Sunday, October 14, 2018

On the subject of the history of the American revolution, you ask who shall write it?

From Founders Online My own paragraphing.
Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 10 August 1815

To John Adams

Monticello Aug. 10. 15.

Dear Sir,

The simultaneous movements in our correspondence have been really remarkable on several occasions. It would seem as if the state of the air, or state of the times, or some other unknown cause produced a sympathetic effect on our mutual recollections. I had set down to answer your letters of June 19. 20. 22. with pen, ink, and paper before me, when I received from our mail that of July 30.


On the subject of the history of the American revolution, you ask who shall write it? Who can write it? And who ever will be able to write it? Nobody; except merely it’s external facts. All it’s councils, designs and discussions, having been conducted by Congress with closed doors, and no member, as far as I know, having even made notes of them. These, which are the life and soul of history must for ever be unknown.

Botta, as you observe, has put his own speculations and reasonings into the mouths of persons whom he names, but who, you and I know, never made such speeches. In this he has followed the example of the ancients, who made their great men deliver long speeches, all of them in the same style, and in that of the author himself. The work is nevertheless a good one, more judicious, more chaste, more classical, and more true than the party diatribe of Marshall. It’s greatest fault is in having taken too much from him.

I possessed the work, and often recurred to considerable portions of it, although I never read it through. But a very judicious and well informed neighbor of mine went through it with great attention, and spoke very highly of it. I have said that no member of the old Congress, as far as I knew, made notes of the discussions. I did not know of the speeches you mention of Dickinson and Witherspoon. But on the questions of Independence and on the two articles of Confederation respecting taxes and voting I took minutes of the heads of the arguments. On the first I threw all into one mass, without ascribing to the speakers their respective arguments; pretty much in the manner of Hume’s summary digests of the reasonings in parliament for and against a measure. On the last I stated the heads of arguments used by each speaker. But the whole of my notes on the question of independence does not occupy more than five pages, such as of this letter: and on the other questions two such sheets.

They have never been communicated to any one. Do you know that there exists in manuscript the ablest work of this kind ever yet executed, of the debates of the Constitutional convention of Philadelphia in 1788? The whole of every thing said and done there was taken down by Mr. Madison, with a labor and exactness beyond comprehension. I presume that our correspondence has been observed at the post offices, and thus has attracted notice. Would you believe that a printer has had the effrontery to propose to me the letting him publish it? These people think they have a right to every thing however secret or sacred. I had not before heard of the Boston pamphlet with Priestly’s letters and mine.

At length Bonaparte has got on the right side of a question. From the time of his entering the legislative hall to his retreat to Elba, no man has execrated him more than myself. I will not except even the members of the Essex junto; although for very different reasons; I, because he was warring against the liberty of his own country, and independence of others; they, because he was the enemy of England, the Pope, and the Inquisition.

But at length, and as far as we can judge, he seems to have become the choice of his nation. At least he is defending the cause of his nation, and that of all mankind, the rights of every people to independence and self-government. He and the allies have now changed sides. They are parcelling out among themselves Poland, Belgium, Saxony, Italy, dictating a ruler and government to France, and looking askance at our republic, the splendid libel on their governments: and he is fighting for the principle of national independence, of which his whole life hitherto has been a continued violation.

He has promised a free government to his own country, and to respect the rights of others; and although his former conduct inspires little confidence in his promises yet we had better take the chance of his word for doing right, than the certainty of the wrong which his adversaries are doing and avowing. If they succeed, ours is only the boon of the Cyclops to Ulysses, of being the last devoured.

Present me affectionately and respectfully to Mrs. Adams, and heaven give you both as much more of life as you wish, and bless it with health and happiness.

Th: Jefferson

Aug. 11. P.S. I had finished my letter yesterday, and this morning recieve the news of Bonaparte’s second abdication. Very well. For him personally I have no feeling but of reprobation. The representatives of the nation have deposed him. They have taken the allies at their word, that they had no object in the war but his removal. The nation is now free to give itself a good government, either with or without a Bourbon; and France unsubdued will still be a bridle on the enterprises of the combined powers, and a bulwark to others.

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