Papers of John Adams, volume 1

To Nathan Webb, with Comments by the Writer Recorded in 1807 JA Webb, Nathan To Nathan Webb, with Comments by the Writer Recorded in 1807 Adams, John Webb, Nathan
To Nathan Webb, with Comments by the Writer Recorded in 1807
Dear sir Worcester Octr: 12th: I believe, 1755

All that part of Creation that lies within our observation is liable to Change. Even mighty States and kingdoms, are not exempted. If we look into History we shall find some nations rising from contemp-5tible beginnings, and spreading their influence, 'till the whole Globe is subjected to their sway. When they have reach'd the summit of Grandeur, some minute and unsuspected Cause commonly effects their Ruin, and the Empire of the world is transferr'd to some other place. Immortal Rome was at first but an insignificant Village, inhabited only by a few abandoned Ruffins, but by degrees it rose to a stupendous Height, and excell'd in Arts and Arms all the Nations that praeceeded it. But the demolition of Carthage (what one should think would have establish'd it in supream dominion) by removing all danger, suffer'd it to sink into debauchery, and made it att length an easy prey to Barbarians.—England Immediately, upon this began to increase (the particular, and minute causes of which I am not Historian enough to trace) in Power and magnificence, and is now the greatest Nation upon the globe.—Soon after the Reformation a few people came over into this new world for Concience sake. Perhaps this (apparently) trivial incident, may transfer the great seat of Empire into America. It looks likely to me. For if we can remove the turbulent Gallicks, our People according to the exactest Computations, will in another Century, become more numerous than England itself. Should this be the Case, since we have (I may say) all the naval Stores of the Nation in our hands, it will be easy to obtain the mastery of the seas, and then the united force of all Europe, will not be able to subdue us. The only way to keep us from setting up for ourselves, is to disunite Us. Divide et impera. Keep us in distinct Colonies, and then, some great men, in each Colony, desiring the Monarchy of the Whole, they will destroy each others influence and keep the Country in Equilibrio.1

Be not surprised that I am turn'd Politician. This whole town is immers'd in Politicks. The interests of Nations, and all the dira of War, make the subject of every Conversation. I set and hear, and after having been led thro' a maze of sage observations, I some times retire, and by laying things together, form some reflections pleasing to myself. The produce of one of these reveries, You have read above. Different employment and different objects may have drawn your thoughts other ways. I shall think myself happy if in your turn, you communicate your Lucubrations to me. I wrote you, some time since, and have waited, with impatience, for an answer, but have been disappointed. I hope that Lady at Barnstable, has not made you forget your Friends. Friendship, I take it, is one of the distinguishing Glorys of man. And the Creature that is insensible of its Charms, tho he may wear the shape, of Man, is unworthy of the Character. In 6this, perhaps, we bear a nearer resemblance of unbodied intelligences than any thing else. From this I expect to receive the Cheif happiness of my future life, and am sorry that fortune has thrown me at such a distance from those of my Friends who have the highest place in my affections. But thus it is; and I must submit. But I hope e'er long to return and live in that happy familiarity, that has from earliest infancy subsisted between yourself, and affectionate Friend,

John Adams2
Adams' Comments in 1807

Quincy April 22 1807. Nathan Webb was the Son of the late Deacon Jonathan Webb of Quincy and the Grandson of Benjamin Webb of the same place. The Father and Grandfather were intimate Friends of my Father and Grandfather, and the Grandson was my Playfellow at the Grammar School in Braintree, and my Contemporary at Colledge. He had Wit, humour and good Nature, equal to his Understanding And Judgment which were very good. He died young, and I attended him in his last Sickness, with equal Grief and assiduity, and watched with him a Night or two before his death. He left this Letter and some others in possession of his Father, who left it with his whole Estate to his Nephew, Captain Jonathan Webb, now of this Town living in the old Seat of the Family, who about a fortnight ago was kind enough to send it to me, after it had lain fifty one years and an half among the Papers of the Family in Oblivion. It was written soon after I took my first degree at Colledge, and some days before I was twenty years old. Nathan was named after his Unkle Nathan Webb the Minister of Uxbridge, who married my Fathers Sister.3

John Adams

RC (Adams Papers); addressed: “For Mr: Nathan Webb Att Braintree these JLC.” (The initials are in monogram form and may be those of the unidentified bearer, though in JA's hand.) Tr (Adams Papers); in JA's hand and with his explanatory comments on Nathan Webb added following the text and signed under date of 22 April 1807; printed herewith. Other early copies in the Adams Papers have no textual value. For the return of the original RC to its writer in April 1807, see JA's added comments. JA was so pleased with the recovery and the content of this very early letter that he enclosed a copy of it (and of his comments) in a letter to Benjamin Rush of 1 May 1807 (LbC, Adams Papers; RC and enclosure have not been located but are printed in Biddle, Old Family Letters , p. 133–138, 5–8). He also made the text available to the editors of the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review, where it was printed at 4:256–257 (May 1807), with a brief editorial headnote that remarks, among other things, that “Some of the sentiments, which it contains, were prophetick, and are gradually fulfilling.” Thereafter it was quoted and 7published elsewhere from time to time and was widely known by the time JQA drafted his fragmentary biography of JA in 1829; see note 2.


The characteristic reflections in this early, but later celebrated, letter had at least two identifiable sources. One was the course of the current French and Indian War, in which the British had recently suffered serious reverses, notably in Braddock's defeat near Fort Duquesne and in other actions on and around the lakes above the Hudson. Thus, JA mentions just below, the “dira evils, sufferings of War.” The possibility of the fall of the British Empire brought on a line of thought popular throughout the 18th century and memorably expressed in Bishop Berkeley's “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America” (written 1707, published 1752), ending with the stanza, “Westward the course of empire takes its way;. . . / Time's noblest offspring is the last.” The plausible suggestion has also been made (John A. Schutz and Douglass Adair, eds., The Spur of Fame. . . , San Marino, Calif., 1966, p. 81, note) that JA had been reading Benjamin Franklin's remarkable essay “Observations concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, &c.” (written 1751, published 1755; Franklin, Papers , 4:225–234). Here Franklin predicted that America would rapidly overtake England in population. The prospect of America's succeeding England as the seat of empire, or becoming itself a powerful independent empire, was a natural inference for JA to draw.


When, in preparing his memoir of his father, JQA came upon this letter to Webb, he was so struck by it that he not only quoted the text in full but added two full pages of laudatory commentary; see JA, Works , 1:23–26. In his Diary, JQA was equally laudatory but briefer, and concentrated on one aspect of the letter—the closing passage on friendship—which he felt had been overlooked by others but was the best of all the good things in it. It is “A Letter,” he wrote, “in the Analysis of which I find so much matter for commentary that a sober judgment must be called in to curb enthusiastic admiration. I propose to give the Letter entire, for it is the foot of Hercules. Nothing that my father ever wrote in the subsequent course of his life, bears in more indelible characters the stamp of his genius and of his heart. Webster and Wirt have both spoken of this Letter, with high commendation, but neither of them has noticed the part of it which is most deeply affecting to me—its encomium, tender and sublime, upon friendship. If I should say that the annals of epistolary correspondence cannot furnish a Letter more replete at once with intellect and heart, I should commit no excess.” (Entry of 15 Sept. 1829.)


Deacon John Adams' sister Ruth (1700–1761) had married Rev. Nathan Webb (1705–1772), Harvard 1725, minister at Uxbridge (Sibley-Shipton, Harvard Graduates , 7:617–619; see also index to JA, Diary and Autobiography ).

Literary Commonplace Book, 1755 – 1756 JA Literary Commonplace Book, 1755 – 1756 Adams, John
Literary Commonplace Book

Harvard College(?) and Worcester, mainly compiled in 1755–1756, with some possibly earlier entries and one (not in JA's hand) much later. This is a MS book (Adams Papers, M/JA/8; Microfilms, Reel No. 187), measuring 8″ x 6″, bound in vellum and containing 182 (unnumbered) pages, including occasional blank leaves or pages and a folded sheet of four pages laid in loose at the back that may once have been part of the book. Many leaves have been pulled away from the stitching and are brittle and worn at the edges. Through p. [26] the handwriting is in JA's “experimental” hand of 1754–1755, discussed and illustrated in JA's 8 9 Earliest Diary , p. 8–9 and pl. 3, following p. 42. These entries may therefore have been written while JA was still in Harvard College.

Contents, with some minor items omitted:

P. [1–2]. “an ode to Health by an unknown”; Greek text, followed by translation into English prose.

P. [3–23]. Excerpt from Sallust's Catiline's War, in Latin. A few more short extracts, apparently all from Sallust, appear on p. [25–26].

P. [27–44]. Copies of the Spectator papers, Nos. 411–421 (originally published 21 June – 3 July 1712), the famous series by Joseph Addison with the general title “On the Pleasures of the Imagination.” Dated by JA at the end “April 13. 1756.” and written up to all the margins in his very smallest hand characteristic of much of the writing in his Diary and legal papers from 1756 onward. A few further short extracts, probably also from the Spectator, follow.

P. [51–53]. “Criticisms on Milton. May 10th. 1756.” This is a copy of Addison's Spectator paper No. 267 (5 Jan. 1712) and a partial copy of No. 273 (12 Jan. 1712), with following pages left blank for continuation.

P. [67–70]. Copy of Addison's Spectator paper No. 39 (14 April 1711), on Tragedy, and partial copy of No. 43 (19 April 1711), on the same subject, with following pages left blank for continuation.

P. [75–95]. “Extractions from Butlers Analogy,” bearing headings such as “1st of a future Life,” “Of the Government of God by Rewards and Punishments,” “Of Personal Identity,” “Of the Nature of Virtue,” and the like. Though JA did not date his reading and copying of Butler in the Commonplace Book, his Diary states under 2 May 1756, a Sunday: “Since the 14th of April I have been studying the 1st Part of Butlers Analogy,” and a week later adds: “Since last Sunday I have wrote a few Papers of the Spectators, read the last Part of Butlers Analogy, wrote out the Tract upon personal Identity, and that upon the nature of Virtue” ( Diary and Autobiography , 1:24, 26). Joseph Butler (1692–1752), Bishop of Durham, first published his celebrated Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature, in 1736. A copy of the 7th edition, London, 1785, is among JA's books in MB ( Catalogue of JA's Library ); a copy of the 2d edition, 1736, is among JQA's books at MQA but may have first belonged to JA.

P. [97–101]. “A Letter to a Bishop.” Copy (partial?) of Duncan Forbes, A Letter to a Bishop, concerning Some Important Discoveries in Philosophy and Theology, first published in 1732 and included in Forbes' Whole Works, 2 vols., Edinburgh, n.d. [1755?], of which a copy owned by JA is in MB ( Catalogue of JA's Library ). On 23 May 1756 JA mentions “Duncan Forbes Works” as among his reading during the past week ( Diary and Autobiography , 1:28). Forbes was a Scottish jurist who studied Hebrew, wrote on theological subjects, and strongly defended the biblical revelation.


P. [103–108]. “Dr. Clark.” Extracts evidently from a sermon or tract by Samuel Clarke, D.D. (1675–1729), on the attributes of God. For Clarke (sometimes Clark), see a lengthy article in DNB .

P. [110–112]. “The Ballance of Astrea, or upright administration of Justice; In a letter from an old Judge to his Son, who was newly raised to the bench. Bretts Fejoo vol. 2d. ch. 1. Sectn. 1st and 2d.” Copy in an unidentified hand. This passage is extremely puzzling, appearing as it does in JA's early Commonplace Book, for it is not written in his or any other identifiable hand, and it would not have been copied before the late 1770's, when John Brett's English translations of the original Spanish work first began to appear. Benito Jerónimo Feijoó y Montenegro (1676–1764) was a Spanish monk, scholar, and prolific writer. JA's copy of Frey Feijoó's Essays, or Discourses. . . , translated by Brett, was published in 4 vols., London, 1780, and is among his books in MB ( Catalogue of JA's Library ; see also LC, Cat. ; BM, Cat.; Century Cyclo. of Names , under Feyjoo y Montenegro). Blank pages follow.

P. [121–133]. “Extracts from Richard Bentleys Confutation of Atheism,” the first of his Boyle Lectures (or sermons), 1692, and a copy of Bentley's “Sermon 8th” and last in that series preached the same year. On 23 May 1756 JA recorded that he had read “1/2 Bentleys Sermons at the Boilean Lectures,” and a week later: “I have wrote the 8th Sermon of Bentleys Boilean Lectures” ( Diary and Autobiography , 1:28, 31). On Bentley and the significance of these sermons, see DNB .

P. [134–136]. Extract from “King Richard III. Act 1. scene 1st. A Garden in the Tower,” preceded by a note on the dramatis personae. The text copied is from Colley Cibber's bastardized version of 1700, which held the stage throughout the 18th century, not from Shakespeare's original play.

P. [143–166]. Copies of selected French and English historical “characters” from (a translation of?) Voltaire's Age of Louis XIV (first published in 1751) and possibly from other sources. Some pages in this sequence are wholly or largely blank. On 30 May 1756 JA recorded that he had “Read part of the 1st Volume of Voltairs Age of Lewis 14th” ( Diary and Autobiography , 1:31). No separate copy of this title has been found among his books.

P. [178]. “C. Plinius, Minutio Fundano, suo Salutem.” Copy, in Latin, of a letter from Pliny the Younger to Minutius Fundano. Among JA's books in MB is a copy of the younger Pliny's Epistolarum libros decem, Amsterdam, 1734 ( Catalogue of JA's Library ).

Folded sheet of four pages, consisting of incomplete copies of or notes on reading in moral philosophy, perhaps from one of Francis Hutcheson's works on this subject. JA records reading Hutcheson as early as 16 Jan. 1756 ( Diary and Autobiography , 1:2). Several works in different editions by this author remain among JA's books in MB ( Catalogue of JA's Library ), but the present notes have not been matched up with any passages therein.

MS book (Adams Papers)