ADAMS, John. Autograph letter signed ("John Adams"), as President, to his son, Thomas Boyleston Adams (1772-1832), Washington, D.C., 17 December 1800. 2¼ pages, 4to (9½ x 8 in.) the two leaves separated, first leaf trimmed at bottom (possibly to conceal a comment regarding the death of a family member) with loss of last line of text on recto and verso, docketed "The President of the U.S...."
A LAME-DUCK PRESIDENT ON HIS DEFEAT IN THE ELECTION OF 1800: "MY LITTLE BARK HAS BEEN OVERSET IN A SQUALL OF THUNDER AND LIGHTNING...I FEEL MY SHOULDERS RELIEVED FROM A BURDEN"
A wistful and stoical letter to his youngest son, who had written to express his sympathy in the wake of Adams's loss to Vice-President Thomas Jefferson in the recent bitterly contested presidential election. Adams likens his unexpected defeat to a shipwreck at sea: "...My little bark has been oversett [sic] in a Squal[l] of Thunder and Lightning and Hail attended with a Strong Smell of Sulphur." Adams's violent metaphor may reflect the extreme partisanship and unprecedented vehemence of the campaign, "a contest of personal vilification surpassing any presidential election in American history" (D. McCullough, John Adams, p.543). "Nothing remains for me," he concludes, "but to indulge that vanity which I have found out lately is considered as the predominant feature in my character, by Singing the Song of Horace[:] Virtus repulsae nescia sordidae Intaminatis fulget honoribus Nec sumit aut ponit secures Arbitrio popularis Aura" [Virtue, unconscious of low rejection, shines in its untainted honours, and neither takes up nor lays down supreme power at the judgement of the popular breeze.]
Adams, whose his defeat at the polls was a deep and painful disappointment, is touched by his son's concern: "The soothing considerations suggested by you...for the consolation of your Father, endear you to me more than ever. Indeed every letter I receive from you increases my esteem for your character, for understanding, discretion and benevolence." And the prospect of relinquishing the great responsibility of Chief Executive has its own attractions: "Be not concerned for me. I feel my shoulders relieved from a Burthen. The short remainder of my days will be the happiest of my life. For my children I consider my retirement as a favor. They will now have fair play. They never had an equal chance with their Comrades and never would have had, if I had continued in office. This is my solid opinion with regard to your Brother, Yourself, and your Sister. I shall write you more respecting your Brother, hereafter.
He sends a word of cryptic advice to an acquaintance: "Pray Mr. Ingersol to suspend his Determination at least until the Third of March [the day before the new President, Thomas Jefferson, will be inaugurated]. The system will not be changed till then....The Law will be the Law under a new Administration as well as under the old, and the Professors of it, while they adhere to that, will do well. Your Mother [Abigail] and Louisa [wife of John Quincy Adams] are gone to Mount Vernon. They went off, today, after dinner, intending to rest this night at Alexandria... The melancholly decease of your Brother [Charles, who died on November 30, at age 30] is an affliction of a more serious nature to this Family, than any other. Oh! that I had died for him if that would...[trimmed away] I am, my dear Child your affectionate Father...."
For Adams, his narrow defeat in the election of 1800, which marked the end of the Federalist hegemony, "was proof of how potent party spirit and party organization had become..." (McCullough, p.557). In spite of his brave pretense, "there was no assauging the pain...His rejection inflicted a raw wound that would never entirely heal, that he would carry to his deathbed..." (P. Smith, John Adams, p.1056, quoting this letter at p.1055). With no precedent to guide him, Adams elected not to be present for Jefferson's inauguration (the first to take place in the new capital) and returned quietly to his home in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Provenance: Roy P. Crocker (sale, Sotheby Parke Bernet, 28 November 1979, lot 3).