A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.
close

Browsing: Papers of John Adams, Volume 1


Search for a response to this letter.

Docno: ADMS-06-01-02-0029

Author: Sewall, Jonathan
Recipient: Adams, John
Date: 1760-02-13

From Jonathan Sewall

[salute] My Friend

In my last, if I rightly remember, I joined with you in your panegyric on the superior Rewards which ancient Rome proposed to Application and Study, and in your Satyre on those despicable praemia, which we, whose Lot it is to live in the infant State of a new World, can rationally expect.1 But perhaps we have both been too hasty in our Conclusions; possibly, if we peirce through the Glare of false Glory, too too apt to dazzle and deceive the intellectual Eye; if, in Order to the forming a just Estimate, we secrete the genuine from the imaginary Rewards, we may find the Difference much less than at first Sight we are apt to concieve. For, let us, if you please my Friend, consider what was the palm for which the roman Orator ran? It was, the plaudit of a people, at that Time, sunk into a most shameful Effeminacy of Manners, governed by a Spirit of Faction and Licentiousness, to which this Father of his Country, at length fell himself a Sacrifice;—It was, the highest Post of Honour in that august Empire which hath since fallen an easy prey to Goths, Visigoths, Vandals and other barbarous and uncivilised Nations of the North;—It was to be the first Man in that Roma Aeterna, which, but for the Names of Brutus, Caesar, Cicero, Cataline, and a few other Patriots, Tyrants, Orators and Conspirators, which have been perpetuated by the Eminence of their Owners and their respective Employments, had been long since buried in eternal Oblivion.
To be caress'd, applauded and deify'd by Roman Citizens, to be raised to the highest Honours which Rome, the Mistress of the World, could give, are Rewards, it must be confessed, in their Nature more dazzling and, to an unthinking Mind, more captivating and alluring to the Toils of indefatigable Study and close thinking; and in these, it will be acknowledged, Cicero had greatly the Advantage of us. But are these the most striking? Are there not others, which we, as well as Cicero, have in prospect, infinitely superiour, in their Nature, more refined, more lasting? What think you my Friend of the inward pleasure and Satisfaction which the human Mind receiveth from the Acquisition of Knowledge? What, of rational Delight which the benevolent Man experienceth in the Capacity and Oportunity of doing Good to his fellow Men? What, of the Heart-felt Joy which the Man { 40 } of Virtue overflows with in relieving and supporting distressed Innocence and Goodness, and in detecting and punishing insolent Vice?
But Cicero's Name has been handed down thro' many Ages with Admiration and Applause; so may yours. “Worth makes the Man,” form's the Character, and perpetuates his Memory: Cicero is not revered because he was Rome's Consul; had his Orations been deliverd in the little Senate of Lillybaeum or Syracuse, yet still they would have been esteemed as they are, by all Men of Learning, and perhaps would have perpetuated the Names of Lillybaeum and Syracuse, for many Ages after they shall now be forgotten, and had A——n2 lived in Rome, it is more than probable we should never have heard his Name. It is not the Place where a Man lives, nor his Titles of Honour in that Place, which will procure him Esteem with succeeding Generations, tho perhaps, for the present it may command the outward Respect of the unthinking Mob for the most part dazzled with the Parade and Pomp of Nobility. But if in the Estimation of the World, a Man's Worth riseth in proportion to the Greatness of his Country, who knows but in future Ages, when New England shall have risen to its' intended Grandeur, it shall be as carefully recorded among the Registers of the Leterati, that Adams flourishd in the second Century after the Exode of its first Settlers from Great Brittain, as it is now, that Cicero was born in the Six-Hundred-&-Forty-Seventh Year after the Building of Rome?
A Man by Will gives his Negro his Liberty, and leave's him a Legacy. The Executor consents that the Negro shall be free, but refuseth to give Bond to the Selectmen to indemnify the Town against any Charge for his Support, in Case he should become poor, (without which, by the Province Law he is not manumitted) or to pay him the Legacy.
Quer. Can he recover the Legacy, and how?
I have just observed that in your last you desire me to say something toward discouraging you from removing to Providence, and you say any Thing will do. At present I only say, you will do well enough where you are. I will explain my self and add something farther, in some future Letter. I have not Time to enlarge now, for which, I believe, you will not be inconsolably grieved. So, to put you out of pain—I am, Your hearty Friend,
[signed] Jonath. Sewall
P.S. I hope you'll write me soon, I think you are scrupulously exact in writing only in turn.
{ 41 }
P.P.S. I am now going thro Co. Litt. again, and I suppose you are likewise. If you make any new Observations as you go along, or if any Questions arise in your Mind, it may possibly be of mutual Advantage to communicate them. I shall do the same. This may in some measure answer the End of reading him together, which I am persuaded would be eminently beneficial, at least to,
[signed] J.S.
RC (Adams Papers); addressed: “To Mr. John Adams Atty. at Law In Braintree”; docketed in an unidentified hand: “J Sewell—1760 13. Feb'y.”
1. Two or more letters between JA and Sewall must be missing after their last surviving exchange, Sept.Oct. 1759, printed above. For other clues to their contents see the last paragraph of text (preceding the postscripts) in the present letter and the opening sentence of and postscript to JA 's reply which follows.
2. Doubtless John Aplin (1709–1772), author of Verses on Dr. Mayhew's Book of Observation &c., a satirical attack on Rev. Jonathan Mayhew's criticism of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. See Bailyn, ed., Pamphlets , 1:274–291. In JA, Diary and Autobiography , “Applin” (1:317) is erroneously identified in the Index as “James Aplin.”

Docno: ADMS-06-01-02-0030

Author: Adams, John
Recipient: Sewall, Jonathan
Date: 1760-02

To Jonathan Sewall

I am very willing to join with you, in renouncing the Reasoning of some of our last Letters.1
There is but Little Pleasure, which Reason can approve to be received from the Noisy applause, and servile Homage that is paid to any Officer from the Lictor to the Dictator, or from the sexton of a Parish to the sovereign of a Kingdom: And Reason will despize equally, a blind undistinguishing Adoration of what the World calls fame. She is neither a Goddess to be loved, nor a Demon to be feared, but an unsubstantial Phantom existing only in Imagination.
But with all this Contempt, give me Leave to reserve (for I am sure that Reason will warrant) a strong affection for the honest Approbation of the wise and the good both in the present, and in all future Generations. Mistake not this for an Expectation of the Life to come, in the Poets Creed.—Far otherwise. I expect to be totally forgotten within 70 Years from the present Hour unless the Insertion of my Name in the Colledge Catalogue, should luckily preserve it longer.—When Heaven designs an extraordinary Character, one that shall distinguish his Path thro' the World by any great Effects, it never fails to furnish the proper Means and Opportunities; but the common Herd of Mankind, who are to be born and eat and sleep and die, and be forgotten, is thrown into the World as it were at Random, { 42 } without any visible Preparation of Accommodations.—Yet tho I have very few Hopes, I am not ashamed to own that a Prospect of an Immortality in the Memories of all the Worthy, to [the] End of Time would be a high Gratification to my Wishes.
But to Return, Tully, therefore, had but few Advantages, in the Estimation of Reason more than We have, for a happy Life.—He had greater Political Objects to tempt his Ambition, he had better Opportunities to force the Hozanna's of his Countrymen, but these are not Advantages for Happiness. On the Contrary, the Passions which these Objects were designed to gratify, were so many stings for ever smarting in his Mind, which at last goaded him into that Excess of Vanity and Pusillanimity, for which he has been as often blamed, as ever he was praised for his Genius and his Virtues. Tis true, he had Abler Masters and more Opportunities for instructive Conversation, in a City, so fruitful of great Men. But in other Respects the rational sources of Pleasure, have been much enlarged since his Day.
In the Acquisition of Knowledge, without which it would be a Punishment to live, we have much greater Advantages (whatever some ingenious Men may say) than he had or could have. For the Improvements in Navigation, and the surprizing Augmentation of Commerce, by spreading civilized Nations round the Globe, and sending Men of Letters into all Countries, have multiplied the Means of Information concerning the Planet we inhabit; and the Invention of the Art of Printing, has perpetuated and cheapened the Means of every Kind of Knowledge, beyond what could have been immagined in his Day.
Europe has been, ever since his Death, the Constant Theatre of surprizing Characters, Actions, Events, Revolutions, which have been preservd in a sufficient Plenty of Memorials, to constitute a series of Political Knowledge of a greater Variety of Characters, more important Events, and more complicated Circumstances; and of Consequence better adapted for an Agreable Entertainment to the Mind, than any, that the World had ever known in his Times; and perhaps there never was before, nor has been since his Day, a Period, abounding with greater Heroes and Politicians, or with more surprizing Actions and Events, than that in which we live.
In Metaphysicks, Mr. Locke, directed by my Lord Bacon, has steered his Course into the unenlightened Regions of the human Mind, and like Columbus has discoverd a new World. A World whose soil is deep and strong producing Rank and unwholsome Weeds as well as wholsome fruits and flowers; a World that is incumbered with unprofitable Brambles, as well as stored with useful Trees; and in• { 43 } fested with motly Savages; as well as capable of furnishing civilized Inhabitants; he has shewn us by what Cultivation, these Weeds may be Extirmined and the fruits raised; the Brambles removed as well as the Trees grubbed; the savages destroyd, as well as the civil People increased. Here is another Hemisphere of Science therefore abounding with Pleasure and with Profit too, of which [Cicero] 2 had but very few and we have many Advantages for learning.
But in Mathematicks, and what is founded on them, Astronomy and Phylosophy, the Modern Discoveries have done Honour to the human Understanding. Here is the true sphere of Modern Genius.—What a noble Prospect of the Universe have these Men opened before us. Here I see Millions of Worlds and systems of Worlds, swarming with Inhabitants, all engaged in the same Active Investigation of the great System of Universal and eternal Truth, and overflowing with Felicity.
And while I am ravished with such Contemplations as these, it imports me little on what Ground I tread or in what Age I live.
The Intention of the Testator to be collected from the Words, is to be observd in the Construction of a Will—and where any Title to Lands or Goods, or any other Act is devisd to any one, without any mention of something previous or concomitant, without which the Act or Title is not valid, in such Case the Thing previous or concomitant shall by Implication be devised too, e.g.
A Man devises Lands and Tenements to A.B., the said A.B. paying £100 out of the same Lands to B.C.—Here are no Words of Inheritance or of Freehold you see, yet since The Testator plainly intended, that £100 should be paid to B.C. out of the Land, it must be presumed that he knew the Rule of Law which entitles a Devisee of Lands encumbered with a Charge, to a Fee simple, and therefore a fee simple shall pass by Implication. So also
A Man devisd Lands and Tenements to A.B. in Trust for C.D. and his Heirs. Here are no Words of Inheritance, yet as he has established a Trust that may last forever, he shall be presumed to have intended a Fee simple in his Devise, and the Devisee shall hold the Tenements to himself and his own Heirs for ever, by Implication, altho the Cestuy que Trust should die Heirless tomorrow. Now
En mesure le manner. The Testator intended plainly that his Negro should have his Liberty, and a Legacy. Therefore the Law will presume that he intended his Executor should do all that, without which he could have neither. That this Indemnification was not in the Testators mind, cannot be proved from the Will, any more than it could { 44 } be proved in the 1st Case above that the Testator did not know a Fee simple would pass a Will without the Word Heirs; nor than in the 2d Case, that the Devise of a Trust that might continue for ever would convey a fee simple without the like Words.
I take it therefore, that the Executor of this Will is by Implication obligd to give Bonds to the The Town Treasurer, and in his Refusal is a wrong doer, and I cant think he ought to be allowed to take advantage of his own Wrong so much as to alledge this Want of an Indemnification, to evade an Action of the Case brot for the Legacy, by the Negro himself.
But why may not the Negro bring a special Action of the Case vs. Executor setting forth the Will, the Devise of Freedom, and a Legacy, and then the Necessity of Indemnification by the Province Law, and then a Refusal to indemnify and of Consequence to set free, and to pay the Legacy.
Perhaps the Negro is free at common Law by the Devise. Now the Province Law seems to have been made, only to oblige the Master to maintain his manumitted <slave> servant, not to declare a Manumission in the Masters lifetime or at his Death, void. Should a Master give his Negro his freedom under his Hand and seal, without giving Bond to the Town, and should afterwards repent and endeavour to recall the Negro into servitude, would not that Instrument be sufficient discharge vs. the Master?
P.S. I felt your Reproof, very sensibly, for being ceremonious. I must beg Pardon in a style that I threatend you with as a Punishment, a few letters ago, Μηδ᾽ ἓχθαιρε ϕίλον σὸν ἁμαρτάδος εινεκα μικρης. 3
However, it is not Ceremony, so much as Poverty.4
Dft or LbC (Adams Papers); at head of text: “To Sewal.” This and the next letter from JA to Sewall, printed below under the assigned date post 10 Sept. 1760, were written on two leaves torn from a small folio book resembling a letterbook and very like the volume containing diary entries, letter copies, and miscellaneous material published in the present edition as The Earliest Diary of John Adams (q.v. at p. 4), though the leaves are not exactly the same size as those of any known volume in JA 's hand of so early a period. The missing volume may have been such another miscellany as the Earliest Diary ; see note 4.
1. See preceding letter and note 1 there.
2. Editorially supplied. JA may have intended to write “he,” but its antecedent would have had to be Cicero.
3. “And do not hate your friend because of a small sin.” From the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, written by disciples of Pythagoras in the first or second century b.c. (The editors are indebted to Professor Zeph Stewart of Harvard University for the translation and attribution.) JA quoted a longer passage in his diary entry for 26 Nov. 1760 and at a later period read and annotated a French translation of this col• { 45 } lection of Neo-Pythagorean maxims ( Diary and Autobiography , 1:174).
4. At the head of the text of this letter, and just possibly intended as an addendum to it, but more likely part of a preceding (but missing) letter or even a wholly detached thought, is a passage reading as follows: “A Project has just started into my Mind of collecting the Anecdotes of the Lives of all the great Lawyers, ancient and modern. The Character of Sulpitius suggested it to me. Vid. Middleton, V. 3 P. 134.”
Apparently nothing came of this passing thought. The reference is doubtless to Conyers Middleton, The History of the Life of Cicero, of which JA owned a set, in 3 vols., London, 1755, now in MB, from which the third volume is missing. The set had been presented to JA as a Detur Prize at Harvard College ( Catalogue of JA 's Library ).