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President Adams Writes to an Old Friend, Reflecting on the Vicissitudes of High Office
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A wistful letter to a boyhood friend in which Adams mentions some guileful political colleagues and laments the “popular Passions of the times” and the general neglect of his political writings. “The Difficulty of leading or guiding Millions, by any means but Power and Establishments can be known only to those who have tried Experiments of it.

JOHN ADAMS. Autograph Letter Signed, as President, to Tristram Dalton, March 30, 1798, Philadelphia, [Pa.] 2 pp., 8 x 9⅞ in.

Inventory #20887.99       Price: $40,000

Complete Transcript

                        Philadelphia, March 30, 1798

      [different hand:] Received April 5th

My worthy Friend,

I am as much in Debts in the literary and epistolary way, as our Princes of modern Speculation are in their pursuits: and I suppose for Similar Reasons viz want of Method, in accuracy of amounts, no Economy and undertaking more than I am capable of managing. To you, I am indebted for three late letters, at least.

The Character drawn in the first and alluded to in the Second, has always been civil to me, personally; and especially in his last visit to this Place. But I have heard frequently of his Conversation and Behavior. I am out of all danger from his designs.

The Plan, in your last Letter, that I mean of the 26th of this month, shall have all the attention it deserves from me. There are few Men if any to whom my Inclinations and feelings are better disposed, than to the C. in question.

In one of your Letters you recall the memory of forgotten Lucubrations. Alass! Experience, History and Prophecy founded on both are lost to Mankind. They oppose in vain, their feeble Resistance to the popular Passions of the times. It may in some future time be remarked that those Papers were written in 1786 & 1787, and the Events of the Subsequent ten or eleven years may be compared with them: but this will be done by a very few in their Closets and will influence Nations very little. The Difficulty of leading or guiding Millions, by any means but Power and Establishments can be known only to those who have tried Experiments of it. My regards to the Family. And accept of & renewal of Protestations of Esteem, which have been made and repeated almost half a hundred years,

From your most obedient

John Adams

Hon. Tristram Dalton Esq.

[Docketing in a different hand]:   Once President of the United States

                  Class mate of T D & friends while they lived

      M.A.W. 1907.

Historical Background

Earlier in the month, Adams and his Cabinet had received reports of the humiliation suffered by John Marshall, Charles C. Pinckney, and Elbridge Gerry in Paris. French Foreign Minister Charles Talleyrand told the three diplomats through French officials indentified in the United States as “X,” “Y,” and “Z” that negotiations would not proceed unless they paid a personal bribe of $250,000. France, in the midst of war with Britain, had authorized its naval vessels to seize American shipping. A small American Navy was beginning to respond in kind in this “Quasi-War.” In hopes of avoiding open war with their old revolutionary allies, Adams had sent Marshall, Pinckney, and Gerry, but now, as of March 1798, it appeared a declaration of war might be necessary. Adams called a special session of Congress in hopes of mobilizing for war while also sending new diplomatic envoys to France. On March 16, he addressed Congress, informing them of the XYZ affair, all of which sparked the bitterest partisanship the young republic had yet seen.

Adams’ reference to a duplicitous friend--affable in person but designing behind his back--is to Thomas Law (1756-1834). In his letter of February 12, Dalton warned Adams that Law was “a Person who may be deemed dangerous.” Law had purchased large amounts of land in Washington, D.C. and expended “considerable Sums” on buildings, serving as the agent of someone in England. More sinisterly, Dalton worried about Law’s influence on American politics. He had heard Law publicly “vilify” the measures of the Washington administration, especially the Jay Treaty with Great Britain, and justify the conduct of the French. Dalton warned Adams that Law was promoting improvements in an area of Washington in which he was interested, even if they were contrary to the public good. Dalton paints a vivid picture of Law, and apologizes if he takes too much freedom but declares it is the first instance in his forty-six-year acquaintance with Adams that he has spoken in this way of a person’s character. (Dalton to Adams, February 12, 1798)

On March 20, Dalton again wrote to Adams with the hope that Law’s conduct since Dalton’s first letter had justified Dalton’s writing to Adams earlier. He told Adams that he frequently refers to Adams’ “political Bible” and compares recent events and movements to “you History, and Observations—and Prophesies, bounded on Human Nature.” He hoped that Americans would adhere to the principles of the Constitution “that we may attain a proper National Character!” and not become the “foot Ball of European Powers!” (Dalton to Adams, March 20, 1798)

Less that a week later, Dalton wrote a third letter to Adams, regarding a plot of land that he owned in partnership with Tobias Lear (1762-1816), the “C[itizen]. in question” of Adams’ reply in this letter. On March 19, Adams had told Congress that he doubted that the envoys to France would be successful in settling differences between the nations. He urged Congress to adopt measures for protecting “our seafaring and commercial citizens,” defending the nation’s territory, and “replenishing our arsenals, establishing foundries and military manufactures.”

In 1796, the United States purchased a 125-acre tract of land at the conjunction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers (Harpers Ferry) for an arsenal and gun factory. Lear had acted as an agent in the purchase, but prior to the purchase, Dalton and Lear had leased the property. They were willing, “in part,” to sacrifice to the public good but hoped that they could proceed with their improvements “without interfering in the Designs of the United States.” Dalton and Lear, under the firm name of Lear & Co. owned a large store and wharf in Harpers Ferry, and hoped that Adams would consider either Lear or Dalton or both for the position of agent or commissioner to “superintend the Preparations and Works in that Quarter.” The United States began construction of the United States Arsenal and Armory at Harpers Ferry in 1799, and three years later, mass production of military arms began there. (Dalton to Adams, March 26, 1798)

The “forgotten Lucubrations” (overelaborate writings) are Adams’ Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787). Dalton was among those who received presentation copies of the first volume, along with Thomas Jefferson, Lafayette, Samuel Adams and a few other close friends. Abigail Adams described the work as “an investigation into the different forms of government, both ancient and modern . . . with the purpose of demonstrating the superiority of mixed forms over simple ones,” such as the more democratic, unicameral legislature advocated by Jacques Turgot.

A Harvard classmate of Adams, Dalton was later Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and then the state’s first Senator. Dalton frequently wrote to Adams to commiserate about what they both deemed the reckless upsurge of democracy in the new nation.


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