Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 27 June 1813

To John Adams

Monticello June 27. 13.

Ἴδαν ἐς πολύδενδρον ἀνὴρ ὑλητόμος ἐλθὼν,

Παπταίνει, παρέοντος ἄδην, ποθεν ἄρξεται ἔργου·

Τί πρᾶτον καταλεξῶ; ἐπεὶ πάρα μυρία ἐιπῆν.

and I too, my dear Sir, like the wood-cutter of Ida, should doubt where to begin, were I to enter the forest of opinions, discussions, & contentions which have occurred in our day. I should exclaim1 with Theocritus Τί πρᾶτον καταλεξῶ; ἐπεὶ πάρα μυρία ειπῆν. but I shall not do it. the summum bonum with me is now truly Epicurean, ease of body and tranquility of mind; and to these I wish to consign my remaining days. men have differed in opinion, and been divided into parties by these opinions, from the first origin of societies; and in all governments where they have been permitted freely to think and to speak. the same political parties which now agitate the US. have existed thro’ all time. whether the power of the people, or that of the ἄριςτοι should prevail, were questions which kept the states of Greece and Rome in eternal convulsions;2 as they now schismatize every people whose minds and mouths are not shut up by the gag of a despot. and in fact the terms of whig and tory belong to natural, as well as to civil history. they denote the temper and constitution of mind of different individuals. to come to our own country, and to the times when you and I became first acquainted. we well3 remember the violent parties which agitated4 the old Congress, and their bitter contests. there you & I were together, and the Jays, and the Dickinsons, and other anti-independants were arrayed against us. they cherished the monarchy of England; and we the rights of our countrymen. when our present government was in the mew, passing from Confederation to5 Union, how bitter was the schism between the6 Feds and Antis. here you and I were together again. for altho’ for a moment,7 separated by the Atlantic from the scene of action, I favored the opinion that nine states should confirm the constitution, in order to secure it, and the others hold off, until certain amendments, deemed favorable to freedom, should be made,8 I rallied in the first instant to the wiser proposition of Massachusets, that all should confirm, and then all instruct their delegates to urge those amendments. the amendments were made, and all were reconciled to the government. but as soon as it was put into motion, the line of division was again drawn; we broke into two parties, each wishing to give a different direction to the government; the one to strengthen the most9 popular branch, the other the more permanent branches, and to extend their permanence.10 here you & I separated for the first time: and as we had been longer than most others11 on the public theatre, and our names therefore were more familiar to our countrymen, the party which considered you as thinking with them, placed your name at their head; the other, for the same reason, selected mine. but neither decency nor inclination permitted us to become the advocates of ourselves, or to take part personally in the violent contests which followed.12 we suffered ourselves, as you so well expressed it, to be the passive subjects of public discussion. and these discussions[,] whether relating to men, measures, or opinions,13 were conducted by the parties with an animosity, a bitterness, and an indecency,14 which had never been exceeded. all the resources of reason, and of15 wrath, were exhausted by each party in support of it’s own, and to prostrate16 the adversary opinions. one was upbraided with recieving the Antifederalists, the other the old tories & refugees into their boso[m.] of this acrimony17 the public papers of the day exhibit ample testimony in the debates of Congress, of state legislatures; of stump-orators, in addresses, answers, and newspaper essays. and to these without question may be added, the private correspondences of individuals; and the less guarded in these, becaus[e] not meant for the public eye, not restrained by the respect due to that; but poured forth from the overflowings of the heart into the bosom of a friend, as a momentary easement of our feelings. in this way, and in answers to addresses,18 you & I could indulge ourselves. we have probably done it, sometime[s] with warmth, often with prejudice, but always, as we believed, adhering to19 truth[.] I have not examined my letters of that day. I have no stomach to revive the memory of it’s feelings. but one of these letters, it seems, has got before the public, by accident and infidelity, by the death of one friend to whom it was written, and of his friend to whom it was communicated, and by the malice and treachery20 of a third person, of whom I had never before heard, merely to make mischief, and in the same Satanic21 spirit, in which the same enemy had intercepted and published, in 1776, your letter animadverting on Dickinson’s character. how it happened that I quoted you in my letter to Dr Priestly, and for whom, and not for yourself, the strictures were meant, has been explained to you in my letter of the 15th which had been committed to the post22 8. days before I received yours of the 10th 11th and 14th that gave you the reference which these asked to the particular answer alluded to in the letter to Priestley. the renewal of these old discussions, my friend, would be equally useless and irksome. to the volumes then written on these subjects, human ingenuity can add nothing new: and the rather, as lapse of time has obliterated many23 of the facts. and shall you & I, my dear Sir,24 like Priam of old, gird on the ‘arma, diu desueta, trementibus aevo humeris’? shall we, at our age, become the Athletae of party, and exhibit ourselves, as gladiators, in the Arena of the newspapers?25 nothing in the universe could induce me to it. my mind has been long fixed to bow to the judgment of the world, who will judge me by my acts, and26 will never take counsel from me as to what that judgment shall be. if your objects and opinions have been misunderstood, if the measures and principles of others have been wrongfully imputed to you, as I believe they have been, that you should leave an explanation of them, would be an act of justice to yourself. I will add that it has been hoped27 you would leave such explanations as would place every saddle on it’s right horse, and replace on the shoulders of others the burthens they shifted on yours.

But all this, my friend, is offered, merely for your consideration and judgment; without presuming to anticipate what you alone are qualified to decide for yourself. I mean to express my own purpose only, and the reflections which have led to it. to me then it appears that there have been differences of opinion, and party differences, from the first establishment of governments, to the present day; and on the same question which now divides our own country: that these will continue thro’ all future time: that every one takes his side in favor of the many, or of the few, according to his constitution, and the circumstances in which he is placed: that opinions, which are equally honest on both sides, should no[t] affect personal esteem, or social intercourse: that as we judge between the Claudii and the Gracchi, the Wentworths and the Hampdens of past ages, so, of those among us whose names may happen to be remembered for awhile, the next generations will judge, favorably or unfavorably, according to the comple[x]ion of individual minds, and the side they shall themselves have taken: that nothing new can be added by you or me to what has been said by others, & will be said in every age, in support of the conflicting opinions on governmen[t:] and that wisdom & duty dictate an humble resignation to the verdict of ou[r] future peers. in doing this myself, I shall certainly not suffer moot question[s] to affect the sentiments of sincere friendship & respect, consecrated to you by so long a course of time, and of which I now repeat sincere assurances[.]

Th: Jefferson

RC (MHi: Adams Papers); edge trimmed, with missing text supplied from Dft; endorsed by Adams; docketed by Charles Francis Adams. Dft (DLC: TJ Papers, 198:35291–2); undated and unsigned.

Ἴδαν ἐς πολύδενδρον … πάρα μυρία ἐιπῆν: “Now when the feller goes up to thick woody Ida / he looks about him where to begin in all that plenty; / and so I, where now shall I take up my tale,” from Theocritus, Idylls, 17.9–11 (The Greek Bucolic Poets, trans. John M. Edmonds, Loeb Classical Library [1912; repr. 1977], 211; for editions of Theocritus owned by TJ, see Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends nos. 4378–81). ἄριςτοι: “best men; nobles.” in the mew: “undergoing transformation” (OED description begins James A. H. Murray, J. A. Simpson, E. S. C. Weiner, and others, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., 1989, 20 vols. description ends ). TJ’s letter to Joseph Priestley got before the public after the latter communicated it to Theophilus Lindsey. Thomas Belsham was the third person responsible for its publication (Adams to TJ, 29 May 1813; TJ to Richard Rush, 17 June 1813). Adams’s letter of 24 July 1775 to James Warren, which alluded to John Dickinson as a “piddling Genius” who had “given a silly Cast to our whole Doings,” was intercepted and published in the Massachusetts Gazette and the Boston Weekly News-Letter on 17 Aug. 1775 (Robert J. Taylor, Richard Alan Ryerson, C. James Taylor, and others, eds., Papers of John Adams [1977– ], 3:89–90). arma … humeris: “arms, long unused, on shoulders trembling with age” paraphrases Virgil, Aeneid, 2.509–10 (Fairclough, Virgil description begins H. Rushton Fairclough, trans., Virgil, ed. rev. by G. P. Goold, Loeb Classical Library, 1999–2000, 2 vols. description ends , 1:350–1). athletae: “wrestlers; athletes.”

1Dft: “say.”

2Remainder of sentence interlined in Dft.

3Word interlined in Dft.

4Preceding two words interlined in Dft in place of “in.”

5In Dft TJ here canceled “the present.”

6Preceding three words interlined in Dft in place of “division into.”

7Reworked in Dft from “for a moment indeed, and.”

8In Dft TJ here canceled “but.”

9Word interlined in Dft.

10Reworked in Dft from “to make them still more permanent.”

11Preceding three words interlined in Dft.

12Word interlined in Dft in place of “arose.”

13Reworked in Dft from “men or measures.”

14Preceding two words interlined in Dft in place of “a scurrility.”

15Preceding two words interlined in Dft in place of “as well as of.”

16Word interlined in Dft in place of “repel.”

17Preceding sentence and sentence to this point interlined in Dft in place of “and of this.”

18Preceding five words interlined in Dft in place of “and this way only.”

19Preceding five words interlined in Dft in place of “with.”

20Word interlined in Dft in place of “Satanism.”

21Word interlined in Dft.

22Preceding four words interlined in Dft in place of “sent off.”

23Word interlined in Dft in place of “abundance.”

24Word interlined in Dft in place of “friend.”

25Word interlined in Dft in place of “press.”

26Preceding seven words interlined in Dft.

27Word interlined in Dft in place of “expected.”

Index Entries

  • Adams, John; letter of intercepted and published search
  • Adams, John; letters to search
  • Belsham, Thomas; TJ on search
  • Constitution, U.S.; Bill of Rights search
  • Constitution, U.S.; TJ on search
  • Dickinson, John; and Continental Congress search
  • Dickinson, John; and J. Adams’s intercepted letter search
  • Jay, John; and Continental Congress search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Literary Quotes; Theocritus search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Literary Quotes; Virgil search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; political divisions search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; posterity search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; retirement search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; U.S. Constitution search
  • Lindsey, Theophilus; correspondence with J. Priestley search
  • posterity; TJ on search
  • Priestley, Joseph; correspondence with T. Lindsey search
  • Priestley, Joseph; TJ’s correspondence with search
  • Theocritus; quoted by TJ search
  • Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro); TJ quotes search
  • Warren, James; J. Adams’s letter to published search