I. Charles Adams to John Adams
New York Jany: 6th 1794.
My dear Father
Your excellent letters have been duly received. I have been much instructed by them. The necessity of turning our attention to the two great questions which now agitate the world, must be sufficiently apparent to every thinking mind I esteem myself peculiarly happy in having a father to aid my pursuits and assist me in my researches. The mind of man however it may sometimes wander in the regions of skepticism, can never be at rest until it is fixed upon some over ruling power the Nations of the earth therefore will never shake off the beleif in a Supreme power. They cannot do it. The mind is left cheerless and distressed by the attempt. We can by no means reason with the same certainty upon the duration of Christianity but should it ever be destroyed confident I am that mankind will be far less happy. The hereditary Governments appear to have arisen from principles of the strictest justice. Valour in barbarous nations is always admired. It is a qualification which never fails to attract applause hence those who are the most conspicious for bravery are singled as chiefs and leaders this is not altogether the effect of gratitude for services but the dictate of self preservation. But It may be asked why should the descendants of those who have obtained such rewards be in any manner sharers in the benefits conferred? And here I must answer that the principle of gratitude is strong in human nature, that is not content to confine itself within narrow limits. Notwithstanding the endeavors to disseminate the idea that the son of a great man must necessarily be a fool, mankind in general will not be bullied out of their affections, Nor will they consent to discard the idea that some portion of the etherial spirit which warmed the father is inherited by the offspring. These are ideas founded in nature, permanent and unchangeable. It is of this kind of gratitude which Tacitus speaks. “Insignis nobilitas aut magna patrûm merita, principis dignationem etiam adoluscentulis assignant.”1 The whole section from Polybius is well worth copying. Pourquoi says he, donne t’on tant d’applaudissemens a celui qui se jette le premier dans les perils et defend ses semblables contre le choc et la fureur des plus forts animaux? Pourquoi encore n’a tón que du mepris pour [cet] homme lache qui craint de s’exposer pour le salut de ceux qu’il devroit secourir? Cela ne peut venir que de la reflection qu’on fait alors sur le honteux et sur l’honnête, et sur la différence qu’il y a entre ces deux choses. On commence alors a penser que l’honnête est digne qu’on le recherche et qu’on le pratique a cause de l’utilité qui en revient, et que le honteux mérite toute notre aversion. Lorsque celui qui est a la tête des autres et qui les surpasse en forces passe pour favoriser toujours ceux dónt nous venon’s de parler, et qu’il s’est acquis la reputation d’homme juste et equitable, alors on cesse de redouter la violence on se rend et on se soumet a lui par raison, on lui maintient son autorité quelque vieux qu’il devienne; on se joint et on conspire ensemble pour le defendre contre tous ceux qui attaquent sa puisance: et c’est ainsi que la raison aiant pris le dessus sur la ferocité et sur la force, cet homme de monarque devient Roi insensiblement et sans qu’on sen appercoive. C’est la parmi les hommes la premiere notion de l’honnété et du juste, et des vues contraires a ces deux vertus. C’est la l’origine et le commencement de la vrai Royauté. On ne les en laisse pas seulement jouir ces hommes respectable, on la conserve encore a leurs descendans parce qu’on se persuade que tenant la naisance et l’education de ces grands hommes, ils en auront aussi l’esprit et les moeurs.2
Your caution is by no means unnecessary “To keep my ideas and the result of my researches to myself” Americans are obstinately bent against ideas of hereditary succession at least in theory they are so whatever may be their practice. My mother sent three numbers of Columbus Our printers have not yet finished more than the three [that] were sent to me. The subjects you have mentioned […] arrest my attention the feild is wide.
It is reported in this City that some few people have advanced money to Mr Genet which they are not likely to have reimbursed. The particular instance I alluded to was Commodore Nicolson who has advanced as we are told about five thousand dollars such is the report I know not how true it may be.3 The house of Representatives of the State of Georgia have passed a strange act declaring it felony for the Marshal to levy upon the Lands or property of the State.4 How will the effect of that judgement be obtained? They seem to have pited the State Goverment against the Federal. How is the Goverment to conduct in this instance?
Adieu My dear Sir / I am your affectionate son
RC (Adams Papers); addressed: “The Vice President of the United States. / Philadelphia.”; endorsed: “C Adams Jan 6. 1794.” Some loss of text where the seal was removed.
1. “Very noble birth or great services rendered by the father secure for lads the rank of a chief” (Tacitus, Germany, transl. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, Book I, ch. 13).
2. “Similarly, again, when any man is fore-most in defending his fellows from danger, and braves and awaits the onslaught of the most powerful beasts, it is natural that he should receive marks of favour and honour from the people, while the man who acts in the opposite manner will meet with reprobation and dislike. From this again some idea of what is base and what is noble and of what constitutes the difference is likely to arise among the people; and noble conduct will be admired and imitated because it is advantageous, while base conduct will be avoided. Now when the leading and most powerful man among the people always throws the weight of his authority on the side of the notions on such matters which generally prevail, and when in the opinion of his subjects he apportions rewards and penalties according to desert, they yield obedience to him no longer because they fear his force, but rather because their judgement approves him; and they join in maintaining his rule even if he is quite enfeebled by age, defending him with one consent and battling against those who conspire to overthrow his rule. Thus by insensible degrees the monarch becomes a king, ferocity and force having yielded the supremacy to reason. Thus is formed naturally among men the first notion of goodness and justice, and their opposites; this is the beginning and birth of true kingship. For the people maintain the supreme power not only in the hands of these men themselves, but in those of their descendants, from the conviction that those born from and reared by such men will also have principles like to theirs” (Polybius, The Histories, transl. W. R. Paton, 6 vols., Cambridge, 1972, vol. 3, Book VI, part 2, sects. 6–7).
3. James Nicholson (ca. 1736–1804), a retired naval officer originally from Maryland, had settled in New York City after the Revolution. Colloquially called “commodore,” he was active in Democratic-Republican circles (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 ).
4. The U.S. Supreme Court case of Chisholm v. Georgia involved a South Carolinian suing the state of Georgia to recover a sum of money. The government of Georgia strongly disputed the legality of such a suit, and the Ga. house of representatives in Nov. 1793 proposed a law making it a felony punishable by death for any federal authority to attempt to collect on such a claim. The bill died in the Ga. senate, and the subject subsequently became moot with the passage of the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, Georgia and State Rights: A Study of the Political History of Georgia from the Revolution to the Civil War, with Particular Regard to Federal Relations, Washington, D.C., 1902, p. 24–28). CA probably read about the Ga. house’s actions in the New York American Minerva, 6 Jan. 1794, which reprinted the activities of that body for 19 Nov. 1793.