This week we are witnessing a change of power in the House of Representatives. This government was set up on a system of checks and balances. The trifold powers to legislate new laws, execute laws, and judge laws are separated to avoid tyranny and despotic actions of any one individual or branch of government. These powers are also separated to thwart natural human tendencies of ambition and avarice to establish power to consolidate, centralize and grow. This concern was also checked by the establishment of the electoral college. It was set up to prevent large populated states or urban areas from taking over the government at the expense rural or suburban and less populated smaller states. When we see disagreements, it often suggests a healthy debate about ideas, keeps power in check and results in greater freedom and self-governing citizens.
I have frequently remarked to you and many on the virtue of our founding fathers. I loved how they brought together into practice what they felt was the best of many prior civilizations at their apex.
As I was recently studying Cicero, Caesar, Cato and others in Rome; I was captivated again with the observations, expressions and beauty of the pen by our founding fathers. As Jefferson points out, Rome never fully possessed the virtue or government to complete their infatuation with self-government by modeling, leading and fully implementing and defending the principles of Freedom. In Jefferson’s observation, how could they restore what they never had?
Greece was philosophically enlightened, but their forms failed. Thus they never exited their enthrallment with pure democracy, or how to deal with ambition, monarchy or birthright aristocracy that all ended in chaos, corruption and confusion. Ultimately, in my estimation both civilizations ended in a kakistocracy, due to the lack of public and private virtue in the people and the leaders to build and sustain self-government. One might even say the USA is also struggling to find its voice. The question still echoing from Madison may be, “is their enough virtue in the people” for this? Human nature seemed to always be the watch cry and concern as the ideal may have eluded them.
Nevertheless, I love their pure motives of building something greater than self. Did they reach the pinnacle of that desire in their generation? Probably not. But the government they conceived and birthed was the best form yet created by imperfect men. Evidence abounds as we have observed over decades, and now centuries, with many less than virtuous leaders, who have hubristically, ambitiously and avariciously not been able to destroy the form and destroy the highest core principles of this American Republic.
May Providence continue to bless us with virtuous and noble leaders as we educate ourselves and each new generation in the principles of freedom so that our liberties may be preserved and protected!
Happy New Year!
A letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 10 December, 1819
To John Adams
Monticello Dec. 10. 19.
I have to acknolege the reciept of your favor of Nov. 23. the banks, bankrupt law, manufactures, Spanish treaty are nothing. these are occurrences which like waves in a storm will pass under the ship. but the Missouri question is a breaker on which we lose the Missouri country by revolt, & what more, God only knows. from the battle of Bunker’s hill to the treaty of Paris we1 never had so ominous a question. it even damps the joy with which I hear of your high2 health, and welcomes to me the consequences of my want of it. I thank god that I shall not live to witness it’s issue. sed haec hactenus.—I have been amusing myself latterly with reading the voluminous letters of Cicero. they certainly breathe the purest effusions of an exalted patriot, while the parricide Caesar is left in odious contrast. when the enthusiasm however kindled by Cicero’s pen & principles subsides into cool reflection, I ask myself What was that government which the virtues of Cicero were so zealous to restore, & the ambition of Caesar to subvert? and if Caesar had been as virtuous as he was daring and sagacious, what could he, even in the plenitude of his usurped power have done to lead his fellow citizens into good government? I do not say to restore it, because they never had it, from the rape of the Sabines to the ravages of the Caesars. if their people indeed had been, like ours, enlightened, peaceable, and really free, the answer would be obvious. ‘restore independance to all your foreign conquests, relieve Italy from the government of the rabble of Rome, consult it as a nation entitled to self government, and do it’s will.’ but steeped in corruption vice and venality as the whole nation was, (and nobody had done more than Caesar to corrupt it) what could even Cicero, Cato, Brutus have done, had it been referred to them to establish a good government for their country? they had no ideas of government themselves but of their degenerate Senate, nor the people of liberty, but of the factious opposition of their tribunes. they had afterwards their Titusses, their Trajans, and Antoninuses, who had the will to make them happy, and the power to mould their government into a good and permanent form. but it would seem as if they could not see their way clearly to do it. no government can continue good but under the controul of the people: and their people were so demoralised and depraved as to be incapable of exercising a wholsome controul. their reformation then was to be taken up ab incunabulis. their minds were to be informed, by education, what is right & what wrong, to be encoraged in habits of virtue, & deterred from those of vice by the dread of punishments, proportioned indeed, but irremissible; in all cases to follow truth as the only safe guide, & to eschew error which bewilders us in one false consequence after another in endless succession. these are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure of order & good government. but this would have been an operation of a generation or two at least, within which period would have succeeded many Neros and Commoduses, who would have quashed the whole process. I confess then I can neither see what Cicero, Cato & Brutus, united and uncontrouled, could have devised to lead their people into good government, nor how this aenigma can be solved, nor how further shewn why it has been the fate of that delightful country never to have known to this day & through a course of five & twenty hundred years, the history of which we possess one single day of free & rational government. your intimacy with their history, antient, middl[e] & modern, your familiarity with the improvements in the science of government at this time, will enable you, if any body, to go back with our principles & opinions to the times of Cicero, Cato, & Brutus, & tell us by what process these great & virtuous men could have led so unenlightened and vitiated a people into freedom & good government, et eris mihi magnus Apollo. cura ut valeas, et tibi persuade carissimum te mihi esse.
RC (MHi: Adams Papers); edge trimmed, with missing text supplied from PoC; addressed: “President Adams Quincy Mass.”; franked; postmarked Milton, 10 Dec.; endorsed by Louisa C. Smith. PoC (DLC); edge trimmed.
sed haec hactenus: “but enough of this.” et eris mihi magnus apollo (“and to me you will be great Apollo”) is in Virgil, Eclogues, 3.104 (Fairclough, Virgil, 1:46, 47). cura ut valeas, et tibi persuade carissimum te mihi esse: “Take care that you fare well, and be assured you are most dear to me.”
1. RC: “<, Start deletion,, End,> we,” with redundant word left uncanceled in PoC.
2. Word interlined.
John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 21 December 1819
From John Adams
Montezillo December 21st1 1819
I must answer your great question of the 10th in the words of Dalembert to his Correspondent, who asked him what is Matter—“Je vous avoue que Je n’en scais rien.”—
In some part of my Life I read a great Work of a Scotchmen on the Court of Augustus, in which with much learning, hard study, and fatiguing labour, he undertook to prove that had Brutus and Cassius been conqueror, they would have restored virtue and liberty to Rome.—
mais Je n’en crois rien—have you ever found in history one single example of a Nation throughly Corrupted—that was afterwards restored to Virtue—and without Virtue, there can be no political Liberty.—
If I were a Calvinest, I might pray that God by a miracle of Divine grace would instantaniously2 convert a whole Contaminated Nation from turpitude to purity—but even in this I should be inconsistent for the fatalism of Mahometanism3 materialists, Atheists, Pantheists and Calvinests—and Church of England Articles appear to me to render all prayer futile and absurd—the French and the Dutch in our day have attempted reforms and revolutions—we know the results—and I fear the English reformers will have no better success.—
Will you tell me how to prevent riches from becoming the effects of temperance and industry—Will you tell me how to prevent riches from producing luxury—Will you tell me how to prevent luxury from producing effeminacy intoxication extravagance Vice and folly.—When you will answer me these questions—I hope I may venture to answer yours—yet all these4 ought not to discourage us from exertion—for with my friend Job5 I believe no effort in favour of Virtue is lost—and all good Men ought to struggle both by their Council and Example—
The Missouri question I hope will follow the other waves under the Ship and do no harm—I know it is high treason to express a doubt of the perpetual duration of our vast American Empire, and our free Institution—and I say as devoutly as Father Paul—estor perpetua, but I am sometimes Cassandra enough to dream that another Hamilton, an other Burr might rend this mighty Fabric in twain—or perhaps into a leash, and a few more choice Spirits of the same stamp might produce as many Nations in North america as there are in Europe—
To return to the Romans—I never could discover that they possessed much virtue, or real Liberty—there Patricians were in general griping Usurers and Tyrannical Creditors in all ages—Pride, Strength and Courage were all the Virtues that composed their National Characters—a few of their Nobles effecting simplicity frugality and Piety—perhaps really possessing them acquired Popularity amongst the Plebeians and extended the power and Dominions of the Republic and advanced in glory till Riches and Luxury come in—sat like an incubus on the Republic—victam que ulcissitur orbem—
Our winter setts in a fortnight earlier than usual, and is pretty severe—I hope you have fairer skyes and Milder Air—wishing your health, may last as long as your Life—and your Life as long as you desire it—
I am dear Sir Respectfuly and affectionately6
RC (DLC); in Louisa C. Smith’s hand, signed by Adams; at foot of text: “Mr Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received 31 Dec. 1819 and so recorded in SJL. FC (Lb in MHi: Adams Papers); in Smith’s hand.
je vous avoue que je n’en scais rien: “I confess to you that I know nothing about that.” The great work of a scotchmen was Thomas Blackwell, Memoirs of the Court of Augustus, 3 vols. (Edinburgh, 1753–63). mais je n’en crois rien: “but I do not believe any of that.”
The Thirty-Nine articles of 1571 laid out the basic tenets and beliefs of the Church of England (John Bowker, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions , 971). Speaking of the republic of Venice, the last words of Paolo Sarpi (father paul) were reportedly “esto perpetua” (estor perpetua): “may it be perpetual.” “Victumque ulciscitur orbem” (victam que ulcissitur orbem): “avenging the world we’ve conquered” (Susanna Morton Braund, ed. and trans., Juvenal and Persius, Loeb Classical Library , 258–9).
1. FC: “18th.”
2. RC corrected from “instaniously,” probably by Adams. FC: “instantaneously.”
3. FC: “Mahometists.” Corrected in RC from “Mahometism,” probably by Adams.
4. FC here adds “things.”
5. RC and FC: “Jeb.”
6. Preceding two words not in FC.