Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 5 July 1814

To John Adams

Monticello July 5. 14.

Dear Sir

Since mine of Jan. 24. your’s of Mar. 14. was recieved. it was not acknoleged in the short one of May 18. by mr Rives, the only object of that having been to enable one of our most promising young men to have the advantage of making his bow to you. I learned with great regret the serious illness mentioned in your letter: and I hope mr Rives will be able to tell me you are entirely restored. but our machines have now been running for 70. or 80. years, and we must expect that, worn as they are, here a pivot, there a wheel, now a pinion, next a spring, will be giving way: and however we may tinker them up for awhile, all will at length surcease motion. our watches, with works of brass and steel, wear out within that period. shall you and I last to see the course of1 the seven-fold wonders of the times will take? the Attila of the age dethroned, the ruthless destroyer of 10. millions of the human race, whose thirst for blood appeared unquenchable, the great oppressor of the rights & liberties of the world, shut up within the circuit of a little island of the Mediterranean, and dwindled to the condition of an humble and degraded pensioner on the bounty of those he has most injured. how miserably, how meanly, has he closed his inflated career! what a sample of the Bathos will his history present! he should have perished on the swords of his enemies, under the walls of Paris

‘Leon piagato a morte    Cosi fra l’ire estrema
Sente mancar la vita,  rugge, minaccia, e freme,
Guarda la sua ferita,  Che fa tremar morendo
Ne s’avilisce ancor.  Tal volta il cacciator.’
Metast Adriano.

But Bonaparte was a lion in the field only. in civil life a cold-blooded, calculating, unprincipled Usurper, without a virtue, no statesman, knowing nothing of commerce, political economy, or civil government, & supplying ignorance by bold presumption. I had supposed him a great man until his entrance into the Assembly des cinq cens, 18. Brumaire (an. 8.) from that date however I set him down as a great scoundrel only. to the wonders of his rise and fall, we may add that of a Czar of Muscovy dictating, in Paris, laws and limits to all the successors of the Caesars, and holding even the balance in which the fortunes of this new world are suspended. I own that, while I rejoice, for the good of mankind, in the deliverance of Europe from the havoc which would have never ceased while Bonaparte should have lived in power, I see with anxiety the tyrant of the ocean remaining in vigor, and even participating in the merit of crushing his brother tyrant. while the world is thus turned upside down, on which side of it are we? all the strong reasons indeed place us on the side of peace; the interests of the continent, their friendly dispositions, & even the interests of England. her passions alone are opposed to it. peace would seem now to be an easy work, the causes of the war being removed. her orders of council will no doubt be taken care of by the allied powers, and, war ceasing, her impressment of our seamen ceases of course. but I fear there is foundation for the design intimated in the public papers, of demanding a cession of our right in the fisheries. what will Massachusets say to this? I mean her majority, which must be considered as speaking, thro’ the organs it has appointed itself, as the Index of it’s will. she chose to sacrifice the liberty of our seafaring citizens, in which we were all interested, and with them her obligations to the Co-states; rather than war with England. will she now sacrifice the fisheries to the same partialities? this question is interesting to her alone: for to the middle, the Southern & Western states they are of no direct concern; of no more than the culture of tobacco, rice & cotton to Massachusets. I am really at a loss to conjecture what our refractory sister will say on this occasion. I know what, as a citizen2 of the Union, I would say to her, ‘take this question ad referendum. it concerns you alone. if you would rather give up the fisheries than war with England, we give them up. if you had rather fight for them, we will defend your interests to the last drop of our blood, chusing rather to set a good example than follow a bad one.’ and I hope she will determine to fight for them.—with this however you and I shall have nothing to do; ours being truly the case wherein ‘non tali auxilio, nec defensoribus istis Tempus eget.’ quitting this subject therefore I will turn over another leaf.

I am just returned from one of my long absences, having been at my other home for five weeks past. having more leisure there than here for reading, I amused myself with reading seriously Plato’s republic. I am wrong however in calling it amusement, for it was the heaviest task-work I ever went through. I had occasionally before taken up some of his other works, but scarcely ever had patience to go through a whole dialogue. while wading thro’ the whimsies, the puerilities, & unintelligible jargon of this work, I laid it down often to ask myself how it could have been that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this? how the soi-disant Christian world indeed should have done it, is a piece of historical curiosity. but how could the Roman good sense do it? and particularly how could Cicero bestow such eulogies on Plato? altho’ Cicero did not wield the dense logic of Demosthenes, yet he was able, learned, laborious, practised in the business of the world, & honest. he could not be the dupe of mere style, of which he was himself the first master in the world. with the moderns, I think, it is rather a matter of fashion and authority. education is chiefly in the hands of persons who, from their profession, have an interest in the reputation and the dreams of Plato. they give the tone while at school, and few, in their after-years, have occasion to revise their college opinions. but fashion and authority apart, and bringing Plato to the test of reason, take from him his sophisms, futilities, & incomprehensibilities, and what remains? in truth he is one of the race of genuine Sophists, who has escaped the oblivion of his brethren, first by the elegance of his diction, but chiefly by the adoption & incorporation of his whimsies into the body of artificial Christianity. his foggy mind, is for ever presenting the semblances of objects which, half seen thro’ a mist, can be defined neither in form or dimension. yet this which should have consigned him to early oblivion really procured him immortality of fame & reverence. the Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding, and too plain to need3 explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from it’s indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power & pre-eminence. the doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained. their purposes however are answered. Plato is canonised: and it is now deemed as impious to question his merits as those of an Apostle of Jesus. he is peculiarly appealed to as an advocate of the immortality of the soul; and yet I will venture to say that were there no better arguments than his in proof of it, not a man in the world would believe it. it is fortunate for us that Platonic republicanism has not obtained the same favor as Platonic Christianity; or we should now have been all living, men, women and children, pell mell together, like the beasts of the field or forest. yet ‘Plato is a great Philosopher,’ said La Fontaine. but says Fontenelle ‘do you find his ideas very clear’?—‘oh no! he is of an obscurity impenetrable.’—‘do you not find him full of contradictions?’—‘certainly, replied La Fontaine, he is but a Sophist.’ yet immediately after, he exclaims again, ‘oh Plato was a great philosopher.’—Socrates had reason indeed to complain of the misrepresentations of Plato; for in truth his dialogues are libels on Socrates.—but why am I dosing you with these Ante-diluvian topics? because I am glad to have some one to whom they are familiar, and who will not recieve them as if dropped from the moon. our post-revolutionary youth are born under happier stars than you and I were. they acquire all learning in their mothers’ womb, and bring it into the world ready-made. the information of books is no longer necessary; and all knolege which is not innate, is in contempt, or neglect at least. every folly must run it’s round; and so, I suppose, must that of self-learning, & self sufficiency; of rejecting the knolege acquired in past ages, and starting on the new ground of intuition. when sobered by experience I hope our successors will turn their attention to the advantages of education. I mean of education on the broad scale, and not that of the petty academies, as they call themselves, which are starting up in every neighborhood, and where one or two men, possessing Latin, & sometimes Greek, a knolege of the globes, and the first six books of Euclid, imagine & communicate this as the sum of science. they commit their pupils to the theatre of the world with just taste enough of learning to be alienated from industrious pursuits, and not enough to do service in the ranks of science. we have some exceptions indeed. I presented one to you lately, and we have some others. but the terms I use are general truths. I hope the necessity will at length be seen of establishing institutions, here as in Europe, where every branch of science, useful at this day, may be taught in it’s highest degrees. have you ever turned your thoughts to the plan of such an institution? I mean to a specification of the particular sciences of real use in human affairs, and how they might be so grouped as to require so many professors only as might bring them within the views of a just but enlightened economy? I should be happy in a communication of your ideas on this problem, either loose or digested. but to avoid my being run away with by another subject, and adding to the length and ennui of the present letter, I will here present to mrs Adams & yourself the assurance of my constant & sincere friendship and respect.

Th: Jefferson

RC (MHi: Adams Papers); edge trimmed, with missing text supplied from PoC; addressed: “John Adams late President of the US. Quincy. Massachusets”; franked; postmarked Milton, 7 July; endorsed by Adams; docketed by Charles Francis Adams. PoC (DLC).

your’s of mar. 14.: Adams to TJ, Feb.–3 Mar. 1814. The attila of the age was Napoleon. leon piagato a mortetal volta il cacciator: “The dying lion fiercely looks at his wounds, and roars and threatens in his last breath, so as to make his pursuer tremble,” quoting from act 2, scene 2 of Pietro Metastasio, Adriano in Siria (London, 1765; Italian, with English translation on facing pages), 24, 25. TJ owned a copy of Metastasio’s Poesie, 12 vols. (Paris, 1755–83; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4560). cinq cens (cents): “five hundred.” On 18. brumaire in year 8 (9 Nov. 1799) Napoleon began the coup d’état that ultimately made him sole ruler of France.

Speculations that Great Britain might demand the cession of the rights of the United States to fisheries in Canadian waters were based on reports from British publications. Although these rights, which had been guaranteed by Article 3 of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, were discussed during peace negotiations, the commissioners included nothing on that subject in the final Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 (Richmond Enquirer, 23 Apr., 4 June 1814; Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and other International Acts Of The United States Of America [1931–48], 2:98; Malcomson, Historical Dictionary description begins Robert Malcomson, Historical Dictionary of the War of 1812, 2006 description ends , 211–4).

non tali auxilio, nec defensoribus istis tempus eget: “the hour calls not for such aid or such defenders,” in Virgil, Aeneid, 2.521 (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). The dialogue between Jean de La Fontaine and Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle discussing whether plato is a great philosopher is recounted by Claude Adrien Helvétius in Œuvres Complettes de M. Helvétius. Nouvelle Édition, corrigée & augmentée sur les Manuscrits de l’Auteur, avec sa Vie & son Portrait (London, 1781; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 1242), 72.

1Preceding three words interlined.

2Reworked from “as an American citizen.”

3TJ here canceled “understanding.”

Index Entries

  • Adams, Abigail Smith (John Adams’s wife); TJ sends greetings to search
  • Adams, John; health of search
  • Adams, John; letters to search
  • Adams, John; W. C. Rives proposes to visit search
  • Adriano in Siria (P. Metastasio) search
  • Alexander I, emperor of Russia; and Napoleon search
  • Alexander I, emperor of Russia; TJ on search
  • Canada; and U.S. fishing rights search
  • Cicero, Marcus Tullius; TJ on search
  • cotton; as crop search
  • Demosthenes; TJ on search
  • Euclid; in collegiate curriculum search
  • fisheries, Canadian; U.S. rights to search
  • Fontenelle, Bernard Le Bovier de; on Plato search
  • France; revolutionary calendar search
  • Ghent, Treaty of (1814); and fishery rights search
  • Great Britain; and Massachusetts search
  • Great Britain; Orders in Council (1807) search
  • Great Britain; TJ on war with search
  • Helvétius, Claude Adrien; Œuvres Complettes search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Literary Quotes; P. Metastasio search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Literary Quotes; Virgil search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; Alexander I search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; Great Britain search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; Jesus search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; Massachusetts search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; Napoleon search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; peace with Great Britain search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; post-Revolutionary youth search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; religion search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; war with Great Britain search
  • Jesus; TJ on search
  • La Fontaine, Jean de; on Plato search
  • Massachusetts; and U.S. fishing rights search
  • Massachusetts; relations with Great Britain search
  • Metastasio, Pietro; Adriano in Siria search
  • Metastasio, Pietro; Poesie search
  • Napoleon I, emperor of France; abdicates search
  • Napoleon I, emperor of France; TJ on search
  • Œuvres Complettes (C. A. Hélvetius) search
  • Paris; Treaty of (1783) search
  • Plato; TJ on search
  • Poesie (P. Metastasio) search
  • Poplar Forest (TJ’s Bedford Co. estate); TJ returns from search
  • religion; TJ on search
  • rice; mentioned search
  • Rives, William Cabell; proposed visit of to J. Adams search
  • Socrates (Athenian philosopher); TJ on search
  • tobacco; as cash crop search
  • Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro); TJ quotes search