Edward Wigglesworth to Abigail Adams
Harvard College Octo. 13. 1780
I am directed by the Corporation to advise you, that the Hon. Mr. Adams, in his Letter favoured by the Hon. A. Lee, informed them, “that you would deliver five Volumes of M. Court de Gébelin’s Monde Primitif with the L’Histoire natural de la Parole for our Library.”
M. Gebelin has been pleased to enrich our public Library with that very learned Work. And as Mr. Adams had the five first Volumes of it in his own Library here, to avoid the Risque of the Sea, he has retained those Volumes of M. Gebelin’s with him, and been so kind as to direct that his own Set should be placed in our Library in their Stead.
If you should have an Opportunity of sending the Books, either to the Care of Ebenezer Storer Esqr.1 at Boston, or to mine here, it will be gratefully acknowledged by the Gentlemen of the Corporation.
I am, Madam, with Respect and Esteem, your most obedient humble servant,
RC (Adams Papers); at foot of text: “Hon. Mrs. Adams.”
1. Treasurer of Harvard College and, through his second marriage, to the former Hannah (Quincy) Lincoln, connected with AA’s family. There is a brief identifying note on Storer at vol. 2:48, but see also Sibley-Shipton, Harvard Graduates description begins John Langdon Sibley and Clifford K. Shipton, Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cambridge and Boston, 1873– . description ends , 12:208–214, and Adams Genealogy.
2. The work in question was Antoine Court de Gébelin’s huge and ongoing compilation of data and speculation on the origins of religion and language, which had a comparably lengthy title but is usually called for convenience Monde primitif. See notes on both the book and its author at vol. 3:106–107, above, and in JA, Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 2:323.
On 3 March JA had written to “The Reverend the President and Corporation of Harvard Colledge” as follows:
“I have the Honour to transmit you a Letter from Monsieur Court de Gebelin, who has sent me Six Volumes of his learned Work, intituled Monde Primitif to be sent by me, as a Present from him to Harvard Colledge. I shall discharge this Trust with great Pleasure as soon as I can find a good Opportunity: but it will be somewhat difficult to find a Friend who can take so large a Bundle to a Seaport, and from thence to America: the first however that I can find, will have the Honour to convey it” (LbC, Adams Papers).
The present letter, from Edward Wigglesworth, professor of divinity and a member of the Corporation, shows that JA later hit on a different mode of proceeding: by the hand of Arthur Lee he sent another letter (so far not found), in which he proposed to hold back the volumes just presented him by the author for Harvard, and instructed the Corporation to apply to AA for the corresponding volumes that were already in his own library at Braintree.
The second plan did not work out, and the earlier one did. The Harvard College Library has a complete set of the Monde primitif, of which volumes 1–6 and 8 contain early bookplates bearing the notation “The Gift of the Author, M. Court de Gebelin of Paris Recorded 27 Nov. 1780.” (Volumes 7 and 9 were not acquired until 1900 and 1923 respectively.) And in the University Archives is Court de Gébelin’s letter of presentation, dated “Paris 2e. Mars 1780” and addressed to the President and Corporation, which must have been enclosed in JA’s letter of 3 March quoted above in this note. It is a long and effusive one:
“Habitans d’un Monde nouveau, Membres d’une Societé qui prend une forme nouvelle et qui s’elevant sur des bases pleines de sagesse, annonce l’avenir le plus flatteur, Vous jetterez sans doute avec plaisir un coup d’oeil sur un Ouvrage qui retrace les tems anciens: qui montre comment se formerent et s’eleverent ces Societés primitives et respectables que l’Antiquité celebra, dont le souvenir c’est transmis jusqu’à nous, et dignes de n’etre pas oubliées par les heureux habitans du Nouveau Monde.”
There is much more in this vein, including an appeal to the scholars at Harvard to aid the author in bringing his work “à une plus grande perfection” by their criticisms and by furnishing information concerning “les Langues de ces vastes Contrêes, leurs usages, leurs traditions, leur culte, leurs mots sacrés: ces vieilles Chansons conservées parmi eux et qu’ils n’entendent qu’à peine.”
The arrival of the volumes presented by the author, to whom the Corporation voted on 27 Nov. to send its thanks, precluded the need to send the same volumes from Braintree. JA’s set in nine volumes (with an extra copy of vol. 7), Paris, 1775–1782, is now among his books in the Boston Public Library. In his old age, when reading widely in the field of comparative religion, he annotated most of the volumes, and although he found much to correct, he declared that Court de Gébelin’s work as a whole “does honor to human Nature and has been useful to Mankind. No Man can read it without being richly rewarded for his Time and pains” (Frank E. Manuel, The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods, Cambridge, 1959, p. 274).