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Adams and Jefferson reflect on the Revolution and the future of liberty (1823)

John Adams (1735-1826) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) both died on July 4, 1824 within hours of each other. In their last years they corresponded about the future of liberty and the role of revolution in bringing free societies into existence. We include here extracts from three letters which they wrote in August and September 1823 on this topic:

  1. Adams to Jefferson, Quincy, 15 August, 1823: I am no king killer, merely because they are kings. Poor creatures! they know no better; they sincerely and conscientiously believe that God made them to rule the world. I would not, therefore, behead them, or send them to St. Helena to be treated like Napoleon; but I would shut them up like the man in the mask, feed them well, and give them as much finery as they please, until they could be converted to right reason and common sense.

  2. Jefferson to Adams, Monticello, September 4, 1823: The generation which commences a revolution rarely completes it. Habituated from their infancy to passive submission of body and mind to their kings and priests, they are not qualified when called on to think and provide for themselves; and their inexperience, their ignorance and bigotry make them instruments often, in the hands of the Bonapartes and Iturbides, to defeat their own rights and purposes. This is the present situation of Europe and Spanish America. But it is not desperate. … The kings and the rabble, of equal ignorance, have not yet received its rays; but it continues to spread, and while printing is preserved, it can no more recede than the sun return on his course. A first attempt to recover the right of self-government may fail, so may a second, a third, &c. But as a younger and more instructed race comes on, the sentiment becomes more and more intuitive, and a fourth, a fifth, or some subsequent one of the ever renewed attempts will ultimately succeed.

  3. Adams to Jefferson, Quincy, 17 September, 1823: It is melancholy to contemplate the cruel wars, desolations of countries, and oceans of blood, which must occur before rational principles and rational systems of government can prevail and be established; but as these are inevitable, we must content ourselves with the consolations which you from sound and sure reasons so clearly suggest. These hopes are as well founded as our fears of the contrary evils. On the whole, the prospect is cheering. I have lately undertaken to read Algernon Sidney on Government There is a great difference in reading a book at four-and-twenty and at eighty-eight …

  1. Adams to Jefferson, Quincy, 15 August, 1823.

    Watchman! what of the night? Is darkness that may be felt, to prevail over the whole world, or can you perceive any rays of a returning dawn? Is the devil to be the “Lord’s anointed” over the whole globe? or do you foresee the fulfilment of the prophecies according to Dr. Priestley’s interpretation of them? I know not but I have in some of my familiar and frivolous letters to you told the story four times over; but if I have, I never applied it so well as now. Not long after the dénouement of the tragedy of Louis XVI., when I was Vice-President, my friend, the Doctor, came to breakfast with me alone. He was very sociable, very learned and eloquent on the subject of the French Revolution. It was opening a new era in the world, and presenting a near view of the millennium. I listened, I heard with great attention, and perfect sang froid; at last I asked the Doctor, “Do you really believe the French will establish a free, democratic government in France?” He answered, “I do firmly believe it.” “Will you give me leave to ask you upon what grounds you entertain this opinion? Is it from any thing you ever read in history? Is there any instance of a Roman Catholic monarchy of five-and-twenty millions of people, at once converted into intelligent, free, and rational people?” “No. I know of no instance like it.” “Is there any thing in your knowledge of human nature, derived from books or experience, that any empire, ancient or modern, consisting of such multitudes of ignorant people, ever were, or ever can be, suddenly converted into materials capable of conducting a free government, especially a democratic republic?” “No. I know of nothing of the kind.” “Well, then, Sir, what is the ground of your opinion?” The answer was, “My opinion is founded altogether upon revelation and the prophecies. I take it that the ten horns of the great beast in Revelations mean the ten crowned heads of Europe, and that the execution of the king of France is the falling off of the first of those horns; and the nine monarchies of Europe will fall, one after another, in the same way.” Such was the enthusiasm of that great man, that reasoning machine! After all, however, he did recollect himself so far as to say, “There is, however, a possibility of doubt, for I read yesterday a book, put into my hands by a gentleman, a volume of travels, written by a French gentleman in 1659, in which he says he had been travelling a whole year in England, had travelled into every part, and conversed freely with all ranks of people. He found the whole nation earnestly engaged in discussing and contriving a form of government for their future regulation. There was but one point on which they all agreed, and in that they were unanimous, that monarchy, nobility, and prelacy never would exist in England again.” The Doctor then paused, and said, “yet in the very next year the whole nation called in the king, and ran mad with monarchy nobility, and prelacy.

    I am no king killer, merely because they are kings. Poor creatures! they know no better; they sincerely and conscientiously believe that God made them to rule the world. I would not, therefore, behead them, or send them to St. Helena to be treated like Napoleon; but I would shut them up like the man in the mask, feed them well, and give them as much finery as they please, until they could be converted to right reason and common sense.

    2. Jefferson to Adams, Monticello, September 4, 1823.

    Dear Sir,

    —Your letter of August the 15th was received in due time, and with the welcome of everything which comes from you. With its opinions on the difficulties of revolutions from despotism to freedom, I very much concur. The generation which commences a revolution rarely completes it. Habituated from their infancy to passive submission of body and mind to their kings and priests, they are not qualified when called on to think and provide for themselves; and their inexperience, their ignorance and bigotry make them instruments often, in the hands of the Bonapartes and Iturbides, to defeat their own rights and purposes. This is the present situation of Europe and Spanish America. But it is not desperate. The light which has been shed on mankind by the art of printing, has eminently changed the condition of the world. As yet, that light has dawned on the middling classes only of the men in Europe. The kings and the rabble, of equal ignorance, have not yet received its rays; but it continues to spread, and while printing is preserved, it can no more recede than the sun return on his course. A first attempt to recover the right of self-government may fail, so may a second, a third, &c. But as a younger and more instructed race comes on, the sentiment becomes more and more intuitive, and a fourth, a fifth, or some subsequent one of the ever renewed attempts will ultimately succeed. In France, the first effort was defeated by Robespierre, the second by Bonaparte, the third by Louis XVIII. and his holy allies: another is yet to come, and all Europe, Russia excepted, has caught the spirit; and all will attain representative government, more or less perfect. This is now well understood to be a necessary check on kings, whom they will probably think it more prudent to chain and tame, than to exterminate. To attain all this, however, rivers of blood must yet flow, and years of desolation pass over; yet the object is worth rivers of blood, and years of desolation. For what inheritance so valuable, can man leave to his posterity? The spirit of the Spaniard, and his deadly and eternal hatred to a Frenchman, give me much confidence that he will never submit, but finally defeat this atrocious violation of the laws of God and man, under which he is suffering; and the wisdom and firmness of the Cortes, afford reasonable hope, that that nation will settle down in a temperate representative government, with an executive properly subordinated to that. Portugal, Italy, Prussia, Germany, Greece, will follow suit. You and I shall look down from another world on these glorious achievements to man, which will add to the joys even of heaven…

    3. Adams to Jefferson, Quincy, 17 September, 1823.

    With much pleasure I have heard read the sure words of prophecy in your letter of September 4th. It is melancholy to contemplate the cruel wars, desolations of countries, and oceans of blood, which must occur before rational principles and rational systems of government can prevail and be established; but as these are inevitable, we must content ourselves with the consolations which you from sound and sure reasons so clearly suggest. These hopes are as well founded as our fears of the contrary evils. On the whole, the prospect is cheering. I have lately undertaken to read Algernon Sidney on Government There is a great difference in reading a book at four-and-twenty and at eighty-eight. As often as I have read it and fumbled it over, it now excites fresh admiration that this work has excited so little interest in the literary world. As splendid an edition of it as the art of printing can produce, as well for the intrinsic merits of the work, as for the proof it brings of the bitter sufferings of the advocates of liberty from that time to this, and to show the slow progress of moral, philosophical, political illumination in the world, ought to be now published in America….

About this Quotation:

These three letters between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were exchanged between 15 August and 17 September 1823 when they were both in their eighties. They were reflecting on the prospects for liberty and the part that revolution had played and might play again in creating free societies across the globe. Adams in particular was concerned about the role of violence in removing tyrants from their positions of power. He believed that even kings should not be killed but put into a kind of pampered seclusion where they could contemplate their past deeds and perhaps come to realise the value of individual liberty for all their subjects. Much of his vocabulary has to do with “darkness” and night prevailing over the world thus making it impossible for “rays” of light and liberty to penetrate very far. Jefferson shares some of Adams' pessimism for the future but believes that in the long run, perhaps with the 5th attempt to create a free society, future generations may succeed but not without considerable cost. Jefferson predicts that “rivers of blood” must flow before adequate checks on political power can be established. Adams agrees that “cruel wars, desolations of countries, and oceans of blood” will inevitably precede the creation of a “rational system” of government. In the meantime, the older Adams (he was 88) takes comfort in re-reading one of the classics of English republican thought from the 17th century, the Discourses Concerning Government (1683) written by Algernon Sidney who was beheaded for his republicanism. Adams concludes by remembering “the bitter sufferings” the advocates of liberty have suffered and hoping that the republication in America of books like Sidney’s will advance “the slow progress of moral, philosophical, political illumination in the world.” [The complete letters can be found in The Works of John Adams, vol. 10; and The Works of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 12 in the OLL].

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