Papers of John Adams, volume 18

From John Adams to Richard Cranch, 15 January 1787 Adams, John Cranch, Richard
To Richard Cranch
My dear Brother. Grosvenor Square Jan. 15. 1787.

Dr Tufts will give you a Strange Book.1 I know not whether, the Sentiments of it, will be approved, by the Men of Sense and Letters in America.— if they are, they will make themselves popular in time. if they are not, our Countrymen have many Miseries yet to go 543 through. if the System attempted to be defended in those Letters, is not the System of the Wisest Men among Us, I shall tremble for the Consequences, and wish myself in any Obscure hole in the World. I am myself, as clearly Satisfied of the infallible Truth of the Doctrine there contained as I am of any Demonstration in Euclid, and if our Countrymen are bent upon any wild Schemes inconsistent with the substance of it, the sooner they remove me, out of their sight the better for I can be of no Service to them, in promoting their Views. I Shall be anxious to know how it is received, and shall be obliged to you to inform me.

I lament that it is so hasty a Production. it is only Since my Return from Holland in September that I began to collect the materials.— But the Disturbances in New England made it necessary to publish immediately in order to do any good. My Friends in Holland were much employed, in Revolutions. in Several Conversations there, I had occasion to mention some Things respecting Government, which some of those Gentlemen wished to see upon Paper. their desire falling in with the Seditious Meetings in the Massachusetts determined me to write.

The Field is vast enough, the Materials are Splendid enough, and the subject is of Weight enough to employ the greatest Scholar of the Age, for Seven Years.— I am no great Scholar and have had but a few Months time. but I hope the Men of Genius & Science in America will pursue the subject to more Advantage.

by the hurry and precipitation, with which the Work was undertaken conducted and compleated, I have been obliged to be too inattentive both to Method and the ornaments of Style, for the present Taste of our Countrymen: for I perceive that Taste and Elegance are the Cry.— This appears to me like establishing Manufactures of Lace, Fringe & Embroidery in a Country before there is any of Silk, Velvet or Cloth.— Our Countrymen are by no means advanced enough in Solid Science and Learning in Mathematicks & Philosophy, in Greek & Latin to devote so much of their Time to Rhetorick. The ignorance of old Mummius, who threatned the Master of the Ship to compell him to replace the Paintings of Apelles if he lost them would become Us much better.2 I am no Ennemy to Elegance. but I Say no Man has a right to think of Elegance, till he has secured Substance—nor then to Seek more of it, than he can afford. That Taste which for its Gratification will commit Knavery & run in debt beyond the Ability to pay, merits execration. That Elegance 544 which devours Honour, Truth and Independency: which Scorns Reputations, and can reconcile itself to ignominy, public or private is a Monster that Hercules ought to destroy.

If the Courts of Justice must be Stopped at the Point of the Bayonet, if the Laws must be trampled under foot to Satisfy Elegance, it is a Dæmon that ought to be sent back to Hell.3

Libertatem, Amicitiam, Fidem, præcipua humani Animi bona.4 These are essential to human Happiness. Finery, of every kind may be dispensed with, untill it can be reconciled to the other.

Yours affectionately

John Adams.

RC (NN:John Adams Letters and Documents); internal address: “Hon. Richard Cranch.”; endorsed: “From his Excy. / Jno Adams Esqr. / Jany: 15th. 1787.” LbC (Adams Papers); APM Reel 113.


On this date JA also wrote to Cotton Tufts, informing him that the London bookseller Charles Dilly was sending him and Isaac Smith Sr. copies of the first volume of his Defence of the Const. (Adams Papers). JA provided a list of those to whom copies should be distributed that included his sons and Cranch. Tufts replied on 15 May (Adams Papers), reporting that the books had been distributed to the people indicated in JA’s letter and to others as determined by himself, Cranch, and Smith. See also note 3. For more on the Defence of the Const., see Descriptive List of Illustrations, No. 8, above.


In 146 B.C., as part of his campaign to organize the province of Macedonia, the Roman praetor Lucius Mummius destroyed Corinth. He looted the artwork of portrait painter Apelles (fl. 332 B.C.) and others as gifts for supporters, or to be displayed in Rome. JA refers here to a popular critique of Mummius, who was so “ignorant” of art that he warned his troops to “replace” any works lost or broken in transit (P. T. Sandhurst, ed., The Table Book of Art: A History of Art in All Countries and Ages, N.Y., 1880, p. 11; Oxford Classical Dicy. ).


In his letter to Tufts, JA wrote more forcefully of the “Dæmon of Discord” that symbolized Shays’ Rebellion, but he dismissed the insurgents’ long-term impact on Massachusetts political life. “If the good People of our State, are not disposed to surrender their Liberties and Safety and the Rights of Posterity into the hands of a few drunken Horse Jockeys, they will think it time to Support a Government which is worthy of them, not withstanding that philosophical Nonsense has been propagated among them, in Aid of Horse Jockey Knavery.”


JA paraphrases Tacitus, Histories, Book 1.15, lines 22–24: You will hold liberty, friendship, and fidelity as the highest goods of the human soul.