Benjamin Waterhouse to John Adams
Leyden 13th. Decembr. 1780
It so happened that I could not see the persons of whom I wished to enquire concerning the Schools, mode of education &c. untill yesterday, otherwise I should have written before.—The Gentlemen from whom I have my information have each of them a young person under their care about the age of your eldest, and are well acquainted with every thing appertaining to education in this City, from conversing with them I am able to inform you that besides the publick-school which is a good one, there are private masters in the latin and greek, who at the same time they teach these languages, teach the greek and roman History. With boys who are far advanced in greek they read and explain Euripides, Sophocles and others. The same person will if required repeat any of the Law-lectures to the pupil, and that indeed is what they are principally employed for, by those whose wives are to be Mevrouws.— There is a teacher of this kind in Leyden who is both an elegant schollar and a gentleman, such a one asks 20 ducats a year. There are besides two Professors of the greek languague, the one gives lectures on the new Testament, his hearers are generally students of Theology, the other on Euripides, Sophocles and such like, and are attended by young Gentlemen whose pursuits are similar to what I imagine your sons to be. To reap advantage from these classes it is necessary they should understand the latin pretty well because the explanations of the greek passages are given in that languague.
In regard to living I am persuaded they can live here for much less than at Amsterdam. Three furnished rooms would probably cost 20 guilders a month. We find our own tea, sugar, wine, light and fire, and give one ducat a week for dinner, it is always the same price whether we go to the public-house, or have it brought from thence to our own rooms, and it makes no difference with the people where we live, who never refuse to prepare our tables for us. In respect to their being Americans or Sons of Mr. Adams they will never meet with any thing disagreeable on that head, where any profit is like to accrue little do the Dutchmen care for their political, or even religious principles—Turk, Jew, or Christian make no difference with them. I beleive we may say of them as they said of themselves at Japan when the Japonese enquired if they were christians—they answered, they were Dutchmen. If the Gentlemen should come, I can insure them an agreeable Society and a genteel circle of acquaintance. If they should not, I hope at least they will come and pay us a visit, and I think I need not add how ready I should be to render them any service in my power.
With my compliments to Comdr. Gillon and Mr Searl I remain with much respect your friend & Countryman,
RC (Adams Papers); addressed: “To the Honbe. John Adams Esqr. Amsterdam; endorsed: “Dr. Waterhouse Decr. 16 ansd.” (no answer has been found), to which CFA later added “1780.”
1. Benjamin Waterhouse (1754–1846). This is the first known letter in a correspondence between Waterhouse and successive generations of Adamses which continued with no real intermissions for sixty years and documents a relationship, at all times warm and sometimes peculiarly intimate, between this gifted, eccentric, and controversial physician and the two Adamses who became Presidents of the United States.
Benjamin Waterhouse, born at Newport, R.I., had been apprenticed to a physician there, and then sailed to England from Newport in March 1775 in what is said to have been “the last ship to have left the blockaded port of Boston” (Trent, “London Years,” as cited below). His object was to obtain a truly professional medical education and training, and he succeeded in doing so by spending some seven years in Edinburgh, London, and Leyden, three of the chief centers of medical science in Europe.
Of great benefit to him during most of these years were the active patronage and advice of Dr. John Fothergill, a prominent London physician and philanthropist, who was first cousin to Waterhouse’s Yorkshire-born mother; see Waterhouse to JA, 26 Dec. 1780, below. At Fothergill’s suggestion, Waterhouse enrolled as a student with the medical faculty at Leyden in the fall of 1778, adding to his name in the matriculation register the words “Liberae Reipublicae Americanae Federatae Civis.” This gesture may have demonstrated that there was no tincture of toryism in Waterhouse’s makeup, but since the Dutch had not yet recognized the new United States of America it caused some “uneasiness” among the authorities of the University (Anonymous “Sketch” in Polyanthos, as cited below; JA, Corr. in the Boston Patriot description begins Correspondence of the Late President Adams. Originally Published in the Boston Patriot. In a Series of Letters, Boston, 1809–1810; 10 pts. description ends , p. 572). Waterhouse took his medical degree in April 1780 with a dissertation De sympathia partium corporis humani, Leyden, 1780, spent the summer again in Fothergill’s London home, and returned to attend lectures in history and the law of nations at Leyden, where JA found him extremely helpful in the critical matter of his sons’ education. He was, JA later wrote, “though a sprightly genius, very studious and inquisitive, as well as sociable. ... As to his morals, I could hear of no reproach or suspicion; as to his politics, though he came from England, he came under the guardianship and pupilage of Dr. Fothergill, who was as good a friend to America, as any Englishman could be.... I did not, therefore, hesitate to consider him, in some respects, as one of my family” (Corr. in the Boston Patriot description begins Correspondence of the Late President Adams. Originally Published in the Boston Patriot. In a Series of Letters, Boston, 1809–1810; 10 pts. description ends , p. 572). Later letters in the present volume show the progress of Waterhouse’s friendship with the Adamses. His observation at close range of JA’s campaign in the spring of 1781 to win Dutch recognition of American independence filled him with an admiration for JA that increased with the years. “I shall never forget some of his paroxysms of patriotic rage,” Waterhouse later wrote of JA’s negotiations with the French minister at The Hague, who, under Vergennes’ orders, tried to block JA’s efforts (Waterhouse to Levi Woodbury, 20 Feb. 1835, DLC: Woodbury Papers, vol. 16. This letter contains a number of details not elsewhere available; among other things it corrects JA’s account of his first meeting with Waterhouse, which actually took place “at the table of Dr. Franklin in Paris,” and furnishes a vivid description of JA’s composition and delivery of his Memorial to the States General of 19 April 1781).
When, in the summer of 1781, JA determined to send CA home, CA sailed with Capt. Alexander Gillon in the South Carolina from the Texel. A fellow passenger was Waterhouse, who, unlike CA, continued with Gillon to Havana and in consequence did not reach home until June 1782. In the following year he was appointed first professor of the theory and practice of physic in the Harvard Medical School, then just being organized; before long, he established himself and his (first) wife, the former Elizabeth Oliver, whom he married in 1788, in “a small but handsome seat with ten acres of land, on the Cambridge common, about 200 paces in front of the colleges” (Waterhouse to Dr. James Tilton, 24 March 1815, MHS, Procs. description begins Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections and Proceedings. description ends , 54 [1920–1921]: 163). The house still stands at 7 Waterhouse Street facing the Common on the northwest; see Hannah Winthrop Chapter, National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, An Historic Guide to Cambridge, Cambridge, 1907, p. 142 and facing illustration. When JA sent JQA home from Paris to prepare for admission to Harvard College, he placed him as “your old Acquaintance” under Waterhouse’s special care, writing him a remarkable letter detailing JQA’s studies to this point (JA to Waterhouse, 23 April 1785, MHi:Adams-Waterhouse Corr.; printed in Ford, ed., Statesman and Friend description begins Worthington C. Ford, ed., Statesman and Friend: Correspondence of John Adams with Benjamin Waterhouse, 1784–1822, Boston, 1927. description ends , p. 5–8); and in 1806 JQA lived in the conveniently located Waterhouse home when he gave his first Boylston lectures on rhetoric and oratory at Harvard.
This is not the place to try even to summarize Waterhouse’s long and versatile career as a physician, popularizer of natural history studies, promoter of vaccination for smallpox, health crusader, polemicist, journalist, and, during his later years, inveterate beggar of government appointments. It is enough to say, for one thing, as Dr. Trent has very well said, that, although Waterhouse returned from Europe “without doubt one of the best educated men in America,” America itself was at the time “not ready for so ambitious a young physician” and promoter of scientific causes. “[H]is experiences abroad,” in the company of leaders in medicine, science, and politics, “incapacitated him, in a sense, for the life he had to live at home” as a physician practicing in a provincial town. (See Trent’s two articles cited below; also the two studies by Blake, also cited below, which reach similar conclusions from additional evidence, especially in relation to Waterhouse’s campaign introducing Jennerian vaccination to the United States, a campaign that was successful but marred by Waterhouse’s pervasive egotism and his hankering for “excessive personal pecuniary profit.”) Irked by the humdrum of ordinary practice and meeting repeated disappointments in what he considered purely philanthropic projects, he grew embittered and quarrelsome. These traits did not, however, impair his powers as a letter-writer. On the contrary, his habit of telling his troubles in circumstantial detail, mixed with engaging reminiscences, sarcastic wit, and the unfailing inquisitiveness JA had observed in him as a student at Leyden—all these enlivened his correspondence with JA and JQA to the end, and in turn evoked some of their best letters in reply. “[A]s you are among the most pleasant of my Correspondents,” JQA wrote Waterhouse as late as 1833, “as well as among the choicest of my friends, I cannot leave home without ... craving the continuance of your kind communications during the ensuing Winter” (21 Oct. 1833, MHi:Adams-Waterhouse Corr.). The truth was—and this is the second telling point to be put on record here—that both of the Adamses shared a fellow feeling with Waterhouse not simply because of their early intimacy with him but because they believed he was to some extent the victim of the same forces in Federalist New England with which the Adamses were increasingly embattled after 1800, “the Junto-men” (as Waterhouse denominated them) who, at least in the eyes of these correspondents, dominated business and politics in Boston and academic affairs at Harvard. Over three hundred letters exchanged by Waterhouse with JA and JQA are known to survive, but this is by no means all that once existed, for Waterhouse’s widow (the former Louisa Lee, his second wife, whom he had married in 1819) requested the return of his letters after his death, and her request was complied with, though fortunately only in part. (See correspondence of Mrs. Waterhouse with JQA and CFA in 1847–1848, in the Adams Papers.) It would appear that Mrs. Waterhouse destroyed most if not all of the letters then returned but preserved a substantial number of JA’s and JQA’s letters to her husband, now comprising the Adams-Waterhouse Correspondence in the MHS. Of these materials Worthington C. Ford edited a portion, chiefly JA’s letters, with a few of Waterhouse’s replies from the Adams Papers, in the pleasant volume he entitled Statesman and Friend description begins Worthington C. Ford, ed., Statesman and Friend: Correspondence of John Adams with Benjamin Waterhouse, 1784–1822, Boston, 1927. description ends (1927); and Donald M. Goodfellow printed one complete letter from JQA and extracts from others in his article, “Your Old Friend, J. Q. Adams,” NEQ description begins New England Quarterly. description ends , 21:217–231 (June 1948).
On Waterhouse’s career and his relations with the Adams family, see—besides the Ford and Goodfellow collections just mentioned, the specific letters cited above, and Waterhouse’s published writings, often autobiographical in character —the following: Anonymous, “Sketch of the Life of Benjamin Waterhouse, M.D.,” The Polyanthos, 2:74–86 (May 1806); John B. Blake, Benjamin Waterhouse and the Introduction of Vaccination: A Reappraisal, Phila., 1957; John B. Blake, “Benjamin Waterhouse, Harvard’s First Professor of Physic,” Jour. of Medical Education, 33 (1958), unpaged offprint; Robert H. Halsey, How the President, Thomas Jefferson, and Doctor Benjamin Waterhouse Established Vaccination as a Public Health Procedure (N.Y. Acad. of Medicine, Hist, of Medicine Ser., No. 5), N.Y., 1936; William Coolidge Lane, “Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse and Harvard University,” Cambridge Hist. Soc., Pubns., 4 (1909): 5–22; William Roscoe Thayer, ed., “Extracts from the Journal [1836–1844] of Benjamin Waterhouse,” same, p. 22–37; Josiah C. Trent, “Benjamin Waterhouse (1754–1846),” Jour. of the Hist, of Medicine, 1 (1946): 357–364; Josiah C. Trent, “The London Years of Benjamin Waterhouse,” same, p. 25–40; Henry R. Viets, article on Waterhouse in DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–1936; 20 vols. plus index and supplements. description ends .
It is certain that Waterhouse kept a journal while in Europe, for references in later letters and writings allude to or imply the existence of such a journal, and a letter from JA, 10 Jan. 1810, cautions Waterhouse: “The Extracts from your Journal I should think, those Parts I mean which relate to [James] Searle and another [Major William Jackson?], I should advise to be reserved from the Publick for the present” (MHi: Adams-Waterhouse Corr., printed in Ford, ed., Statesman and Friend description begins Worthington C. Ford, ed., Statesman and Friend: Correspondence of John Adams with Benjamin Waterhouse, 1784–1822, Boston, 1927. description ends ). This suggests that Waterhouse was preparing his early journal, at least that part relating to his voyage home with CA and Gillon in 1781–1782, for publication at this time, but perhaps thanks to JA’s advice his European journal seems never to have been published, and recent efforts to locate the original have been unsuccessful. It would doubtless shed desired light on the Adamses sojourn in the Netherlands if it could be found.