John Adams replies to Thomas Jefferson regarding partisan politics.
I say, parties and factions will not suffer improvements to be made. As soon as one man hints at an improvement, his rival opposes it. No sooner has one party discovered or invented any amelioration of the condition of man, or the order of society than the opposite party belies it, misconstrues it, misrepresents it, ridicules it, insults it, and persecutes it. Records are destroyed. Histories are annihilated or interpolated or prohibited; sometimes by Popes, sometimes by Emperors, sometimes by aristocratical, and sometimes by democratical assemblies, and sometimes by mobs.
To Thomas Jefferson.
Quincy, 9 July, 1813.
L ORD! LORD! what can I do with so much Greek? When I was of your age, young man, that is, seven or eight years ago, I felt a kind of pang of affection for one of the flames of my youth, and again paid my addresses to Isocrates and Dionysius Halicarnassensis, &c., &c., &c. I collected all my lexicons and grammars, and sat down to Περὶ συνϑέσεως ὀνοματων. In this way I amused myself for some time, but I found that if I looked a word to-day, in less than a week I had to look it again. It was to little better purpose than writing letters on a pail of water.
Whenever I sit down to write to you, I am precisely in the situation of the wood-cutter on Mount Ida. I cannot see wood for trees. So many subjects crowd upon me, that I know not which to begin. But I will begin at random with Belsham, who is, I have no doubt, a man of merit. He had no malice against you, nor any thought of doing mischief; nor has he done any, though he has been imprudent. The truth is, the dissenters of all denominations in England, and, especially, the Unitarians, are cowed, as we used to say at college. They are ridiculed, insulted, persecuted. They can scarcely hold their heads above water. They catch at straws and shadows to avoid drowning. Priestley sent your letter to Lindsey, and Belsham printed it from the same motive, i. e. to derive some countenance from the name of Jefferson. Nor has it done harm here. Priestley says to Lindsey, “You see he is almost one of us, and he hopes will soon be altogether such as we are.” Even in our New England I have heard a high federal divine say, your letters had increased his respect for you.
“The same political parties, which now agitate the United States, have existed through all time.” Precisely; and this is precisely the complaint in the preface to the first volume of my Defence. While all other sciences have advanced, that of government is at a stand; little better understood, little better practised now than three or four thousand years ago. What is the reason? I say, parties and factions will not suffer improvements to be made. As soon as one man hints at an improvement, his rival opposes it. No sooner has one party discovered or invented any amelioration of the condition of man, or the order of society than the opposite party belies it, misconstrues it, misrepresents it, ridicules it, insults it, and persecutes it. Records are destroyed. Histories are annihilated or interpolated or prohibited; sometimes by Popes, sometimes by Emperors, sometimes by aristocratical, and sometimes by democratical assemblies, and sometimes by mobs.
Aristotle wrote the history and description of eighteen hundred republics which existed before his time. Cicero wrote two volumes of discourses on government, which, perhaps, were worth all the rest of his works. The works of Livy and Tacitus, &c., that are lost, would be more interesting than all that remain. Fifty gospels have been destroyed. Where are St. Luke’s world of books that were written?
If you ask my opinion, who has committed all the havoc? I will answer you candidly. Ecclesiastical and imperial despotisms have done it to conceal their frauds.
Why are the histories of all nations, more ancient than the Christian era, lost? Who destroyed the Alexandrian library? I believe that Christian priests, Jewish rabbis, Grecian sages, and Roman emperors, had as great a hand in it as Turks and Mahometans. Democrats, rebels, and Jacobins, when they possess a momentary power, have shown a disposition both to destroy and to forge records, as Vandatical as priests and despots. Such has been and such is the world we live in.
I recollect, near thirty years ago, to have said carelessly to you, that I wished I could find time and means to write something upon aristocracy. You seized upon the idea, and encouraged me to do it with all that friendly warmth that is natural and habitual to you. I soon began, and have been writing upon that subject ever since. I have been so unfortunate as never to be able to make myself understood. Your ἄριστοι are the most difficult animals to manage of any thing in the whole theory and practice of government. They will not suffer themselves to be governed. They not only exert all their own subtilty, industry, and courage, but they employ the commonalty to knock to pieces every plan and model that the most honest architects in legislation can invent to keep them within bounds. Both patricians and plebeians are as furious as the workmen in England to demolish labor-saving machinery.
But who are these ἄριστοι? Who shall judge? Who shall select these choice spirits from the rest of the congregation? Themselves? We must find out and determine who themselves are. Shall the congregation choose? Ask Xenophon. Perhaps, hereafter I may quote you Greek; too much in a hurry at present; English must suffice. Xenophon says, that the ecclesia always choose the worst men they can find, because none others will do their dirty work. This wicked motive is worse than birth or wealth. Here I want to quote Greek again, but the day before I received your letter of June 27th, I gave the book to George Washington Adams, going to the academy at Hingham. The title is, ΗΘΙΚΗ ΠΟΙΗΣΙΣ, a collection of moral sentences from all the most ancient Greek poets. In one of the oldest of them I read, in Greek that I cannot repeat, a couplet, the sense of which was: “Nobility in men is worth as much as it is in horses, asses, or rams; but the meanest-blooded puppy in the world, if he gets a little money, is as good a man as the best of them.” Yet birth and wealth together have prevailed over virtue and talents in all ages. The many will acknowledge no other ἄριστοι. Your experience of this truth will not much differ from that of your old friend.
A tip o’ the hat to The Moral Liberal.