Thomas Jefferson Papers

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 26 May 1817

From John Adams

Quincy May 26. 1817

Dear Sir

Mr Leslie Combs of Kentucky has Sent me a “History of the late War, in the Western Country, by Mr Robert B. McAffee” and “The Phylosophy of Human Nature by Joseph Buchanan.”

“The1 History,” I am glad to See:2 because it will preserve facts, to the honour, and immortal glory of the Western people. Indeed I am not Sorry that “the Phylosophy” has been published, because it has been a Maxim with me for Sixty years at least, Never to be afraid of a Book.

Nevertheless I cannot foresee much Utility in reviving, in this Country, the controversy between the Spiritualists and the Materialists. Why Should time be wasted in disputing about two Substances when both parties agree that neither knows any thing about either. If Spirit is an abstraction, a conjecture, a Chimera: Matter is an abstraction, a conjecture, a Chimera; for We know as much, or rather as little of one as of the other. We may read Cudworth Clerk Leibnitz, Berkley Hume Bolinbroke and Priestley and a million other Volumes in all Ages, and be obliged at last to confess that We have learned nothing. Spirit and matter Still remain a Riddle.3 Define the terms however, and the controversy is Soon Settld. If Spirit is an active Something and matter an inactive Something, it is certain that one is not the other. We can no more conceive that Extension or Solidity can think or feel, or See, or hear, or taste or Smell: than We can conceive that Perception Memory Imagination or Reason can remove a mountain or blow a rock. This Enigma has puzzled Mankind from the beginning, and probably will to the End. Œconomy of time requires that We Should waste no more in So idle an Amusement.

In the 11th discourse of Sir William Jones before The Asiatic Society Vol. 3. p. 229. of his works, We find that Materialists and Immaterialists existed in India and that they accused each other of Atheism, before Berkly or Priestley, or Dupuis, or Plato, or Pythagoras were born. Indeed Neuton himself, appears to have discovered nothing that was not known to the Antient Indians: He has only furnished more ample demonstrations of the doctrines they taught. Sir John Malcomb agrees with Jones and Dupuis in the Astrological origin of Heathen Mithologies.4

Vain Man! Mind your own Business! Do no Wrong! Do all the good you can! Eat your Canvas back ducks, drink your burgundy, Sleep your Siesta,5 when necessary, And Trust in God.!

What a mighty bubble? What a tremendous Waterspout has Napolion been according to his Life, written by himself? He Says he was the Creature of the Principles and manners6 of the Age. By which no doubt, he means the Age of Reason; the progress of Manilius’s Ratio; of Plato’s Logos &c. I believe him. A Whirlwind raised him and a Whirlwind blowed him a Way to St Helena. He is very confident that the Age of Reason is not past; and So am I; but I hope that Reason will never again rashly and hastily create Such Creatures as him. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and Humanity will never again, I hope blindly Surrender themselves to an7 unbounded ambition for national conquests, nor implicitly commit themselves to the custody and guardianship of Arms and Heroes. If they do, they will again End in St. Helena, Inquisitions Jesuits and Sacre Ligues.

Poor Laureate Southey, is writhing in Torments under the Laugh of the three kingdoms all Europe and America, upon the publication of his Wat Tyler. I wonder whether he, or Bona Suffers most.

I congratulate You and Madison and Monroe, on your noble Employment in founding a University. From Such a noble Tryumvirate, the World will expect Something very great and very new. But if it contains anything quite original, and very excellent, I fear the prejudices are too deeply rooted to Suffer it to last long, though it may be accepted at first. It will not always have three Such colossal reputations to Support it.

The Pernambuco Ambassador, his Secretary of Legation and private Secretary, respectable People, have made me a Visit. Having been Some year or two in a Similar Situation I could not but Sympathize with him. As Bona Says the Age of Reason is not ended. Nothing can tottally extinguish or eclipse the Light which has been Shed abroad by the press.

I am, Sir, with hearty wishes for your health and hapiness your Friend and humble Servant

John Adams

RC (DLC); addressed in an unidentified hand: “President Jefferson Monticello”; endorsed by TJ as received 11 June 1817 and so recorded in SJL. FC (Lb in MHi: Adams Papers). A possible additional address cover to this letter (addressed in same unidentified hand: “His Excellency Thomas Jefferson Monticello—Virginia”; postmarked Quincy, 26 May) was reused, with PoC of TJ to Joseph Gales (1761–1841), 19 June 1817, on verso.

leslie combs sent Adams the books mentioned with a letter of 8 Apr. 1817 (MHi: Adams Papers). Sir William Jones delivered his 11th discourse to the Asiatick Society on 20 Feb. 1794 on the topic of “The Philosophy of the Asiaticks” (John Shore, Baron Teignmouth, ed., The Works of Sir William Jones [London, 1807], 3:229–52). The recently published Manuscrit venu de St. Hélène, d’une manière inconnue (London, 1817), purportedly an account of Napoloeon’s life, written by himself (Boston Independent Chronicle, 19 May 1817), has subsequently been attributed to Jacob Frédéric Lullin de Châteauvieux. sacre ligues: “Holy Alliances.”

In February 1817 Wat Tyler, a poem written decades earlier by the British poet laureate Robert southey, was published in London without his consent. A juvenile effort generally regarded as possessing little literary merit, its appearance led to criticism of Southey for his perceived departure from the radical politics of his younger days (Frank Taliaferro Hoadley, “The Controversy over Southey’s Wat Tyler,” Studies in Philology 38 [1941]: 81–96).

Antônio Gonçalves da Cruz was the minister to the United States from the Republic of pernambuco, a Brazilian province that had recently declared its independence from Portugal. He and his colleagues arrived in Boston on 14 May 1817 (Boston Independent Chronicle, 15 May 1817). The revolt was soon suppressed. As an American diplomat during the Revolutionary War, Adams had been in the similar situation of an emissary from a country whose independence had not been recognized abroad.

1Omitted opening quotation mark editorially supplied.

2Remainder of sentence interlined.

3RC: “a Riddles,” with “a” interlined. FC: “a Riddle.”

4Sentence interlined.

5RC and FC: “sesta.”

6RC: “manrers.” FC: “manners.”

7RC: “and.” FC: “an.”

Index Entries

  • Adams, John; letters from search
  • Adams, John; on Napoleon search
  • Adams, John; on religion search
  • Adams, John; works sent to search
  • Asiatick Society; discourses to search
  • Berkeley, George; works of search
  • Bolingbroke, Henry St. John, Viscount; works of search
  • books; on War of1812 search
  • Brazil; relations with Portugal search
  • Buchanan, Joseph; The Philosophy of Human Nature search
  • Central College, Board of Visitors; members of search
  • Central College; establishment of search
  • Christianity; Inquisition search
  • Clarke, Samuel; works of search
  • Combs, Leslie; sends books to J. Adams search
  • Cudworth, Ralph; works of search
  • Dupuis, Charles François; works of search
  • Gonçalves da Cruz, Antônio; visits J. Adams search
  • History of the Late War in the Western Country (R. B. McAfee) search
  • Holy Alliance; mentioned search
  • Hume, David; works of search
  • India; ancient philosophers of search
  • Jesuits; mentioned search
  • Jones, Sir William (1746–94); The Philosophy of the Asiaticks search
  • Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; works of search
  • Lullin de Châteauvieux, Jacob Frédéric; Manuscrit venu de St. Hélène, d’une manière inconnue search
  • Malcolm, Sir John; works of search
  • Manilius, Marcus; J. Adams on search
  • Manuscrit venu de St. Hélène, d’une manière inconnue (J. F. Lullin de Châteauvieux) search
  • McAfee, Robert Breckinridge; History of the Late War in the Western Country search
  • Napoleon I, emperor of France; mentioned search
  • Napoleon I, emperor of France; purported autobiography of search
  • Newton, Sir Isaac; mentioned search
  • Pernambuco, Republic of; declares independence search
  • Plato; mentioned search
  • Portugal; and Brazil search
  • Priestley, Joseph; mentioned search
  • Pythagoras; mentioned search
  • religion; atheism search
  • religion; J. Adams on search
  • South America; republics in search
  • Southey, Robert; Wat Tyler search
  • The Philosophy of Human Nature (J. Buchanan) search
  • The Philosophy of the Asiaticks (W. Jones) search
  • Tyler, Walter (Wat) (leader of English peasant revolt); works on search
  • Wat Tyler (R. Southey) search