Thomas Jefferson Papers

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 24 February 1819

From John Adams

Quincy Feb’y–24th 1819

Dear Sir

I am diligently & laboriously occupied, in reading & hearing your “political economy”—I call it yours because I do not believe that Tracys is more of an original in point of purity, perspicuity1 or precission—I have read as yet only to the 90th page—it is a connected chain of ideas and propositions, of which I know not which link to strike out. His philosophy appears to me to be precisely that of Dupuis—that is the eternity, infinity, & mechanism of the universe—his philosophy appears to me to roll on in a continued stream untill it disembogues itself into the unfathomable gulph of liberty & necessity—   Is liberty a word void of sense? If it is there [is]2 no merit or guilt—& there can be neither reward or punishment in the universe. His ethics appear to me in substance and essence to be those of Butlers sermons on human nature; & his preface to them of Hutchinsons writings throughout & of Tristram Shandy. At the bottom of the gulph of liberty & necessity for aught I know the key may lie which is to unlock the universe—but you know my opinion is that the key will never be found but by one being who will ever keep it in his own custody—Human understanding will never dive in this state of existence to such depths, & it is a vain & impertinent curiosity to think of it. Our duties are the charities, of father, friend & brother, Fifty years ago I delighted more to see metaphysicians dance upon the point of their needles, than to see the exploits of dancers on the slack ropes or tight rope, but now my eyes are not keen enough to see3 the agility & capers of either—I am very glad however I have read so much and I intend to read the rest or hear it read.   At present I will acknowledge one great obligation to it, that is the Chapter sixth—of money page 21st “When these denominations are admitted & employed in transactions to diminish the quantity of metal to which they answer by an alteration of the real coins, is to steal,4 a theft of greater magnitude & still more ruinous is the making of paper. It is greater because in this money there is absolutely no real value. It is more ruinous because by its gradual depreciation during all the time of its existence it produces the effect which would be produced by an infinity of successive deteriorations of the coin.” That is to say an infinity of successive felonious larcenies.   If this is true as I believe it is we Americans are the most thievish people that ever existed, we have been stealing from each other for an hundred & fifty years. If anything like health remains to me, you shall hear more upon this subject from your friend & humble servant.

John Adams

RC (DLC); in Harriet Welsh’s hand, signed by Adams; addressed by Welsh: “Honorable Thomas Jefferson Late President of the United States Monticello”; franked; postmarked Quincy, 24 Feb.; endorsed by TJ as received 7 Mar. 1819 and so recorded in SJL. FC (Lb in MHi: Adams Papers).

Thomas Hobbes stressed the compatibility of liberty & necessity. hutchinsons: Francis Hutcheson’s. tristram shandy: Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Melvyn New and Joan New, eds., The Florida Edition of the Works of Laurence Sterne [1978; for edition owned by TJ, see Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 4336]).

1RC: “perspiculty.” FC: “perspicuity.”

2Omitted word supplied from FC.

3FC here adds “distinctly.”

4Adams here omits a sentence from Destutt de Tracy, Treatise on Political Economy description begins Destutt de Tracy, A Treatise on Political Economy; to which is prefixed a supplement to a preceding work on the understanding, or Elements of Ideology, Georgetown, 1817 [1818]; Poor, Jefferson’s Library, 11 (no. 700) description ends , xxi: “And it is a theft which injures even him who commits it.”

Index Entries

  • Adams, John; and Destutt de Tracy’s writings search
  • Adams, John; letters from search
  • Adams, John; on currency depreciation search
  • Adams, John; on liberty and necessity search
  • A Treatise on Political Economy (Destutt de Tracy) search
  • books; novels search
  • Butler, Joseph; sermons of search
  • currency; depreciation of search
  • currency; metallic search
  • currency; paper search
  • Destutt de Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude; A Treatise on Political Economy search
  • Dupuis, Charles François; J. Adams on search
  • Hobbes, Thomas; referenced search
  • Hutcheson, Francis; writings of search
  • political economy; works on search
  • Sterne, Laurence; The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman search
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (L. Sterne) search