ADAMS, John. Autograph letter signed ("J. Adams") to Dr. Benjamin Rush, Quincy, Massachusetts, 21 May 1807. 4 full pages, 4to (7 3/8 x 8 15/16 in), in very fine condition.
THE ROOTS OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE: "THE IDEA...HAS BEEN FAMILIAR TO AMERICANS FROM THE FIRST SETTLEMENT OF THE COUNTRY," AND DISMISSING THE INFLUENCE OF PAINE'S "COMMON-SENSE"
A lengthy letter from one of the great American epistolary exchanges, stating Adams's belief that the movement for independence in America significantly pre-dated the well-known events of the Revolutionary era and was less dependent upon such proximate influences as Thomas Paine's Common-Sense: "...I have always laughed at the affectation of representing American Independence as a novel Idea, as an Idea of it, as a possible Thing, as a probable Event, nay as a necessary and unavoidable Measure, in case Great Britain should assume an unconstitutional Authority over us, has been familiar to Americans from the first Settlement of the Country: and was as well understood by Governor Winthrop in 1675 as by Governor Sam. Adams when he told you that Independence had been the first wish of his heart for seven years. I suppose he dated from 1768 when the Board of Commissioners arrived and landed in Boston under the Protection of Nine Ships of War and four thousand regular Troops."
He quotes the last line of a widely circulated couplet, applicable to the birth of America: "And Empire Rises where the Sun descends," then recounts that "in 1760 Col. Josiah Quincy the Grandfather of Josiah Quincy...read to me a Letter he had then just received from a Mr. Turner I believe, one of the first Mercantile houses in London, congratulating him on the Surrender of Montreal to General Amherst and the final Conquest of Canada 'as a great Event for America not only by insuring her Tranquility and repose but as facilitating and advancing your (Col. Quincys) Country's rise to independence and Empire.'"
He narrates an interesting convocation, overheard in a Massachusetts tavern: "Within the course of the year before the Meeting of Congress in 1774 on a Journey to some of our Circuit Courts in Massachusetts, I stopped one night at a Tavern in Shrewsbury about forty miles from Boston: and as I was cold and wett I sat down at a good fire in the Bar room to dry my great coat and saddlebags, till a fire could be made in my Chamber. There presently came in, one after another half a dozen or half a score substantial yeoman of the Neighborhood, who, sitting down to the fire after lighting their Pipes, began a lively conversation upon Politicians. As I believed I was unknown to all of them, I sat in total silence to hear them. One said 'The People of Boston are distracted.' Another answered No wonder the People of Boston are distracted, oppression will make Wise men mad, a third said, what would you say, if a Fellow should come to your house and tell you he was come to take a list of your cattle that Parliament might tax you for them at so much a head? and how shall you feel if he shall go and break open your barn, to take down your oxen cows horses and sheep? What would I say? replied the first, I would knock him in the head. Well, said a fourth, if Parliament can take away Mr Hancocks wharf and Mr Revere's wharf they can take away your Barn and my House. After much more reasoning in this Style, a fifth who had as yet been silent, broke out 'Well it is high time for us to rebel. We must rebel some time or other: and we had better rebel now than at any time to come. If we put it off for ten or twenty years, and let them go on as they have begun, they will get a strong Party among us, and plague us a great deal more than they can now. As yet they have but a small party on their side.'" Adams confesses to Rush that at the time, "I was disgusted by his word 'rebel,' because I was determined never to rebel, as much as I was to resist rebellion against the fundamental principles of the Constitution when our British Generals or Governor Generals begin it. I mention this Anecdote to shew that the Idea of Independence was familiar even among the common People much earlier than some persons pretend."
Adams is dismissive of the role of Thomas Paine's Common-Sense: "I have heard some Gentlemen of Education say that the first Idea of Independence was suggested to them by the Pamphlet Common Sense, and others that they were first converted by it to that Doctrine: but these were Men of very little Conversation with the world and Men of very narrow views and very little reflection." At the time of its publication and phenomenally wide distribution, in 1776, Adams had expressed misgivings about Common-Sense, observing to Abigail that its anonymous author "has a better hand at pulling down than building" (quoted by McCullough, John Adams, p.97).
Adams reassures Rush that "Your enemies are only your would be, rivals. They can never hurt you. Envy is a foul Fiend, that is only to be defyed. You read Sully. His Memoirs are a pretty Specimen. Every honest virtuous and able Man that ever existed, from Abel down to Dr Rush, has had this Enemy to combat through Life....You need not fear the charges of vanity. Vanity is really what the French call it, amour propre, Self Love, and it is an universal poss[ess]ion. All men have it in an equal degree. Honest Men do not always disguise it. Knaves often do, if not always...Do not infer from this that I think there is no such thing as Modesty or Decency. On the contrary it is the duty of every Man to respect the self love of every other Man, and not to disgust him by any ostentatious displays of his own..."
"I have not seen the Pamphlet entitled the dangers of the Country, but my Mind is deeply impressed with a Sense of the Dangers of our Country and all other Countries, of France as well as England. Of all Countries there is none more to be pitied than France. England in my opinion is in a less dangerous situation than her Rival. The ominous dissolution of Morality both in Theory and Practice throughout the civilized World, threatens dangers and calamities of a novel species, beyond all Calculation; because there is no Precedent or Example in History which can shew us the Consequences of it..." Adams returns a letter Rush had forwarded, commenting that "Time may or may not unriddle this whimsical Mystery." He explains that "my not preserving a Copy of my Letter to Dr Nathan Webb...is no wonder: for I never kept a Copy of any Letter, till I became a Member of Congress in 1773...."
A wonderful example of the rich correspondence enjoyed by the two retired patriots. After leaving the White House in 1801, Adams "turned to some of the relationships which had meant much to him before and which had been strained by political battles"; in February 1805 he had written to Rush, his old compatriot from the Continental Congress. "The correspondence of the two men became the principal pleasure and resource of each," obeserves one historian: "the country, the world, and man with all his foibles passed in review through a correspondence wonderfully rich in wisdom, humor, and insight..." (Page Smith, John Adams, New York, 1962, 2:1082-1085). It was largely Rush who successfuly masterminded the eventual renewal of correspondence between Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Provenance: Kenneth W. Rendell, 1979.