Thomas Jefferson Papers

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 13 November 1815

From John Adams

Quincy Nov. 13 1815

Dear Sir

The fundamental1 Article of my political Creed is, that Despotism, or unlimited Sovereignty, or absolute Power is the Same in a Majority of a popular Assembly, an Aristocratical Counsel, an Oligarchical Junto and a Single Emperor. Equally arbitrary cruel bloody and in every respect, diabolical.

Accordingly arbitrary Power, wherever it has resided, has never failed to destroy all the records Memorials and Histories of former times which it did not like and to corrupt and interpolate Such as it was cunning enough to preserve or to tolerate. We cannot therefore Say with much confidence, what Knowledge or what Virtues may have prevailed in Some former Ages in Some quarters of the World.

Nevertheless, according to the few lights that remain to Us, We may Say that the Eighteenth Century, notwithstanding all its Errors and Vices2 has been, of all that are past, the most honourable to human Nature. Knowledge and Virtues were increased and diffused, Arts, Sciences useful to Men, ameliorating their condition, were improved, more than in any former equal Period.

But, what are We to Say now? Is the Nineteenth Century to be a Contrast to the Eighteenth? Is it to extinguish all the Lights of its Predecessor? Are the Sorbonne, the Inquisition, the Index expurgatorius, and the Knights Errant of St Ignatius Loyola to be revived and restored to all their Salutary Powers of Supporting and propagating the mild Spirit of Christianity? The Proceedings of the Allies and their Congress at Vienna, the Accounts from Spain France &c the Chateaubriands and the Genlis, indicate which Way the Wind blows. The Priests are at their Old Work again. The Protestants are denounced and another St Bartholomew’s3 day, threatened.

This however, will probably, 25 years hence, be honoured with the Character of “The effusions of a Splenetic mind, rather than as the Sober reflections of an unbiassed Understanding.”

I have recd “Memoirs of the Life of Dr Price4 by William Morgan F.R.S. In pages 157 and 158 Mr Morgan Says. “So well assured was Dr Price of the establishment of a free constitution in France, and of the Subsequent Overthrow of Despotism throughout Europe as the consequence of it, that he never failed to express his Gratitude to Heaven for having extended his life to the present happy Period in which ‘after Sharing the Benefits of one Revolution, he had been Spared to be a Witness to two other5 Revolutions both glorious.’6 But Some of his Correspondents were not quite So Sanguine in their expectations from the last of these Revolutions; and among these, the late American ambassador, Mr John Adams. In a long letter which he wrote to Dr Price at this time, So far from congratulating him, on the occasion, he expresses himself in terms of contempt, in regard to the French revolution; and after asking rather too Severely what good was to be expected from a Nation of Atheists,7 he concludes with foretelling the destruction8 of a million of human Beings as the probable consequence of it. These harsh censures and gloomy Predictions were particularly ungratefull to Dr Price; nor can it be denied that they must have then appeared as the effusions of a Splenetic mind, rather than as the Sober reflections of an unbiassed Understanding.”

I know not what a candid Public will think of this practice of Mr Morgan after the Example of Mr Belsham, who finding private Letters in the Cabinet of a great and good Man after his decease, written in the Utmost freedom9 and confidence of intimate friendship, by Persons Still living, though after the lapse of a quarter of a Century produces them, before the World.10 Dr Disney had different Feelings, and a different Judgment. Finding Some cursory Letters among the Papers of Mr Hollis he would not11 publish them without my consent. In answer to his request I Submitted them to his discretion and might have done the same to Mr Morgan. Indeed had Mr Morgan published my Letter entire I Should not have given him nor myself any concern about it. But as in his Summary he has not done the Letter Justice, I Shall give it with all its faults.

Mr Morgan has been more discrete and complaisant to you than to me. He has mentioned respectfully your Letters from Paris to Dr Price, but has given Us none of them. As I would give more for those Letters than12 for all the rest of book,13 I am more angry with him for disappointing me, than for all he Says of me and my Letter, which, Scambling as it is, contains nothing but the Sure Words of Prophecy.

I am as usual yours

John Adams.

RC (DLC); addressed by Susan B. Adams: “Thomas Jefferson Esqre Monticello Virginia”; postmarked Quincy, 17 Nov.; endorsed by TJ as received 15 Dec. 1815 and so recorded in SJL. FC (Lb in MHi: Adams Papers); dated 18 Nov. 1815.

The sorbonne was originally the faculty of theology of the University of Paris. index expurgatorius: official list of passages to be changed or omitted in order for works to be authorized by the Catholic church. knights errant of st ignatius loyola: Jesuits (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 ). William Morgan based his assertion that Adams had a splenetic mind on the latter’s long letter of 19 Apr. 1790 to Richard Price (RC in MHi: R. C. Waterston Autograph Collection; Morgan, Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Richard Price, D.D. F.R.S. [London, 1815], 157–8).

Thomas belsham had published letters written by TJ to Joseph Priestley later owned by the great and good Theophilus Lindsey in his Memoirs of the Late Reverend Theophilus Lindsey, M.A. (London, 1812), 443–4, 535–7, 538–9. In 1807 John Adams and Abigail Adams both authorized John disney to publish their letters to Thomas Brand hollis in his biography of the latter (Disney to John Adams, 24 Aug. 1807 [MHi: Adams Papers]; John Adams to Disney, 9 Nov. 1807 [Lb in MHi: Adams Papers]; Disney, Memoirs of Thomas Brand-Hollis, Esq. [London, 1808], 30–40). Morgan declined printing TJ’s letters from paris to dr price because the events of the French Revolution that they had predicted were “long ago either fulfilled or falsified” (Memoirs of Richard Price, 152). scambling: “rambling” or “scattered” (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 ).

1RC: “fundmental.” FC: “fundamental.”

2Preceding six words interlined.

3RC: “Bartholomeu’s.” FC: “Bartholomew’s.”

4Omitted closing quotation mark editorially supplied.

5RC: “others.” FC and Memoirs of Richard Price: “other.”

6Set of double quotation marks editorially altered to single.

7RC: “Atheits.” FC and Memoirs of Richard Price: “Atheists.”

8RC: “destrution.” FC and Memoirs of Richard Price: “destruction.”

9RC: “fredom.” FC: “freedom.”

10Preceding five words interlined.

11Word interlined.

12RC: “that.” FC: “than.”

13FC: “the Book.”

Index Entries

  • Adams, Abigail Smith (John Adams’s wife); correspondence with T. B. Hollis search
  • Adams, John; criticized by W. Morgan search
  • Adams, John; letters from search
  • Adams, John; on publication of correspondence search
  • Adams, John; on the eighteenth century search
  • Adams, John; political creed of search
  • Belsham, Thomas; Memoirs of the Late Reverend Theophilus Lindsey, M.A. (T. Lindsey) search
  • Catholicism; index expurgatorius search
  • Chateaubriand, François Auguste René, vicomte de; mentioned search
  • Christianity; Inquisition search
  • Disney, John; Memoirs of Thomas Brand-Hollis, Esq. search
  • France; Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre search
  • Genlis, Stéphanie Félicité, comtesse de; mentioned search
  • Hollis, Thomas Brand; and J. and A. Adams search
  • Ignatius of Loyola, Saint search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Correspondence; publication of papers search
  • Jesuits; mentioned search
  • Lindsey, Theophilus; Memoirs of the Late Reverend Theophilus Lindsey, M.A. (T. Belsham) search
  • Memoirs of the Late Reverend Theophilus Lindsey, M.A. (T. Lindsey; T. Belsham) search
  • Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Richard Price (W. Morgan) search
  • Memoirs of Thomas Brand-Hollis, Esq. (J. Disney) search
  • Morgan, William; criticizes J. Adams search
  • Morgan, William; Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Richard Price search
  • Price, Richard (British author and philosopher); correspondence of search
  • Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre search
  • schools and colleges; Sorbonne search
  • Sorbonne search
  • Vienna, Congress of; negotiations at search