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Adams, John (1735-1826) to Benjamin Rush

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Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC04879 Author/Creator: Adams, John (1735-1826) Place Written: Quincy, Massachusetts Type: Autograph letter signed Date: 1 September 1807 Pagination: 3 p. : address : free frank ; 22.5 x 18.5 cm.

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Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC04879 Author/Creator: Adams, John (1735-1826) Place Written: Quincy, Massachusetts Type: Autograph letter signed Date: 1 September 1807 Pagination: 3 p. : address : free frank ; 22.5 x 18.5 cm.

Summary of Content: With separate (disconjugate) address leaf. Also discusses Jefferson Administration as "Monarchical, anti-Republican government;" the debates in 1776; the possibility of war, and his interest in the outcome of Burr's treason trial.

Background Information: Anger over the acquisition of Louisiana led some Federalists to consider secession as a last resort to restore their party's former dominance. One group of Federalist congressmen plotted to establish ...a "Northern Confederacy" which would consist of New Jersey, New York, the New England states, and Canada. Alexander Hamilton repudiated this scheme, and the conspirators turned to Vice President Aaron Burr. In return for Federalist support in his campaign for the governorship of New York, Burr was to swing the state into the confederacy. Burr was badly beaten, in part because of Hamilton's opposition. Incensed, Burr challenged Hamilton to the duel in which the Federalist leader was fatally wounded.
As a result of the duel, Burr was ruined as a politician. New Jersey and New York indicted the Vice President on murder charges; the charges were later quashed. The desperate Burr then became involved in a conspiracy for which he would be tried for treason.
In the Spring of 1805, Burr and James Wilkinson (1757-1825), the military governor of Louisiana, hatched an adventurous scheme, the exact nature of which remains unknown. The British minister was told that for $500,000 and British naval support, Burr would separate the states and territories west of the Appalachians from the Union and create an empire with himself as head.
In the fall of 1806, when Burr and some 60 conspirators traveled down the Ohio River toward New Orleans, Wilkinson betrayed the former Vice President. He sent a letter to Jefferson describing a "deep, dark, wicked, and widespread conspiracy...to seize New Orleans, revolutionize the territory, and carry an expedition against Mexico." Burr fled, but was apprehended and tried for treason, with Chief Justice John Marshall presiding. Under the Constitution, each act of treason must be attested to by two witnesses. The prosecution was unable to meet this strict standard and Burr was acquitted.
Was Burr guilty of conspiring to separate the West? Probably not. The prosecution's case rested on the unreliable testimony of co-conspirator Wilkinson, who was a spy in the pay of Spain. It appears that Burr was planning an unauthorized military attack on Mexico, then under the control of Spain. The dream of creating an "empire for liberty" appealed to many Americans who feared that a European power might seize Spain's New World colonies unless Americans launched a preemptive strike. Hamilton himself had aspired to raise a huge army to invade and conquer Spanish territories. To the end of his life, Burr denied he had plotted treason against the United States.
In this letter, former President Adams expresses his interest in the outcome of Burr's treason trial.
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Full Transcript: Quincy September 1, 1807
Dear Friend,
It is rare, that a letter of yours remains so long upon my Table unacknowledged as has that of July 9th. Freedoms Apophthegm is well worthy ...of your Remembrance and that of your Posterity for forty times forty years more. It is the only Clue to the Labyrinth of the World; the only Key to the Riddle of the Universe. "Some crimes are punished to prove a Providence; others escape to teach a future state." I'm attempting to shorten it, I see I have weakened it.
When General Lee called Prudence "a rascally virtue" his meaning was good. He meant the Spirit which avoids danger, when Duty requires us to face it. This is Cowardice not prudence, or he meant that subtlety which consults private Interest, ease, or safety by the sacrifice or the neglect of our Friends or our Country. This may be Cunning, but is more properly called Knavery than Prudence.
Your Complaint against the Director might be prudent and necessary and probably did much good by checking abuses, notwithstanding its apparent ill success. Caveat Successibus opto, quisquis at eventu facta votanda putat. Luther and Harvey were prudent, because they saw farther into the State of Things than those who reproached them. You was prudent in discharging your own mind and Character of all responsibility for the Consequences of those Errors in Theory and practice, which you saw prevailing in the management of the Yellow Fever. Those who gave this advice for a defensive War in 1775 had more carefully attended to the Character and Conduct of the government and people of England on one hand, and the People of the Colonies on the other, and had penetrated deeper into the designs and Power of both, than those who were afraid of War and advised against it. The Event has Shewn that their prudence was consummate. Those who advised to early overtures of Friendship to France, had considered the State of France humiliated by the Commerce and Naval power of Great Britain, and the irresistable temptations which the opportunity presented to the former, to disarm the latter of half her Power and acquire a share of it to herself. They had better information and a clearer foresight, and therefore more Prudence than their Antagonists. You heard in Congress I believe in 1776 the debate between Mr. Dickinson and me, upon [2] the question of Independence. Recollect the argument of both and then say, which of us discovered the most prudence. No honest Man can read the History of your Executorship without pronouncing your conduct infinitely more prudent than that of your Colleague.
By Prudence I mean that deliberation and caution, which aims at no Ends but good ones; at good ones by none but fair means and then carefully adjusts and proportions its good means to its good Ends. Without this Virtue there can be no other. Justice itself cannot exist without it. A disposition to render to every one his right is of no use without prudence to judge of what is his right and skill to perform it.
When in 1797, [1798] and [1799], I promoted the Fortification of our Sea ports, the Purchase of Navy Yards, the Building a Navy [illegible] I think I was more prudent than those who opposed me; though my Popularity was Sacrificed to it and my Enemies rose to Power by their imprudent opposition. Their Prudence, I agree with Lee was a rascally virtue.
I am anxious to see the Progress of Burr's Tryal: not from any Love or hatred I bear to the man, for I cannot say that I feel either….But I think something must come out on the Tryal, which will strengthen or weaken our Confidence in the General Union. I hope something will appear to determine clearly, whether any foreign Power has or has not been tampering with our Union…. If it should appear that he is guilty of Treason and in Concert with any foreign Power, you and your twelve thousand copetitioners might petition as earnestly as you did for Fries, if I was President, and the Gallows should not lose its prey. An ignorant Idiot of a Governor, is [inserted: a] very different Being from a Vice President of the United States. The one knew not what Treason was; the other knows all about it. The one was instigated by Virginians and Pennsilvanians who deserve to be hanged much more than he did. [Burr's actions] could be instigated only by his own ambitious Avarice or Revenge. But I hope his Innocence will be made to appear, and that he will be fairly acquitted….
War? or No War? That is the question. Our Monarchical, Anti-republican administration conceal from us the People all that Information that I a zealous Republican was always prompt to communicate: so that we can only say "What can the matter be"? If an express stipulation is demanded and insisted on by us, that our Flagg on board Merchantmen as well as Ships of War shall protect all British Subjects, Deserters from their Navy and all others, I am apprehensive the English will not agree to it. A little Prudence such as I have defined above, might accommodate matters. But our People will not Suffer their government to be prudent. They will clamour for the Protection and Hospitality of every foreign Miscreant. Prudence would dictate that our government should forbid all its Naval officers to recruit a Deserter from any Nation, in any Case: and if the President has not the Power Congress should enact it. But our People have such a Predilection for Runaways of every description except Runaway Negroes that I suppose Congress would think it too unpopular, to abridge this right of Man.
How we shall get out of the Scrape I know not. I would not give up the Principle by any express Stipulation. But I see no Necessity for stipulation on either side. The Principle is already sufficiently established by the Law of Nations. And I think the Question might be waived by a little skill and mutual understanding tho' I carry the Principle [ ] , the Law of Nations, to as great an extent as Mr. Jefferson does.
If the English fly into a Passion and with or without declaring War seize every Ship and Cargo We have at Sea, I don't believe our present Congress would declare War against them. I am sure they cannot consistently with their avowed System, which is to defend Nothing but our Farms. If our Commerce is captured and our Seaport destroyed taken or laid under contribution We shall have a scene of Universal distraction; But unless the People alter their sentiments, I see no Remedy. I do not believe, however that any Necessity exists to give a Colour to the Pretension of the English. They have the means of preventing the desertion of their own seamen.
Parting with your Daughters and their Suit must have been a tender scene in your Family, and the more affecting for the present critical state of your affairs. I have Suffered these Pangs so often that I know how to sympathize, with every Sufferer in any such occurrences.
We are so ready for War that many of our Country Towns have voted five dollars bounty and Sixteen dollars pay [inserted: a month] to all their Proportions of the hundred thousand Militia. You may judge what a pleasant scene is opened to our view. We shall have the most costly Army of Defendants that ever existed in this World, or any other I believe.
Your Fellow Citizens were disappointed as I am informed in not have you for their Moderator as they wished and intended. I think however you was right.
I am as ever
J. Adams
Dr. Rush

Dr. Benjamin Rush
J. Adams

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People: Wilkinson
Rush, Benjamin
Adams, John, 1735-1826
Burr, Aaron, 1756-1836

Historical Era: The New Nation, 1783-1815

Subjects: PresidentGovernment and CivicsPoliticsDeclaration of IndependenceRevolutionary WarWar of 1812LawTreasonVice President

Sub Era: The Age of Jefferson & Madison

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