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Browsing: Diary of John Quincy Adams, Volume 2


Docno: ADMS-03-02-02-0002-0002-0013

Author: Adams, John Quincy
Date: 1787-02-13

13th.

At nine o'clock this morning, the Class read a forensic disputation: I had written in the course of the vacation as follows.
Whether the infliction of capital punishments, except in cases of murder be consistent with equity?1
Had the question admitted other exceptions, or had it admitted none, I should have felt a greater degree of diffidence, in maintaining the affirmative. It has frequently been doubted by men who reason chiefly from speculation, whether it were equitable to punish any crime, with death, Sovereigns have attempted to abolish capital punishments entirely, but this scheme, like many others, which appear to great advantage in, theory has been found impracticable, because it has been attended with consequences very injurious to society; but if it be acknowledged, that death is the only equitable atonement which can be made for the commission of murder, I cannot see, why other crimes, equally, and perhaps still more, heinous, should not deserve a punishment equally severe. The question naturally occurs here; what is the end of punishment? Certainly, to give satisfaction, to the injured, and to insure the safety of individuals and of Society: but as the man who falls by the hand of an assassin, cannot receive satisfaction; the punishment in that case, must be inflicted only for the benefit of Society in general. No one, I presume will deny, that Treason is a crime, more dangerous to a community, than murder; as it threatens the destruction of each individual, as well as of the whole commonwealth: to inflict a milder punishment therefore upon this crime, would be destroying that proportion, in which alone, justice and equity consist. The celebrated Montesquieu observes, that the punishment should always derive from the nature of the crime, and consist in the privation of those advantages of which the criminal should have attempted to deprive others. He confesses however, that in many cases, this would not be effected: most frequently the man who robs the property of another, possesses, none himself, and therefore a corporal punishment, must supply the place of confiscation. Those who plead in favour of a lenient system of punishments, may engage the passions of their hearers, by expatiating upon the virtues of benevolence, humanity and mercy: far be it from me to derogate from the excellency of those exalted virtues; but if mildness in punishments instead of { 160 } deterring men from the commission of crimes, encourages them to it, the innocent, and virtuous part of the community, who have surely the greatest claim to the benevolence of a legislator, would be the greatest sufferers.
It is customary with persons who disapprove of capital punishments, to say that confinement during life to hard labour, would be a punishment, much more severe, than immediate death, and that a criminal thereby, might be rendered useful to Society, whereas a dead man is entirely lost to the community. A zealous student in surgery might deny the latter part of this proposition; but I shall only reply, that admitting confinement and hard labour for life, to be a more rigorous atonement for a crime, than death it will not follow, that it is equally terrifying, and this ought to be the principal object of a legislator. The addition of confinement will be but a small restraint to the greatest part of mankind who know, that whether innocent or guilty, they must depend upon hard labour for their subsistence. But Death is more or less terrible to all men; I have frequently heard persons who supposed themselves in perfect security, express the most intrepid contempt of death, but I conceive their philosophy would be somewhat deranged if the prospect of a sudden, and violent dissolution were placed before them. In such a situation all mankind would reason like the criminal represented by the inimitable Shakespear, as being condemned to die.

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,

To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;

This sensible, warm motion, to become

A kneaded clod, and the delighted spirit,

To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside

In thrilling regions of thick ribbed ice,

To be imprison'd in the viewless winds

And blown with restless violence round about

The pendent world;—'tis too horrible!

The weariest, and most loathed worldly life,

That age, ache, penury, imprisonment

Can lay on nature, is a paradise

To what we fear of Death.2

Mr. Wigglesworth gave a public lecture this afternoon. We danced in the evening at White's chamber.
{ 161 }
1. JQA 's draft of the disputation, dated 11 Jan., contains no major changes (M/JQA/46, Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 241).
2. Measure for Measure, Act III, scene i, lines 117–125, 127–131.

Docno: ADMS-03-02-02-0002-0002-0014

Author: Adams, John Quincy
Date: 1787-02-14

14th.

Mr. Wigglesworth gave us this morning a private lecture, and Mr. Williams had a public one, in the afternoon. Bridge and Freeman went over after dinner to attend an exhibition of Cushman's school in Mystic.1 I could not go. Mr. Thaxter and Mr. Duncan, were here a few minutes; they came from Haverhill this morning. I made tea for the club this evening, and I believe it will be for the last Time. It is too troublesome to return so frequently as once a week, and there are only 9 or 10 now left. Was part of the evening at Mason's chamber and supp'd with him there.
1. JQA 's classmate Joshua Cushman taught school in Medford during the winter of 1786–1787 (Charles H. Morss, “The Development of the Public School of Medford,” Medford Historical Register, 3:24 [Jan. 1900]).

Docno: ADMS-03-02-02-0002-0002-0015

Author: Adams, John Quincy
Date: 1787-02-15

15th.

I went down in the morning to Mr. Pearson's, with an intention of inviting Miss Bromfield to dance with us this evening but she was out of town. There are several young ladies in this place, who have not attractions to charm the gentlemen, but in the case of a dance, there is no choice, we must either take up with those ladies or have none. We drew lots therefore, to determine, who should go to one house; and who to another. It fell to my lot to go no-where, but Foster who was to have invited Miss Bromfield, not being acquainted with her, requested me to go in his stead. We assembled at about 7 o'clock, and danced till 2 in the morning after which we broke up. The Ladies were, Miss Ellery, Wiggles-worth, Jones, Foster, two Miss Mason's, Miss Williams, Hill, Eustis, and two Miss Kneelands. Mr. Ellery, Mr. Harris, and Mr. Andrews, with my Class mates Amory, Bridge, Chandler 3d., Cranch, Forbes, Foster, Freeman, Lloyd, White, and Williams compleated the company. Of the Ladies, some had beauty without wit, and some wit without beauty; one was blest with both, and others could boast of neither. But little was said, and sentiment did not thrive, when the feet are so much engaged, the head in general is vacant. After we return'd several of us pass'd { 162 } a couple of hours at Cranch's Chamber, and at about 4 o'clock I retired to bed.