countries, of France as well as England. Of all countries, there is none more to be pitied than France. England, in my opinion, is in a still less dangerous situation than her rival.
The ominous dissolution of morality, both in theory and practice, throughout the civilized world, threatens dangers and calamities of a novel species, beyond all calculation, because there is no precedent or example in history which can show us the consequences of it. Perhaps you may say, Tyre and Sidon, Sodom and Gomorrah are examples in point. But we have no relation of their rise, progress, and decline. You may say the old world, when it repented God that he had made man, when it grieved him in his heart that he had made so vile a creature, is a case in point. I know not what to say in answer to this, only that the same authority we have for the fact, assures us that the world shall never be again drowned.
TO BENJAMIN RUSH.
Quincy, 23 May, 1807.
I received, at an exhibition of music in our polite village of Mount Wollaston, on Thursday, your letter relative to Mr. Loud, and sent it immediately to Dr. Tufts by his lady, that the young gentleman’s friends might be informed of his situation. I lament the untimely decline of a youth, although I never saw him, who has been represented to me as one who injured his health by too intense an application to study. I never heard his name but once, when my brother Cranch mentioned him to me before he embarked on his voyage.
And now I have mentioned my brother Cranch, a gentleman of four-score, whose memory is better than mine, I will relate to you a conversation with him last evening. I asked him if he recollected the first line of a couplet whose second line was, “and empire rises where the sun descends.” He paused a moment and said,—
I asked him, if Dean Berkeley was the author of them. He answered no. The tradition was, as he had heard it for sixty years, that these lines were inscribed, or rather drilled, into a rock on the shore of Monument Bay in our old colony of Plymouth, and were supposed to have been written and engraved there by some of the first emigrants from Leyden, who landed at Plymouth. However this may be, I may add my testimony to Mr. Cranch’s, that I have heard these verses for more than sixty years. I conjecture that Berkeley became connected with them, in my head, by some report that the bishop had copied them into some publication. There is nothing, in my little reading, more ancient in my memory than the observation that arts, sciences, and empire had travelled westward; and in conversation it was always added since I was a child, that their next leap would be over the Atlantic into America.
The claim of the 1776 men to the honor of first conceiving the idea of American independence, or of first inventing the project of it, is as ridiculous as that of Dr. Priestley to the discovery of the perfectibility of man. I hereby disclaim all pretensions to it, because it was much more ancient than my nativity.
[1 ]The letter to Nathan Webb, written in 1755, and inserted in the first chapter of the memoir in the first volume of this work.
[1 ]So in the copy. It may refer to the Connecticut Governor. But it is probably an error in the third figure.
[1 ]The lines of Berkeley are now familiarly known to all American readers, but they do not contain the words quoted. See the next letter.