Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1812: TO THOMAS McKEAN. - The Works of John Adams, vol. 10 (Letters 1811-1825, Indexes)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
1812: TO THOMAS McKEAN. - John Adams, The Works of John Adams, vol. 10 (Letters 1811-1825, Indexes) 
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. 10.
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 THOMAS McKEAN.
Quincy, 2 June, 1812.
Our ancient and venerable friend Clinton is gone before us. It had long been my intention to write to him, but while I was busied about many things perhaps of less importance, he has slipped out of my reach. I am determined no longer to neglect to write to you, lest I should glide away, where there is no pen and ink.
Nearly thirty-eight years ago our friendship commenced. It has never been interrupted, to my knowledge, but by one event. Among all the gentlemen with whom I have acted and lived in the world, I know not any two who have more uniformly agreed in sentiment upon political principles, forms of government, and national policy, than you and I have done, except upon one great subject—a most important and momentous one, to be sure. That subject was the French revolution. This, at the first appearance of it, you thought a “minister of grace.” I fully believed it to be “a goblin damned.” Hence all the estrangement between us, that I know, or ever suspected. There is no reason that this should now keep us asunder, for I presume there can be little difference of opinion at present upon this subject. When Pultney accepted a peerage, some droll wit wrote,—
We may now say,—
There can be no question of honors or profits, or rank or fame, between you and me at present. Personal friendship and private feelings are all that remain. I should be happy to hear of your health and prosperity, but I cannot conclude without one political observation. In ancient times Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia agreed very well. Why should they be at variance now?
I hope, Sir, you will excuse this intrusion, and believe me to be still, with much esteem, your friend and servant.
THOMAS McKEAN TO JOHN ADAMS.
Philadelphia, 13 June, 1812.
On my return from a tour to the State of Delaware, I found your kind letter of the 2d instant, and thank you for this mark of esteem.
Our venerable friend Clinton has gone before us; so has the illustrious Washington, eleven years ago; and I have nearly outlived all my early acquaintance. I remain the only surviving member of the first American Congress, held in the city of New York in October, 1765; and but three more, of whom you are one, remain alive of the second, held in this city in September, 1774. It was my fate to be delegated to that trust annually during the revolutionary war with Great Britain, until the preliminary articles of peace were signed in 1782, which afforded me an opportunity of knowing every member of Congress during the whole of that time; and I declare with pleasure, and also with pride, that I embraced the political sentiments of none with more satisfaction (being congenial with my own) than yours, nor do I recollect a single question in which we differed.
It is true, I was a friend to the revolution in France, from the assembly of the Notables until the king was decapitated, which I deemed not only a very atrocious but a most absurd act. After the limited monarchy was abolished, I remained in a kind of apathy with regard to the leaders of the different parties, until I clearly perceived that nation was incapable at that time of being ruled by a a popular government; and when the few and afterwards an individual assumed a despotic sway over them, I thought them in a situation better than under the government of a mob, for I would prefer any kind of government to such a state, even tyranny to anarchy. On this subject, then, I do not conceive we differed widely.
My dear Sir, at this time of our lives there can certainly be no question, as you observe, of honors, profits, rank or fame, between us. I shook hand with the world three years ago, and we said farewell to each other. The toys and rattles of childhood would, in a few years more, be probably as suitable to me as office, honor, or wealth; but, I thank God, the faculties of my mind are as yet little, if any thing, impaired, and my affections and friendships are unshaken: I do assure you that I venerate our early friendship, and am happy in a continuance of it.
Since my exemption from official and professional duties, I have enjoyed a tranquillity never (during a long protracted life) heretofore experienced, and my health and comforts are sufficient for a reasonable man.
Our country is at this moment in a critical situation; the result is in the womb of fate. Our system of government, in peace, is the best in the world; but how it will operate in war, is doubtful. This, however, is likely to be soon put to the test, and I sincerely regret it.
There is a cheerful air in your letter that evidences health, peace, and a competency, which that you may long enjoy is the sincere wish and ardent prayer of, dear Sir, your old friend and most obedient servant
TO THOMAS McKEAN.
Quincy, 21 June, 1812.
I have received your kind letter of the 13th of this month with emotions like those of two old friends after a separation of many years, such as we may suppose Ulysses to have felt on meeting one of his ancient associates (not one of the suitors) on his return to Ithaca.
Your name among the members of Congress in New York, in October, 1765, is, and has long been a singular distinction. I wish you would commit to writing your observations on the characters who composed that assembly, and the objects of your meeting. Otis and Ruggles are peculiarly interesting to me, and every thing that passed on that important occasion is and will be more and more demanded (and it is to be feared, in vain) by our posterity.
Of the Congress, in September, 1774, there remains Governor Johnson, of Maryland, Governor McKean, of Pennsylvania, Governor Jay, of New York, Judge Paine, of Massachusetts, and John Adams, not forgetting our venerable Charles Thomson, Secretary.
You had an opportunity that was denied me in 1778, 1779, 1780, 1781, 1782. I was in Europe from 1778 to 1788. There was a great change in Congress soon after 1778. The Massachusetts men were chosen of a very different stamp from Hancock, Sam Adams, and Gerry. Higginson, Gorham, King, Jackson, and Lowell were a batch of loaves of a very different flour from their predecessors. I would now give any thing for your knowledge of their oratory, dialectics, and principles and opinions. This nation now groans, and future ages, I fear, will have reason to rue the hunting of that day. After the peace, New York and Pennsylvania followed the example of Massachusetts, and brought in lukewarmness instead of zeal, not to say toryism in the place of whiggism.
I acknowledge that the most unaccountable phenomenon I ever beheld, in the seventy-seven years, almost, that I have lived, was to see men of the most extensive knowledge and deepest reflection entertain for a moment an opinion that a democratical republic could be erected in a nation of five-and-twenty millions of people, four-and-twenty millions and five hundred thousand of whom could neither read nor write.
My sentiments and feelings are in symphony with yours in another particular. The last eleven years of my life have been the most comfortable of the seventy-seven. I have never enjoyed so much in any equal period. Mr. Jefferson, I find, is equally happy. I have had opportunity, however, to know that the illustrious Washington was not, and that to his uneasiness in retirement great changes in the politics of this country were to be attributed, perhaps for the better, possibly for the worse. God knows. I am as cheerful as ever I was; and my health is as good, excepting a quiveration of the hands, which disables me from writing in the bold and steady character of your letter, which I rejoice to see. Excuse the word quiveration, which, though I borrowed it from an Irish boy, I think an improvement in our language worthy a place in Webster’s dictionary. Though my sight is good, my eyes are too weak for all the labor I require of them; but as this is a defect of more than fifty years standing, there are no hopes of relief. The trepidation of the hands arising from a delicacy, or, if you will, a morbid irritability of nerves, has shown itself at times for more than half a century, but has increased for four or five years past, so as to extinguish all hopes that it will ever be less.
The danger of our government is, that the General will be a man of more popularity than the President, and the army possess more power than Congress. The people should be apprised of this, and guard themselves against it. Nothing is more essential than to hold the civil authority decidedly superior to the military power.
Wishing you life as long as you desire it, and every blessing in it, I remain, &c.
TO THOMAS JEFFERSON.
Quincy, 28 June, 1812.
I know not what, unless it were the prophet of Tippecanoe, had turned my curiosity to inquiries after the metaphysical science of the Indians, their ecclesiastical establishments, and theological theories; but your letter, written with all the accuracy, perspicuity, and elegance of your youth and middle age, as it has given me great satisfaction, deserves my best thanks.1
It has given me satisfaction, because, while it has furnished me with information where all the knowledge is to be obtained that books afford, it has convinced me that I shall never know much more of the subject than I do now. As I have never aimed at making any collection of books upon this subject, I have none of those you have abridged in so concise a manner. Lafitau, Adair, and De Bry were known to me only by name.
The various ingenuity which has been displayed in inventions of hypotheses to account for the original population of America, and the immensity of learning profusely expended to support them, have appeared to me, for a longer time than I can possibly recollect, what the physicians call the literæ nihil sanantes. Whether serpents’ teeth were sown here and sprung up men; whether men and women dropped from the clouds upon this Atlantic island; whether the Almighty created them here, or whether they emigrated from Europe, are questions of no moment to the present or future happiness of man. Neither agriculture, commerce, manufactures, fisheries, science, literature, taste, religion, morals, nor any other good will be promoted, or any evil averted, by any discoveries that can be made in answer to these questions.
The opinions of the Indians and their usages, as represented in your obliging letter of the 11th June, appear to me to resemble the platonizing Philo, or the philonizing Plato, more than the genuine system of Judaism.
The philosophy both of Philo and Plato is at least as absurd; it is indeed less intelligible. Plato borrowed his doctrines from oriental and Egyptian philosophers, for he had travelled both in India and Egypt. The oriental philosophy, imitated and adopted in part, if not the whole, both by Plato and Philo, was, 1. One God, the good. 2. The ideas, the thoughts, the reason, the intellect, the logos, the ratio of God. 3. Matter, the universe, the production of the logos, or contemplations of God. This matter was the source of evil.
Perhaps the three powers of Plato, Philo, the Egyptians and Indians, cannot be distinctly made from your account of the Indians; but,
1. The great Spirit, the good, who is worshipped by the kings, sachems, and all the great men in their solemn festivals, as the author, the parent of good.
2. The devil, or the source of evil; they are not metaphysicians enough as yet to suppose it, or at least to call it matter, like the wiseacres of antiquity and like Frederic the Great, who has written a very silly essay on the origin of evil, in which he ascribes it all to matter, as if this was an original discovery of his own.
The watch-maker has in his head an idea of the system of a watch, before he makes it. The mechanician of the universe had a complete idea of the universe before he made it, and this idea, this logos, was almighty, or at least powerful enough to produce the world; but it must be made of matter, which was eternal. For creation out of nothing was impossible, and matter was unmanageable. It would not and could not be fashioned into any system, without a large mixture of evil in it, for matter was essentially evil.
The Indians are not metaphysicians enough to have discovered this idea, this logos, this intermediate power between good and evil, God and matter. But of the two powers, the good and the evil, they seem to have a full conviction; and what son or daughter of Adam and Eve has not?
This logos of Plato seems to resemble, if it was not the prototype of the Ratio and its Progress, of Manilius, the astrologer, of the Progress of the Mind, of Condorcet, and the Age of Reason, of Tom Paine. I would make a system, too. The seven hundred thousand soldiers of Zengis, when the whole or any part of them went to battle, set up a howl which resembled nothing that human imagination has conceived, unless it be the supposition that all the devils in hell were let loose at once to set up an infernal scream, which terrified their enemies and never failed to obtain them victory. The Indian yell resembles this; and therefore America was peopled from Asia.
Another system. The armies of Zengis, sometimes two, three, or four hundred thousand of them, surrounded a province in a circle, and marched towards the centre, driving all the wild beasts before them—lions, tigers, wolves, bears, and every living thing—terrifying them with their howls and yells, their drums and trumpets, &c., till they terrified and tamed enough of them to victual the whole army. Therefore the Scotch high-landers, who practise the same thing in miniature, are emigrants from Asia. Therefore, the American Indians, who, for any thing I know, practise the same custom, are emigrants from Asia or Scotland.
I am weary of contemplating nations from the lowest and most beastly degradations of human life to the highest refinement of civilization. I am weary of philosophers, theologians, politicians, and historians. They are immense masses of absurdities, vices, and lies. Montesquieu had sense enough to say in jest, that all our knowledge might be comprehended in twelve pages in duodecimo; and I believe him in earnest. I could express my faith in shorter terms. He who loves the workman and his work, and does what he can to preserve and improve it, shall be accepted of him.
I also have felt an interest in the Indians, and a commiseration for them, from my childhood. Aaron Pomham, the priest, and Moses Pomham, the king of the Punkapaug and Neponset tribes, were frequent visitors at my father’s house, at least seventy years ago. I have a distinct remembrance of their forms and figures. They were very aged, and the tallest and stoutest Indians I have ever seen. The titles of king and priest, and the names of Moses and Aaron, were given them, no doubt, by our Massachusetts divines and statesmen. There was a numerous family in this town, whose wigwam was within a mile of this house. This family were frequently at my father’s house, and I, in my boyish rambles, used to call at their wigwam, where I never failed to be treated with whortleberries, blackberries, strawberries, or apples, plums, peaches, &c., for they had planted a variety of fruit trees about them; but the girls went out to service and the boys to sea, till not a soul is left. We scarcely see an Indian in a year. I remember the time when Indian murders, scalpings, depredations, and conflagrations, were as frequent on the eastern and northern frontiers of Massachusetts as they are now in Indiana, and spread as much terror. But since the conquest of Canada all this has ceased; and I believe with you that another conquest of Canada will quiet the Indians forever, and be as great a blessing to them as to us.
The instance of Aaron Pomham made me suspect that there was an order of priesthood among them; but according to your account, the worship of the good spirit was performed by the kings, sachems, and warriors, as among the ancient Germans, whose highest rank of nobility were priests; the worship of the evil spirit by the conjurors, jongleurs, præstigiatores.
We have war now in earnest. I lament the contumacious spirit that appears about me, but I lament the cause that has given too much apology for it, the total neglect and absolute refusal of all maritime protection and defence. Money, mariners, and soldiers would be at the public service, if only a few frigates had been ordered to be built. Without this, our Union will be but a brittle China vase, a house of ice, or a palace of glass.
TO SAMUEL B. MALCOM.
Quincy, 6 August, 1812.
Your favor of July 11th was duly received. Your resolution to subjugate yourself to the control of no party, is noble; but have you considered all the consequences of it? In the whole history of human life this maxim has rarely failed to annihilate the influence of the man who adopts it, and very often exposed him to the tragical vengeance of all parties.1
There are two tyrants in human life who domineer in all nations, in Indians and Negroes, in Tartars and Arabs, in Hindoos and Chinese, in Greeks and Romans, in Britons and Gauls, as well as in our simple, youthful, and beloved United States of America.
These two tyrants are fashion and party. They are sometimes at variance, and I know not whether their mutual hostility is not the only security of human happiness. But they are forever struggling for an alliance with each other; and, when they are united, truth, reason, honor, justice, gratitude, and humanity itself in combination are no match for the coalition. Upon the maturest reflection of a long experience, I am much inclined to believe that fashion is the worst of all tyrants, because he is the original source, cause, preserver, and supporter of all others.
Nothing short of the philosophy of Zeno, Socrates, Seneca, and Epictetus could ever support an ancient, and nothing short of the philosophy of Jesus could ever support a modern, in the resolution you have taken. Nothing less than the spirit of martyrdom is sufficient; for martyrdom will infallibly ensue. Not always in flames at the stake, not always in the guillotine; but in lies, slanders, insults, and privations, oftentimes more difficult to bear than the horrors of Smithfield or the Place de Louis XV.
Men have suffered martyrdom for party and for fashion in sufficient numbers; but none for contempt of party and fashion, but upon principles of the highest order.
But to descend from these romantic heights. I wish to know the name and age of your son, and the meaning of the letter B in your name. Your printed publications I am anxious to see. I am sorry you left your practice at the bar. There is the scene of independence. Cannot you return to it? Integrity and skill at the bar, are better supporters of independence than any fortune, talents, or eloquence elsewhere. A man of genius, talents, eloquence, integrity, and judgment at the bar, is the most independent man in society. Presidents, governors, senators, judges, have not so much honest liberty; but it ought always to be regulated by prudence, and never abused.
Judge Vanderkemp is a great man, a star of the first magnitude under a thick cloud.
Smith has been the enemy of no man but himself; I lament the loss to the nation of military talents and experience, but I fear it is irremediable.
Without entering into any moral, political, or religious discussions of the subject of private combats, and individual administration of justice in one’s own case, I cannot but lament that the sacred, solemn bench of justice should exhibit perpetual exemplifications of the practice before the people. This is not conformable to the policy even of Europe, where duelling is not carried to such rancorous, deliberate, and malicious excess as it is in America. Aristides, I do not remember to have read.1 Colonel Burr, Attorney-General Burr, Senator Burr, Vice-President Burr, almost President Burr, has returned to New York. What is to be his destiny?
Emulation, rivalry, ambition, have unlimited scope under our forms of government. We have seen enough already to admonish us what we have to expect in future. My poor coarse boudoir, five or six-and-twenty years ago, held up mirrors in which our dear countrymen might have seen their pictures. If this is vanity, it is also cool philosophy.
From your real well-wisher.
TO WILLIAM KETELTAS.
Quincy, 25 November, 1812.
I have received your polite letter of the 6th of the month and your present of the “Crisis.” You will excuse a question or two. In page first, you say, “Our administrations, with the exception of Washington’s, have been party administrations.” On what ground do you except Washington’s? If by party you mean majority, his majority was the smallest of the four in all his legislative and executive acts, though not in his election.
You say, “our divisions began with federalism and antifederalism.” Alas! they began with human nature; they have existed in America from its first plantation. In every colony, divisions always prevailed. In New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Massachusetts, and all the rest, a court and country party have always contended. Whig and tory disputed very sharply before the revolution, and in every step during the revolution. Every measure of Congress, from 1774 to 1787 inclusively, was disputed with acrimony, and decided by as small majorities as any question is decided in these days. We lost Canada then, as we are like to lose it now, by a similar opposition. Away, then, with your false, though popular distinctions in favor of Washington.
In page eleventh, you recommend a “constitutional rotation, to destroy the snake in the grass;” but the snake will elude your snare. Suppose your President in rotation is to be chosen for Rhode Island. There will be a federal and a republican candidate in that State. Every federalist in the nation will vote for the former, and every republican for the latter. The light troops on both sides will skirmish; the same northern and southern distinctions will still prevail; the same running and riding, the same railing and reviling, the same lying and libelling, cursing and swearing, will still continue. The same caucusing, assemblaging, and conventioning.
In the same page eleventh, you speak of a “portion of our own people who palsy the arm of the nation.” There is too much truth in this. When I was exerting every nerve to vindicate the honor, and demand a redress of the wrongs of the nation against the tyranny of France, the arm of the nation was palsied by one party. Now Mr. Madison is acting the same part, for the same ends, against Great Britain, the arm of the nation is palsied by the opposite party. And so it will always be while we feel like colonists, dependent for protection on France or England; while we have so little national public opinion, so little national principle, national feeling, national patriotism; while we have no sentiment of our own strength, power, and resources.
I thank you, Sir, for reminding me, in page twelfth, of my “many blunders in my administration,” and should have been still more obliged to you, if you had enumerated them in detail, that I might have made a confession of them one by one, repented of them on conviction, and made all the atonement for them now in my power. In the same page, you observe, that “you never knew how far I extended my views as to a maritime force.” I will tell you, Sir. My views extend very far—as far as Colonel Barré’s when, in his last speech in parliament, he exclaimed, “Who shall dare to set limits to the commerce and naval power of this country?” Yet I know that Washington city was not built in a day, any more than Rome. I am not for any extravagant efforts. Your plan of a ship of the largest size for the whole, and a frigate of the largest size for each State, would satisfy me for the present.
Your last sentence is a jewel, “a monarchy of justice, an aristocracy of wisdom, and a democracy of freedom.”
As I never knew your person, nor heard your name, till I read it in your letter, I hope you will excuse the freedom of your obedient servant.
[1 ] This letter is not published in Mr. Randolph’s edition of Jefferson. It relates entirely to the Indians, their manners and habits.
[1 ] Mr. Malcom had been Mr Adams’s private secretary during a part of his Presidential term. He had just been an unsuccessful applicant for a judicial office under the federal government, to obtain which he had solicited Mr. Adams’s aid. Mr. Jefferson had also been applied to. His letter to President Madison respecting it is in Mr. Randolph’s collection Vol. iv. p. 175
[1 ] A pamphlet with this signature, ascribed to Mr. W. P. Van Ness, who obtained the office for which Mr. Malcom had applied. He was Colonel Burr’s second in the duel with Mr. Hamilton.