Adams, John Quincy (1767-1848) to Solomon Lincoln Esq.
Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC07868
Author/Creator: Adams, John Quincy (1767-1848)
Place Written: Washington, D.C.
Type: Autograph letter signed
Date: 4 April 1836
Pagination: 4 p. ; 25.3 x 20.1 cm.
Summary of Content: Pontificating on the history and intentions of the Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers, and on the important principles to be learned from America’s collective history. Also giving his views on freedom of religion and freedom of speech and the limits that should be put upon them;. also frankly discussing his ambiguous feelings about the issue of slavery., , In part: ”I would not undertake to say that the one hundred and one Germans of the compact on board the Mayflower, had all, or any of them, a conception of the consequences to the human race, of their emigration from Leyden; any more than Schwartz the inventor of gunpowder had of the effect upon the history of the world, of his combination of sulphur, nitre and charcoal. But the elements in the composition of the Pilgrim colonist, were as expansive and as explosive as the sulphur and nitre of Schwartz...” Adams goes on to discuss limitations to free speech and religion during Colonial times and the lack of a larger vision for the future of the country shared by many of the Pilgrims. (”The opinions that to which our ancestors ascribed, were not all sound; nor was their attachment to them proportioned to their importance...”), , On slavery, Adams notes: ”I did not for example start the question whether by the Law of God and nature Man can hold property, hereditary property....Had I spoken my mind on those...points, the sturdiest of abolitionists would have disavowed the Sentiments of their champion...”
People: Adams, John Quincy, 1767-1848.
Historical Era: National Expansion and Reform, 1815-1860
Full Transcript: Solomon Lincoln Esqr Hingham, Washington 4. [struck: March] [inserted: April] 1836, Dear Sir., Your Letter of the 12.th of January last has from various causes remained too long unanswered - It opened a field of observation, and of discussion, which if treated with the candour and freedom necessary as well for the exposition of my own views with regard to recent events, as for the confidence which my own inclination prompted me to repose in you, could not fail to occupy more of my own time then I have yet been able to bestow; and more perhaps of yours, than the interest you take in the political controversies of the time, would induce you readily to give my attendance upon The House of Representatives has been unremitting - Not simply from a sense of duty which I owe to my Constituents, and to the rule of the House which requires the constant attendance of its members, but from accidental circumstances which in the early part of the Session involved me far beyond my wishes or intentions in the business before the House, much of which has been of a very unpleasant and very controversial character - In addition to this my health has been precarious and unstable, and my hand not always pliable to my will in the mechanical operation of writing. My correspondence has proportionally suffered in its punctuality, and many other letters upon business besides yours, remain upon my unanswered file, waiting for an hour of more leisure, or more active capacity for the answer due to them., I enclose herewith for Mr Lane a one dollar bill of the Atlas Bank at Boston, being for the balance beyond the four dollars, paid by me at the Patent Office, for the copy of the drawing of the Specification of his Patent claim - The Bill received from you with your Letter of 17. Jan ’Twas for five dollars., I have read with much pleasure your centennial discourse upon the Settlement of Hinghams as I had listened to it with the highest satisfaction - In the progress of our Country to that greatness and power unparalleled in the History of the World, which it can now scarcely be called anticipation to foretell it is at once a filial and a parental duty, to mark by anniversary Solemnities, those incidents in the History of our forefathers, and those principles professed by them which had a tendency to produce and to maintain the progressive improvement of the condition of man. , There are two distinct capacities, in which it is incumbent upon us, the descendants from the Pilgrims of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Colonies, to keep our eyes fixed upon them upon their history and upon their characters - First as their descendants, bound to the defence and protection of their memories, by the natural relation between parents and children - and secondly as men, having parts to perform in our own day and generation - owing a debt to the future as well as to the past, and called to contemplate whatever of evil, as well as of good there was in the social character and condition of those forefathers so largely entitled to our grateful reverence and affection - The incidents so happily introduced into your discourses of the life of Peter Hobart struck me as remarkable exemplifications, both of the virtues, and of the infirmities which characterised the community of the pilgrims. The Plymouth Colony, and that only of all Colonies ancient or modern, was founded upon the combination of two principles - the Spirit of Martyrdom, and the Spirit of Patriotism - the most elevated and the most inflexible of moral agents upon human conduct Their tenacity to their religious opinions had made them voluntary exiles from their native land - and their tenacity to the name of Englishmen, made them again exiles from a populous, civilized and hospitable region, to a frost-bound, rock-bound, barren wilderness - where they laid the moral and political foundations of an Empire, of physical, moral and political dimensions, never witnessed and never to be surpassed upon this globe - I would not undertake to say that the one hundred and one signers of the compact on board the Mayflower, had all, or any of them a conception of the consequences to the human race, of their emigration from Leyden; any more than Schwartz the inventor of gunpowder had of the affect upon the history of the world of his combination of sulphur, nitre and charcoal - But the elements in the composition of the Pilgrim colonist, were as expansive and as explosive as the sulphur and the nitre of Schwartz - now as to the opinions for which the Pilgrims sacrificed all the comforts and enjoyments of life, including their attachments to their Country; we find upon examination very few of them, to which we ourselves can subscribe - and we find especially that their minds had not been elevated, nor their hearts purified to the standard of religious toleration - The opinions then to which our ancestors adhered, were not all sound; nor was their attachment to them proportioned to their importance or to their conformity with unchanging truth - But Peter Hobart, who thought for himself Though he could not be shackled by Articles of Faith, could be silenced by the arbitrary mandate of the magistrates - He was a bold man, who would speak his mind - But they who would have lent him the listening ear, were not permitted to hear him.,  The character of Judge William Cushing, stood very high as Chief Justice of the Supreme judicial Court of the Commonwealth, when he was transferred from that station to the Bench of the Supreme Court of the United States - In the latter capacity he served upwards of twenty years to the time of his death - He had been a judge of the Superior Court of the Province, before the Revolution - He was a man of perfect integrity of sound judgment of competent learning and of moderate capacity. I am not certain that there are any of his decisions in his judicial capacity, which will entitle him to individual reputation distinct from that of the Court in which he sat, but the fame of that Court itself is so fair, that to have been one of its members for twenty years from its first institution is praise enough for Ambition unassuming as his - He left no children to take an interest in his posthumous fame, and I know not whether at this time there is yet any one of his family bearing his name., The right to speak [struck: his] [inserted: our] mind is in point of form secured to us by the Constitution of The United States, and by all our State Constitutions - But in the exercise of that right there are considerations of prudence, of Justice and of benevolence, all of which must operate with a well constituted heart and mind as restraints and limitations upon it - There is in our Country perhaps not enough, restraint of Law upon The Freedom of Speech - There is sometimes more, and sometimes less than enough restraint upon it in popular opinion - The maxim which I believe most applicable for the guidance of the Citizen and of the Statesman, in this as in all other modes of action bearing upon the interests, feelings, or rights of others is the precept of Christian charity adopted by the civil and the common Law ”Sic utero tuo, ut alienum non laedas.” I have the right to speak my mind - But if in speaking my mind, I do wrong to another man in his person, his property or his reputation, I abuse the right of Speech while exercising it, and if the Law can neither restrain nor punish me, I expose myself at least to retaliation in kind, and what is far more formidable to the reproaches of my own Conscience - Such is the Theory - Yet in litigation before judicial tribunals, at popular meetings, in all deliberative assemblies, in the familiar intercourse of private conversation, even in the pulpit, there is no possibility that a man should speak his mind, without affecting often times without deeply affecting the interests, the feelings and the fame of others - We must then call in the aid of other principles to regulate the exercise of this right to the Freedom of Speech, and I must confess it is among the most perplexing problems, when where, and to what extent it is just, and proper and expedient to exercise the right of speaking my mind - Now have I ever in the course of my Life undergone severer trials of temper and of principle, than upon the occasions on which I have exercised  it during the present Session of Congress - The allusions in your Letter I understand as relating to the proceedings upon the abolition petitions, and it is very gratifying to me to find that my course on that subject, met your approbation, and I believe generally that of my constituents - I had flattened myself that I should have been shattered from the necesity of taking any part in the debates concerning it - My sentiments having been repeatedly declared against the agitation of it in Congress at all - It did however happen that a multitude of petitions, as well from my own district, as from others, and from other States, were addressed to me, with requests that I would present th[illegible] Office which from my respect for the right of Petitions, I could never refuse, unless upon grounds which did not in these cases apply - The new pretensions of the Slave representation in Congress, of a right to refuse to receive Petitions, and that Congress have no Constitutional power to abolish Slavery or the slave trade in the District of Columbia forced upon me so much of the discussion as I did take upon me, but in which you are well aware I did not and could not speak a tenth part of my mind - I did not for example start the question whether by the Law of God and of Nature man can hold property, hereditary property, in man - I did not start the question whether in the event of a servile insurrection and War, Congress would not have complete, unlimited control over the whole subject of Slavery even to the emancipation of all the Slaves, in the State where such insurrection should break out, and for the suppression of which the freeman of Plymouth and Norfolk counties Massachusetts should be called by Acts of Congress to pour out their treasures and to shed their blood - Had I spoken to my mind on those of two points the sturdiest of the abolitionists would have disavowed the Sentiments of their champion - I urged therefore again and again the measure finally adopted at the motion of a Southern member, but which would have been rejected if moved by me, of referring all the Petitions to a Select Committee with Instructions to report an argument against compliance with their prayer - The measure was obstinately resisted by the violent portion of the slave representation but prevailed, and there is a truce in the servile war, for the remainder of the session, as I hope - , There are other topics, upon one of which at least you have been less satisfied with my freedom in speaking my mind, and upon which I would cheerfully account to you for my conduct and its motives, but that this Letter has already drawn more than reasonably upon your Patience - I will therefore conclude it with the assurance of my constant respect and friendly regard J. Q. Adams, P.S. I have presented two abolition petitions from Hingham one from upwards of 100 Ladies -The other from about 30 men.Order Image