Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3 Sept. 1808: TO BENJAMIN RUSH. - The Works of John Adams, vol. 9 (Letters and State Papers 1799-1811)
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3 Sept. 1808: 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, 3 September, 1808.
I will not stand upon ceremonies with you, and wait for the return of a visit, or an answer to my last letter.
Whatever proportion of loyalty to an established dynasty of kings, or whatever taint of Catholic superstition there may be in the present sensations of the Spanish people, or however their conduct may have been excited by British or Austrian gold, I revere the mixture of pure patriotism that appears to be in it and inseparable from it, and I wish to know the sentiments of your Pennsylvania statesmen concerning it.
The contest between the houses of Austria and Bourbon in the beginning of the last century for the succession to the throne of Spain, is well known. Philip V. and Charles VI. were rivals, as Ferdinand VII. and Joseph I. are now. Charles was supported by the Emperor, England and Holland, and Philip by France and her allies. The Earls of Galway and Peterborough ran about Spain with armies at their heels, and proclaimed Charles at Madrid, and many other places, till Louis XIV. and his grandson Philip were in despair. In this situation, Vauban, the great teacher of fortification, and one of the profound statesmen as well as honest patriots of France, proposed to his court to send Philip to reign in America, that the commerce of Mexico and Peru might be secured to France. The English seem to have adopted this project of Vauban, and to aim at securing the commerce of South America to themselves. Have your Philadelphia politicians considered what will be the consequence of this to the United States? How will it affect our Louisiana claims, our West India commerce? I am almost afraid to ask so bold and hazardous a question, as whether it will not make France the natural ally of the United States.
The inclination of the Spaniards was in favor of Philip, and the fortitude of the Castilians turned the scale in his favor. They made great efforts when they found him in danger. It is a very arduous enterprise to impose upon a nation a king in spite of their teeth. The Austrians, the Dutch, the English, and the Portuguese, were harassed in Spain, suffered for want of provisions, and were consumed by degrees.
By some accounts, certain provinces in Spain have proclaimed Prince Charles. This looks like a desire to revive the old connection of Spain with the house of Austria, which might check the house of Napoleon for the present, but would lay a foundation for interminable future wars in Europe.
Is there room to hope that the French will meet with effectual obstructions in Spain? How will they procure provisions? Not by sea. The English fleet is in the way. By land, from France and Italy, will be almost impossible, and the Spaniards have not onions and turnips enough for themselves. An army of two or three hundred thousand Frenchmen will consume a great many bushels. The Spaniards had better fight and die in battle than perish with famine.
These occurrences in Spain open wide views to those who have more information and sagacity than I have. They will give trouble to Napoleon, employ a great part of his force, and be a powerful temptation to nations he has humbled, to avenge their disgrace. The French have always been chased out of Italy. Germany and the north of Europe must be alarmed at having Spain and the Indies in the power of the Corsicans. In short, I know not but the Spaniards may produce a Marlborough in England, and in Germany a Eugene, to give Napoleon a fistula. What think you?
I have always called our Constitution a game at leap-frog. New England is again converted to federalism. The federal administration lasted twelve years. The republicans then leaped over their heads and shoulders, and have ruled eight years. They may possibly hold out four years more, and then probably the federalists will leap again. But neither party will ever be strong, while they adhere to their austere, exclusive maxims. Neither party will ever be able to pursue the true interest, honor, and dignity of the nation. I lament the narrow, selfish spirit of the leaders of both parties, but can do no good to either. They are incorrigible. We must adopt the Dutch motto, “Incertum quo fata ferant.”
TO BENJAMIN RUSH.
Quincy, 27 September, 1808.
That Rosicrucian sylph, that fairy Queen Mab, or that other familiar spirit, whatever it is, that inspires your nightly dreams, I would not exchange, if I had it, for the demon of Socrates. You have more wit, and humor, and sense in your sleep than other people, I was about to say than you yourself, have when awake. I know not whether I have ever read two finer allegories than the two you have given me from your nocturnal slumbers. I agree well enough with you in the moral of them both.
I believe, with you, “a republican government,” while the people have the virtues, talents, and love of country necessary to support it, “the best possible government to promote the interest, dignity, and happiness of man.” But you know that commerce, luxury, and avarice have destroyed every republican government. England and France have tried the experiment, and neither of them could preserve it for twelve years. It might be said with truth that they could not preserve it for a moment, for the commonwealth of England, from 1640 to 1660, was in reality a succession of monarchies under Pym, Hampden, Fairfax, and Cromwell, and the republic of France was a similar monarchy under Mirabeau, Brissot, Danton, Robespierre, and a succession of others like them, down to Napoleon, the Emperor. The mercenary spirit of commerce has recently destroyed the republics of Holland, Switzerland, and Venice. Not one of these republics, however, dared at any time to trust the people with any elections whatever, much less with the election of first magistrates. In all those countries, the monster venality would instantly have appeared, and swallowed at once all security of liberty, property, fame, and life.
When public virtue is gone, when the national spirit is fled, when a party is substituted for the nation and faction for a party, when venality lurks and skulks in secret, and, much more, when it impudently braves the public censure, whether it be sent in the form of emissaries from foreign powers, or is employed by ambitious and intriguing domestic citizens, the republic is lost in essence, though it may still exist in form. The form of a Senate is still preserved in Rome. The Prince Rezzonico was presented to me in London, under the title of “Senatore di Roma.” But what sort of a republic is Rome at present?
When commerce, and luxury, and dissipation had introduced avarice among the Greeks, the artful policy and military discipline of Philip and his son prevailed over all the toils, negotiations, and eloquence of Demosthenes. The people who, in virtuous times, or, if you will, in times of national pride, had set the hosts of Persia at defiance, now sold themselves and bowed their necks to the yoke of a petty prince of Macedonia. And poor Demosthenes, abandoned, persecuted while he lived, was pursued to an ignominious death, as the only reward of his patriotism. Immortal glory has followed his eloquence, but this he could not enjoy while he lived, and we know not that he enjoys it since his death. I hope he has enjoyments superior to this.
The same causes produced the same effects in Rome, and the labors, eloquence, and patriotism of Cicero were to as little purpose as those of Demosthenes, and were equally rewarded.
We mortals cannot work miracles; we struggle in vain against the constitution and course of nature.
Americans, I fondly hope and candidly believe, are not yet arrived at the age of Demosthenes or Cicero. If we can preserve our Union entire, we may preserve our republic; but if the union is broken, we become petty principalities, little better than the feudatories, one of France and the other of England.
If I could lay an embargo, or pass a new importation law against corruption and foreign influence, I would not make it a temporary, but a perpetual law, and I would not repeal it, though it should raise a clamor as loud as my gag-law, or your grog-law, or Mr. Jefferson’s embargo. The majorities in the five States of New England, though small, are all on one side. New York has fortified the same party with half a dozen members, and anxious are the expectations from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. There is a body of the same party in every other State. The Union, I fear, is in some danger. Nor is the danger of foreign war much diminished. An alliance between England and Spain is a new aspect of planets towards us. Surrounded by land, on the east, north, west, and south, by the territories of two such powers, and blockaded by sea by two such navies as the English and Spanish, without a friend or ally by sea or land, we may have all our republican virtues put to a trial.
I am weary of conjectures, but not in despair.
TO J. B. VARNUM.
Quincy, 26 December, 1808.
I receive very kindly your obliging letter of the 15th of this month. Ever since my return from Europe, where I had resided ten years, and could not be fully informed of the state of affairs in my own country, I have been constantly anxious and alarmed at the intemperance of party spirit and the unbounded license of our presses. In the same view I could not but lament some things which have lately passed in public bodies. To instance, at Dedham and Topsfield, and last of all in the resolutions of our Massachusetts legislature. Upon principle, I see no right in our Senate and House to dictate, nor to advise, nor to request our representatives in Congress. The right of the people to instruct their representatives, is very dear to them, and will never be disputed by me. But this is a very different thing from an interference of a State legislature. Congress must be “the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night” to conduct this nation, and if their eyes are to be diverted by wandering light, accidentally springing up in every direction, we shall never get through the wilderness.
I have not been inattentive to the course of our public affairs, and agree with Congress in their resolutions to resist the decrees, edicts, and orders of France and England; but I think the king’s proclamation for the impressment of seamen on board our merchant ships has not been distinctly enough reprobated. It is the most groundless pretension of all. Retired as I am, conversing with very few of any party, out of the secret of affairs, collecting information only from public papers and pamphlets, many links in the great chain of deliberations, actions, and events, may have escaped me. You will easily believe, that an excessive diffidence in my own opinions has not been the sin that has most easily beset me. I must nevertheless confess to you that in all the intricate combinations of our affairs, to which I have ever been a witness, I never found myself so much at a loss to form a judgment of what the nation ought to do, or what part I ought to act. No man, then, I hope, will have more confidence in the solidity of any thing I may suggest than I have myself.
I revere the upright and enlightened general sense of our American nation. It is nevertheless capable, like all other nations, of general prejudices and national errors. Among these, I know not whether there is any more remarkable than that opinion so universal, that it is in our power to bring foreign nations to our terms, by withholding our commerce. When the executive and legislative authority of any nation, especially in the old governments and great powers of Europe, have adopted measures upon deliberation, and published them to the world, they cannot recede without a deep humiliation and disgrace, in the eyes of their own subjects, as well as all Europe. They will therefore obstinately adhere to them, at the expense even of great sacrifices, and in defiance of great dangers. In 1774, Congress appeared almost unanimously sanguine that a non-importation and a non-consumption association would procure an immediate repeal of acts of parliament and royal orders. I went heartily along with the rest in all these measures, because I knew that the sense of the nation, the public opinion in all the colonies, required them, and I did not see that they could do harm. But I had no confidence in their success in any thing but uniting the American people. I expressed this opinion freely to some of my friends, particularly to Mr. Henry of Virginia and to Major Hawley of Massachusetts. These two, and these only, agreed with me in opinion, that we must fight, after all. We found by experience that a war of eight years, in addition to all our resolutions, was necessary, and the aid of France, Spain, and Holland, too, before our purposes could be accomplished. Do we presume that we can excite insurrection, rebellion, and a revolution in England? Even a revolution would be of no benefit to us. A republican government in England would be more hostile to us than the monarchy is. The resources of that country are so great, their merchants, capitalists, and principal manufacturers are so rich, that they can employ their manufacturers and store their productions for a long time, perhaps longer than we can or will bear to hoard ours. In 1794, upon these principles and for these reasons, I thought it my duty to decide, in Senate, against Mr. Madison’s resolutions, as they were called, and I have seen no reason to alter my opinion since. I own I was sorry when the late non-importation law passed. When a war with England was seriously apprehended in 1794, I approved of an embargo, as a temporary measure to preserve our seamen and property, but not with any expectation that it would influence England. I thought the embargo, which was laid a year ago, a wise and prudent measure for the same reason, namely to preserve our seamen and as much of our property as we could get in, but not with the faintest hope that it would influence the British Councils. At the same time I confidently expected that it would be raised in a few months. I have not censured any of these measures, because I knew the fond attachment of the nation to them; but I think the nation must soon be convinced that they will not answer their expectations. The embargo and the non-intercourse laws, I think, ought not to last long. They will lay such a foundation of disaffection to the national government as will give great uneasiness to Mr. Jefferson’s successor, and produce such distractions and confusions as I shudder to think of. The naval and military force to carry them into execution would maintain a war.
Are you then for war, you will ask. I will answer you candidly. I think a war would be a less evil than a rigorous enforcement of the embargo and non-intercourse. But we have no necessity to declare war against England or France, or both. We may raise the embargo, repeal the non-intercourse, authorize our merchants to arm their vessels, give them special letters of marque to defend themselves against all unlawful aggressors, and take and burn or destroy all vessels, or make prize of them as enemies, that shall attack them. In the mean time apply all our resources to build frigates, some in every principal seaport. These frigates ought not to be assembled in any one port to become an object of a hostile expedition to destroy them. They should be separated and scattered as much as possible from New Orleans to Passamaquoddy. I never was fond of the plan of building line of battle ships. Our policy is not to fight squadrons at sea, but to have fast-sailing frigates to scour the seas and make impression on the enemy’s commerce; and in this way we can do great things. Our great seaports and most exposed frontier places ought not to be neglected in their fortifications; but I cannot see for what purpose a hundred thousand militia are called out, nor why we should have so large an army at present. The revenues applied to these uses would be better appropriated to building frigates. We may depend upon it, we shall never be respected by foreign powers until they see that we are sensible of the great resources which the Almighty in his benevolent providence has put into our hands. No nation under the sun has better materials, architects, or mariners for a respectable maritime power. I have no doubt but our people, when they see a necessity, will cheerfully pay the taxes necessary for their defence, and to support their union, independence, and national honor. When our merchants are armed, if they are taken, they cannot blame the government; if they fight well, and captivate their enemies, they will acquire glory and encouragement at home, and England or France may determine for themselves whether they will declare war. I believe neither will do it, because each will be afraid of our joining the other. If either should, in my opinion, the other will rescind; but if we should have both to fight, it would not be long before one or the other would be willing to make peace, and I see not much difference between fighting both and fighting England alone. My heart is with the Spanish patriots, and I should be glad to assist them as far as our commerce can supply them.
I conclude with acknowledging that we have received greater injuries from England than from France, abominable as both have been. I conclude that whatever the government determines, I shall support as far as my small voice extends.
N. B. The tribute and the British licenses must be prohibited with adequate penalties.