Monday, October 15, 2018

Threw off suddenly and openly all the restraints of morality, all sensation to character, and unblushingly avowed and acted on the principle that power was right

From Founders Online My own paragraphing.
Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 11 January 1816

To John Adams

Monticello Jan. 11. 16.

Dear Sir,

Of the last five months I have past four at my other domicil, for such it is in a considerable degree. No letters are forwarded to me there, because the cross post to that place is circuitous and uncertain. During my absence therefore they are accumulating here, and awaiting acknowledgements. This has been the fate of your favor of November 13th

I agree with you in all it’s eulogies on the 18th century. It certainly witnessed the sciences and arts, manners and morals, advanced to a higher degree than the world had ever before seen. And might we not go back to the era of the Borgias, by which time the barbarous ages had reduced national morality to it’s lowest point of depravity, and observe that the arts and sciences, rising from that point, advanced gradually through all the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, softening and correcting the manners and morals of man?

I think too we may add, to the great honor of science and the arts, that their natural effect is, by illuminating public opinion, to erect it into a censor, before which the most exalted tremble for their future, as well as present fame. With some exceptions only, through the 17th and 18th centuries morality occupied an honorable chapter in the political code of nations. You must have observed while in Europe, as I thought I did, that those who administered the governments of the greater powers at least, had a respect to faith, and considered the dignity of their government as involved in it’s integrity. A wound indeed was inflicted on this character of honor in the 18th century by the partition of Poland. But this was the atrocity of a barbarous government chiefly, in conjunction with a smaller one still scrambling to become great, while one only of those already great, and having character to lose, descended to the baseness of an accomplice in the crime.

France, England, Spain shared in it only inasmuch as they stood aloof and permitted it’s perpetration. How then has it happened that these nations, France especially and England, so great, so dignified, so distinguished by science and the arts, plunged at once into all the depths of human enormity, threw off suddenly and openly all the restraints of morality, all sensation to character, and unblushingly avowed and acted on the principle that power was right? Can this sudden apostasy from national rectitude be accounted for?

The treaty of Pilnitz seems to have begun it, suggested perhaps by the baneful precedent of Poland. Was it from the terror of monarchs, alarmed at the light returning on them from the West, and kindling a volcano under their thrones? Was it a combination to extinguish that light, and to bring back, as their best auxiliaries, those enumerated by you, the Sorbonne, the Inquisition, the Index Expurgatorius, and the knights of Loyola? Whatever it was, the close of the century saw the moral world thrown back again to the age of the Borgias, to the point from which it had departed three hundred years before.
France, after crushing and punishing the conspiracy of Pilnitz, went herself deeper and deeper into the crimes she had been chastising. I say France, and not Bonaparte; for although he was the head and mouth, the nation furnished the hands which executed his enormities. England, although in opposition, kept full pace with France, not indeed by the manly force of her own arms, but by oppressing the weak, and bribing the strong. At length the whole choir joined and divided the weaker nations among them.

Permit me to place here my affectionate respects to mrs Adams, and to add for yourself the assurances of cordial friendship and esteem.

Th: Jefferson

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