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John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, [22] September 1813

From John Adams

Quincy Septr [22] 1813

Dear Sir

Considering all things, I admire Dr Priestleys last Effort for which I am entirely indebted to you. But as I think it is extreamly imperfect, I beg of you to pursue the investigation, according to your promise to Dr Rush, and according to your Syllabus. It may be presumptuous in me to denominate any Thing of Dr Priestley imperfect: but I must avow, that among all the vast Exertions of his Genius, I have never found one, that is not imperfect; and this last is egregiously So. I will instance at present in one Article. I find no notice of Cleanthes: one of whose Sayings alone ought to have commanded his Attention. He compared “Philosophers to Instruments of Musick, which made a Noise, without Under Standing it, or themselves.” He was ridiculed by his Brother Philosophers, and called “An Ass.” He owned, he was the “Ass of Zeno: and the only one, whose back and Shoulders were Stout enough to carry his Burthens.” Why has not Priestley, quoted more from Zeno, and his Disciples? Were they too Christian? though he lived two Centuries1 and an half before Christ?

If I did not know, it would be Sending Coal to Newcastle, I would, with all my dimness of Eyes and trembling of Fingers copy in Greek the Hymn of Cleanthes and request you to compare it, with any Thing of Moses of David of Soloman.

Instead of those ardent oriental Figures, which are So difficult to understand We find that divine Simplicity, which constitutes the Charm of Grecian Eloquence in prose and verse.

Pope had read, if Priestley had not the


Κύδιστ’ αθανάτων, πολυώνυμε, παγκρατὲς αἰεὶ

Ζεῦ, φύσεως ἀρχηγὲ, νόμου μέτα πάντα κυβερνῶν,


“Most glorious of immortal beings! though denominated by innumerable names and titles, always omnipotent,! Beginning and End of Nature! governing the Universe by fixed Laws!2 Blessed be thy name!” What think you, of this translation? Is it too Jewish? or too Christian? Pope did not think it was either: for the first Sentence in his Universal prayer is more Jewish and more christian Still. If it is not a litteral translation, it is a close paraphrase, of this Simple Verse of Cleanthes.

 Father of all! in every Age,

In every clime ador’d

 By Saint by Savage and by Sage

Johovah, Jove, or Lord.

But it may be Said, for it has been Said, that Pope, was a Deist and Swift too, as well as Bolingbroke. What will not Men Say? But is the Existence, the Omnipotence, the Eternity, the Alpha and Omega, and the Universal Providence of one Supream Being, governing by fixed Laws, asserted by St John in his Gospel, or in the Apocalypse, whether his or not, in clearer or more precise terms?

Can you conjecture, a reason why Grotius has not translated this Hymn? Were Grotius and Priestley both afraid that The Stoicks would appear too much like Unitarian Jews and Christians.

 Duport has translated, the Sentence thus

Magne Pater Divûm, cui nomina multa, Sed una

Omnipotens Semper Virtus, tu Jupiter Auctor

Naturæ, certa qui Singula lege gubernas,

Rex, Salve!

Bougainville, has translated it

Pere, et Maitre des Dieux, Auteur de la Nature,

Jupiter, O Sagesse! O loi sublime et pure!

Unite Souveraine à qui tous les mortels

Sous mille noms divers elevent des Autels;

Je t’adore, nos cœurs te doivent leur homage,

Nous Sommes tes enfans, ton ombre, ton image:

Et tout ce qui respire animé par tes mains,

A celébrer ta gloire invite les humains.

Beni-Sois a jamais!

I am so awkward in Italian, that I am ashamed to quote that Language to you: but Pompeius a Gentleman of Verona, [has] translated it thus: and you will understand it.

O glorioso fra gli eterni, in guise

Molte nomato, onnipossente ognora,

Tu che, tutto con legge governando,

De la natura Sei principio e duce,

Salve, O Giove.

It appears to me, that the great Principle of the Hebrews was the Fear of God: that of the Gentiles, Honour the Gods, that of Christians, the Love of God. Could the quiveration of my nerves and the inflammation of my Eyes be cured and my Age diminished by 20 or 30 years: I would attend you in these researches, with infinitely more Pleasure, than I would be George the 4th Napoleone, Alexander, or Madison. But only a few Hours; a few moments remain for

your old Friend

John Adams

RC (DLC: TJ Papers, 199:35460–1); mutilated at seal, with one word supplied from FC; partially dated; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Esquire late President of U.S Monticello Virginia”; franked; postmarked Quincy, Mass., 22 Sept.; endorsed by TJ as a letter of Sept. 1813 received 6 Oct. 1813 and so recorded in SJL. FC (Lb in MHi: Adams Papers); fully dated.

At TJ’s behest Adams had recently received a copy of Joseph Priestley’s last effort, The Doctrines of Heathen Philosophy, compared with those of Revelation (Northumberland, Pa., 1804; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 1528). Adams’s anecdotes of Cleanthes comparing philosophers to instruments of musick and describing himself as the ass of zeno derive from the brief biography by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, trans. Robert D. Hicks, Loeb Classical Library (1925; repr. 1970), 2:274–7, 278–9. sending coal to newcastle is an idiomatic allusion to sending something literally or figuratively to a place where it is already amply available. Adams quotes the opening lines of the Hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes (ΚΛΕΑΝΘΟΥΣ ΥΜΝΟΣ ΕΙΣ ΔΙΑ), of which a modern translation reads “Noblest of immortals, many-named, always all-powerful / Zeus, first cause and ruler of nature, governing everything with your law, / greetings!” (Johan C. Thom, ed., Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus [2005], 34, 40). Adams’s source for the Greek original and the Latin, French, and Italian translations of this work was Brunck, Gnomici Poetæ Græci, 141–9.

1Manuscript: “Conturies.” FC: “centuries.”

2RC follows this word with a question mark, FC with an exclamation point.

Index Entries

  • Adams, John; and Cleanthes search
  • Adams, John; and J. Priestley’s writings search
  • Adams, John; and TJ’s syllabus on Jesus’s doctrines search
  • Adams, John; health of search
  • Adams, John; letters from search
  • Adams, John; on religion search
  • Alexander I, emperor of Russia; mentioned search
  • Bible; John referenced search
  • Bible; Revelation referenced search
  • Bolingbroke, Henry St. John, Viscount; mentioned search
  • Bougainville, Jean Pierre; as translator of Cleanthes search
  • Cleanthes; anecdotes concerning search
  • Cleanthes; Hymn to Zeus search
  • David, king of Israel search
  • Diogenes Laertius; quoted by J. Adams search
  • Duport, James; as translator search
  • George, Prince Regent (later George IV, king of Great Britain); as Prince of Wales search
  • Grotius, Hugo; and Cleanthes’s Hymn to Zeus search
  • Hymn to Zeus (Cleanthes) search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Writings; syllabus of Jesus’s doctrines search
  • John (New Testament evangelist) search
  • Madison, James; mentioned search
  • Moses (Hebrew prophet) search
  • Napoleon I, emperor of France; mentioned search
  • Pompei, Girolamo; as translator search
  • Pope, Alexander; and Cleanthes’s Hymn to Zeus search
  • Pope, Alexander; religious beliefs of search
  • Pope, Alexander; The Universal Prayer search
  • Priestley, Joseph; and Cleanthes search
  • Priestley, Joseph; The Doctrines of Heathen Philosophy, compared with those of Revelation search
  • Rush, Benjamin; and religion search
  • Solomon (king of Israel) search
  • Swift, Jonathan; religious beliefs of search
  • The Doctrines of Heathen Philosophy, compared with those of Revelation (J. Priestley) search
  • The Universal Prayer (Pope) search
  • Zeno of Citium search