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Lot 2: Adams, John. Fine autograph letter signed ("J. Adams"), 3 pages (9 x 7 ¼ in.; 229 x 184 mm.)

The Property of a Distinguished American Private Collector

Platinum House

by Profiles in History

December 18, 2012

Calabasas Hills, CA, USA

Live Auction
  • Adams, John. Fine autograph letter signed (
  • Adams, John. Fine autograph letter signed (
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2. Adams, John, Fine autograph letter signed (“J. Adams”), 3 pages (9 x 7 ¼ in.; 229 x 184 mm.), Quincy, 12 April 1807 to Benjamin Rush regarding the fate of Pennsylvania amid all the political turmoil of the times; with integral address leaf addressed to: “Dr. Benjamin Rush, Philadelphia” and red wax seal remnant on third page, with Adams’ free frank, docketed by Rush “Quincy, Apl. 13th. 1807 Free” and “J. Adams”. 

Former President John Adams worries about the fate of Pennsylvania, particularly in light of the enormous political influence of men such as Adams’ enemy, former Vice President Aaron Burr.

Benjamin Rush had served as a member of the Continental Congress (1776, 1777) and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  At the time of this letter, he was serving as Treasurer of the U.S. Mint (1797-1813), appointed by President John Adams; it was Adams who mediated the reconciliation between Rush and Thomas Jefferson after both had retired from active politics.   A reflective Adams, now retired in Quincy after years of public service, writes freely to his close friend. 

He writes in full: Dear Sir, Your favour of the third is received.  I am willing to allow your Philosophers your Opinion of the universal Gravitation of Matter, if you will allow mine that there is in Some Souls a principle of absolute Levity that buoys them irres[is]tably into the Clouds.  Whether you call it etherial [sic] Spirit or inflammable air it has an uncontrollable Tendency to ascend, and has no capacity to ascertain the height at which it aims or the means by which it is to rise.  This I take to be precisely the Genius of Burr, Miranda and Hamilton, among a thousand others of less or more Note.  These Creatures have no Prudence.  If a Man is once So disarranged in his Intellect as to deliberate upon a Project of ascending to the Seven Starrs, it is natural enough that he should first attempt to Seize the two Horns of the New Moon and make her his first Stage.

Burr’s project of making himself   V.P. of U.S. to a reasonable Man would have appeared an high degree of Extravagance, for there were ten thousand Men in the United States, who were as well qualified for it and had merited it by much greater Services, Sufferings and Sacrifices.  Yet in this he succeeded.  Buoyed up by the flattery of the Presbyterians in Connecticutt, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and all the Southern States, from the Veneration in which they held his Father and Grandfather, the Factions of Clintons and Livingstons alternately employed him as their Instrument, till the Virginians conceived the Project of engaging him to corrupt the State of New York from the Federal Interest.  In this They and he succeeded: but all the rest of his Projects have been whimsical and without Success.  What could have inspired Burr with hopes of being an Ambassador, a Chief Justice of Pensilvania [sic] or a Governor of New York or Vice P. of U.S.?

Omnia Numina Absunt, Sui absit Prudentia.  Prudence is the first of Virtues and the root of all others.  Without Prudence, there may be abstinence but not Temperance; there may be rashness but not Fortitude; there may be insensibility or obstinancy but not Patience. Without Prudence, to weigh and deliberate on the Nature and consequences of an Enterprise, and to consider his means and his End, a Man who engages in it, commits himself to Chance, and not Seldom when a thousand Chances are against him to one in his favour.

I pity my old Friend, [Thomas] McKean [(1734-1817) - signer of the Declaration of Independence, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania (served 1777-99) and Governor of Pennsylvania (served 1799-1808)].  Like many others of our Antedeluvian Patriarchs he was carried away into Error by the French Revolution and delivered himself into the hands of a Party with whom he never could cordially cooperate.  In the Time of Robespierre [(1758-1794) - French revolutionary leader responsible for much of the Reign of Terror] and his bloodyest Cruelties I dined once in Company with McKean, [Albert] Gallatin [(1761-1849) - Secretary of the Treasury (served 1801-14)] and Burr and they were all very loud in praise of Robespierre.  ‘He was honest, and the Savior of France.’ Some of the Company presumed to censure their Patriot and Hero, and all three of these Gentlemen cried out ‘Robespierre’s Crime is his Honesty.’  How many Instances do We See every day which prove that Honesty is not the best Policy. They have all of them tried a different Policy, but I believe they will all come to a sad End and find at last that Honesty would have been a better Policy.

I now come to a Mystery in your Letter.  I have but four Grandsons; two of them are Boys under Seven Years of Age [George Washington Adams (1801-1829) and John Adams II (1803-1834)] and have been at my House and in Boston all Winter.  They are the Children of my son John [Quincy Adams (1767-1848)]; the two others are Sons of my Daughter [Abigail - or Nabby] Smith [(1765-1813)], the youngest of whom whose name is John [Adams Smith (1788-1854)] is now with me, and has not been in Philadelphia since last May; the oldest is William [Steuben Smith (1787-1850)] Now to my great grief in Trinidad.  No Letter therefore can have been left at your House from any Grandson of mine.  I cannot unriddle this Mystery but by Supposing that some adventurer has forgot a Letter: but for what End I know not.  I thank you with all my heart for your kind Intentions towards my Supposed Grandson.  They are as authentic proofs of Friendship, as if it had been my real Grandson.

Pennsylvania can fall down on one broadside and then roll over to the other Broadside, and then turn Mast upwards and then right her self up again.  She is a Ship however so violently addicted to pitching and rolling that I should not wonder if she dismasted herself.

To quit the figure and Speak plain English I have long thought that the first Serious civil War in America will commence in Pensilvania [sic].  The two Nations of Irish and Germans who compose the principal Part of the People, are so entirely governed by their Passions, have So little reason and less Knowledge that it will be impossible to keep them steady in any just System of Policy.  They will one day repent in Sac[k]cloth [a coarse cloth, made of goats’ hair, worn as a symbol of penitence] the ascendency they have given to the Transaleganian [Trans-Alleghanian, i.e., the states containing the Allegheny Mountains - Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia] and Southern Atlantic States [North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia] and So will New York.  But So contagious is Folly that we in the Mass[achusetts]. are running the Same Course.  I do not believe how even that Sullivan, if he should be chosen, will harmonize long with his Party.  Not half so long as McKean has.  He is in heart and in head no more of a Democrat than McKean.  I have known him not much less than forty years.  He has never been a steady nor a [obscured by wax seal] Man.  But he is not malevolent Enough for his Party nor ignorant.  His general aim has been to be of the Strongest Side and consequently has often offended all Parties at times. I should be glad to receive your explication of the Strange Story of my Grandson.  You do not say that the Letter was from Col. Smith.  What can the Tenet be?

My Family reciprocate the friendly Sentiments of yours and none of them more heartily than J. Adams

As described in the previous lot, the election of 1800 turned into a contentious drawn out affair and weighed upon Adams enormously. Little wonder that years after the election of 1800, Adams continued to harbor great resentment at the powers wielded by Burr in influencing the outcome of the New York elections.

Provenance: Christie’s New York 19 May 1995, lot 2.

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