Papers of John Adams, volume 5

From Jonathan Hastings Jr.

From Joseph Ward

From Thomas Jefferson, 16 May 1777 Jefferson, Thomas JA


From Thomas Jefferson, 16 May 1777 Jefferson, Thomas Adams, John
From Thomas Jefferson
Dear Sir Williamsburgh May 16. 1777

Matters in our part of the continent are too much in quiet to send you news from hence. Our battalions for the Continental service were some time ago so far filled as rendered the recommendation of a draught from the militia hardly requisite, and the more so as in this country it ever was the most unpopular and impracticable thing that could be attempted.1 Our people even under the monarchical government had learnt to consider it as the last of all oppressions. I learn from our delegates that the Confederation is again on the carpet. A great and a necessary work, but I fear almost desperate. The point of representation is what most alarms me, as I fear the great and small colonies are bitterly determined not to cede.2 Will you be so good as to recollect the proposition I formerly made you in private and try if you can work it into some good to save our union? It was that any proposition might be negatived by the representatives of a majority of the people of America, or of a majority of the colonies of America. The former secures the larger the latter the smaller colonies. I have mentioned it to many here. The good whigs I think will so far cede their opinions for the sake of the Union, 195and others we care little for. The journals of congress not being printed earlier gives more uneasiness than I would ever wish to see produced by any act of that body, from whom alone I know our salvation can proceed.3 In our assembly even the best affected think it an indignity to freemen to be voted away life and fortune in the dark. Our house have lately written for a M.S. copy of your journals, not meaning to desire a communication of any thing ordered to be kept secret. I wish the regulation of the post office adopted by Congress last September could be put in practice.4 It was for the riders to travel night and day, and to go their several stages three times a week. The speedy and frequent communication of intelligence is really of great consequence. So many falshoods have been propagated that nothing now is beleived unless coming from Congress or camp. Our people merely for want of intelligence which they may rely on are become lethargick and insensible of the state they are in. Had you ever a leisure moment I should ask a letter from you sometimes directed to the care of Mr. Dick, Fredericksburgh: but having nothing to give in return it would be a tax on your charity as well as your time.5 The esteem I have for you privately, as well as for your public importance will always render assurances of your health and happiness agreeable. I am Dear Sir Your friend & servt.

Th: Jefferson

RC (Adams Papers); addressed: “To John Adams esq. of the Massachusets delegation in Philadelphia. Free”; docketed: “Mr. Jefferson. ans. May 26. 1777.”


Although the congress on 14 April urged the drafting of militiamen, this was no new idea in Massachusetts, where the General Court resorted to a draft in the summer of 1776 ( JCC , 7:262–263; vol. 4:419). A draft mentioned by James Warren was probably a response to the congressional recommendation (Warren to JA, 5 May, above). JA was skeptical about the effectiveness of this means of filling out the ranks and expressed a preference for a permanent army over temporary drafts (JA to Elbridge Gerry, 31 Dec. 1776, above), but see his reply to Jefferson, 26 May (below).


JA's own views on equality of representation, by which he meant that the population and the wealth of represented units must be taken into account, were vigorously expressed to Joseph Hawley: “the Moment, the least departure from such Equality takes Place, that Moment an Inroad is made upon Liberty. Yet this essential Principle is disregarded in many Places” (vol. 4:496–497). And to James Warren JA gave an example of the injustice of a divided vote in the congress which ranged five states with a much greater population against five smaller states (12 Feb., above). JA's reply to Jefferson on this point, however, breathes the spirit of possible compromise. Despite the ardor of his conviction, JA kept in mind the realities of politics.

That the author of the Declaration of Independence should three times use the term “colonies” for “states” is perhaps surprising. JA and his correspondents, with but two exceptions for the latter, consistently used the term “state” in the 196fall of 1776 and the winter and spring of 1777. Lovell, however, used “colonies” in a letter to JA of 8 Dec. (below).


On 2 June the congress ordered the distribution to the states of the Journals for 1776 ( JCC , 8:412).


The congress established rules for the post office on 30 Aug. 1776 (same, 5:719–720). For JA's explanation of the difficulties in keeping to them, see his reply to Jefferson. A committee report on the post office, apparently given on 25 Feb., was accepted only in part by the congress ( JCC , 7:153–154, 258).


JA's prompt answer began a correspondence between the two men that continued on and off for most of the rest of their lives. The letters are remarkable for vigor and breadth of interest, lightened occasionally with flashes of humor. The exchange affords an unparalleled insight into the minds of two of America's foremost statesmen.