Papers of John Adams, volume 18

To John Jay

From John Trumbull

To John Adams from Timothy Dwight, [ca. 8-12 December 1785] Dwight, Timothy Adams, John
From Timothy Dwight
[ ca. 8–12 December 1785 ]1 May it please your Excellency,

This letter accompanies to you the Conquest of Canaan. It is the wish of the writer, that this poem may be published in England. For the accomplishment of this design, he becomes a suitor to your Excellency, for such assistance as may be necessary.2

As an apology for this application, he could allege, that it was recommended to him by Col Wadsworth,3 who indeed offered him a letter of recommendation on the subject; that he has heard, from good authority, that your Excellency has invited an application of the same nature from Mr. Trumbull, & expressed your wishes to see attempts of this kind made by your countrymen; that your Excellency is known to be generously partial to every effort of real genius made in America; that he has not a friend in England, to whom a design of this nature might be addressed; & that literary merit forms a species of claim, from necessity, to the fostering influence of eminent 19 personages. But he is fearful that all these reasons would form an insufficient excuse. His genius & literary merit, he is aware, are at best but questionable. Perhaps the perusal even of a small part of this poem may reduce them below that standard, in your Excellency’s opinion. Should this unfortunately prove the event, he can only console himself with reflecting that the trial of his talents has been innocently made; & has only to request of your Excellency that this applicaton may be concealed from all men.

If your Excellency should judge the work deserving of the public eye, & not unworthy of that degree & kind of assistance, which may be necessary to introduce it, the writer hopes he shall not be guilty of impertinence in solliciting, that, if it can conveniently be accomplished, the publication may be made of pecuniary advantage to himself. He is sensible that, as the book is already published in America, any printer can obtain a copy; but no printer can obtain a correct one, or one in a reasonable degree correct. This circumstance, he imagines, would have weight with the purchaser, if exhibited in a manner resembling the annexed Advertisement; & might perhaps secure to the printer, who was enabled to avail himself of it, almost an exclusive sale.

If this article should by any circumstances be prevented, he would however wish the poem might be published, & that it might be published under such advantages, as might be fairly & easily obtained. But this, & every thing pertaining to the subject, he leaves to your Excellency, & is, with every sentiment of respect, your Excellency’s / very obedient, / & most humble servant,

Timothy Dwight.

RC and enclosure (Adams Papers); internal address: “His Excellency John Adams Esquire.”; endorsed: “Mr Dwights / Letter. / ansd. 31. March / 1786.” Filmed at [ante 31 March 1786].


The editors originally dated this letter with reference to JA’s endorsement that he replied on 31 March 1786. But in fact he replied on 4 April, below. The revised date derives from letters from John Trumbull and Joel Barlow, two of Dwight’s fellow Connecticut Wits, which are dated 8 and 12 Dec. 1785, respectively, both below. Both wrote, as does Dwight, concerning the publication of their works in England. Since JA also replied to Barlow on 4 April 1786, below, it seems likely that Dwight’s letter was written at about the same time as those from Trumbull and Barlow.


Rev. Timothy Dwight (1752–1817), Yale 1769, was a New Light Calvinist theologian and a prominent member of the Connecticut Wits literary circle that included David Humphreys as well as Barlow and Trumbull. A child prodigy, Dwight began his 10,000-line epic poem, The Conquest of Canaan, at the age of nineteen and had secured 3,000 subscribers for publication by 1775, but war intervened. The first American edition was published in Hartford, Conn., in 1785. Dwight’s eleven-book biblical poem was a dramatic reinterpretation of the Book of Joshua’s battles of Jericho and Ai, which marked the Israelites’ entry into and division of Canaan. Readers of Dwight’s Conquest 20 frequently drew comparisons between Joshua’s actions and those of George Washington, to whom Dwight dedicated the book. With JA’s help a London edition of the poem appeared in 1788, a copy of which is in JA’s library at MB ( ANB ; Charles E. Cuningham, Timothy Dwight, 1752–1817: A Biography, N.Y., 1942, p. 130; Leon Howard, The Connecticut Wits, Chicago, 1943, p. 87–100; JA, D&A , 3:189; Catalogue of JA’s Library ).

With this letter, Dwight enclosed a sample advertisement to note the correction of “numerous errors of the American edition, some of which totally destroy the sense” of the poem (Adams Papers). For JA’s opinion of and support for Dwight, whom he called an “American Genius” ( AFC , 7:241), see his 4 April 1786 reply, below.


Col. Jeremiah Wadsworth, former commissary general of the Continental Army and of the Comte de Rochambeau’s forces, had hosted JQA as he passed through Hartford, Conn., en route to Boston (JQA, Diary , 1:290; AFC , 6:227, 288).