Adams Papers

To John Adams from William Gordon, 7 January 1784

From William Gordon

Jamaica Plain Jany 7. 1784

My dear Sir

You have very fairly & fully discharged your epistolary account of the preceeding year; which is an encouragement for me to begin anew.1 There is both pleasure & profit in corresponding with You; & notwithstanding some desponding expressions, I trust your strength & spirits will not be exhausted, till the business is completed. Finesse & subtilty are ministerial qualifications; & the only effectual way to outwit court-politicians is by being honest, for of that they have no idea. A propos, learnt while upon my southern tour, that Marbois denies his having written such a letter as has been pretended.2 He says, that the British might intercept a letter of his, but that they have deciphered it wrong, & charge him with expressions that are not in it (This from one who had been of Congress) in order to exculpate himself. But when Marbois had his first interview with friend Gerry, he lookt so queerly as seemed to imply that he felt guilty, & almost disconcerted our steady Patriot. I could wish with You, that the Americans would never practise the sublimated refinements of European Politicks; but, from what I have observed, imagine that human nature will act alike in all quarters of the world. Should the Millenium commence on this side the Atlantic, as some divines conjecture, you may then have a greater share of virtue, than an equal quantity of mankind in any other part of the globe at the same period. But commence where it will, I should be glad to have it commence, that so the inhabitants of these lower regions might have a stronger resemblance to those of the upper. Pray let me have the History of the shrew’d Dutchmen’s being taken in. You have raised my curiosity, & me thinks you ought to gratify it.3 I am so pleased with the character you have given me of Mr Jay, & his conduct has so effectually removed the suspicions I had entertained, that I must pray you to present my most cordial respects to him.4 They are of little intrinsic value, & yet may please him more than the most fulsome adulation. Thus much as to yours of Apr 15th, excepting that I have endeavoured to use it for public benefit in a discretional way. I should have gone on further by daylight; but have been called off by an account of Callahan’s vessel & cargo being lost off Cape Cod. Am a sufferer to a small amount, but am easy upon hearing that the Capt Passengers, 13 or more, & men are all safe.5 Must finish by candle, that it may go tomorrow. Should not the following scrip be equally good, it may be legible, & perhaps sensible tho’ inferior to Youngs Night Thoughts.6

Your device is admirable—thirteen stars guarding, a fish, a deer, & an oak with a new star sprouting from the top of it.7 Lest You should not have written to Mr Gerry I copied yours of Sept 10th & forwarded it by post to Annapolis;8 You will have heard of Congress’s having removed to that spot, & all about it, through Mr Thaxter, as I suppose, therefore shall be silent upon that. The paragraph respecting moderation &c with your opinion of Mr Jay is upon the road to Govr Clinton at New York, with a request to keep it out of print for the present: but I thought it might strengthen his hands, & tend to cool down the madness of some violent partizans, who while they claim the character of whigs are practising the absurdities of toryism, like your divines who are fire-hot for moderation.9

I say with You treat every public man with as much candour & indulgence as possible; but then I add, let it be such public men as are worthy & deserving, & not such as have forfeited all indulgence & whose behaviour entitles them to no candour, & who by being public men are a detriment to the public & will make the public contemptible. I refer to those who mean well for themselves only & are not well-meaning in any other sense. Let them meet with obstacles & smart under them till they retire into obscurity, & leave the stage for actors who are well principled. I am fully in the opinion of its being of indespensible importance to keep the Union. But I am not for being betrayed under that plea, into a violation of the Confederation & the great fundamentals upon which it was established, & into a mode of congressional government, that, by not suiting the northern climate however well adapted for the southern, will after a time bring on fresh wars & fightings among ourselves, & make the whole one great empire, or break us into smaller ones, instead of remaining separate states, united by confederation, under a Congress freely chosen by the powers of each state. Your words to Congress, I suppose upon the importance of the Union, have been swelled & played off to answer the purpose of getting the Impost in[to] the hands of Congress for a long run of years & to be collected by their own servants.10 What is your real opinion upon the subject I know not: but I remember what Burgh says, all government is arbitrary, that is, tends to it.11 Sure I am, from the good information recd when I was about Congress at Princeton last fall, that there are individuals in that body of tyrannical principles, or they would never have talk’t as they did against calling the Financier to an account because they had left it with him to manage—& that Congress had a right to keep up a standing army in a time of peace. I doubt not but that your Machiavelians can turn themselves into all shapes & can play upon any string whether aristocratic, democratic, civil or military or even a shoe-string. You have my assent & consent to execrate in the strongest terms low cunning & mean craft. Your declaration, “but treaties are solemn things, in which there should be no mental reservations” deserves to be written in characters of gold; but there are few courts whether Protestant or Popish, that will adhere to it at heart.12 Last monday sennight died Dr Cooper in the 59th year of his age, after a six weeks illness. He was buried the friday following. The weather was bad, but the funeral very large.13 What the Governor will do, now he has lost his prime minister remains to be known. A few weeks back, he would resign; yes he would, & swore to it. The Council was summoned, to be eye & ear witnesses of the extraordinary event. The day came, when lo! the mouse appeared upon the green cloth—his friends alias enemies had advised him to the contrary. Risum teneatis.14 Should he not obtain the vote of the people the next year, & the election lie between him Bowdoin & Lincoln & the house be of the same complexion, I am told he will not have the chair.15 But my paper informs me it is high time to subscribe Your sincere friend & very huml Servant

William Gordon

RC (Adams Papers); addressed: “His Excellency John Adams Esqr / To the Care of / Messrs De Neufville’s / Merchants / Amsterdam”; endorsed: “Dr Gordon. Jan. 7. 1784.” Some loss of text due to a torn manuscript.

1JA and Gordon wrote two letters each in 1783. JA wrote on 15 April and Gordon on 10 May (vol. 14:410–412, 472–473). Gordon wrote again on 28 June, and JA responded on 10 Sept., both above.

2Gordon had traveled to Philadelphia and New Jersey in the autumn of 1783 to petition Congress to grant access to George Washington’s papers for his use in writing a history of the American Revolution. Congress approved his petition on 25 May 1784 (MHS, Procs. description begins Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings. description ends , 63:498–503; JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, ed. Worthington Chauncey Ford, Gaillard Hunt, John C. Fitzpatrick, Roscoe R. Hill, and others, Washington, 1904–1937; 34 vols. description ends , 27:427–428). For François Barbé-Marbois’ intercepted 1782 letter to the Comte de Vergennes criticizing American efforts to secure their right to the Newfoundland fisheries, see JA to Robert R. Livingston, 10 July 1783, and note 3, and Samuel Osgood to JA, 7 Dec., and note 12, both above.

3In his 15 April 1783 letter to Gordon, JA alluded to the Netherlands’ reliance on France in its peace negotiations with Britain. He believed that such trust compromised the Dutch position, just as it would have that of the United States if the American peace commissioners had not negotiated with Britain separately from France in violation of their instructions. JA wrote that “we need not wonder at the simplicity & innocence, the amiable unsuspecting Confidence of our own Countrymen, when we see the old experienced Dutchmen taken in, the history of wh: is very curious” (vol. 14:408, 409, 412).

4In his letter of 30 Nov. 1782, Gordon had written that an unnamed person had criticized Benjamin Franklin and John Jay as “unfit for the business” of negotiating the peace. In his letter of 15 April 1783, JA responded that “your Countryman was never more mistaken than wn: he spoke slightly of Mr: Jay, wm: I wd. not scruple to pit against the proudest Statesman in Europe. Our Country was never better represented than by him” (vol. 14:101, 102, 412).

5The Boston Evening Post of 10 Jan. 1784 reported that a “violent storm” on 2 Jan. had caused the brig Peace and Plenty, bound from London to Boston under Capt. John Callahan, to go aground off the Cape Cod town of Truro. The paper noted that “Capt. Callahan had several ladies and a number of gentlemen on board, passengers, from London, who, we rejoice to hear, were, together with all the seamen . . . happily saved from perishing; though several of them were nearly exhausted when they reached the shore.” The cargo was salvaged and auctioned in Boston on 24 Jan. (Boston Independent Chronicle, 22 Jan.). Among the passengers were John Wheelock and his brother James, who were returning from their unsuccessful mission to raise funds for Dartmouth College (Leon Burr Richardson, History of Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., 1932, p. 208).

6Edward Young, The Complaint; or, Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality: In Nine Nights.

7The “device” affixed to JA’s 10 Sept. 1783 letter to Gordon, above, was apparently the seal that he had commissioned after the conclusion of the preliminary peace treaty between Great Britain and the United States on 30 Nov. 1782. Sporting a pine tree, a deer, and a fish, the seal commemorated JA’s efforts in the negotiations to establish expansive boundaries for the new nation and guarantee American access to the Newfoundland fisheries. Although JA had acquired the pine tree, deer, and fish seal by 13 May 1783, when he used it on a letter to Antoine Marie Cerisier (vol. 14:478–479), he resorted to the Boylston family seal at the signing of the definitive treaty on 3 Sept. (Catalogue of JQA’s Books description begins Henry Adams and Worthington Chauncey Ford, A Catalogue of the Books of John Quincy Adams Deposited in the Boston Athenæum with Notes on Books, Adams Seals and Book-Plates, Boston, 1938. description ends , p. 136–137, 140–141). For a later version of the pine tree, deer, and fish seal, see Descriptive List of Illustrations, No. 10, above.

8The only extant copy of JA’s 10 Sept. letter, above, is Gordon’s transcription included in his 24 Dec. letter to Elbridge Gerry (NN:Gerry-Townsend Papers). For Gordon’s complete letter to Gerry, see MHS, Procs. description begins Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings. description ends , 63:500–502 (1929–1930).

9Gordon’s letter to New York governor George Clinton has not been found, but Clinton was trying to control whig mobs that were attacking loyalists remaining in New York following the British evacuation of the city on 25 November. While the governor urged restraint, his more radical political allies sought revenge for loyalist actions against the whigs during the occupation (Paul A. Gilje, The Road to Mobocracy: Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763–1834, Chapel Hill, N.C., 1987, p. 74–77).

10Presumably a reference to Morris’ use of extracts from JA’s letters of 10 and 11 July, above, to lobby for the passage of the impost bill, for which see Morris’ letters to JA of 20 Sept., and note 1, and 5 Nov., and note 1, above. In his letters to Morris, JA made clear his support for the establishment of an impost to fund repayment of the Dutch loans.

11Presumably the quotation is from James Burgh’s Political Disquisitions, 3 vols., London, 1774–1775, but the quotation, if it is one, has not been precisely located. For a reference to Burgh along much the same lines, see Mercy Otis Warren’s 10 March 1776 letter to JA, vol. 4:50.

12Gordon quotes JA’s 10 Sept. 1783 letter, above.

13That is, Rev. Samuel Cooper died on 29 December. The Boston Continental Journal of 1 Jan. 1784 announced Cooper’s death after he had “been confined to his Chamber with a Disorder of the Lethargick Kind for upwards of six Weeks.” On 8 Jan. the Salem Gazette reported on Cooper’s funeral, where the sermon was delivered by John Clarke of the First Church. It noted “the presence of a great concourse of spectators, whose melancholy countenances bespoke the loss of a great character.” The first page of the Boston Independent Chronicle’s 8 Jan. issue contained a lengthy monody “on the much lamented DEATH of the Reverend SAMUEL COOPER, D. D.,” which ended “We mourn a brother, and a patriot, dead!” He was also remembered in Phillis Wheatley, An Elegy, Sacred to the Memory of that Great Divine, the Reverend and Learned Dr. Samuel Cooper, Boston, 1784 (Sibley’s Harvard Graduates description begins John Langdon Sibley, Clifford K. Shipton, Conrad Edick Wright, Edward W. Hanson, and others, Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cambridge and Boston, 1873–. description ends , 11:211; 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. 18726).

14Refrain from laughing.

15For John Hancock’s reversal of his decision to resign, see Tristram Dalton’s letter of 5 Dec. 1783, and note 5, above.

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