Adams Papers

From John Adams to John Trumbull, 28 April 1785

To John Trumbull

Auteuil April 28. 1785

Dear Sir

It was with much Pleasure that I received your Letter by Mr Humphreys, in whom I have found all those valuable qualities, you led me to expect.1 from him too I received a Copy of Mc Fingal, a Poem which will live as long as Hudibras.2 if I Speak freely of this Piece I can truely Say, that altho it is not equal to itself throughout and where is the Poem that is so? yet there are many Parts of it equal to any Thing in that kind of Poetry that ever was written.

Give me leave however to repeat, what I believe I have formerly Said to you, in some Letter or Conversation, at least I have long thought of it, and Said it often to others, that altho your Talent in this Way is equal to that of any one, you have Veins of Poetry of Superiour Kinds. I wish you to think of a Subject which may employ you for many Years, and afford full Scope for the pathetic and Sublime, of which Several Specimens have Shown you master, in the highest degree. Upon this Plan I should hope to live to See, our young America in Possession of an Heroick Poem, equal to those the most esteemed in any Country.

As it is probable from the last Letters from N. York that I Shall have to cross the Channel, not indeed in a Balloon but upon an Enterprize equally hardy,3 the means of Correspondence will be more easy, Safe and frequent, and I Should be glad to hear from you as often as your Practice, and the Heroick Poem aforesaid will admit.

This Letter will go by my Son, but if he Should go by Water from N. York to Newport, he will Send it to you. if he passes by Land through N. Haven, he will have the Honour to deliver it.4 He was so young when you was acquainted in my Family, that I presume you will Scarcely know him. The Passion for Poetry is not always Proportioned to the Talent. in the former he would bear some Comparison with you at his Age, but he has not yet given Such Proofs of the latter, and probably never will. if he had it, which is not likely, he will not be so independant of Business as you, and therefore must not indulge it, but devote himself wholly to the Law.

My sage and amiable Friend the Abby de Mably, who has been sometime declining, I am now told is no more. at his advanced Age, this is nothing Surprizing, but I regrett his Loss very Sincerely, on many Accounts. He has not left in France a wiser or more independent Spirit. above the Ambition of a Courtier or even of an Accademician, he has Spent his Life in propagating Principles of Legislation, and Negotiation which do honour to human Nature and tend to the Advancement of its Happiness in Society. I wish his Writings more generally known in America. He had given me Encouragement, that he would this Spring undertake to compose a general Summary of Morals and Politicks. This Work will be now lost, but I hope his valuable Manuscripts will Soon be published. two Volumes of Remarks on the History of France, a Treatise “Sur le Beau,” and another on the Course of the Passions in Society, are, as he told me himself ready for the Press.5

With great Esteem and Affection, I am / Sir your most obedient and most / humble servant

John Adams.

RC (NHi:Gilder Lehrman Coll., on deposit); addressed by JQA: “John Trumbull Esqr: / Connecticut”; internal address: “John Trumbull Esqr ”; endorsed: “His Excellency / Jno. Adams Esqr / April 28th. 1785.” LbC (Adams Papers); APM Reel 107. Tr (Adams Papers); filmed at 24 March 1779.

1In his letter of 14 June 1784 (Adams Papers), Trumbull wrote of David Humphreys “that the virtues of his heart are in no respect inferior to his abilities and reputation.”

2Humphreys likely brought JA a copy of Trumbull’s M’Fingal: A Modern Epic Poem, in Four Cantos, Hartford, 1782, 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. 17752. This was a much expanded version of M’Fingal: A Modern Epic Poem. Canto First, or the Town Meeting, Phila., 1775 [1776], 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 14528. Written in the style of Samuel Butler’s Hudibras, JA had seen the initial version in Nov. 1775, prior to its publication. M’Fingal has particular significance with regard to JA because a main character, “Honorious,” is usually seen as modeled on JA. For JA’s comments on the poem’s first incarnation and a description of its initial publication and content, see vol. 3:278–279.

3JA alludes to the early experiments in hot-air ballooning, first carried out by Joseph Michel Montgolfier and Jacques Étienne Montgolfier and Jean François Pilâtre de Rozier in 1783, and which were closely followed by the Adamses. In June 1785 Rozier and a companion were killed in an effort to cross the English Channel in a double balloon (AFC description begins Adams Family Correspondence, ed. L. H. Butterfield, Marc Friedlaender, Richard Alan Ryerson, Margaret A. Hogan, and others, Cambridge, 1963–. description ends , 5:236, 238; 6:180, 181).

4JQA delivered this letter on 21 Aug. 1785 (JQA, Diary description begins Diary of John Quincy Adams, ed. David Grayson Allen, Robert J. Taylor, and others, Cambridge, 1981–. description ends , 1:309). In his reply of 8 Dec. (Adams Papers), wherein he thanked JA for his comments on M’Fingal, Trumbull indicated that he had had the “pleasure of an hour’s interview” with JQA and also mentioned his regret at not having “a farther opportunity of cultivating his acquaintance.”

5The Abbé de Mably died on 23 April (Hoefer, Nouv. biog. générale description begins Jean Chrétien Ferdinand Hoefer, ed., Nouvelle biographie générale depuis les temps les plus reculés jusqu’à nos jours, Paris, 1852–1866; 46 vols. description ends ). In the third of the four letters addressed to JA that made up his Observations sur le gouvernement et les loix des États-Unis d’Amérique (p. 107–120), Mably proposed that Congress issue a moral and political catechism to instruct the people on their government’s founding principles. JA apparently requested the Frenchman to undertake the task, which would now go unrealized (vol. 16:538–539). With regard to the other works mentioned by JA as ready for the press, a four-volume edition of Mably’s Observations sur l’histoire de France, first published in 1765, was issued at Kehl, Germany, in 1788, while his essays “Du Beau” and “Du Cours et de la march des passions dans la sociéte” appear in Oeuvres completes, 16 vols. London, 1789–1795. JQA’s Diary entry for 25 April 1785 indicates that he had learned of Mably’s death from Charles Williamos, a friend of Thomas Jefferson’s, and contains essentially the same information on Mably’s unpublished works (JQA, Diary description begins Diary of John Quincy Adams, ed. David Grayson Allen, Robert J. Taylor, and others, Cambridge, 1981–. description ends , 1:255).

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