Thomas Jefferson Papers

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 21 December 1819

From John Adams

Montezillo December 21st1 1819

dear Sir

I must answer your great question of the 10th in the words of Dalembert to his Correspondent, who asked him what is Matter—“Je vous avoue que Je n’en scais rien.”—

In some part of my Life I read a great Work of a Scotchmen on the Court of Augustus, in which with much learning, hard study, and fatiguing labour, he undertook to prove that had Brutus and Cassius been conqueror, they would have restored virtue and liberty to Rome.—

mais Je n’en crois rien—have you ever found in history one single example of a Nation throughly Corrupted—that was afterwards restored to Virtue—and without Virtue, there can be no political Liberty.—

If I were a Calvinest, I might pray that God by a miracle of Divine grace would instantaniously2 convert a whole Contaminated Nation from turpitude to purity—but even in this I should be inconsistent for the fatalism of Mahometanism3 materialists, Atheists, Pantheists and Calvinests—and Church of England Articles appear to me to render all prayer futile and absurd—the French and the Dutch in our day have attempted reforms and revolutions—we know the results—and I fear the English reformers will have no better success.—

Will you tell me how to prevent riches from becoming the effects of temperance and industry—Will you tell me how to prevent riches from producing luxury—Will you tell me how to prevent luxury from producing effeminacy intoxication extravagance Vice and folly.—When you will answer me these questions—I hope I may venture to answer yours—yet all these4 ought not to discourage us from exertion—for with my friend Jeb I believe no effort in favour of Virtue is lost—and all good Men ought to struggle both by their Council and Example—

The Missouri question I hope will follow the other waves under the Ship and do no harm—I know it is high treason to express a doubt of the perpetual duration of our vast American Empire, and our free Institution—and I say as devoutly as Father Paulestor perpetua, but I am sometimes Cassandra enough to dream that another Hamilton, an other Burr might rend this mighty Fabric in twain—or perhaps into a leash, and a few more choice Spirits of the same stamp might produce as many Nations in North america as there are in Europe—

To return to the Romans—I never could discover that they possessed much virtue, or real Liberty—there Patricians were in general griping Usurers and Tyrannical Creditors in all ages—Pride, Strength and Courage were all the Virtues that composed their National Characters—a few of their Nobles effecting simplicity frugality and Piety—perhaps really possessing them acquired Popularity amongst the Plebeians and extended the power and Dominions of the Republic and advanced in glory till Riches and Luxury come in—sat like an incubus on the Republic—victam que ulcissitur orbem

Our winter setts in a fortnight earlier than usual, and is pretty severe—I hope you have fairer skyes and Milder Air—wishing your health, may last as long as your Life—and your Life as long as you desire it—

I am dear Sir Respectfuly and affectionately5

John Adams

RC (DLC); in Louisa C. Smith’s hand, signed by Adams; at foot of text: “Mr Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received 31 Dec. 1819 and so recorded in SJL. FC (Lb in MHi: Adams Papers); in Smith’s hand.

je vous avoue que je n’en scais rien: “I confess to you that I know nothing about that.” The great work of a scotchmen was Thomas Blackwell, Memoirs of the Court of Augustus, 3 vols. (Edinburgh, 1753–63). mais je n’en crois rien: “but I do not believe any of that.”

The Thirty-Nine articles of 1571 laid out the basic tenets and beliefs of the Church of England (John Bowker, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions [1997], 971). Speaking of the republic of Venice, the last words of Paolo Sarpi (father paul) were reportedly “esto perpetua” (estor perpetua): “may it be perpetual.” “Victumque ulciscitur orbem” (victam que ulcissitur orbem): “avenging the world we’ve conquered” (Susanna Morton Braund, ed. and trans., Juvenal and Persius, Loeb Classical Library [2004], 258–9).

1FC: “18th.”

2RC corrected from “instaniously,” probably by Adams. FC: “instantaneously.”

3FC: “Mahometists.” Corrected in RC from “Mahometism,” probably by Adams.

4FC here adds “things.”

5Preceding two words not in FC.

Index Entries

  • Adams, John; and Missouri question search
  • Adams, John; letters from search
  • Adams, John; on Christianity search
  • Adams, John; on religion search
  • Adams, John; on virtue and political liberty search
  • Alembert, Jean Le Rond d’; J. Adams on search
  • Augustus (Gaius Octavius; 1st Roman emperor) search
  • Blackwell, Thomas; Memoirs of the Court of Augustus search
  • Brutus, Marcus Junius; J. Adams on search
  • Burr, Aaron (1756–1836); J. Adams on search
  • Cassius Longinus, Gaius search
  • Christianity; J. Adams on search
  • Christianity; Thirty-Nine Articles (Church of England) search
  • Hamilton, Alexander (1757–1804); and J. Adams search
  • Job (Old Testament figure); J. Adams on search
  • Memoirs of the Court of Augustus (T. Blackwell) search
  • Missouri question; J. Adams on search
  • Muhammad (founder of Islam) search
  • religion; J. Adams on search
  • Sarpi, Paolo; J. Adams on search