Adams Papers

John Quincy Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, 3 December 1791

John Quincy Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams

Boston December 3. 1791.

My dear Brother.

I received last week your favour of the 17th: of last month, and found in it none of that tediousness which you seem to apprehend:1 indeed I suspect your fears were in some measure dictated by your indolence, and that you make them a pretext in your own mind, to relieve you from the tediousness of writing: but this pretence must not serve you: for I can assure you, that your Letters will always be tedious to me, only in proportion to their brevity, and that you are by far the most tedious when you do not write at all.

The arguments which you mention to have been held in the house of Representatives with respect to the ratio of Representation, were very amusing, and I have not seen those contained in your Letter, in any of the newspapers. The final decision of 1 to 30,000 has given as far as my conversation extends, very general satisfaction here, though I see most of our members voted against it.2 The distinction which you say was held up, relative to the characteristic qualities of the Representative and Senatorial branches of the Legislature, was as far as I remember first suggested by Montesquieu, and afterwards adopted by Rousseau. Great as these names are and prevailing as the opinion is, I consider it as one of the idlest and most groundless distinctions that ever entered into the brain of a statesmen. It may be true that an individual or a body of men sometimes is deficient in wisdom, though very honest and well meaning; but wisdom, ought to be the characteristic mark of every branch of a legislature; and without integrity, there never can be any wisdom. To speak in the legal phraseology, wisdom is integrity, and more. For in every situation in life, whether in a public or in a private capacity, as an individual, or as a member of the legislative body, every man who departs from the line of honesty, departs just so far from the line of wisdom. If your house of representatives is only honest, without wisdom, they can be at best but useless to the community; and if your Senate is only cunning and are not thoroughly honest, they must be much worse than useless.—3 But I have not time to expatiate any further upon this subject.

Mr: Woodward goes to Philadelphia next week, and will be the bearer of this Letter; and also of Miss Adams’s book. Your father subscribed for three setts; and I have the other two in my possession. If he wishes to have them forwarded, you will let me know. I have one besides, as I was myself a subscriber.4

The numbers of the 2d: Vol: of the U.S. Gazette which I want are 98 and 101. I believe I mistook one of them in my former Letter.— You may forward them by any convenient opportunity. I hope the segars will come soon, as I begin to be upon allowance, with the old stock.

Mr: Dana is appointed chief Justice of our Supreme Court, and Mr: Dawes is nominated to fill the vacant seat upon the bench.— If there was any business done this promotion might be serviceable to the younger Counsel at the bar, in this Town; but it is almost totally at a stand.— Never at a lower ebb: however, we live in patient expectation of better times.

Adieu; love and duty to all the family.

J. Q. Adams.

RC (Adams Papers); addressed: “Mr: Thomas B. Adams. / Philadelphia.”; endorsed: “Decr 3d. 1791”; notation: “Hond: by Mr: Woodward.”

1Not found.

2Reapportionment in the wake of the 1790 census remained a matter of contention in Congress and later the executive branch for almost six months after the House of Representatives first took up the issue on 31 Oct. 1791. While debate revolved around certain technical details—the number of representatives, the ratio of representatives to constituents, and the division of representatives among the states—the substantive question at its core was the balance of power between large and small states, northern and southern interests, and Federalist and Republican sentiments.

On 15 Nov. the House of Representatives voted to set the ratio of representation at 1:30,000, and on the 23d it voted not to revise that figure to 1:34,000. Of the seven members from Massachusetts in attendance, six—Fisher Ames, Shearjashub Bourne, Benjamin Goodhue, Theodore Sedgwick, George Thatcher, and Artemas Ward—opposed the former measure and supported the latter; only one—Elbridge Gerry—took the reverse stance. By contrast all nine members from Virginia backed the first proposal and resisted the second. On 24 Nov. the House passed an apportionment bill with a ratio of representation of 1:30,000 and a House of 112 members and sent the legislation to the Senate.

After two weeks of consideration, the Senate voted to amend the House bill by changing the ratio to 1:33,000 and the size of the House to 105 members, effectively reducing the influence of the larger states. Because the initial tally produced a tie, JA cast the deciding vote. A week later, when the Senate voted not to withdraw the amendment even though the House refused to agree to it, another deadlock ensued and JA again determined the result. Together the refusal of the House to accept the Senate amendment and the refusal of the Senate to withdraw it left the two chambers at loggerheads.

On 23 March 1792 the House and the Senate narrowly passed a compromise bill establishing a House of 120 members divided among the states without reference to a ratio of representation, an approach that southerners, particularly Virginians, believed was intended to diminish their influence. Ten days later George Washington, in the first exercise of the presidential veto power, rejected the compromise bill as unconstitutional because, first, no single ratio of representation yielded a House of the character prescribed and, second, the ratio of representation for several states exceeded 1:30,000. After failing on 9 April to override Washington’s veto, Congress on the 10th passed yet another apportionment bill, which, like the original Senate version, set the ratio at 1:33,000 and the size of the House at 105 members. Washington signed the new bill into law on 14 April (Rosemarie Zagarri, The Politics of Size: Representation in the United States, 1776–1850, Ithaca, N.Y., 1987, p. 134–140; Michel L. Balinski and H. Peyton Young, Fair Representation: Meeting the Ideal of One Man, One Vote, New Haven, Conn., 1982, p. 10–22; U.S. House, Jour. description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Washington, 1789–. description ends , 2d Cong., 1st sess., p. 444, 454–455, 459–460; U.S. Senate, Jour. description begins Journal of the Senate of the United States of America, Washington, 1789–. description ends , 2d Cong., 1st sess., p. 351–354, 356, 422; Biog. Dir. Cong. description begins Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–1989, Washington, 1989. description ends ).

3Both Montesquieu and Rousseau attributed to senates the quality of wisdom, despite having very different understandings of their composition and function (M. N. S. Sellers, Republican Legal Theory: The History, Constitution and Purposes of Law in a Free State, N.Y., 2003, p. 11–13).

4Hannah Adams, A View of Religions, in Two Parts, 2d edn., Boston, 1791, Evans, description begins Charles Evans and others, American Bibliography: A Chronological Dictionary of All Books, Pamphlets and Periodical Publications Printed in the United States of America [1639–1800], Chicago and Worcester, 1903–1959; 14 vols. description ends No. 23102. Author Hannah Adams (1755–1831), a distant cousin of JA, wrote to him on 21 Feb. 1791 (Adams Papers) to ask whether she could dedicate her forthcoming book to him. JA replied in the affirmative on 10 March, “only requesting that all Titles literary or political may be omitted and that the Address may be only to John Adams Vice-President of the United States of America” (MB:Paine Trust). He subscribed for three copies of the book at that time (DAB description begins Allen Johnson, Dumas Malone, and others, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–1936; repr. New York, 1955–1980; 10 vols. plus index and supplements. description ends ).

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