Thomas Jefferson Papers

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, with Postscript by Abigail Adams, 2 February 1816

From John Adams, with Postscript by Abigail Adams

Quincy Feb. 2. 1816

Dear Sir

I know not what to Say of your Letter of the 11th of Jan. but that it is one of the most consolatory, I ever received.

To trace the Commencement of the Reformation I Suspect We must go farther back than Borgia, or even than Huss or Wickliff, and I want the Acta Sanctorum to assist me in this Research. That Stupendous Monument of human Hypocricy and Fanaticism the Church of St. Peter at Rome, which was a Century and an Half in Building; excited the Ambition of Leo the tenth, who believed no more of the Christian Religion than Diderot, to finish it: And finding St. Peters Pence insufficient, he deluged all Europe with Indulgences for Sale, and excited Luther to contravert his Authority to grant them. Luther and his Associates and Followers, went less than half way in detecting the Corruptions of Christianity; but they acquired Reverence and Authority among their Followers almost as absolute as that of the Popes had been, To enter into details would be endless. But I agree with you, that the natural Effect of Science and Arts is to erect public opinion into a Censor, which must in Some degree be respected by all.

There is no difference1 of Opinion or Feeling between Us, concerning the Partition of Poland, the intended Partitions of Pilnitz or2 the more daring Partitions of Vienna.

your Question “How the Apostacy from National Rectitude can be Accounted for”3 is too deep and wide for my capacity to answer. I leave Fisher Ames to dogmatize up the Affairs of Europe and Mankind. I have done too much in this Way. A burned Child dreads the Fire. I can only say at present, that it Should Seem that human Reason and human Conscience, though I beleive there are such things, are not a Match, for human Passions, human Imaginations and human Enthusiasm. You however I believe have hit one Mark, “The Fires the Governments of Europe felt kindling under their Seats”:4 and I will hazard a shot at another, The Priests of all Nations imagined they felt approaching Such Flames as they had So often kindled about the Bodies of honest Men. Priests and Politicians, never before, So Suddenly and So unanimously concurred in Reestablishing Darkness and Ignorance5 Superstition and Despotism.

The Morality of Tacitus, is the Morality of Patriotism, and Britain & France have adopted his Creed; i.e. that all things were made for Rome. Jura negat Sibi lata, nihil non arrogat Armis, Said Achilles. Laws were not made for me, Said the Regent of France and his Cardinal Minister Du Bois. The Universe was made for me, Says Man. Jesus despized and condemned this Patriotism:6 But what Nation or What Christian has adopted his System? He was, as you Say “the most benevolent Being, that ever appeard on Earth.” France and England, Bourbons and Bonaparte, and all the Sovereigns at Vienna, have acted on the same Principle “All things were made for my Use.” “Lo! Man for mine, replies a Pampered Goose.” The Philosophers of the 18th Century have acted on the Same Principle. “When7 it is to combat Evil, ’tis lawful to employ the Devil.” Bonus Populus vult decipi; decipiatur. They have employed the Same Falsehood8 the Same deceit, which Philosophers and Priests of all ages have employed for their own Selfish Purposes. We now know how their Efforts have Succeeded. The old Deceivers have tryumphed over the New. Truth, must be more respected than it ever has been, before, any great Improvement can be expected in the Condition of Mankind. As Rochfaucault his “Maxims drew, from” history and from Practice, “I believe them true” From the whole Nature of Man, moral intellectual and physical he did not draw them.

We must come to the Principles of Jesus. But, when will all Men and all Nations do as they would be done by? Forgive all Injuries and love their Enemies as themselves? I leave those profound Phylosophers whose Sagacity perceives the Perfectibility of Humane9 Nature, and those illuminated Theologians who expect the Apocalyptic Reign, to enjoy their transporting hopes; provided always that they will not engage us in Crusades and French Revolutions, nor burn us for doubting. My Spirit of Prophecy reaches no farther than, New England Guesses.

you ask, how it has happened that all Europe, has acted on the Principle “that Power was Right.”10 I know not what answer to give you, but this, that Power always Sincerely, conscientiously, de tres bon Foi, believes itself Right. Power always thinks it has a great Soul, and vast Views, beyond the Comprehension of the Weak; and that11 it is doing God Service, when it is violating all his Laws. Our Passions, Ambition, Avarice, Love, Resentment &c possess so much metaphysical12 Subtilty and so much overpowering Eloquence, that they insinuate themselves into the Understanding and the Conscience and convert both to their Party. And I may be deceived as much as any of them, when I Say, that Power must never be trusted without a Check.

Morgan has misrepresented my Guess. There is not a Word in my Letters about “a Million of human Beings.” Civil Wars, of an hundred years, throughout Europe, were guest at, and this is broad enough for your Ideas; for Eighteen or twenty Million would be a moderate Computation for a Century of civil Wars, throughout Europe. I Still pray that a Century of civil Wars, may not desolate Europe and America too South, and North.

Your Speculations into Futurity in Europe are So probable that I can Suggest no doubts to their disadvantage. All will depend on the Progress of Knowledge. But how Shall Knowledge Advance? Independant of Temporal and Spiritual Power, the Course of Science and Litterature is obstructed and discouraged by So many Causes that it is to be feared, their13 motions will be Slow I have just finished reading four Volumes of D’Israeli, two on the Calamities and two on the Quarrels of Authors. These would be Sufficient to Shew that, Slow rises Genius by Poverty and Envy oppressed. Even Newton and Lock and Grotius could not escape. France could furnish four other Volumes of the Woes and Wars of Authors,

My Compliments to Mrs Randolph, her Daughter Ellen and all her other Children, and believe me, as ever,

John Adams

To which mrs Adams adds her affectionate reegards—and a wish that distance did not Seperate Souls congenial—

RC (DLC); with postscript in the hand of Abigail Adams; mistakenly endorsed by TJ as a letter of 16 Feb. received 14 Feb. 1816 and so recorded in SJL. RC (MHi); address cover only; with PoC of TJ to James Barbour, 5 Mar. 1816, on verso; addressed by Susan B. Adams: “Thomas Jefferson Esqre Late President of the US. Monticello Virginia”; postmarked Quincy, 5 Feb. FC (Lb in MHi: Adams Papers); lacks postscript by Abigail Adams.

jura negat sibi lata, nihil non arrogat armis: “he denies that laws were enacted for him, he makes all his claims by warring,” from a variant text of Horace, Ars Poetica, 122 (Fairclough, Horace: Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica description begins H. Rushton Fairclough, trans., Horace: Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica, Loeb Classical Library, 1926, repr. 2005 description ends , 460–1). The French prelate Guillaume Dubois (du bois) was the close advisor of the regent Philippe II, duc of Orléans. all things were made for my use … pampered goose comes from line 45 of Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man. In Epistles to a Friend. Epistle III (London, 1733), 7. to combat evil, ’tis lawful to employ the devil appears in Matthew Prior’s poem “Hans Carvel” in his Poems on Several Occasions (London, 1707), 36. bonus populus vult decipi; decipiatur: “The good people wish to be deceived; let them be deceived.”

The reference to the maxims of François de La Rochefoucauld paraphrases the opening line of Jonathan Swift, Verses on the Death of Dr. S—, D.S.P.D. occasioned By reading a Maxim in Rochefoulcault (London, 1739): “As Rochefoucault his Maxims drew From Nature, I believe ’em true: They argue no corrupted Mind In him; the Fault is in Mankind.” de tres bon foi: “very candidly.” Adams had just finished reading two works by Isaac D’Israeli: Calamities of Authors; including Some Inquiries respecting their moral and literary characters, 2 vols. (New York, 1812), and Quarrels of Authors; or, Some Memoirs for our Literary History, including Specimens of Controversy to the Reign of Elizabeth, 2 vols. (New York, 1814). slow rises genius by poverty and envy oppressed paraphrases Samuel Johnson, London: A Poem, In Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal, 2d ed. (London, 1738), 14: “Slow rises Worth, by Poverty deprest.”

1RC: “differnce.” FC: “difference.”

2RC: “or or.” FC: “or.”

3Adams here quotes from TJ’s 11 Jan. 1816 letter.

4Adams here paraphrases TJ’s 11 Jan. 1816 letter.

5RC: “Ignoranc.” FC: “Ignorance.”

6RC: “Patrotism.” FC: “Patriotism.”

7Omitted opening quotation mark supplied from FC.

8RC: “Falshod.” FC: “falsehood.”

9FC: “human.”

10Adams here quotes from TJ’s 11 Jan. 1816 letter.

11RC: “thait.” FC: “that.”

12RC: “metaphysial.” FC: “metaphysical.”

13Word interlined in RC above an uncanceled “its.” FC: “their.”

Index Entries

  • Achilles (mythological character) search
  • Acta Sanctorum (J. de Bolland and others) search
  • Adams, Abigail Smith (John Adams’s wife); sends greetings to TJ search
  • Adams, Abigail Smith (John Adams’s wife); TJ sends greetings to search
  • Adams, John; letters from search
  • Adams, John; on European intellectual conflicts search
  • Adams, John; on France search
  • Adams, John; on Great Britain search
  • Adams, John; on publication of correspondence search
  • Adams, John; on religion search
  • Adams, John; on the eighteenth century search
  • Ames, Fisher; J. Adams on search
  • An Essay on Man. In Epistles to a Friend. Epistle III (A. Pope) search
  • Bolland, Jean de; Acta Sanctorum search
  • Borgia family search
  • Calamities of Authors (I. D’Israeli) search
  • Coolidge, Ellen Wayles Randolph (TJ’s granddaughter); greetings sent to search
  • Diderot, Denis; J. Adams on search
  • Diderot, Denis; philosophy of search
  • Dubois, Guillaume; French prelate and political advisor search
  • D’Israeli, Isaac; Calamities of Authors search
  • D’Israeli, Isaac; Quarrels of Authors; or, Some Memoirs for our Literary History search
  • France; Bourbon dynasty restored search
  • Grotius, Hugo; J. Adams on search
  • Horace; quoted by J. Adams search
  • Hus, Jan search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; Jesus search
  • Jesus; J. Adams on search
  • Jesus; TJ on search
  • Johnson, Samuel; London: A Poem, In Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal search
  • La Rochefoucauld, François de; maxims of search
  • Leo X, pope search
  • Locke, John; J. Adams on search
  • London: A Poem, In Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal (S. Johnson) search
  • Luther, Martin; J. Adams on search
  • Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Richard Price (W. Morgan) search
  • Morgan, William; criticizes J. Adams search
  • Morgan, William; Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Richard Price search
  • Napoleon I, emperor of France; J. Adams on search
  • Newton, Sir Isaac; J. Adams on search
  • Philippe II, duc d’Orléans; regency of search
  • Pillnitz, Declaration of search
  • Poems on Several Occasions (M. Prior) search
  • Poland; partitions of search
  • Pope, Alexander; An Essay on Man. In Epistles to a Friend. Epistle III search
  • Pope, Alexander; quoted search
  • Prior, Matthew; Poems on Several Occasions search
  • Quarrels of Authors; or, Some Memoirs for our Literary History (I. D’Israeli) search
  • Randolph, Martha Jefferson (Patsy; TJ’s daughter; Thomas Mann Randolph’s wife); greetings sent to search
  • religion; J. Adams on search
  • Saint Peter’s Basilica (Rome) search
  • Swift, Jonathan; Verses on the Death of Dr. S—, D.S.P.D. occasioned By reading a Maxim in Rochefoulcault search
  • Tacitus; and morality search
  • Tacitus; J. Adams on search
  • Verses on the Death of Dr. S—, D.S.P.D. occasioned By reading a Maxim in Rochefoulcault (J. Swift) search
  • Vienna, Congress of; negotiations at search
  • Wycliffe, John search