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John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 2 September 1813

From John Adams

Quincy Sept. 2. 1813

 Οὐδὲ γυνὴ κακοῦ ἀνδρὸς ἀναίνεται εἶναι ἄκοιτις

 πλουσίου· ἀλλ’ ἀφνεὸν βούλεται ἀντ’ ἀγαθοῦ.

 Χρήματὰ γὰρ τιμῶσι, καὶ ἐκ κακοῦ ἐσθλὸς ἔγημε,

 καὶ κακὸς ἐξ ἀγαθοῦ. πλοῦτος ἔμιξε γένος.

Grotius renders this into latin, thus.

 Nec dedignatur ditemque malumque maritum

 femina: divitiæ præ probitate placent.

 In pretio pretium est: genus et prænobile, vili,

 obscurum claro, miscet avaritia.

I Should render the Greek into English thus.

 Nor does a Woman disdain to be the Wife of a bad rich Man. But She prefers a Man of Property before a good Man. For Riches are honoured; and a good Man marries from a bad Family, and a bad Man from a good one. Wealth mingles all races.

Now please to tell me, whether my translation has not hit the Sense of Theognis, as exactly as that of Grotius.

Tell me also, whether Poet, Orator, Historian or Philosopher can paint the Picture of every City, County or State in our pure, uncorrupted, unadulterated, uncontaminated federal Republick; or in France England Holland, and all the rest of Christendom1 or Mahometanism, in more precise Lines or Colures.?2

Another translation of the whole Passage of Theognis.

Arietes quidem et Asinos quærimus, Cyrne, et Equos
Generosos, et quisque vult ex bonis,:
Admittere: ducere autem malam (filiam) mali non renuit
Generosus Vir, Si ei pecunias multas dederit.
Nulla (femina) mali viri recusat esse Uxor
Divitis; Sed divitem vult pro bono
opes quidem æstimant, et ex malo (natam) bonus ducet
Et malus ex bono ortam. Divitiæ mixent genus.

Now, my Friend, who are the αρiςτοι.? Philosophy may Answer “The Wise and Good.”3 But the World, Mankind, have by their practice always answered, “the rich the beautiful4 and well born.”5 And Philosophers themselves in marrying their Children6 prefer the rich7 the handsome8 and the well descended to the wise and good.

What chance have Talents and Virtues in competition, with Wealth and Birth? and Beauty?9

 Haud facile emergunt, quorum Virtutibus obstant

 Res Angusta Domi.

one truth is clear,; by all the World confess’d

Slow rises worth, by Poverty oppress’d.

The five10 Pillars of Aristocracy, are Beauty Wealth, Birth, Genius and Virtues.11 Any one of the three first, can at any time over bear any one or both of the two last.

Let me ask again, what a Wave of publick opinion, in favour of Birth has been Spread over the Globe, by Abraham, by Hercules, by Mahomet, by Guelphs, Ghibellines, Bourbons, and a miserable Scottish Chief Steuart? By Zingis by, by, by, a million others? And what a Wave will be Spread by Napoleon and by Washington? Their remotest Cousins will be Sought and will be proud, and will avail themselves of their descent. Call this Principle, Prejudice, Folly Ignorance, Baseness, Slavery, Stupidity, Adulation, Superstition or what you will. I will not contradict you. But the Fact, in natural, moral, political and domestic History I cannot deny or dispute or question.

And is this great Fact in the natural History of Man? This unalterable Principle of Morals, Philosophy, Policy domestic felicity, and dayly Experience from the Creation; to be overlooked, forgotten neglected, or hypocritically waived out of Sight; by a Legislator? By a professed Writer upon civil Government, and upon Constitutions of civil Government?

Thus far I had written, when your favour of Aug. 22 was laid on my table, from the Post Office. I can only say at present that I can pursue this idle Speculation no farther, at least till I have replied to this fresh proof of your friendship and Confidence. Mrs A. joins in cordial Thanks, with

John Adams

you may laugh at the introduction of Beauty, among the Pillars of Aristocracy. But Madame Barry Says Le veritable Royauté est la Beauté,12 and there is not a more certain Truth, Beauty, Grace, Figure, Attitude, Movement, have in innumerable Instances prevailed over Wealth, Birth, Talents Virtues and every thing else, in Men of the highest rank, greatest Power, and Sometimes, the most exalted Genius, greatest Fame, & highest Merit:

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “President Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received 17 Sept. 1813 and so recorded in SJL. FC (Lb in MHi: Adams Papers); partially in Adams’s hand.

For the passage from Theognis immediately preceding that quoted here and Adams’s source, see Adams to TJ, 9 July, [ca. 14] Aug. 1813. A modern rendition of the greek into english of the current section, consisting of lines 187–90, reads “and a woman does not refuse to be the wife of a base man who is rich, but she wants a wealthy man instead of one who is noble. It is money people honour; one who is noble marries the daughter of one who is base and one who is base marries the daughter of one who is noble. Wealth has mixed up blood” (Gerber, Greek Elegiac Poetry description begins Douglas E. Gerber, trans., Greek Elegiac Poetry from the Seventh to the Fifth Centuries BC, Loeb Classical Library, 1999 description ends , 200–1). The additional Latin translation, arietes quidemmixent genus, appears in Ralph Winterton, ed., Poetæ Minores Græci (London, 1700, and other eds.; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4382; Adams’s copy at MBPLi), 376. αρiςτοι: “best men; nobles.” haud facileangusta domi: “It’s not easy anyway to climb the ladder when cramped personal resources block your talents” (Juvenal, Satires, 3.164–5, in Juvenal and Persius, trans. Susanna Morton Braund, Loeb Classical Library [2004], 180–1). one truth is clearpoverty oppress’d is a free quotation from Samuel Johnson, London: A Poem, In Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal, 2d ed. (London, 1738), 14. zingis: Genghis Khan. le veritable royauté est la beauté: “Beauty is the true royalty.”

1RC: “Chritendom.” FC: “Christendom.”

2FC: “Colours.”

3Omitted closing quotation mark editorially supplied.

4Preceding two words interlined.

5Omitted closing quotation mark editorially supplied.

6RC: “Childen.” FC: “Children.”

7RC: “riich.” FC: “rich.”

8Preceding two words interlined.

9FC to this point in Adams’s hand.

10Reworked from “four.”

11FC: “Virtue.”

12RC: “Bautee.” FC: “Beutee.”

Index Entries

  • Abraham (Old Testament patriarch) search
  • Adams, Abigail Smith (John Adams’s wife); sends greetings to TJ search
  • Adams, John; letters from search
  • Adams, John; on aristocracy search
  • Adams, John; on Theognis’s writings search
  • Barry, Jeanne du; quoted by J. Adams search
  • France; Bourbon dynasty restored search
  • Genghis Khan; mentioned search
  • Grotius, Hugo; as translator of Theognis search
  • Johnson, Samuel; quoted by J. Adams search
  • Juvenal; quoted by J. Adams search
  • Muhammad (founder of Islam) search
  • Napoleon I, emperor of France; mentioned search
  • Theognis; writings of search
  • Washington, George; mentioned search