Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1821: TO GEORGE ALEXANDER OTIS. - The Works of John Adams, vol. 10 (Letters 1811-1825, Indexes)
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1821: TO GEORGE ALEXANDER OTIS. - 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.
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TO GEORGE ALEXANDER OTIS.
Monticello, 9 February, 1821.
I thank you for your favor of the 29th of January, and your translation of Botta. I have not yet read it, for I received it but yesterday, and reading is to me so laborious and painful an occupation, that it requires a long time. But I cannot refrain from expressing the pleasure I have received from the reasoning of Mr. Jay upon the passage in Botta, “that anterior to the Revolution there existed in the Colonies a desire of independence.” There is great ambiguity in the expression, “there existed in the Colonies a desire of independence.” It is true there always existed in the Colonies a desire of independence of Parliament in the articles of internal taxation and internal policy, and a very general, if not a universal opinion, that they were constitutionally entitled to it, and as general a determination, if possible, to maintain and defend it. But there never existed a desire of independence of the crown, or of general regulations of commerce for the equal and impartial benefit of all parts of the empire. It is true, there might be times and circumstances in which an individual, or a few individuals, might entertain and express a wish that America was independent in all respects, but these were “rari nantes in gurgite vasto.” For example, in one thousand seven hundred and fifty-six, seven, and eight, the conduct of the British generals Shirley, Braddock, Loudon, Webb, and Abercrombie was so absurd, disastrous, and destructive, that a very general opinion prevailed that the war was conducted by a mixture of ignorance, treachery, and cowardice; and some persons wished we had nothing to do with Great Britain forever. Of this number I distinctly remember I was myself one, fully believing that we were able to defend ourselves against the French and Indians, without any assistance or embarrassment from Great Britain. In 1758 and 1759, when Amherst and Wolfe changed the fortune of the war by a more able and faithful conduct of it, I again rejoiced in the name of Great Britain, and should have rejoiced in it to this day, had not the King and Parliament committed high treason and rebellion against America, as soon as they had conquered Canada and made peace with France. That there existed a general desire of independence of the crown, in any part of America before the Revolution, is as far from the truth as the zenith is from the nadir. That the encroaching disposition of Great Britain would one day attempt to enslave them by an unlimited submission to Parliament and rule them with a rod of iron, was early foreseen by many wise men in all the States; that this attempt would produce resistance on the part of America, and an awful struggle, was also foreseen, but dreaded and deprecated as the greatest calamity that could befall them. For my own part, there was not a moment during the Revolution, when I would not have given every thing I ever possessed for a restoration to the state of things before the contest began, provided we could have had any sufficient security for its continuance. I always dreaded the Revolution, as fraught with ruin to me and my family; and, indeed, it has been but little better.
I could entertain you with many little trifling anecdotes, which, though familiar and vulgar, would indicate the temper, feelings, and forebodings among the people, that I cannot write.
I see at the end of the biography of the author, that Botta has written the biography of John Adams. I never saw or heard of it before; but if he means me, it must be a curious mass, for he can certainly have no authentic information on the insignificant subject.1
TO RICHARD H. LEE.
Quincy, 24 February, 1821
You have conferred an obligation upon me by your kind letter of February the 6th. In former years of my life I reckoned among my friends four gentlemen of your name; Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, William Ludwell Lee, and Arthur Lee,—all gentlemen of respectable characters for capacity, information, and integrity. With your grandfather, Richard Henry Lee, I served in Congress from 1774 to 1778, and afterwards in the Senate of the United States in 1789. He was a gentleman of fine talents, of amiable manners, and great worth. As a public speaker, he had a fluency as easy and graceful as it was melodious, which his classical education enabled him to decorate with frequent allusion to some of the finest passages of antiquity. With all his brothers he was always devoted to the cause of his country. I am glad you are about to commence a memoir of that illustrious patriot.
I cannot take upon me to assert, upon my own memory, who were the movers of particular measures in Congress, because I thought it of little importance. I have read in some of our histories, that Governor Johnson, of Maryland, nominated Mr. Washington for commander-in-chief of the army; Mr. Chase made the first motion for foreign alliances; Mr. Richard Henry Lee for a declaration of independence. As such motions were generally concerted beforehand, I presume Mr. Johnson was designated to nominate a general, because the gentlemen from Virginia declined, from delicacy, the nomination of their own colleague. Mr. Richard H. Lee was preferred for the motion for independence, because he was from the most ancient colony, &c. Mr. Chase for foreign alliances, that too many motions may not be made by the same member, &c., &c. It ought to be eternally remembered, that the eastern members were interdicted from taking the lead in any great measures, because they lay under an odium and a great weight of unpopularity. Because they had been suspected from the beginning of having independence in contemplation, they were restrained from the appearance of promoting any great measures by their own discretion, as well as by the general sense of Congress. That your grandfather made a speech in favor of a declaration of independence, I have no doubt, and very probably more than one, though I cannot take upon me to repeat from memory any part of his speeches, or any others that were made upon that occasion. The principles and sentiments and expressions of the Declaration of Independence had been so often pronounced and echoed and reëchoed in that Congress for two years before, and especially for the last six months, that it will forever be impossible to ascertain who uttered them, and upon what occasion.
I applaud your piety in recording the fame of your ancestor, and heartily wish you success in the enterprise.
TO RICHARD RUSH.
Quincy, 14 May, 1821.
Dear Mr. Rush,—
I have been tenderly affected by the kind expressions of your friendship, in your letter of the 9th of February.
In the course of forty years I have been called twice to assist in the formation of a constitution for this State. This kind of architecture, I find, is an art or mystery very difficult to learn, and still harder to practise. The attention of mankind at large seems now to be drawn to this interesting subject. It gives me more solicitude than, at my age, it ought to do; for nothing remains for me but submission and resignation. Nevertheless, I cannot wholly divest myself of anxiety for my children, my country, and my species. The probability is, that the fabrication of constitutions will be the occupation or the sport, the tragedy, comedy, or farce, for the entertainment of the world for a century to come. There is little appearance of the prevalence of correct notions of the indispensable machinery of a free government, in any part of Europe or America. Neither Spain, Portugal, or Naples can long preserve their fundamental laws under their present constitutions. But I must recollect that I am not reading a lecture.
But, hazardous as it may be, I will venture one remark upon our National and State institutions.
The legislative and executive authorities are too much blended together. While the Senate of the United States have a negative on all appointments to office, we can never have a national President. In spite of his own judgment, he must be the President, not to say the tool, of a party. In Massachusetts, the legislature annually elect an executive council, which renders the Governor a mere Doge of Venice, a mere “testa di legno,” a mere head of wood.
Strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to liberty, and few nations, if any, have found it.
TO THOMAS JEFFERSON.
Quincy, 19 May, 1821.
Must we, before we take our departure from this grand and beautiful world, surrender all our pleasing hopes of the progress of society, of the improvement of the intellect and moral condition of the world, of the reformation of mankind?
The Piedmontese revolution scarcely assumed a form, and the Neapolitan bubble is burst. And what should hinder the Spanish and Portuguese constitutions from running to the same ruin? The Cortes is in one assembly vested with the legislative power. The king and his priests, armies, navies, and all other officers, are vested with the executive authority of government. Are not here two authorities up, neither supreme? Are they not necessarily rivals, constantly contending, like law, physic, and divinity, for superiority? Just ready for civil war?
Can a free government possibly exist with the Roman Catholic religion? The art of lawgiving is not so easy as that of architecture or painting. New York and Rhode Island are struggling for conventions to reform their constitutions, and I am told there is danger of making them worse. Massachusetts has had her convention; but our sovereign lords, the people, think themselves wiser than their representatives, and in several articles I agree with their lordships. Yet there never was a cooler, a more patient, candid, or a wiser deliberative body than that convention.
I may refine too much, I may be an enthusiast, but I think a free government is a complicated piece of machinery, the nice and exact adjustment of whose springs, wheels, and weights, is not yet well comprehended by the artists of the age, and still less by the people.
I began this letter principally to inquire after your health, and to repeat assurances of the affection of your friend.
TO DAVID SEWALL.
Quincy, 22 May, 1821.
How do you do? As we have been friends for seventy years, and are candidates for promotion to another world, where I hope we shall be better acquainted, I think we ought to inquire now and then after each other’s health and welfare, while we stay here. I am not tormented with the fear of death, nor, though suffering under many infirmities, and agitated by many afflictions, weary of life. I have a better opinion of this world and of its Ruler than some people seem to have. A kind Providence has preserved and supported me for eighty-five years and seven months, through many dangers and difficulties, though in great weakness, and I am not afraid to trust in its goodness to all eternity. I have a numerous posterity, to whom my continuance may be of some importance, and I am willing to await the order of the Supreme Power. We shall leave the world with many consolations. It is better than we found it. Superstition, persecution, and bigotry are somewhat abated; governments are a little ameliorated; science and literature are greatly improved, and more widely spread. Our country has brilliant and exhilarating prospects before it, instead of that solemn gloom in which many of the former parts of our lives have been obscured. The condition of your State, I hope, has been improved by its separation from ours, though we scarcely know how to get along without you.
Information of your health and welfare will be a gratification to your sincere friend and humble servant.
TO JOHN MARSTON.
Quincy, 1 September, 1821.
The Roman dictator was Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus. His master of the horse was Caius Servilius Ahala, whose daring and dangerous exploit was killing Spurius Mælius for aiming at royalty. The story is in Livy, book 4th, chapter 13th; in Rollin’s Roman History, vol. ii. p. 46; in Adams’s Defence, vol. iii. p. 242.1 The Roman Antiquities of Dionysius Halicarnassensis come not down so low. His account is lost, but I presume the anecdote is to be found in every general Roman history.
Is it not remarkable, that this most memorable of all the applications of the phrase, “Macte virtute esto,” is omitted in all the dictionaries? Stephens, Faber, Ainsworth, amidst all their learned lumber, have forgotten this. They have quoted Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, and even the wag Horace, but overlooked Livy.2
Horace, the rogue, in his first book of satires, satire second, lines 31 and 32, puts these words into the mouth of Cato, and applies them for a very curious moral purpose,—
Virgil, in his ninth Æneid, has made Apollo say to Ascanius, after his noble juvenile exploit in killing Numanus,—
He afterwards descends from his cloud, in the shape of old Butes, the armor-bearer and janitor, and gives Iulus good advice.
TO RICHARD RUSH.
Quincy, 28 November, 1821.
I love to see a young man, who, in the language of Montesquieu, is capable de s’estimer beaucoup; but in an old man this is rather odious than amiable. The kind compliments in your letter of the 30th September make me too proud for a man in his eighty-seventh year; but your idea of a picture overcame all my gravity, and made me laugh outright. What would the lords of the gentlemen’s seats in England say to a picture of my house of eight rooms, as Fearon said, though he has diminished the number nearly one half? However, my imagination was soon seized with other questions. What point of time would a painter seize, and what particular scene would he select? That in which the young gentlemen were at breakfast, under an awning, after a march of nine miles in a very hot morning; or that, in which after breakfast they prostrated themselves on the ground, under shades of trees, and went to sleep as decently and as soundly as if they had been at church; or that, in which they were drawn up on a small round elevation of green grass, opposite the house, on the other side of the road, going through their exercises and manœuvres? Or, when they were drawn up in a body, before the piazza, listening to an old man, melting with heat, quaking with palsy, tormented with rheumatism and sciatic, and scarcely able to stand, uttering a few words by way of commentary on their two mottoes, “Scientia ad gloriam,” and “Paremus?” After mature reflection, I rejected all these, and fixed upon the last, when the whole body marched up in a file, taking the old man by the hand; taking a final leave of him forever, and receiving his poor blessing.1
Never before, but once, in the whole course of my life, was my soul so melted into the milk of human kindness; and that once was when four or five hundred fine young fellows appeared before me in Philadelphia, presenting an address and receiving my answer. On both occasions I felt as if I could lay down a hundred lives to preserve the liberties and promote the prosperity of so noble a rising generation. But enough, and too much, of this. No picture will ever be drawn; indeed, the subject is too slight.
Is all Europe going together by the ears about the Turkish province of Albania? Are the Greeks rising, like the phœnix, from their ashes? Is Britain sending forces to the Ionian islands to check the empires?
The South Americans have translated the clumsy book you hint at into Spanish, but whether they will derive any benefit from it, I know not.
[1 ] It is inserted in the large French work, entitled Biographic Universelle.
[1 ] Vol. vi. p. 27 of the present work.
[2 ] In an address to the corps of military cadets from West Point, who paid a visit to Mr. Adams at his house, Mr. Adams had used these words. Mr. Marston, who was a townsman and constant visitor, had asked for some account of them. The address itself, as coming from a man, then in his eighty-sixth year, is sufficiently remarkable to be preserved in the appendix (A) to this volume.
[1 ] This alludes to the same event mentioned in the preceding note.