Thomas Jefferson Papers

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, [ca. 14] August 1813, with Postscript, 16 August 1813

From John Adams

Quincy [ca. 14] August 1813

Κριοùς μὲν [καὶ]1 ὄνοuς διζήμεθα, Κúρνε, καὶ ἵππους

 εὐγενέας· καί τις βούλεται ἐξ ἀγαθῶν

κτήσασθαι. γῆμαι δὲ κακὴν κακοũ οὐ μελεδαίνει

ἐςθλὸς ἀνὴρ, ἤν οἱ χρήματα πολλὰ διδῶ.

Behold my translation

“My Friend Curnis, When We want to purchace, Horses, Asses or Rams, We inquire for the Wellborn. And every one wishes to procure, from the good Breeds. A good Man, does not care to marry a Shrew, the Daughter of a Shrew; unless They give him, a great deal of Money with her.”

What think you, of my translation? compare it with that of Grotius, and tell me, which, is nearest to the original in letter and in Spirit.

Grotius renders it

 Nobilitas asinis et equis Simul, arietibus que

 Dat pretium: nec de Semine degeneri

 Admissura placet. Sed pravæ e Sanguine pravo,

 Si dos Sit, præsto est optima conditio.

This flower of Greek Poetry, is extracted, from the


Theognis lived five hundred and forty four years before Jesus Christ.Has Science or Morals, or Philosophy or Criticism or Christianity, advanced or improved, or enlightened Mankind upon this Subject, and Shewn them, that the Idea of the “Well born” is a prejudice, a Phantasm, a Point no point, a Cape Fly away, a dream?2

I Say it is the ordonance of God Almighty, in the Constitution of human nature, and wrought into the Fabrick of the Universe. Philosophers and Politicians, may nibble and quibble, but they never will get rid of it. Their only resource is, to controul it. Wealth is another Monster to be Subdued. Hercules could not Subdue both or either. To Subdue them by regular approaches by a regular Seige and Strong fortifications was my Object in writing on Aristocracy, as I proposed to you in Grovenor Square.3

If you deny any one of these Positions, I will prove them to demonstration by Examples drawn from your own Virginia, and from every other State in the Union, and4 from the History of every Nation civilized and Savage, from all We know of the time of the5 Creation of the World.

Whence is the derivation of the Words Generous, Generously, Generosity &c? Johnson Says “Generous. a. Generosus Latin, Not of mean Birth; of good extraction. Noble of mind. magnanimous. open of Heart Liberal, munificent. Strong, vigorous.6 and he might have added, Couragious heroic, patriotic.

Littleton happens to be at hand. Generosus. Nobilis, ex præclaro genere ortus: qui a genere non deflectit. γεναῖος, ἐυγενής. Born of a noble Race, a Gentleman born. See his Examples.

What is the origin of the Word Gentleman?

It would be a curious critical Speculation for a learned Idler to pursue this Idea, through all Languages

We may call this Sentiment a prejudice, because We can give what names We please, to Such things as We please; but in my opinion it is a part of the Natural History of Man: and Politicians and Philosophers may as well project to make The Animal live without Bones or Blood, as Society can pretend to establish, a free Government without Attention to it.

Quincy August 16. 1813. I can proceed no farther, with this Letter, as I intended.

your Friend, my only Daughter, expired, yesterday morning in the Arms of Her Husband her Son, her Daughter, her Father and Mother, her Husbands two7 Sisters and two of her Nieces, in the 49th year of her Age, 46 of which She was the healthiest and firmest of Us all: Since which, She has been a monument to Suffering and to Patience.

John Adams

RC (DLC: TJ Papers, 199:35381–2); partially dated, with day conjectured from death of Abigail Adams Smith early on 15 Aug. 1813; at foot of text: “President Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as a letter of 16 Aug. 1813 received 14 Sept. 1813 but recorded in SJL as a letter of Aug. 1813 received 14 Sept. 1813. FC (Lb in MHi: Adams Papers); partially dated; partly in Adams’s hand.

ΘΕΟΓΝΙΔΟΣ ΜΕΓΑΡΕΩΣ ΠΑΡΑΙΝΕΣΕΙΣ: “The Advice of Theognis of Megara.” For the work from which Adams copied the quotation in question in Greek and Latin, see note to Adams to TJ, 9 July 1813. A modern edition translates the extract thus: “We seek out rams and asses and horses that are purebred, Cyrnus, and everyone wishes that they mount (females) of good stock; but a noble man does not mind marrying the base daughter of a base father if the latter gives him a lot of money” (Gerber, Greek Elegiac Poetry description begins Douglas E. Gerber, trans., Greek Elegiac Poetry from the Seventh to the Fifth Centuries BC, Loeb Classical Library, 1999 description ends , 200–1 [lines 183–6]). TJ and Adams discussed aristocracy at the latter’s grovenor square (Grosvenor Square) residence in London in March or April of 1786, a year prior to the publication of Adams’s A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (London, 1787–88; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 3004; Poor, Jefferson’s Library description begins Nathaniel P. Poor, Catalogue. President Jefferson’s Library, 1829 description ends , 11 [no. 650]) (McCullough, Adams description begins David McCullough, John Adams, 2001 description ends , 354–61; PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 34 vols. description ends , 11:118). Adams is quoting from the first volume of Samuel johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1755; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4874). The work by Adam littleton was his Linguæ Latinæ Liber Dictionarius Quadripartitus. A Latine Dictionary, In Four Parts (London, 1678; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4796). Adams’s only daughter was Abigail Adams Smith. Of her three surviving children, John Adams Smith and Caroline Amelia Smith waited on her during her final illness (Edith Belle Gelles, Portia: The World of Abigail Adams [1992], esp. 150).

1Word, which is omitted from both RC and FC, editorially supplied.

2FC to this point in Adams’s hand.

3Sentence interlined.

4RC: “and and.”

5Preceding three words interlined.

6Omitted closing quotation mark editorially supplied.

7Word interlined.

Index Entries

  • Adams, Abigail Smith (John Adams’s wife); and daughter’s death search
  • Adams, John; Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America search
  • Adams, John; letters from search
  • Adams, John; on aristocracy search
  • Adams, John; on daughter’s death search
  • Adams, John; on Theognis’s writings search
  • A Dictionary of the English Language (S. Johnson) search
  • books; dictionaries search
  • Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (Adams) search
  • English language; dictionaries search
  • Grotius, Hugo; as translator of Theognis search
  • Jesus; mentioned search
  • Johnson, Samuel; A Dictionary of the English Language search
  • Latin; dictionaries search
  • Linguæ Latinæ Liber Dictionarius Quadripartitus (Littleton) search
  • Littleton, Adam; Linguæ Latinæ Liber Dictionarius Quadripartitus search
  • Smith, Abigail Adams (John Adams’s daughter; William Stephens Smith’s wife); death of search
  • Smith, Abigail Adams (John Adams’s daughter; William Stephens Smith’s wife); health of search
  • Smith, Caroline (John Adams’s granddaughter); and mother’s death search
  • Smith, John (John Adams’s grandson); and mother’s death search
  • Smith, William Stephens; and wife’s death search
  • Theognis; writings of search