Thomas Jefferson Papers

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 19 December 1813

From John Adams

Quincy December 19. 1813

Dear Sir

Ridendo dicere Verum, quid vetat. I must make you and myself merry or melancholly, by a little more Phylosophical Speculation about the formidable Subject of Aristocracy.

Not long after General Dearborn’s return to Boston from the Army, a violent Alarm was excited and Spread in Boston and through the country, by a report at first only Secretly whispered in private circles that an Affair of Love was commencing between the General and Madam Bowdoin the virtuous and amiable Relict of my Friend and your Ambassador James Bowdoin. The Surprise, the astonishment, were universal and the indignation very general. The exclamations were in every mouth. “Impossible”! “It cannot be”! “It is a false report.” “It is too bad”! It1 is a Scandalous fiction”! “It is a malicious Calumny against Mrs Bowdoin”! “Would that Lady disgrace her Husband?” She was herself, a Bowdoin: “Would She degrade her own and her Husbands Name and Blood”?2 “Would She disgrace the illustrious Name of Bowdoin which has been So long famous in France”? “Would She disgrace her Husband who has been an Ambassador? and her Father in Law, who was her Uncle, and had been Governor”?

This is no exaggeration. I have heard all these exclamations. Have you read Cecilia, or the Scottish Chiefs? Is there any thing in the Character of the Delville Family, or in any of the Scotch Thanes more outrageously Aristocratical, than these popular Sentiments, in this our Democratical Country?

I undertook like a genuine Knight Errant to be the Champion of the Lady: and Said Some things very Shocking to some Companies. To some very grave Ladies I said “Why; Madam, if Mrs Bowdoins object is Love and domestic comfort, The General is an healthy, robust and personable Man; which her former Husband was not. If her object is Ambition, She will advance her Degree and condition by this Alliance; for neither Governors nor Ambassadors nor Earls hold So high a Rank as a Secretary at War and Commander in Chief, of all the Armies of a great Nation. Her object cannot be Wealth: for She has enough; but if it was, Collectorships and other offices, must have given the General a Competency.3

Till very lately the French descent of the Bowdoins has been known to very few and never boasted by any body. But it has been published and proclaimed by Mr William Jenks, Secretary to the Board of Trustees of Bowdoin Colledge in his Eulogy on Mr Bowdoin. This Eulogy Mrs Bowdoin, I presume has Sent to you as well as to me. If not, I will Send you an extract.

The Race of Baudouins, it is true has long been notable in France. The Name I believe is to be found among the Crusaders, to Jerusalem, when, no doubt they were orthodox Catholicks: but afterwards, in the Crusades against the Albigenses, they were Suspected on both Sides. In all the Seiges and in all the battles, there were many Nobles and Cavaliers among the Sectaries. The Counts De Foix, De Comminges, De Besiers, De Bearn, and almost all the Lords who inhabited, towards the Pyrennes, were of the Sect, or at least favoured and protected it. The Count de Thoulouse, without declaring himself a Manichean, (So they called the Albigenses as well as the Waldenses) had for the Sect, and for their Preachers a respect, which bordered on extravagance, and laid the foundation of all the misfortunes, of his princely house. Baudouin, Brother of the Count De Thoulouse, was hanged on a Tree by the Hereticks, notwithstanding the Tenderness of the Family for them, and though he begged for time to confess and receive the Communion.

The Count De Thoulouse (Baudouin) acted a mysterious part. though he protested his orthodox faith, yet he obstinately protected the Hereticks. He made Promisses, but could not determine to fullfill them. The Pope innocent the third, interrested himself in his favour, and arrested, for some time, the Proceedings of the Legates against him. But he knew Not how to take Advantage of these dispositions. Without Firmness, without Wisdom, without Prudence, he could not conquer the Secret Inclination he had for Heresy; nor foresee that he was commencing the misfortunes of his Family; nor that the Ambition of the neighbouring Potentate, would soon compleat its destruction. A Miracle it Seems was wrought for the destruction of this Family. Simon de Monfort with only Eight hundred Men, and one thousand Fantassins attacked the Army of the King of Arragon, and the Count de Thoulouse, which was of one hundred thousand men, and totally defeated them.

This I learn from Nonotte, the Scourge of Voltaire, whom Voltaire Scourges in his turn with a long Catalogue of “Sottises.” This is however but a ray of the historical Glory of the name. Baudouin the eighth Count of Flanders was Emperor of Constantinople in 1204. Baudouin the 2d was the last latin Emperor of Constantinople in 1228. A Baudouin was King of Jerusalem in the 12th Century and Saladin or Noraddin his Enemy Said he had not left his equal. The name has been distinguished in Lettres as well as in War and Politicks. A Baudouin, was Solicited by Henry 3, then Duke of Anjou, to write in Justification of the Massacre of St. Bartholemy. But he was too honest a man. Another Baudouin, who died in 16504 translated all the Classicks and wrote many other Things.

All these litterary, civil, political, millitary, religious, noble, royal and imperial honours are now to be devolved5 on the Bowdoin Family of Massachusetts. But the name is extinct in the male Line. To repaire this breach a law of the State has been procured, to alter the Name of a Sisters Son from Temple to Bowdoin, and to him the Family Estate is given. Sir John Temple too the Father of that Son has poured a Stream of English noble blood into the mighty river of Bawdoin. A Splendid Funeral Sermon of Mr Gardner has been printed “On the Death of Elizabeth Lady Temple.” The name of Bowdoin is immortalized, by a flourishing University founded by the Family. you have immortalized the Name by making an Ambassador of it; and by making a Cousin, another Ambassador.

Do you call this natural or artificial Aristocracy? Aristocracy it is most certainly; for the Name of Bowdoin in this State has more influence than the name of Russell or Howard has in England. So have the names of Livingston and Clinton in New York. We had a General Sterling, but that Title would not Satisfy.6 He must be called Lord Sterling, and his Daughter “Lady Kitty Duer.” Our Russell Family wear the Arms, and claim Relation to the Dukes of Bedford. Our Quincys are descended from Saer de Quincy, Marquis of Winchester, who extorted Magna Charta from King John, and whose Signature to that Instrument, “Sayer de Winton” you have Seen in the British Musæum and in Blacstones Copy. General Talmadge of Connecticutt is by Law a Member of the British House of Peers. And who knows but We may have Lord and Ladies Yrujo’s from Spain and Lord and Ladies Mansfields from Great Britain? Aristocracy like Waterfowl, dives for ages and then rises with brighter Plumage. It is a Subtle Venom that diffuses itself unseen, over Oceans and Continents, and tryumphs over time. If I could prevent its deleterious influence I would put it all into “The Hole” of Calcutta: but as this is impossible as it is a Phœnix that rises again out of its own Ashes, I know no better Way than to chain it in a “Hole, by itself” and place a Watchfull Centinel on each Side of it.

An hundred other foreign Aristocracies have Sown and are Sowing their Seeds in this Country: and We have an Abundance of them Springing up in this Country not from Virtues and Talents So much as from Banks and Land Jobbing. I am as ever yours

John Adams

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “President Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received 31 Dec. 1813 and so recorded in SJL. FC (Lb in MHi: Adams Papers).

ridendo dicere verum, quid vetat: “what is to prevent one from telling the truth as he laughs,” from Horace, Satires, 1.1.24–5 (Fairclough, Horace: Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica, 6–7). Sarah Bowdoin Dearborn’s father in law, James Bowdoin (1726–90), was governor of Massachusetts, 1785–87 (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ). fantassins: “foot soldiers” (OED description begins James A. H. Murray, J. A. Simpson, E. S. C. Weiner, and others, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., 1989, 20 vols. description ends ). sottises: “nonsense; foolishness.” noraddin: Nureddin, sultan of Syria and Egypt.

To avoid extinction in the male line, two nephews of James Bowdoin (1752–1811) adopted his surname: James Bowdoin Temple became James Temple Bowdoin in June 1805 and James Bowdoin Winthrop dropped his last name in June 1813 (List of persons whose names have been changed in Massachusetts. 1780–1883 [1885], 15–6, 27–8; Some Account of the Bowdoin Family [1887], 9–15).

TJ appointed a Bowdoin cousin, George W. Erving, to several diplomatic posts during his presidency (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ). William Alexander, claimant to the title of Lord Stirling (sterling), served as a major general in the Continental army (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ). More than one hundred British prisoners of war suffocated in the Black Hole of calcutta in 1756 (Robert K. Webb, Modern England [1980], 70; memorial at Saint John’s Church, Calcutta).

1Omitted opening quotation mark editorially supplied.

2Preceding eleven words not in FC.

3Omitted closing quotation mark editorially supplied.

4FC: “1680.”

5FC: “devoted.”

6FC: “answer.”

Index Entries

  • Adams, John; letters from search
  • Adams, John; on aristocracy search
  • Albigensian heresy search
  • Alexander, William; claims title of Lord Stirling search
  • An Eulogy, illustrative of the life, and commemorative of the beneficence of the late Hon. James Bowdoin (W. Jenks) search
  • Baldwin I, emperor of Constantinople search
  • Baldwin II, emperor of Constantinople search
  • Baldwin IV, king of Jerusalem search
  • Baudoin, Francis search
  • Baudoin, Jean search
  • Baudouin de Toulouse search
  • Béarn family; and Albigensian heresy search
  • Béziers (Besiers) family; and Albigensian heresy search
  • Blackstone, William; and Magna Carta search
  • Bowdoin, James (1726–1790); governor of Mass. search
  • Bowdoin, James (1752–1811); mentioned search
  • Bowdoin, James (1752–1811); nephews of adopt surname search
  • Bowdoin, James Temple; adopts uncle’s surname search
  • Bowdoin (Winthrop), James; adopts uncle’s surname search
  • Bowdoin College search
  • Bowdoin family; and Albigensian heresy search
  • Burney, Fanny, Madame d’Arblay; Cecilia search
  • Cecilia (F. Burney) search
  • Clinton family; as aristocrats search
  • Comminges family; and Albigensian heresy search
  • Dearborn, Henry; and relationship with second wife search
  • Dearborn, Sarah Bowdoin (James Bowdoin’s widow; Henry Dearborn’s third wife); and relationship with H. Dearborn search
  • Dearborn, Sarah Bowdoin (James Bowdoin’s widow; Henry Dearborn’s third wife); family of search
  • Duer, Catherine (“Lady Kitty”) Alexander (William Alexander’s daughter; William Duer’s wife) search
  • Egypt; rulers of search
  • Erving, George William; diplomatic appointment search
  • Foix family; and Albigensian heresy search
  • Gardiner, John S. J.; The Christian’s Victory Over Death and the Grave. A Sermon … on the decease of Elizabeth Lady Temple search
  • Henry III, king of France search
  • Horace; quoted by J. Adams search
  • Howard family; as aristocrats search
  • India (Hindustan; Indostan); and British military search
  • Innocent III, pope search
  • Jenks, William; An Eulogy, illustrative of the life, and commemorative of the beneficence of the late Hon. James Bowdoin search
  • John, king of England; and Magna Carta search
  • law; Magna Carta search
  • Livingston family; as aristocrats search
  • Mansfield family; as aristocrats search
  • Massachusetts; governor of search
  • Montfort, Simon de search
  • Nonnotte, Claude Adrien; and attacks on Voltaire search
  • Nureddin, sultan of Syria and Egypt search
  • Peter II, king of Aragon; and Albigensian heresy search
  • Porter, Jane; The Scottish Chiefs search
  • Quincy, Saer de, earl of Winchester search
  • Quincy family; as aristocrats search
  • Raymond VI, count of Toulouse search
  • Russell family; as aristocrats search
  • Saladin (Muslim sultan) search
  • schools and colleges; Bowdoin College search
  • Tallmadge, Benjamin search
  • The Christian’s Victory Over Death and the Grave. A Sermon … on the decease of Elizabeth Lady Temple (J. S. J. Gardiner) search
  • The Scottish Chiefs (J. Porter) search
  • Voltaire (François Marie Arouet); criticized search
  • Yrujo family; as aristocrats search