John Adams to Abigail Adams
Philadelphia August 18. 1776
My Letters to you are an odd Mixture. They would appear to a Stranger, like the Dish which is sometimes called Omnium Gatherum. This is the first Time, I believe that these two Words were ever put together in Writing. The litteral Interpretation of them, I take to be “A Collection of all Things.”1 But as I said before, the Words having never before been written, it is not possible to be very learned in telling you what the Arabic, Syriac, Chaldaic, Greek and Roman Commentators say upon the Subject.
Amidst all the Rubbish that constitutes the Heap, you will see a Proportion of Affection, for my Friends, my Family and Country, that gives a Complexion to the whole. I have a very tender feeling Heart. This Country knows not, and never can know the Torments, I have endured for its sake. I am glad they never can know, for it would give more Pain to the benevolent and humane, than I could wish, even the wicked and malicious to feel.
I have seen in this World, but a little of that pure flame of Patriotism, which certainly burns in some Breasts.2 There is much of the Ostentation and Affectation of it.3 I have known a few who could not bear to entertain a selfish design, nor to be suspected by others of such a Meanness. But these are not the most respected by the World. A Man must be selfish, even to acquire great Popularity. He must grasp for himself, under specious Pretences, for the public Good, and he must attach himself to his Relations, Connections and Friends, by becoming a Champion for their Interests, in order to form a Phalanx, about him for his own defence; to make them Trumpeters of his Praise, and sticklers for his Fame, Fortune, and Honour.
My Friend Warren, the late Governor Ward, and Mr. Gadsden, are three Characters in which I have seen the most generous disdain of every Spice and Species of such Meanness. The two last had not great abilities, but they had pure Hearts. Yet they had less Influence, than many others who had neither so considerable Parts, nor any share at all of their Purity of Intention. Warren has both Talents and Virtues beyond most Men in this World, yet his Character has never been in Proportion. Thus it always is, has been, and will be.
Nothing has ever given me, more Mortification, than a suspicion, that has been propagated of me, that I was actuated by private Views, and have been aiming at high Places. The Office of C[hief] J[ustice]has occasioned this Jealousy, and it never will be allayed, untill I resign it. Let me have my Farm, Family and Goose Quil, and all the Honours and Offices this World has to bestow, may go to those who deserve them better, and desire them more. I covet them not.4
There are very few People in this World, with whom I can bear to converse. I can treat all with Decency and Civility, and converse with them, when it is necessary, on Points of Business. But I am never happy in their Company. This has made me a Recluse, and will one day, make me an Hermit.
I had rather build stone Wall upon Penns Hill, than be the first Prince in Europe, the first General, or first senator in America.
Our Expectations are very high of some great Affair at N. York.
RC (Adams Papers). LbC (Adams Papers); at foot of text: “Sent. by Post Aug. 20th.” LbC contains several revealing revisions and cancellations that are indicated in the notes below.
1. OED description begins The Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford, 1933; 12 vols. and supplement. description ends cites this passage (from JA-AA, Familiar Letters description begins Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife Abigail Adams, during the Revolution. With a Memoir of Mrs. Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams, New York, 1876. description ends ) for the “Dish” JA alludes to, whatever it may have been; but the expression had been used in other senses in England since at least early in the 16th century.
2. In LbC JA first wrote “which I feel burning in my own Breast,” and then revised his phrasing to read as in RC.
3. LbC here adds a sentence which JA did not cancel but which, intentionally or unintentionally, he did not copy into RC: “There is a great Deal of Selfishness under the Masque and Disguise of it.”
4. LbC here adds the following passage which is there scratched out and was not copied into RC:
“I have been wounded, more deeply than I have been willing to acknowledge, more deeply than the World suspects, by the Conduct of those Persons, who have been joined with me, here. The sordid Meanness of their Souls, is beneath my Contempt. One of them covers as much of it, as ever disgraced a mortal, under the most splendid Affectation of Generosity, Liberality, and Patriotism.—I have acted in Conjunction with such Characters, while it was necessary to do so, but when that Necessity ceases, I will renounce them forever.—I had rather shut myself up in the Cell of an Hermit, and bid adieu to the human Face, than to live in Society, with such People.”
There can be no doubt that in writing this passage which he immediately and very prudently decided not to entrust to the post, JA had John Hancock primarily in mind and, to a lesser extent, Robert Treat Paine. At this date these two men were his only fellow delegates in attendance at Congress, and they had differed with him on one if not both of the two current “Bones of Contention” in Congress, namely whether Gen. David Wooster and Commodore Esek Hopkins should be censured for their conduct. These questions had been decided on the days just preceding the writing of this letter, but only after bitter debates in which JA had defended both officers. See JA to Samuel Adams, 18 Aug. (NN: Bancroft Coll., printed in Burnett, ed., Letters of Members description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, Washington, 1921–1936; 8 vols. description ends , 2:53–54, but perhaps not accurately); JCC description begins Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, Washington, 1904–1937; 34 vols. description ends , 5:658–659, 661–662, 664–665; JA, Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 3:382, 406, 407–408, 408–409.