Thomas Jefferson Papers

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 3 May 1816

From John Adams

Quincy May 3. 1816

Dear Sir.

Yours Ap. 8 has long Since been recd

J. “Would you agree to live your 80 Years over again”?

A. Aye!1 And Sanse Phrases.”

J. “Would you agree to live your Eighty Years over again forever”?

A. I once heard our Acquaintance, Chew, of Philadelphia Say, “He Should like to go back to 25, to all Eternity”: but I own my Soul would Start and Shrink back on itself, at the Prospect of an endless Succession of Boules de Savon, almost as much as at the Certainty of Annihilation. For what is human Life? I can Speak only for one. I have had more comfort than distress, more pleasure than paine, Ten to one, nay if you please an hundred to one. A pretty large Dose however of Distress and Paine. But after all, What is human Life? A Vapour, a Fog, a Dew, a Cloud,2 a Blossom a flower, a Rose a blade of Grass, a glass Bubble, a Tale told by an Idiot, a Boule de Savon, Vanity of Vanities, an eternal Succession of which would terrify me, almost as much as Annihilation.

J. “Would you prefer to live over again rather than Accept the Offer of a better Life in a future State”? A. Certainly not. J. “Would you live again, rather than change3 for the worse in a future State, for the Sake of trying Something new”? Certainly Yes.4

J. “Would you live over again once or forever, rather than run the risque of Annihilation, or of a better or a worse State at or after5 death”?

A. Most certainly I would not.

J. “How valiant you are”? A. Aye, at this moment, and at all other moments of my Life that I can recollect: but who can tell what will become of his Bravery when his Flesh and his heart Shall fail him?

Bolinbroke Said6 “his Philosophy was not Sufficient to Support him in his last hours.” D’alembert Said “Happy are they who have Courage, but I have none.” Voltaire the greatest Genius of them all, behaved like the greatest Coward of them all; at his death as he had like the wisest fool of them all in his Lifetime. Hume aukwardly affects7 to Sport away all Sober thoughts. Who can answer for his last Feelings and Reflections? especially as the Priests are in possession of the Custom of making them the great Engines of their Craft. Procul este Prophani!

J. “How shall We, how can We, estimate the real Value of human Life”?

A. I8 know not, I cannot weigh Sensations and Reflections, Pleasures and Pains, Hopes and Fears in Money Scales. But I can tell you how I have heard it estimated by Some Phylosophers. One of my old Friends and Clients, A Mandamus Counseller against his Will, a Man of Letters and Virtues without one Vice, that I ever knew or Suspected, except Garrulity, William Vassall, asserted to me, and Strenuously maintained that “pleasure is no Compensation for Pain.” “An 100 Years of the keenest delights of human Life could not atone for one hour of Billious Cholic, that he had felt.” The Sublimity of this Philosophy my dull Genius could not reach. I was willing to State a fair Account between Pleasure and Pain, and give Credit for the Ballance, which I found very great in my favour.

Another Philosopher, who as We Say, believed nothing, ridiculed the Notion of a future State. One of the Company asked “Why are you an Ennemy to a future State”? “Are you weary of Life”! “Do you detest Existence”?

“Weary of Life!—Detest Existence!9 Said the Philosopher, No, “I love Life So well, and am So attached to Existence, that to be Sure of Immortality I would consent, to be pitched about with forks by the Devils among flames of fire and Brimstone to all Eternity.”

I find no Resources in my Courage, for this exalted Philosophy. I had rather be blotted out.

Il faut trancher Cet Mot! What is there in10 Life to attach Us, to it; but the hope of a future & a better? It is a Craker, a Rocquett a Firework, at best.

I admire your Navigation and Should like to Sail with you, either in your Bark or in my own, along Side of yours; Hope with her gay Ensigns displayed at the Prow; fear with her Hobgoblins behind the Stern. Hope Springs eternal; and Hope is all that endures. Take away hope and What11 remains? What pleasure? I mean, Take away Fear, and what Pain remains[.] 99100ths of the Pleasures and Pains of Life are nothing but Hopes and Fears.

All Nations, known in History or in Travels have hoped, believed, an[d] expected a future and a better State. The Maker of the Universe, the Cause of all Things, whether We call it, Fate or Chance or God has inspired this Hope. If it is a Fraud, We Shall never know it. We Shall never resen[t] the Imposition, be grateful for the Illusion, nor grieve for the disappointment. We Shall be no more.

Credat Grim, Diderot, Buffon, La Lande, Condorcet, D’Holbach, Frederick Catherine; Non Ego. Arrogant as it may be, I Shall take the Liberty to pronounce them all, Idiologians. Yet I would not persecute a hair of their Heads. The World is wide enough for them and me.

Suppose,12 the Cause of the Universe, Should reveal to all Mankind, at once a Certainty that they must all die within a Century, and that death is an eternal Extinction of all living Powers, Of all Sensation and Reflection. What would be the Effect? Would there be one Man Woman or Child existing on this Globe, twenty Years hence? Would not every human Being be, a Madame Deffand, Voltaires “Aveugle clairvoiante,” all her Lifetime regretting her Existance, bewailing that She had ever been born; grieving that She had ever been dragged without her Consent, into being. Who would bear the Gout the Stone the Cholick, for the Sake of a Boule de Savon when a Pistol a Cord, a Pond, or a Phyal of Laudanum was at hand? What would Men Say to their Maker,? would they thank him? No They would reproach him; they would curse him to his Face,

Voila! a Sillier Letter than my last.! For a Wonder, I have filled a Sheet. And a greater Wonder, I have read fifteen Volumes of Grim. Digito comesce Labellum. I hope to write you more upon this and other Topicks of your Letter. I have read also a History of the Jesuits in four Volumes. Can you tell me the Author or any Thing of this Work?

John Adams

RC (DLC); edge trimmed, with missing text supplied from FC; at foot of text: “President Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received 13 May 1816 and so recorded in SJL. FC (Lb in MHi: Adams Papers).

“Sans phrases” (sanse phrases): “without reservations.” boules de savon: “soap bubbles.” a tale told by an idiot quotes William Shakespeare, Macbeth, act 5, scene 5. The phrase vanity of vanities is from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 1.2.

As his death approached, Jean Le Rond d’alembert wrote “Ils sont bien heureux ceux qui ont du courage; moi je n’en ai pas” (“Happy are they who have courage; as for me, I do not”) (Friedrich Melchior, Freiherr von Grimm and Denis Diderot, Mémoirs Historiques, Littéraires et Anecdotiques, tirés de la Correspondance Philosophique et Critique, adressée au Duc De Saxe Gotha [London, 1813], 3:126).

According to one account of the last days of voltaire, he confessed his belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ and thus died as a member of the Roman Catholic Church. At another time, however, when asked “Croyez-vous à la divinité de Jésu-Christ?” (“Do you believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ?”), Voltaire replied, “Au nom de Dieu, Monsieur, ne me parlez plus de cet homme-là, et laissez-moi mourir en repos” (“In the name of God, sir, do not speak to me anymore about that man, and let me die in peace”) (Condorcet, Vie de Voltaire [(Kehl), 1789], 156–7).

During the last month of his life, David hume reportedly conducted an imaginary conversation with Charon, the mythological Greek boatman who ferries the souls of the dead into Hades. According to Adam Smith’s account, Hume at one point said “Have a little patience, good Charon, I have been endeavouring to open the eyes of the public. If I live a few years longer, I may have the satisfaction of seeing the downfal of some of the prevailing systems of superstition” (The Life of David Hume, Esq. Written by Himself [Dublin, 1777], 20–1).

procul este prophani (“away! you that are uninitiated!”) is from Virgil, Aeneid, 6.258 (Fairclough, Virgil description begins H. Rushton Fairclough, trans., Virgil, Loeb Classical Library, 1916–18, rev. by G. P. Goold, 1999–2000, repr. 2002–06, 2 vols. description ends , 1:550–1). A mandamus counseller was one of thirty-six men appointed to the Massachusetts Council, heretofore an elected body, under “An Act for the better regulating the Government of the Province of the Massachuset’s Bay, in New England,” 20 May 1774 (14 George III, c. 45, The Statutes at Large [London, 1776], 12:84–9; Massachusetts Gazette; and the Boston Post-Boy and Advertiser, 1–8, 8–15 Aug. 1774). william vassall was a notably litigious Bostonian who derived his wealth from plantations in his native Jamaica and fled to London as a Loyalist refugee in 1775 (Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, description begins John L. Sibley and others, eds., Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, 1873– , 18 vols. description ends 9:349–59).

il faut trancher cet mot: “it is necessary to make a decision on this.” hope springs eternal is taken from line 95 of the first epistle of Alexander Pope, Essay on Man (The Works of Alexander Pope, Esq. [Edinburgh, printed for J. Balfour, 1764; Adams’s copy in MBPLi], 2:12). In stating that the designated individuals credat (“may believe it”) while his own answer is non ego (“not I”), Adams is adapting Horace, Satires, 1.5.100–1 (Fairclough, Horace: Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica description begins H. Rushton Fairclough, trans., Horace: Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica, Loeb Classical Library, 1926, repr. 2005 description ends , 72–3).

The marquise du deffand, a correspondent of Voltaire and Horace Walpole, was the aveugle clairvoiante (“blind clairvoyant”) (Hoefer, Nouv. biog. générale description begins J. C. F. Hoefer, Nouvelle biographie générale depuis les temps les plus reculés jusqu’a nos jours, 1852–83, 46 vols. description ends , 13:351–5). Digito compesce (comesce) Labellum (“button your lip with your finger”) is from Juvenal, Satires, 1.160 (Susanna Morton Braund, ed. and trans., Juvenal and Persius, Loeb Classical Library [2004], 144–5).

1Omitted opening quotation mark editorially supplied.

2RC: “Clould.” FC: “Cloud.”

3RC: “chang.” FC: “change.”

4Word added in place of “Aye,” which had been reworked from “not.”

5RC: “affter.” FC: “after.”

6Preceding seven words not in FC.

7RC: “affect.” FC: “affects.”

8Unmatched opening quotation mark preceding this word editorially omitted.

9Omitted closing quotation mark editorially supplied.

10RC: “is.” FC: “in.”

11Preceding thirteen words not in FC.

12RC: “Supose.” FC: “Suppose.”

Index Entries

  • Adams, John; letters from search
  • Adams, John; on Condorcet search
  • Adams, John; on death and dying search
  • Adams, John; on religion search
  • Aeneid (Virgil) search
  • Alembert, Jean Le Rond d’; and religion search
  • Alembert, Jean Le Rond d’; J. Adams on search
  • Bible; Ecclesiastes referenced search
  • Bolingbroke, Henry St. John, Viscount; J. Adams on search
  • Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de; J. Adams on search
  • Catherine II (“the Great”), empress of Russia; J. Adams on search
  • Chew, Benjamin; on mortality search
  • Condorcet, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de; J. Adams on search
  • Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique (F. M. Grimm) search
  • Deffand, Marie de Vichy-Chamrond, marquise du search
  • Diderot, Denis; J. Adams on search
  • Frederick II (“the Great”), king of Prussia; J. Adams on search
  • Grimm, Friedrich Melchior, Baron von; Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique search
  • Grimm, Friedrich Melchior, Baron von; J. Adams on search
  • Holbach, Paul Henri Dietrich, Baron d’; philosophy of search
  • Horace; allusions to search
  • Hume, David; death of search
  • Jesuits; history of search
  • Juvenal; quoted by J. Adams search
  • Lalande, Joseph Jérôme Le Français de; J. Adams on search
  • Pope, Alexander; quoted search
  • religion; J. Adams on search
  • religion; Jesuits search
  • Shakespeare, William; Macbeth referenced search
  • Vassall, William; on pleasure and pain search
  • Virgil; Aeneid search
  • Virgil; J. Adams quotes search
  • Voltaire (François Marie Arouet); and religious skepticism search
  • Voltaire (François Marie Arouet); mentioned search