Adams Papers

John Quincy Adams to John Adams, 11 Sep. 1797

London 11. September 1797.

My dear Sir.

I intended to have given you some further account of the Events that are occurring in France, but for want of authentic information shall wait a few days longer. The two parties which have been approaching each other in hostile array for several months past have at length come to action according to the usual revolutionary custom, and the victory remains, as was to be expected on the side, which had secured the argument of the bayonet in its favour.—French Republicanism will not belye itself. The circumstances of the present period betoken an approach towards a simple, unqualified military Government, which seems to be the only possible issue to this portentous Revolution, but which few persons, perhaps none would have expected to advance with such rapid strides.—I shall give you the result of my observations upon the recent struggle of factions, as soon as the course of its catastrophe shall be clearly marked; but at present I can only leave you to such information as may be gathered from the newspapers.—I send you however herewith two pamphlets lately published by Barère, a man who has been at one time very conspicuous upon the great Theatre of french affairs, and whose talents the party now predominant have engaged on their side as you will perceive by the contents of these works themselves.

It has been the policy of the french Directory, to secure by all the means in their power, the assistance of literary men; a policy natural and obvious enough, but which from the position in which they stood they could not carry into effect, to any great degree. The authors who could consent to become the apologists or panegyrists of such men & such measures could not be very scrupulous or conscientious.—They took up therefore with what they could get.

I have heretofore sent you one or two pamphlets of Theremyn, the most contemptible of all their scribblers. He is a Prussian, and has been heretofore in a subaltern <department> [office] in the diplomatic department of that Government. Whether he retired from that station dissatisfied, or was dismissed from it, I know not, but it was probably while he was Secretary to the Prussian legation in London that he formed his attachments to the french revolutionary leaders: he has now been two or three years in Paris, and is constantly writing pamphlets for the directory as he did before for the Committee of Public safety.—Paine is employed by them in like manner, and in the style for which Madame Roland judged him peculiarly fitted; that is, to wind up the drunkenness of a club or a tavern into frenzy.—Madame de Stael, and her friend Benjamin Constant are enlisted in the same ranks, and labour in concert with all their energies to strengthen their old enemies now their new friends.—I sent you the Treatise upon the influence of the Passions, and intimated to you the Passions which produced it, and those which it was destined to gratify.—Constant is a Swiss, (for it is remarkable that all these courtiers of the Directory are foreigners to France) and in pursuing the variations of Madame de Stael’s destiny, has written on both sides, for and against the prevailing system of measures, since the adoption of the Constitution of the third year.—I will send you one of his last productions.

Amidst this literary constellation Barère is a star of the first magnitude. He is indeed a frenchman; the only one among them: but in every other respect was well qualified for the purposes for which he is employed.—Part of his History is well known to you. The accident by which he escaped the sentence which was passed upon him together with Collot d’Herbois and Bèlland Varrenes, and which was executed upon them; the accident by which he afterwards escaped from his prison, and that by which he has ever since remained at Liberty, are explained and accounted for by these two publications.—The practice of England sometimes commutes a capital penalty for transportation. They seem in France to have inverted the principle, and to have commuted transportation for the severer penance (to a liberal and independent Spirit it would be so) of writing encomiums upon the Directory and the Constitution of the third year.

It is almost an universal and almost an unavoidable custom to connect controversial writings with the real character and principles of their authors: a natural and perhaps an useful prejudice leads us generally to reject as false and absurd whatever is told us by a man whom we know to be depraved. Yet the experience of all ages has shewn examples of very bad men, who have written and said very good things.—In cases of this kind, the only sound rule of judgment is to consider the facts of such a writer as without a voucher and his sentiments as without a warranty. Of themselves they cannot serve either as foundation of belief or as a source of moral conclusions. But they may stand upon their own ground, or be supported by any power other than that of confidence in the author.—He may therefore be believed whenever he pronounces his own condemnation, or furnishes you with the materials of his own conviction. In this point of view both these works of Barère are objects of considerable curiosity.—They may be viewed also as containing such doctrines as the french Government, wished to spread abroad at the time when they were written. And it is certain that they thought this man a valuable auxiliary.—For at the late election for the members of the Legislative Councils, he was (without doubt by the influence of the Government,) chosen at some little village near the Pyrenées, though the Legislature at their first meeting declared the choice illegal and never admitted him to a seat.—I am fully persuaded however that if the party which is now victorious should be able to maintain its triumph, he will soon be brought forward again.

I have marked several passages, particularly in the work entitled “de la pensée du Gouvernement.”—Some of them as remarkable for the ingenuousness or rather the blushless impudence with which he characterizes as the worst of tyrannies that very dominion of Robespierre under which he was so active and so obsequious an instrument: others as <notice> deserving notice for the address with which he courts the favour of the Directory for himself, and that of the armies for the Directory; and two or three which speak of the United States, and of the theory of balanced Governments.—You will be at no loss to guess whence he derived his assertion that in the United States, “England has caused to be introduced by adroit speculators, Establishments, invented with views of political corruption and degeneracy,” and you will easily discover the connection between this doctrine, and the advice to the Directory, to “rally to the interest, and to the commerce of the french Republic, the fruitful branches of the commerce of the United States, which England has ravished from her.”

The eulogium upon Montesquieu is a very ingenious and amusing thing. It shews like the other work the partial return of the opinion publique to sense and wisdom. At the same time it indicates the points upon which the revolutionary prejudices and follies are still predominant.—Turgot’s dogma of rallying all authority to one centre has been washed out of vogue in the blood of millions, and as it “has lived,” Barère thunders with all his eloquence at the extreme importance of the division of Powers.—He like so many others can flatter no madness but that which is armed with power, can bow to none but reigning errors, and pledge his faith to none but accredited lies. But if Montesquieu says a word in approbation of confederations; if he says they are the only means by which Republican Government can be adapted to a large territory; if he speaks in other terms than those of anathema, concerning any other Government than that of la bonne Democratia the Government that is to force People to be free, if his opinions clash with any of the stupidities, that have not yet suns by their own weight from the stormy surface of the Revolution, Barère is no longer the admirer of Montesquieu; on the contrary he joins the full cry of Anarchy and Robbery against him—An old Philosopher said that truth was to be preferred even to his favourite Plato; <let> [so] Barère must think falsehood preferable even to his favourite Montesquieu.—In general, there may be observed through both these books many wise, liberal & spirited sentiments of liberty together with an apparent discouragement to views of conquest and military aggrandizement. Yet in one of them plainly transpires the Jacobin system of proselytism, where he mentions the new and powerful means of covering all Europe with great Republics, and in the other when he says that “republican armies have been at all times and in all Countries, the last ramparts and the extreme asylum of liberty,” it may be clearly seen how well prepared he and his employers are for a Pretorian Prefect, or a Protector of french Liberties.

As a short comment upon the purity of Barère’s Republicanism, and attachment to the modern Philosophy, I have taken from a recent work of Madame de Genlis an anecdote concerning him and you will find it at the close of one of these pamphlets.

I send likewise an English translation of Garat’s memoirs, which I have repeatedly mentioned to you in former Letters, but which I have not hitherto had a good opportunity of forwarding to you, and am uncertain therefore whether you have ever seen them. They are among the most curious and interesting publications that have appeared from the pens of persons who have acted in distinguished situations in France. Garat tells his own story and endeavours to justify or apologize for himself.—He was in fact one of those equivocal characters who endeavoured to steer between the Gironde and the Jacobin parties so as to fall in with the triumph of either. He met with the usual fate of such personages, and was detested by both parties. By his own account he was in heart on one side and acted on the other, or at least made none of those exertions which his station required of him, to counteract their proceedings which however he is now willing to brand with all the horror and execration they deserve.—But this book contains some very valuable details of the different views and purposes of the two great Republican factions; their modes of intrigue and perfidy for the destruction of each other and the false and erroneous principles upon which their theories of liberty were respectively grounded.—The author appears to great advantage in comparison with many of his co-operators in the Revolution, <but> and there is in his manner of writing an apparent consciousness of integrity, moderation and humanity well calculated to obtain confidence had they not been so often assumed, and with equal assurance by the most ferocious tygers that the circumstances of these days have let loose upon the human race..... Crude, undigested ideas upon the very foundations both of morals and of political economy mark this man, as they do all the other Apologists of themselves upon the affairs of France—He is a man of Letters: writes with spirit and elegance, and appears familiarly versed in the literature as well as the History of Antiquity.—Yet acquainted as he was with the uniform history of popular governments and democracies, and far from deficient as he shews himself to be in sagacity and knowledge of human Nature, he talks of the divisions and animosities between the leaders of the parties as accidental misfortunes which might have been avoided, and seriously speaks of proposals to lay aside those dissentions and rancours, for the purpose of uniting to support the Republic. Although this book was published more than two years ago, it contains information peculiarly interesting at the present time, when the very same parties after all their calamities and defeats are pursuing the same game, with nearly the same cry of liberty in their mouths, and the same practices of tyranny in their conduct.

You will have seen by the public Prints, that Edmund Burke died in the course of the month of July. His Executors have within these few days published three memorials upon French affairs written by him in the years 1791, 1792 and 1793. I have sent you a copy of <one of> them

If the several States and Governments which are spread over the face of Europe are considered as composing a sort of confederated whole, their situation and circumstances appear to resemble in an extraordinary degree those in which the same portion of the Earth were placed at the period when the Roman Republic fell, under the Ambition and talents of Caesar. There is at this time as there was then one simple fundamental principle upon which the whole fabric of European Policy stands. A revolution is taking place which must entirely overthrow that principle; such was the case then. The ultimate consequence in that instance was the total dissolution of the system by which Europe was governed, and centuries of barbarism: the novelties of this day are calculated to produce with much greater rapidity the same effect. If there be any accuracy in this view of things, the similarity between the character and genius of Burke and those of Cicero, will appear wonderfully striking. It is one of the most remarkable circumstances common to both, that rising from an obscure origin, or as Paine expresses it, upon the democratic floor, they were the most strenuous and energetic defenders of the aristocracies, that is of the institutions upon which alone the protection of property subsisted.—In one respect the modern Philosopher, Orator and Statesman, was more fortunate than the ancient; he did not live to see the final and irretrievable ruin of his cause, nor did he perish the martyr of it

I am ever affectionately, your Son

John Q. Adams.

RC (MHi: Adams Papers).

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