Thomas Jefferson Papers

Benjamin Waterhouse to Thomas Jefferson, 15 January 1819

From Benjamin Waterhouse

Cambridge 15th January 1819.

Dear Sir,

Although answering of letters may have become an irksome task, the reading them may sometimes be an amusement. This idea has induced me to send you this. It has reference to future history, and has had its origin in the following occurrence: Mr Trumbull exhibited, a few weeks since, his national painting of “the Declaration of Independence1 in the Town-hall of Boston. The picture has not given that general satisfaction the intimate friends of the painter probably anticipated. As a composition & painting, it is not thought to be a happy specimen of the State of the art in America, at this period; neither is it allowed to be altogether correct as it regards historical fact, as far as Massachusetts is concerned: Elbridge Gerry for example, has a very conspicious position, while Samuel Adams is scarcely discoverable in the croud of ordinary members. This drew forth a writer under the Signature of Historicus (Samuel Adams Wells, grandson of the eminent patriot) and this brought forth Tempus & Philo Tempus, and induced him to venture a sketch of the portraiture of that great man. They are here enclosed. Nothing passionate occurred in the short & liberal controversy. The painting is removed to Philadelphia, & all conversation relative to it ceased. Mr Trumbull was treated with great liberality in Boston, while all the remaining old whigs shooked their heads & sighed on seeing their Moses thrust almost out of sight. Some advised him to alter it; but the tories & their descendants said it was well enough, for that S. A. was so poor a man that he had every thing to gain, & nothing to lose by the revolution.

Tempus, by which the writer meant vox temporis, considers Samuel Adams as the great file leader of the Revolution; but as he was not greedy of fame, nor had he the Splendour of riches, nor the eclat of foreign embassies, nor his name spread abroad2 by writing books, his character is not surrounded by that halo of glory which encircles even that of John Hancock. There was yet another cause: while Alexander Hamilton exerted all his influence & powers in favour of the return of the refugees & Tories, Samuel Adams exerted all his powers to prevent it. This drew on him the hatred of their descendents, the high toned federalists of Boston, & of the whole State.

A few months Since the rich men of Boston caused a fine bust of marble to be made by a French sculptor of John Adams, & placed it in the Town-hall, while the merits of Samuel Adams are passed over in Silence. This neglect induced Tempus to make the enclosed Sketch, to recall the half lost memory of Samuel Adams, and the few remaining old patriots of the revolution have shouted applause

Another reason for throwing this Sketch of S. A. before the public in the News papers, was to profit by the remarks & objections, should I ever venture to introduce the picture of that undeviating patriot into the history of our times. I cannot however conceal the strong desire I have to know your opinion of Samuel Adams. It is reported that Prest Jefferson has repeatedly said that Samuel Adams was the earliest, most active, & persevering man of the revolution. Should you give me your opinion, I would, if thought best, conceal it.

Should the history of our revolution, down to the conclusion of our late war appear, written in the manner of “Tempus,” would the stile of it correspond with the subject?

If I am wrong in my opinion that Samuel Adams was the most meritorious man (his poverty, & all such things taken into consideration) in our revolution, I should deeply regret inserting it in permanent history.

I rejoice, in common with our countrymen, in the restoration of your health, and am with a high degree of respect

your obt servt

Benjamin Waterhouse.

P.S. While you have ice & snow in the South, we in the North have our rivers & brooks free. The want of snow is lamented by our farmers, as a public calamity.

RC (DLC); addressed: “To Thomas Jefferson Late President of the United States Monticello Virginia”; franked; postmarked Cambridge, Mass., 18 Jan.; endorsed by TJ as received 27 Jan. 1819 and so recorded in SJL.

The newspaper dialogue here enclosed between Samuel Adams Wells writing as “Historicus” and Waterhouse writing as “Tempus” and “Philo Tempus” consisted of six articles in the Boston Patriot and Daily Chronicle. Those authored by Wells appeared on 8, 15, and 19 Dec., while those by Waterhouse were published on 11, 16, and 29 Dec. 1818. Wells launched the discussion by describing his reaction to Trumbull’s painting of The Declaration of Independence, emphasizing his doubts about the accuracy of the depiction and noting that the “lessons of history that we gain by painting are much more powerfully impressed upon the mind than those which are acquired by reading.” Wells took particular issue with his grandfather Samuel Adams’s “unfortunate position, pilloried in a manner between the shoulders of the two gentlemen beside him.” Waterhouse responded that Adams “always preferred to stand in the back ground” and highlighted the longevity and fuller scope of literature as opposed to the ephemeral nature of paint and canvas. Continuing on 15 Dec., Wells encouraged biographical work on Adams and argued that Trumbull had a “duty to make known this individual to the public: and if he was indifferent to public rewards, it is equally the duty of his country to render to his memory that justice which he failed to demand for himself.” A day later Waterhouse again insisted that historians, not artists, would render the durable portraits of historical leaders. Wells’s last “Communication” in this series supplied a “schedule” of the members of Congress “at the time of the passing of the declaration,” which could “perhaps give a more clear and distinct idea of the whole subject.” In his own closing installment, “A sketch or outline of the Picture of samuel adams,” Waterhouse provided a brief biography of Adams that “may be filled up by some future Tacitus.”

vox temporis: “voice of the times.” For the fine bust of marble depicting John Adams, see Adams to TJ, 29 May 1818, and note.

1Closing single quotation mark editorially changed to double.

2Manuscript: “aboard.”

Index Entries

  • Adams, John; busts of search
  • Adams, Samuel (1722–1803); and origin of American Revolution search
  • Adams, Samuel (1722–1803); as member of Continental Congress search
  • American Revolution; disputes over origin of search
  • American Revolution; reflections on search
  • Binon, Jean Baptiste; and bust of J. Adams search
  • Boston Daily Advertiser (newspaper) search
  • Continental Congress, U.S.; depicted in J. Trumbull’sDeclaration of Independence search
  • Declaration of Independence; J. Trumbull’s painting of presentation of search
  • Federalist party; in Mass. search
  • Gerry, Elbridge (1744–1814); as member of Continental Congress search
  • Hamilton, Alexander (1757–1804); as member of Continental Congress search
  • Hancock, John; as president of Continental Congress search
  • Massachusetts; and origin of American Revolution search
  • Massachusetts; weather in search
  • newspapers; Boston Daily Advertiser search
  • Trumbull, John (artist); The Declaration of Independence search
  • Waterhouse, Benjamin; and origin of American Revolution search
  • Waterhouse, Benjamin; and S. Adams search
  • Waterhouse, Benjamin; letters from search
  • weather; drought search
  • weather; ice search
  • weather; snow search
  • Wells, Samuel Adams; and posthumous reputation of S. Adams search