Thomas Jefferson Papers

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 15 November 1813

From John Adams

Quincy November 15.1 13

Dear Sir

I cannot appease my melancholly commiseration for our Armies in this furious Snow Storm, in any way So well as by Studying your Letter of Oct. 28.

We are now explicitly agreed, in one important point, vizt That “there is a natural Aristocracy among men; the grounds of which are Virtue and Talents.”

you very justly indulge a little merriment upon this Solemn Subject of Aristocracy. I often laugh at it too, for there is nothing in this laughable world more ridiculous than the management of it by almost all the nations of the Earth.2 But while We Smile, Mankind have reason to Say to Us, as the froggs said to the Boys, What is Sport to you is Wounds and death to Us. When I consider the weakness, the folly, the Pride, the Vanity, the Selfishness, the Artifice, the low craft and mean Cunning, the want of Principle, the Avarice the unbounded Ambition, the unfeeling Cruelty of a majority of those (in all Nations) who are allowed an aristocratical influence; and on the other hand, the Stupidity with which the more numerous multitude, not only become their Dupes, but even love to be taken in by their Tricks: I feel a Stronger disposition to weep at their destiny, than to laugh at their Folly.

But tho’ We have agreed in one point, in Words, it is not yet certain that We are perfectly agreed in Sense. Fashion has introduced an indeterminate Use of the Word “Talents.” Education, Wealth, Strength Beauty, Stature, Birth, Marriage, graceful Attitudes and Motions, Gait, Air, Complexion, Physiognomy, are Talents, as well as Genius and Science and learning. Any one of these Talents, that in fact commands or influences3 two Votes in Society, gives to the Man who possesses it, the Character of an Aristocrat, in my Sense of the Word.

Pick up, the first 100 men you meet, and make a Republick. Every Man will have an equal Vote. But when deliberations and discussions are opened it will be found that 25, by their Talents, Virtues being equal, will be able to carry 50 Votes. Every one of these 25, is an Aristocrat, in my Sense of the Word; whether he obtains his one Vote in Addition to his own, by his Birth Fortune, Figure, Eloquence, Science learning, Craft Cunning, or even his Character for good fellowship and a bon vivant.

What gave Sir William Wallace his amazing Aristocratical Superiority? His Strength. What gave Mrs Clark, her aristocratical Influence to create Generals Admirals and Bishops? her Beauty. What gave Pompadour and Du Barry the Power of making Cardinals and Popes? their Beauty. you have Seen the Palaces of Pompadour and Du Barry: and I have lived for years in the Hotel de Valentinois,4 with Franklin who had as many Virtues as any of them. In the investigation of the meaning of the Word “Talents” I could write 630 Pages, as pertinent as John Taylors5 of Hazelwood. But I will Select a Single Example; for female Aristocrats are nearly as formidable in Society as male.

A daughter of a green Grocer, walks the Streets in London dayly with a baskett of Cabbage Sprouts, Dandelions and Spinage on her head. She is observed by the Painters to have a beautiful Face, an elegant figure, a graceful Step and a debonair. They hire her to Sitt. She complies,6 and is painted by forty Artists, in a Circle around her. The Scientifc Sir William Hamilton outbids the Painters, Sends her to Schools for a genteel Education and Marries her. This Lady not only causes the Tryumphs of the Nile of Copenhagen and Trafalgar, but Seperates Naples from France and finally banishes the King and Queen from Sicilly. Such is the Aristocracy of the natural Talent of Beauty. millions of Examples might be quoted from History Sacred and profane, from Eve, Hannah, Deborah Suzanna Abigail, Judith, Ruth, down to Hellen7 Madame de Maintenon and Mrs Fitzherbert. For mercy’s Sake do not compell me to look to our chaste States and Territories, to find Women, one of whom lett go, would, in the Words of Holopherne’s Guards “deceive the whole Earth.”

The Proverbs of Theognis, like those of Soloman, are Observations on human nature, ordinary life, and civil Society, with moral reflections on the facts. I quoted him as a Witness of the Fact, that there was as much difference in the races of Men as in the breeds of Sheep; and as a Sharp reprover and censurer of the sordid mercenary practice of disgracing Birth by preferring Gold to it. Surely no Authority can be more expressly in point to prove the existence of Inequalities, not of rights, but of moral intellectual and physical inequalities8 in Families, descents and Generations. If a descent from, pious, virtuous, wealthy litterary or Scientific Ancestors is a letter of recommendation, or introduction in a Mans favour, and enables him to influence only one Vote in Addition to his own, he is an Aristocrat, for a democrat can have but one Vote. Aaron Burr had 100,000 Votes from the Single Circumstance of his descent from President Burr and President Edwards.

your Commentary on the Proverbs of Theognis reminded me of two solemn Characters, the one resembling John Bunyan, the other Scarron. The one John Torrey: the other Ben. Franklin. Torrey a Poet, an Enthusiast, a Superstitious Bigot, once very gravely asked my Brother Cranch, “whether it would not be better for Mankind, if Children were always begotten from religious motives only.”? Would not religion, in this Sad case, have as little Efficacy in encouraging procreation, As it has now in discouraging it?—I Should apprehend a decrease of population even in our Country where it increases So rapidly.—In 1775 Franklin made a morning Visit, at Mrs Yards to Sam. Adams and John. He was unusually loquacious. “Man, a rational Creature”! Said Franklin. “Come; Let Us Suppose a rational Man. Strip him of all his Appetites, especially of his hunger and thirst. He is in his Chamber, engaged in making Experiments, or in pursuing Some Problem. He is highly entertained. At this moment a Servant knocks, “Sir dinner is on Table.9 “Dinner”! Pox! Pough! But what have you for dinner?” Ham and Chickens. “Ham”! “And must I break the chain of my thoughts, to go down and knaw a morsel of a damn’d Hogs Arse”? “Put aside your Ham.” “I will dine tomorrow.”

Take away Appetite and the present generation would not live a month and no future generation would ever exist. Thus the exalted dignity of human Nature would be annihilated and lost. And in my opinion, the whole loss would be of no more importance, than putting out a Candle, quenching a Torch, or crushing a Firefly, if in this world only We have hope.

your distinction between natural and artificial Aristocracy does not appear to me well founded. Birth and Wealth are conferred on Some Men, as imperiously by Nature, as Genius, Strength or Beauty. The Heir to honours and Riches, and power10 has often no more merit in procuring these Advantages, than he has in obtaining an handsome face or an elegant figure. When Aristocracies, are established by human Laws and honour Wealth and Power are made hereditary by municipal Laws and political Institutions, then I acknowledge artificial Aristocracy to commence: but this never commences, till Corruption in Elections becomes dominant and uncontroulable. But this artificial Aristocracy can never last. The everlasting Envys, Jealousies, Rivalries and quarrells among them, their cruel rapacities upon the poor ignorant People their followers, compell these to Sett up Cæsar, a Demagogue to be a Monarch and Master, pour mettre chacun a Sa place. Here you have the origin of all artificial Aristocracy, which is the origin of all Monarchy. And both Artificial Aristocracy, and Monarchy, and civil, military, political and hierarchical Despotism, have all grown out of the natural Aristocracy of “Virtues and Talents,.”

We, to be Sure, are far remote from this. Many hundred years must roll away before We Shall be corrupted. Our pure, virtuous, public Spirited federative Republick will last for ever, govern the Globe and introduce the perfection of Man, his perfectability being already proved by Price Priestly, Condorcet Rousseau Diderot and Godwin.

“Mischief has been done by the Senate of U.S” I have known and felt more of this mischief, than Washington, Jefferson and Madison altogether.11 But this has been all caused by the constitutional Power of the Senate in Executive Business, which ought to be immediately, totally and eternally abolished.

your distinction between the αριστοι and pseudo αριστοι, will not help the matter. I would trust one as Soon as the other with unlimited Power. The Law wisely refuses an Oath as a witness in his own cause to the Saint as well as to the Sinner.

No Romance would be more amusing, than the History of your Virginian and our new England Aristocratical Families. yet even in Rhode Island, where there has been no Clergy, no Church, and I had almost Said, no State, and Some People Say no religion, there has been a constant respect for certain old Families.—57 or 58. years ago, in Company with Col. Counsellor, Judge, John Chandler, whom I have quoted before, a Newspaper was brought in. The old Sage asked me to look for the News from Rhode Island and See how the Elections had gone there. I read the List of Wantons, Watsons, Greens, Whipples, Malbones &c. “I expected as much,” Said the aged Gentleman, “for I have always been of Opinion, that in the most popular Governments, the Elections will generally go in favour of the most ancient families.” To this day when any of these Tribes and We may Add Ellerys, Channings Champlins &c are pleased to fall in with the popular current, they are sure to carry all before them.

you suppose a difference of Opinion between you and me, on this Subject of Aristocracy. I can find none. I dislike and detest hereditary honours, Offices Emoluments established by Law. So do you. I am for excluding12 legal hereditary distinctions from the U.S. as long as possible. So are you. I only Say that Mankind have not yet discovered any remedy against irresistable Corruption in Elections to Offices of great Power and Profit, but making them hereditary.

But will you Say our Elections are pure? Be it so; upon the whole. But do you recollect in history, a more Corrupt Election than that of Aaron Burr to be President, or that of De Witt Clinton last year. By corruption, here I mean a Sacrifice of every national Interest and honour, to private and party Objects.

I See the same Spirit in Virginia, that you and I See in Rhode Island and the rest of New England. In New york it is a Struggle of Family Feuds. A fewdal Aristocracy. Pensylvania is a Contest between German,13 Irish and old English Families. When Germans and Irish Unite, they give 30,000 majorities, There is virtually a White Rose and a Red Rose, a Cæsar and a Pompey in every State in this Union and Contests and dissentions will be as lasting. The Rivalry of Bourbons and Noailleses produced the French Revolution, and a Similar Competition for Consideration and Influence, exists and prevails in every Village in the World.

Where will terminate, the Rabies Agri? The Continent will be Scattered over with Manors, much larger than Livingstons, Van Ranselaers, or Phillips’s. Even our Deacon Strong will have a Principality among you Southern Folk. what Inequality of Talents will be produced by these Land Jobbers?14

Where tends the Mania for Banks.? At my Table in Philadelphia, I once proposed to you to unite in endeavours to obtain an Amendment of the constitution, prohibiting to the seperate States, the Power of creating Banks; but giving Congress Authority to establish one Bank, with a branch in each State; the whole limited to Ten Millions of dollars.

Whether this Project was wise or unwise, I know not, for I had deliberated little on it then and have never thought it worth thinking much15 of Since. But you Spurned the Proposition from you with disdain.

This System of Banks begotten, hatched and brooded by Duer, Robert and Gouverneur16 Morris, Hamilton and Washington, I have always considered as a System of national Injustice. A Sacrifice of public and private Interest to a few Aristocratical Friends and Favourites. My Scheme could have had no Such Effect.

Verres plundered Temples and robbed a few rich Men: but he never made Such ravages among private property in general, nor Swindled So much out of the pocketts of the poor and the middle Class of People as these Banks have done. No people but this would have borne the Imposition So long. The People of Ireland would not bear Woods half pence. What Inequalities of Talent, have been introduced into this Country by these Aristocratical Banks!

Our Winthrops, Winslows, Bradfords, Saltonstalls, Quincys, Chandlers, Leonards Hutchinsons Olivers, Sewalls &c are precisely in the Situation of your Randolphs, Carters and Burwells, and Harrisons. Some of them unpopular for the part they took in the late revolution, but all respected for their names and connections and whenever they fall in with the popular Sentiments, are preferred, ceteris paribus to all others. When I was young, the Summum Bonum in Massachusetts, was to be worth ten thousand pounds Sterling, ride in a Chariot, be Colonel of a Regiment of Militia and hold a Seat in his Majesty’s Council. No Mans Imagination aspired to any thing higher, beneath the Skies. But these Plumbs, Chariots, Colonelships and counsellorships are recorded and will never be forgotten: No great Accumulations of Land were made by our early Settlers. Mr Baudoin a French Refugee, made the first great Purchases and your General Dearborne, born under a fortunate Starr is now enjoying a large Portion of the Aristocratical Sweets of them.

As I have no Amanuenses but females, and there is So much about generation17 in this letter that I dare not ask any one of them to copy it, and I cannot copy it my Self I must beg of you to return it to me. your old Friend

John Adams.

RC (MHi: Adams Papers); at foot of text: “President Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as a letter of 16 Nov. 1813 received 13 Dec. 1813 and so recorded in SJL; endorsed by Adams after its return as “My Letter to Jefferson Nov. 15: 1813.” Tr (DLC); in TJ’s hand; correctly dated but endorsed by TJ as received 15 Dec. Enclosed in TJ to Adams, 24 Jan. 1814.

The story of the froggs and the boys is from Aesop’s Fables. The daughter of a green grocer was Lady Emma Hamilton, the wife of William Hamilton and mistress of Horatio Nelson, the latter of whom won the naval battles of the nile of copenhagen and trafalgar (ODNB description begins H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, eds., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, 60 vols. description ends , 24:396–410, 40:789–93). deceive the whole earth quotes the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bible, Judith 10.19. Paul scarron was a French comic author known for his mastery of burlesque. Adams’s brother cranch was his brother-in-law Richard Cranch. pour mettre chacun a sa place: “to keep everyone in their place.” The United States Constitution, article 2, section 2, gives the Senate some executive influence through its power to reject treaties and presidential nominations. αριστοι: “best men; nobles.” During the English War of the Roses of the fifteenth century, the white rose symbolized the Yorkists, while the red represented the house of Lancaster. rabies agri: “madness for land.” Caleb strong was a Federalist and governor of Massachusetts, 1800–07 and 1812–16 (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ). William Wood’s receipt in 1722 of an exclusive monopoly to mint half pence and farthings for Ireland led to a storm of protest and the revocation of the privilege three years later (ODNB description begins H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, eds., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, 60 vols. description ends ). Adams’s female amanuenses during this period included his niece Louisa Catherine Smith, his daughter-in-law Sarah Smith Adams, and his granddaughters Susanna Boylston Adams, Abigail Louisa Adams, and Caroline Amelia Smith.

1Reworked from “16.”

2Word interlined in place of “World.”

3Preceding two words interlined.

4RC: “Velentinois.” Tr: “Valentinois.”

5RC: “Taytors.” Tr: “Taylor’s.”

6Word interlined here in place of “<Stopps> Strips.”

7Word interlined.

8RC: “inqualities.” Tr: “inequalities.”

9Omitted closing quotation mark editorially supplied.

10Preceding two words interlined.

11RC: “altoger.” Tr: “all together.”

12RC: “exluding.” Tr: “excluding.”

13RC: “Germon.” Tr: “German.”

14Sentence interlined.

15Word not in Tr.

16RC: “Governeur.” Tr: “Gouverneur.”

17TJ here canceled “& procreation” in Tr.

Index Entries

  • Abigail (Old Testament figure) search
  • Adams, Abigail (John Adams’s granddaughter); as J. Adams’s amanuensis search
  • Adams, John; and B. Franklin search
  • Adams, John; letters from search
  • Adams, John; on A. Burr search
  • Adams, John; on aristocracy search
  • Adams, John; on banks search
  • Adams, John; on election of1800 search
  • Adams, John; on elections search
  • Adams, John; on J. Chandler search
  • Adams, John; on R.I. search
  • Adams, John; on religion search
  • Adams, John; on Theognis’s writings search
  • Adams, John; on U.S. Senate search
  • Adams, Samuel; mentioned search
  • Adams, Sarah Smith (John Adams’s daughter-in-law); as J. Adams’s amanuensis search
  • Adams, Susanna (John Adams’s granddaughter); as J. Adams’s amanuensis search
  • Aesop’s Fables; quoted by J. Adams search
  • An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States (J. Taylor) search
  • banks; J. Adams on search
  • Barry, Jeanne du; mentioned search
  • Baudouin, Pierre search
  • Bible; Judith referenced search
  • Bible; Proverbs referenced search
  • Bunyan, John search
  • Burr, Aaron (1716–57) search
  • Burr, Aaron (1756–1836); and election of1800 search
  • Burr, Aaron (1756–1836); J. Adams on search
  • Caesar, Julius; mentioned search
  • Chandler, John (of Massachusetts); J. Adams on search
  • Clarke, Mary Anne search
  • Clinton, DeWitt; and election of1812 search
  • Condorcet, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de; mentioned search
  • Constitution, U.S.; proposed amendments to search
  • Copenhagen; British attack on search
  • Cranch, Richard (J. Adams’s brother-in-law) search
  • Dearborn, Henry; mentioned search
  • Deborah (Old Testament figure) search
  • Diderot, Denis; mentioned search
  • Duer, William search
  • Edwards, Jonathan; American theologian search
  • Eve (Old Testament figure) search
  • Fitzherbert, Maria Anne search
  • France; Bourbon dynasty restored search
  • Franklin, Benjamin; J. Adams on search
  • Franklin, Benjamin; mentioned search
  • Franklin, Benjamin; on loss of appetite search
  • Godwin, William; mentioned search
  • Hamilton, Alexander (1757–1804); secretary of the treasury search
  • Hamilton, Lady Emma (Sir William Hamilton’s wife; Horatio Nelson’s mistress) search
  • Hamilton, Sir William (1730–1803) search
  • Hannah (Old Testament figure) search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; aristocracy, natural and artificial search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; banks search
  • Judith (Old Testament figure) search
  • Madison, James; mentioned search
  • Maintenon, Françoise d’Aubigné, madame de search
  • Massachusetts; deference to certain families in search
  • Morris, Gouverneur search
  • Morris, Robert (1735–1806); and public finance search
  • Nile, Battle of the search
  • Pompadour, Jeanne Antoinette, marquise de search
  • Pompeius Magnus, Gnaeus (Pompey the Great) search
  • Price, Richard (British author and philosopher); as theologian and moral philosopher search
  • Priestley, Joseph; mentioned search
  • Rhode Island; deference to certain families in search
  • Rhode Island; elections in search
  • Rhode Island; J. Adams on search
  • Rousseau, Jean Jacques; mentioned search
  • Ruth (Old Testament figure) search
  • Scarron, Paul search
  • Senate, U.S.; J. Adams on search
  • Smith, Caroline (John Adams’s granddaughter); as J. Adams’s amanuensis search
  • Smith, Louisa Catherine (John Adams’s niece); as J. Adams’s amanuensis search
  • Solomon (king of Israel) search
  • Strong, Caleb; governor of Mass. search
  • Susanna (Suzanna) (Old Testament figure) search
  • Taylor, John (of Caroline); An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States search
  • Theognis; writings of search
  • Torrey, John search
  • Trafalgar, Battle of search
  • Verres, Gaius; Roman magistrate search
  • Virginia; deference to certain families in search
  • Wallace, William; Scottish patriot search
  • Washington, George; mentioned search
  • weather; snow search
  • Wood, William (1671–1730); as minter of coinage search
  • Yard, Sarah; boardinghouse of search