Adams Papers

From John Adams to Nathan Webb, with Comments by the Writer Recorded in 1807

To Nathan Webb, with Comments by the Writer Recorded in 1807

Worcester Octr: 12th: I believe, 1755

Dear sir

All that part of Creation that lies within our observation is liable to Change. Even mighty States and kingdoms, are not exempted. If we look into History we shall find some nations rising from contemp­tible beginnings, and spreading their influence, ’till the whole Globe is subjected to their sway. When they have reach’d the summit of Grandeur, some minute and unsuspected Cause commonly effects their Ruin, and the Empire of the world is transferr’d to some other place. Immortal Rome was at first but an insignificant Village, inhabited only by a few abandoned Ruffins, but by degrees it rose to a stupendous Height, and excell’d in Arts and Arms all the Nations that praeceeded it. But the demolition of Carthage (what one should think would have establish’d it in supream dominion) by removing all danger, suffer’d it to sink into debauchery, and made it att length an easy prey to Barbarians.—England Immediately, upon this began to increase (the particular, and minute causes of which I am not Historian enough to trace) in Power and magnificence, and is now the greatest Nation upon the globe.—Soon after the Reformation a few people came over into this new world for Concience sake. Perhaps this (apparently) trivial incident, may transfer the great seat of Empire into America. It looks likely to me. For if we can remove the turbulent Gallicks, our People according to the exactest Computations, will in another Century, become more numerous than England itself. Should this be the Case, since we have (I may say) all the naval Stores of the Nation in our hands, it will be easy to obtain the mastery of the seas, and then the united force of all Europe, will not be able to subdue us. The only way to keep us from setting up for ourselves, is to disunite Us. Divide et impera. Keep us in distinct Colonies, and then, some great men, in each Colony, desiring the Monarchy of the Whole, they will destroy each others influence and keep the Country in Equilibrio.1

Be not surprised that I am turn’d Politician. This whole town is immers’d in Politicks. The interests of Nations, and all the dira of War, make the subject of every Conversation. I set and hear, and after having been led thro’ a maze of sage observations, I some times retire, and by laying things together, form some reflections pleasing to myself. The produce of one of these reveries, You have read above. Different employment and different objects may have drawn your thoughts other ways. I shall think myself happy if in your turn, you communicate your Lucubrations to me. I wrote you, some time since, and have waited, with impatience, for an answer, but have been disappointed. I hope that Lady at Barnstable, has not made you forget your Friends. Friendship, I take it, is one of the distinguishing Glorys of man. And the Creature that is insensible of its Charms, tho he may wear the shape, of Man, is unworthy of the Character. In this, perhaps, we bear a nearer resemblance of unbodied intelligences than any thing else. From this I expect to receive the Cheif happiness of my future life, and am sorry that fortune has thrown me at such a distance from those of my Friends who have the highest place in my affections. But thus it is; and I must submit. But I hope e’er long to return and live in that happy familiarity, that has from earliest infancy subsisted between yourself, and affectionate Friend,

John Adams2

[Adams’ Comments in 1807]

Quincy April 22 1807. Nathan Webb was the Son of the late Deacon Jonathan Webb of Quincy and the Grandson of Benjamin Webb of the same place. The Father and Grandfather were intimate Friends of my Father and Grandfather, and the Grandson was my Playfellow at the Grammar School in Braintree, and my Contemporary at Colledge. He had Wit, humour and good Nature, equal to his Understanding And Judgment which were very good. He died young, and I attended him in his last Sickness, with equal Grief and assiduity, and watched with him a Night or two before his death. He left this Letter and some others in possession of his Father, who left it with his whole Estate to his Nephew, Captain Jonathan Webb, now of this Town living in the old Seat of the Family, who about a fortnight ago was kind enough to send it to me, after it had lain fifty one years and an half among the Papers of the Family in Oblivion. It was written soon after I took my first degree at Colledge, and some days before I was twenty years old. Nathan was named after his Unkle Nathan Webb the Minister of Uxbridge, who married my Fathers Sister.3

John Adams

RC (Adams Papers); addressed: “For Mr: Nathan Webb Att Braintree these JLC.” (The initials are in monogram form and may be those of the unidentified bearer, though in JA’s hand.) Tr (Adams Papers); in JA’s hand and with his explanatory comments on Nathan Webb added following the text and signed under date of 22 April 1807; printed herewith. Other early copies in the Adams Papers have no textual value. For the return of the original RC to its writer in April 1807, see JA’s added comments. JA was so pleased with the recovery and the content of this very early letter that he enclosed a copy of it (and of his comments) in a letter to Benjamin Rush of 1 May 1807 (LbC, Adams Papers; RC and enclosure have not been located but are printed in Biddle, Old Family Letters description begins Old Family Letters: Copied from the Originals for Alexander Biddle, Series A, Philadelphia, 1892. description ends , p. 133–138, 5–8). He also made the text available to the editors of the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review, where it was printed at 4:256–257 (May 1807), with a brief editorial headnote that remarks, among other things, that “Some of the sentiments, which it contains, were prophetick, and are gradually fulfilling.” Thereafter it was quoted and published elsewhere from time to time and was widely known by the time JQA drafted his fragmentary biography of JA in 1829; see note 2.

1The characteristic reflections in this early, but later celebrated, letter had at least two identifiable sources. One was the course of the current French and Indian War, in which the British had recently suffered serious reverses, notably in Braddock’s defeat near Fort Duquesne and in other actions on and around the lakes above the Hudson. Thus, JA mentions just below, the “dira [evils, sufferings] of War.” The possibility of the fall of the British Empire brought on a line of thought popular throughout the 18th century and memorably expressed in Bishop Berkeley’s “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America” (written 1707, published 1752), ending with the stanza, “Westward the course of empire takes its way;. . . / Time’s noblest offspring is the last.” The plausible suggestion has also been made (John A. Schutz and Douglass Adair, eds., The Spur of Fame. . . , San Marino, Calif., 1966, p. 81, note) that JA had been reading Benjamin Franklin’s remarkable essay “Observations concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, &c.” (written 1751, published 1755; Franklin, Papers description begins The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Leonard W. Labaree, William B. Willcox (from vol. 15), and others, New Haven, 1959– . description ends , 4:225–234). Here Franklin predicted that America would rapidly overtake England in population. The prospect of America’s succeeding England as the seat of empire, or becoming itself a powerful independent empire, was a natural inference for JA to draw.

2When, in preparing his memoir of his father, JQA came upon this letter to Webb, he was so struck by it that he not only quoted the text in full but added two full pages of laudatory commentary; see JA, Works description begins The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, ed. Charles Francis Adams, Boston, 1850–1856; 10 vols. description ends , 1:23–26. In his Diary, JQA was equally laudatory but briefer, and concentrated on one aspect of the letter—the closing passage on friendship—which he felt had been overlooked by others but was the best of all the good things in it. It is “A Letter,” he wrote, “in the Analysis of which I find so much matter for commentary that a sober judgment must be called in to curb enthusiastic admiration. I propose to give the Letter entire, for it is the foot of Hercules. Nothing that my father ever wrote in the subsequent course of his life, bears in more indelible characters the stamp of his genius and of his heart. Webster and Wirt have both spoken of this Letter, with high commendation, but neither of them has noticed the part of it which is most deeply affecting to me—its encomium, tender and sublime, upon friendship. If I should say that the annals of epistolary correspondence cannot furnish a Letter more replete at once with intellect and heart, I should commit no excess.” (Entry of 15 Sept. 1829.)

3Deacon John Adams’ sister Ruth (1700–1761) had married Rev. Nathan Webb (1705–1772), Harvard 1725, minister at Uxbridge (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 , 7:617–619; see also index to JA, Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends ).

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