Adams Papers

From John Adams to Boston Patriot, 31 July 1809

Quincy, July 31, 1809.


On the 24th of August, 1780, transmitted to Congress, by another conveyance, duplicates of the declarations of Sweden, Denmark, &c. relative to the maritime confederation.

September 4th, wrote to Congress, news that the outward bound West-India fleet of 52 sail, and five East-Indiamen, on the 9th of August, fell in with the combined French and Spanish fleets, about sixty leagues from Cape St. Vincents, and were most of them taken, the frigates and four East-Indiamen alone having escaped. This is the account: we may possibly hear of some deductions. But the account in general is authentic, and of very great importance, as the value of the property taken is large, the number of soldiers and seamen considerable, and the disappointment to the fleets and armies of our enemies in the East and West Indies and in North America, difficult to be repaired. This news has been from the 22d of August to the 3d of September, in travelling from London to Amsterdam, where it makes a very great sensation indeed. We had at the same time news of the capture of most of the Quebec fleet by an American frigate and two brigantines.

September 1, 1780, wrote from Amsterdam to Mr. Luzac. I have received a copy of the constitution of Massachusetts, of which I beg your acceptance. It has not yet been published in Europe, as it now appears accepted by the convention, although the report of the committee was printed in the Courier de L’Europe, some months ago, and in the Remembrancer, as well as the newspapers in London. I find many gentlemen here are inquisitive concerning the American forms of government; so that, if you could find room to print it, by small portions at a time, in your paper, you would not only gratify the curiosity of many of your readers, bur perhaps do a public service to a cause which is honored with your approbation.

To tell you the truth, as I had some share in the formation of this constitution, I am ambitious of seeing it translated by the editor of the Leyden Gazette, which, without a compliment, I esteem the best in Europe, both in point of style and method.

Mr. Luzac accordingly translated arid published it.

September 2, wrote to Mr. William Lee, at Brussells. “A packet has arrived at Bilboa from America, with news of the arrival of De Terney, at Rhode-Island. A vessel has arrived here yesterday from Philadelphia, and another from Virginia. The enemy have retreated from New-Jersey to New-York, driven back by the militia. The people are in high spirits; trade very brisk; and privateering successful. I am so much of your opinion, that I wish Congress had a minister plenipotentiary at the Hague, Petersburg, Stockholm, and Copenhagen.”

September 4th, wrote to my correspondent in London, “I have only time to acknowledge the receipt of yours of the 25th and 29th ult. which were very acceptable, and to enclose two newspapers and the act of Massachusetts establishing an academy of arts and sciences.[]

September 5th, wrote to Mr. Dana, at Paris, “The news of the capture off St. Vincents is confirmed in abundance from London, and we have news at the same time of an American frigate and two privateer brigs taking most of the Quebec fleet. You will see General Washington’s and General Green’s accounts of Kniphausen’s defeat and retreat from the Jersies. There are associations for forming banks at Philadelphia and another at Boston. The Massachusetts constitution is accepted by more than two thirds of the people, and is to take place the first of October.”

Same day, wrote to Mr. Dumas, at the Hague, “the capture of the British fleet is of great importance in itself, on account of the property, the men, and the disappointment to the enemy—But when we consider it as a precedent, it is more interesting still. This is the only wife method of warring with Great Britain. When France and Spain shall adopt the policy of convoying their own commerce, and cruising for that of the enemy, this war will soon be brought to a conclusion. Such a capital success in one of their first essays will be likely to convince the two courts, as well as their marine officers, of the utility of such measures, and induce them to pursue them, which I wish with all my heart.

I saw with pleasure the revival of the American Philosophical Society at Philadelphia, and the establishment of an academy of arts and sciences at Boston. In a new country and a young society, such institutions are perhaps more useful and necessary, than in older nations. But in order to render them more useful to the world, would it not be proper to promote some connection and correspondence between them and the academies of Europe? Would it be unworthy of any scientific or literary company to send these infant societies copies of their printed memoirs and transactions? Science and literature are of no party nor nation. They belong to the great commonwealth of mankind. I hope that one of the first objects of the new societies in America, will be the formation of botanical gardens, and collections of the birds, beasts and fishes, as well as trees and plants, which are peculiar to that country, in order to a natural history of it. An ample field this.

Is it not wonderful, that it does not occur to the friends of England in the United provinces, that the best means they can use to shew their friendship to her, is to convince her of her error. She is rushing like a madman down a precipice. Is it humanity or friendship to spur her on?

It is amazing that avarice itself does not stimulate the misers who lend her money, to stop their hands. The only chance English credit has for salvation is to stop short, acknowledge American independence—make peace, and secure as great a share as they can of American commerce, before it becomes established in other channels.

Can it be friendship to England to fill the universe with she most abominable lies, in order to keep up a false idea of her power and the weakness of America?[]

September 5th, wrote to Mr. Luzac. “Inclosed is an abridgment of a pamphlet published in London, last winter. I beg your attentive perusal of it, and your candid opinion whether it would be of service to our cause, which is the cause of mankind, and especially of Europe, to publish it.[]

This was Governor Pownal’s memorial to the sovereigns of Europe, which I had procured to be translated, by a masterly hand, into very good French. Mr. Luzac published it, and it was much read and admired. It was thought to be highly favorable to the American cause.

Though the idle sport of imagination in my next letter was as little to my purpose then, as it is now, yet whimsical as it is, I will not suppress it.

September 5, 1780, wrote to congress. "As eloquence is cultivated with more care in free republics than in other governments, it has been found by constant experience, that such republics have produced the greatest purity, copiousness and perfection of language. It is not to be disputed, that the form of government has an influence upon language, and language in its turn influences not only the form of government, but the temper, the sentiments and the manners of the people. The admirable models which have been transmitted through the world and continued down to these days, so as to form an essential part of the education of mankind, from generation to generation, by those two ancient towns, Athens and Rome, would be sufficient, without any other argument, to shew the United States the importance to their liberty, prosperity and glory, of an early attention to the subject of eloquence and language.

Most of the nations of Europe have thought it necessary so establish, by public authority, institutions for fixing and improving their proper languages. I need not mention the academies in France, Spain and Italy, their learned labors nor their great success. But it is very remarkable, that, although many learned and ingenious men in England have from age to age, projected similar institutions for correcting and improving the English tongue, yet the government have never found time to interpose in any manner—so that, to this day, there is no grammar nor dictionary extant, of the English language, which has the least public authority, and it is only very lately, that a tolerable dictionary has been published even by a private person, and there is not yet a passable grammar enterprized by any individual.

The honor of forming the first public institution for refining, correcting, ascertaining and improving the English language, I hope, is reserved for Congress. They have every motive that can possibly influence a public assembly to undertake it.

It will have a happy effect upon the union of the States, to have a public standard to which all persons in all parts of the continent may appeal, both for signification and pronunciation of all their words in the most predominant language.

The constitutions of all the States in the Union are so democratical, that eloquence will become an instrument for recommending men to their fellow-citizens, and a principal mean of advancement, through the various gradations and offices of society.

In the last century, Latin was the universal language of Europe. Correspondence among the learned, and indeed between merchants and men of business, and conversation of strangers and travellers, was generally held in that dead language. In the present century, Latin has been too generally laid aside, and French has been substituted in its place; but has not yet become universally established, and according to present appearances, it is not probable that it will be. English is destined to be in the next or succeeding century, more generally the language of the world, than Latin was in the last, or French is, in the present age. The reason of this is obvious; because the increasing population in America, and their universal connection and correspondence with all nations, will, aided by the influence of England in the world, whether that be greater or smaller, force their language into general use, in spite of all the obstacles that may be thrown in the way, if any such there should be.

It is not necessary to enlarge farther, to shew the motives which the people of America have to turn their thoughts early to this subject: they will naturally occur to Congress in a much greater detail than I have time to intimate.

I would therefore submit to the consideration of Congress the expediency and policy of instituting by their authority, a society, under the name of the American Academy, for ascertaining, improving and refining the English language.

The authority of Congress is necessary to give such a society reputation, influence and authority, through all the states and with other nations. The number of members of which it shall consist; the manner of appointing them; whether each state shall have a certain number of members, and the power of appointing them; or whether Congress shall appoint them; whether after the first appointment the society itself shall fill up vacancies; these and other questions will easily be determined by Congress.

It will be necessary that the society should have a library, consisting of a complete collection of all writings concerning languages, ancient and modern; they must have some officers, and some expenses, which will require some funds as indispensable. Upon a recommendation of Congress, there is no doubt the legislature of every state in the confederation would readily pass laws making such a society a body politic; entitle it to sue and be sued, and to hold an estate real or personal, of a limited value in that state.

I have the honor to submit these hints to the consideration of Congress, and to hope that nothing in them will give offence to them or their allies.

I ask leave to subjoin a few facts in explanation of this letter, and of a paragraph in my letter to Mr. Dumas, of the 5th of September, 1780, relative to natural history and botanical gardens.

In travelling from Boston to Philadelphia, in 1774, 5, 6, and 7, I had several times amused myself at Norwalk, in Connecticut, with the very curious collection of birds and insects of American production made by Mr. Arnold—a collection which he afterwards fold to Governor Tryon, who sold it to Sir Ashton Leder, in whose apartments in London I afterwards viewed it again—This collection was so singular a thing, that it made a deep impression upon me, and I could not but consider it a reproach to my country, that so little was known even to herself of her natural history.

When I was in Europe, in the years 1778 and 1779, in the commission to the king of France, with Dr. Franklin and Mr. Arthur Lee, I had opportunities to see the king’s collections and many others, which increased my wishes that nature might be examined and studied in my own country as it was in others.

In France, among the academicians and other men of science and letters, I was frequently entertained with enquiries concerning the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, and with eulogiums on the wisdom of that institution, and encomiums on some publications in their transactions. These conversations suggested to me the idea of such an establishment at Boston, where I knew there was as much love of science and as many gentlemen who were capable of pursuing it, as in any other city of its size.

In 1779, I returned to Boston in the French frigate Le Sensible, with the Chevalier de La Luzerne and Mr. Marbois. The corporation of Harvard College gave a public dinner, in honor of the French ambassador and his suite, and did me the honor of an invitation to dine with them. At table, in the Philosophy Chamber, I chanced to sit next to Dr. Cooper. I entertained him during the whole of the time we were together, with an account of Arnold’s collections, the collections I had seen in Europe, the compliment I had heard in France upon the Philosophical Society at Philadelphia, and concluded with proposing that the future legislature of Massachusetts should institute an academy of arts and sciences.

The Doctor at first hesitated—thought it would be difficult to find members who would attend to it; but his principal objection was, that it would injure Harvard College by sitting up a rival to it, that might draw the attention and affections of the public in some degree from it. To this I answered, first, that there were certainly men of learning enough that might compose a society sufficiently numerous; and secondly, that instead of being a rival to the University, it would be an honor and advantage to it. That the president and principal professors would no doubt be always members of it, and the meetings might be ordered, wholly or in part, at the College, and in that room. The Doctor at length appeared better satisfied, and I entreated him to propagate the idea and the plan, as far and as soon as his discretion would justify—The Doctor accordingly did diffuse the project so judiciously and effectually, that the first legislature under the new constitution adopted and established it by law.

Afterwards when attending the convention for forming the constitution, I mentioned the subject to several of the members, and when I was appointed by the sub-committee to make a draught of a project of a constitution to be laid before the convention, my mind and heart was so full of this subject that I inserted the chapter fifth, section second,

The encouragement of Literature.

“Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties: and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education, in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislatures and Magistrates, in all future periods of this Commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature, and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the University at Cambridge, public schools and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions by rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry, frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings: sincerity, good humour, and all social affections & generous sentiments among the people.”

I was somewhat apprehensive that criticism and objections would be made to the sections, and particularly that the “natural history” and the “good humor” would be stricken out; but the whole was received very kindly, and passed the Convention unanimously, without amendment. This gave me great encouragement to hope that a natural history of the country would soon be commenced under public authority: But it has been only within four or five years, that any thing has been undertaken in earnest, and that by private subscription, aided however with a generous grant, by the legislature, of a township of land, which it is to be hoped will be followed by other and more efficacious assistance—for the public property is never more honorably or profitably employed, than in promoting establishments of such extensive and permanent benefits to the present age and to posterity.

John Adams.

Printed Source--Boston Patriot.

Index Entries