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John Adams

John Adams

Quotations



John Adams was the first (1789–1797) Vice President of the United States, and the second (1797–1801) President of the United States; husband of Abigail Adams, father of John Quincy Adams.

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  • Tis impossible to judge with much Præcision of the true Motives and Qualities of human Actions, or of the Propriety of Rules contrived to govern them, without considering with like Attention, all the Passions, Appetites, Affections in Nature from which they flow. An intimate Knowledge therefore of the intellectual and moral World is the sole foundation on which a stable structure of Knowledge can be erected.


  • Tis impossible to avail our selves of the genuine Powers of Eloquence, without examining in their Elements and first Principles, the Force and Harmony of Numbers, as employed by the Poets and orators of ancient and modern times, and without considering the natural Powers of Imagination, and the Disposition of Mankind to Metaphor and figure, which will require the Knowledge of the true Principles of Grammar, and Rhetoric, and of the best classical Authors.
    Now to what higher object, to what greater Character, can any Mortal aspire, than to be possessed of all this Knowledge, well digested, and ready at Command, to assist the feeble and Friendless, to discountenance the haughty and lawless, to procure Redress of Wrongs, the Advancement of Right, to assert and maintain Liberty and Virtue, to discourage and abolish Tyranny and Vice?

  • Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
    • Argument in Defense of the British Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials (4 December 1770)

  • The law no passion can disturb. 'Tis void of desire and fear, lust and anger. 'Tis mens sine affectu, written reason, retaining some measure of the divine perfection. It does not enjoin that which pleases a weak, frail man, but, without any regard to persons, commands that which is good and punishes evil in all, whether rich or poor, high or low. 'Tis deaf, inexorable, inflexible. On the one hand it is inexorable to the cries and lamentations of the prisoners; on the other it is deaf, deaf as an adder, to the clamors of the populace.
    • Argument in Defense of the British Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials (4 December 1770)

  • There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.
    • Notes for an oration at Braintree (Spring 1772)


  • A government of laws, and not of men.
    • The "Novanglus" Papers, Boston Gazette (1774- 1775), No. 7; this was incorporated into the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780


  • Metaphysicians and politicians may dispute forever, but they will never find any other moral principle or foundation of rule or obedience, than the consent of governors and governed.
    • The "Novanglus" papers, Boston Gazette (1774 - 1775), No. 7

  • A Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.

  • I agree with you that in politics the middle way is none at all.
    • Letter to Horatio Gates (23 March 1776)


  • You bid me burn your letters. But I must forget you first.
    • Letter to Abigail Adams (28 April 1776)

  • There is something very unnatural and odious in a government a thousand leagues off. A whole government of our own choice, managed by persons whom we love, revere, and can confide in, has charms in it for which men will fight.
    • Letter to Abigail Adams (17 May 1776)

  • Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People in a greater Measure than they have it now, They may change their Rulers and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty. They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies.

  • Yesterday the greatest question was decided which ever was debated in America; and a greater perhaps never was, nor will be, decided among men. A resolution was passed without one dissenting colony, "that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States."
    • On the decision to proclaim independence from British rule, which was made on 2 July 1776, in a letter to Abigail Adams (3 July 1776), published in The Adams Papers : Adams Family Correspondence (2007) edited by Margaret A. Hogan

  • I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will triumph in that Days Transaction, even although We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.
    • Letter to Abigail Adams (3 July 1776), published in The Adams Papers : Adams Family Correspondence (2007) edited by Margaret A. Hogan

  • I am surprised at the suddenness as well as the greatness of this revolution... It is the will of Heaven that the two countries should be sundered forever. It may be the will of Heaven that America shall suffer calamities still more wasting, and distresses yet more dreadful. If this is to be the case it will have this good effect at least. It will inspire us with many virtues which we have not, and correct many errors, follies, and vices which threaten to disturb, dishonor, and destroy us. The furnace of affliction produces refinement in states as well as individuals. And the new Governments we are assuming in every part will require a purification from our vices, and an augmentation of our virtues, or they will be no blessings. The people will have unbounded power, and the people are extremely addicted to corruption and venality, as well as the great. But I must submit all my hopes and fears to an overruling Providence, in which, unfashionable as the faith may be, I firmly believe.
    • Letter to Abigail Adams (3 July 1776)

  • The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.

  • I long for rural and domestic scenes, for the warbling of Birds and the Prattle of my Children. Don't you think I am somewhat poetical this morning, for one of my Years, and considering the Gravity, and Insipidity of my Employment? — As much as I converse with Sages and Heroes, they have very little of my Love or Admiration. I should prefer the Delights of a Garden to the Dominion of a World.
    • Letter to Abigail Adams (16 March 1777)


  • The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.
    • Letter to Abigail Adams (12 May 1780)

  • You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.

  • All the perplexities, confusions, and distresses in America arise, not from defects in their constitution or confederation, not from a want of honor or virtue, so much as from downright ignorance of the nature of coin, credit, and circulation.

  • The new Government has my best Wishes and most fervent Prayers, for its Success and Prosperity: but whether I shall have any Thing more to do with it, besides praying for it, depends on the future suffrages of Freemen.
    • Letter to Thomas Jefferson (2 January 1789), The Papers of Thomas Jefferson

  • There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.
    • Letter to Jonathan Jackson (2 October 1789)


  • My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived; and as I can do neither good nor evil, I must be borne away by others and meet the common fate.
    • On the Vice-Presidency of the United States, in a letter to Abigail Adams (19 December 1793)

  • I read my eyes out and can't read half enough. ... The more one reads the more one sees we have to read.
    • Letter to Abigail Adams (28 December 1794), Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society


  • I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.

  • I had heard my father say that he never knew a piece of land run away or break.
    • Autobiography (1802-1807)

  • Our obligations to our country never cease but with our lives.


  • I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist of the other sect, who believe or pretend to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.

  • When I went home to my family in May, 1770, from the town meeting in Boston, which was the first I had ever attended, and where I had been chosen in my absence, without any solicitation, one of their representatives, I said to my wife, "I have accepted a seat in the House of Representatives, and thereby have consented to my own ruin, to your ruin, and to the ruin of our children. I give you this warning, that you may prepare your mind for your fate." She burst into tears, but instantly cried out in a transport of magnanimity, "Well, I am willing in this cause to run all risks with you, and be ruined with you, if you are ruined." These were times, my friend, in Boston, which tried women's souls as well as men's.
    • Letter to Benjamin Rush (12 April 1809)



  • While all other Sciences have advanced, that of Government is at a stand; little better understood; little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago.
    • Letter to Thomas Jefferson (9 July 1813)

  • You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.



  • Liberty, according to my metaphysics, is an intellectual quality, an attribute that belongs not to fate nor chance. Neither possesses it, neither is capable of it. There is nothing moral or immoral in the idea of it. The definition of it is a self-determining power in an intellectual agent. It implies thought and choice and power; it can elect between objects, indifferent in point of morality, neither morally good nor morally evil.
    • Letter to John Taylor (15 April 1814)

  • Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.
    • Letter to John Taylor (15 April 1814)

  • The priesthood have, in all ancient nations, nearly monopolized learning. Read over again all the accounts we have of Hindoos, Chaldeans, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Celts, Teutons, we shall find that priests had all the knowledge, and really governed mankind. Examine Mahometanism, trace Christianity from its first promulgation; knowledge has been almost exclusively confined to the clergy. And, even since the Reformation, when or where has existed a Protestant or dissenting sect who would tolerate A FREE INQUIRY? The blackest billingsgate, most ungentlemanly insolence, the most yahooish brutality is patiently endured, countenanced, propagated and applauded, but touch a solemn truth in collision with a dogma of a sect, though capable of the clearest proof, and you will soon find you have disturbed a nest, and the hornets will swarm about your legs and hands, and fly into your face and eyes.


  • Cabalistic Christianity, which is Catholic Christianity, and which has prevailed for 1,500 years, has received a mortal wound, of which the monster must finally die. Yet so strong is his constitution, that he may endure for centuries before he expires.
    • Letter to Thomas Jefferson (16 July 1814), quoted in 2000 Years of Disbelief (1996) edited by James A. Haught, p. 82.

  • As long as Property exists, it will accumulate in Individuals and Families. As long as Marriage exists, Knowledge, Property and Influence will accumulate in Families.
    • Letter to Thomas Jefferson (16 July 1814)

  • As to the history of the revolution, my ideas may be peculiar, perhaps singular. What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 - 1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.
    • Letter to Thomas Jefferson (24 August 1815), The Works of John Adams; he later expressed similar sentiments in a letter to Hezekiah Niles (13 February 1818)

  • We may appeal to every page of history we have hitherto turned over, for proofs irrefragable, that the people, when they have been unchecked, have been as unjust, tyrannical, brutal, barbarous and cruel as any king or senate possessed of uncontrollable power ... All projects of government, formed upon a supposition of continual vigilance, sagacity, and virtue, firmness of the people, when possessed of the exercise of supreme power, are cheats and delusions ... The fundamental article of my political creed is that despotism, or unlimited sovereignty, or absolute power, is the same in a majority of a popular assembly, an aristocratical council, an oligarchical junto, and a single emperor. Equally arbitrary, cruel, bloody, and in every respect diabolical.
    • Letter to Thomas Jefferson (13 November 1815)

  • Power always sincerely, conscientiously, de très bon foi, believes itself right. Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views, beyond the comprehension of the weak.
    • Letter to Thomas Jefferson (2 February 1816)




  • We have now, it Seems a National Bible Society, to propagate King James's Bible, through all Nations. Would it not be better to apply these pious Subscriptions, to purify Christendom from the Corruptions of Christianity; than to propagate those Corruptions in Europe Asia, Africa and America! ... Conclude not from all this, that I have renounced the Christian religion, or that I agree with Dupuis in all his Sentiments. Far from it. I see in every Page, Something to recommend Christianity in its Purity and Something to discredit its Corruptions. ... The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my Religion.

  • Let the human mind loose. It must be loose. It will be loose. Superstition and dogmatism cannot confine it.

  • Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!" But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean Hell.
    • Original manuscript at The Library of Congress Letter to Thomas Jefferson (19 April 1817). The italicized section within this statement has often been quoted out of context. Earlier in the letter Adams explained "Lemuel Bryant was my Parish Priest; and Joseph Cleverly my Latin School Master. Lemuel was a jolly jocular and liberal schollar and Divine. Joseph a Schollar and a Gentleman; but a biggoted episcopalian... The Parson and the Pedagogue lived much together, but were eternally disputing about Government and Religion."

  • When people talk of the Freedom of Writing, Speaking, or thinking, I cannot choose but laugh. No such thing ever existed. No such thing now exists; but I hope it will exist. But it must be hundreds of years after you and I shall write and speak no more.
    • Letter to Thomas Jefferson (15 July 1817)

  • I really wish the Jews again in Judea, an independent nation, for, as I believe, the most enlightened men of it have participated in the amelioration of the philosophy of the age; once restored to an independent government, and no longer persecuted, they would soon wear away some of the asperities and peculiarities of their character, possibly in time become liberal Unitarian Christians, for your Jehovah is our Jehovah, and your God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is our God.
    • Letter to Mordecai Manuel Noah (1819), as quoted in The Jews, Judea, and Christianity : A Discourse on the Restoration of the Jews (1849) by M. M. Noah, p. xi

  • Abuse of words has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction, and division of society.
    • Letter to J.H. Tiffany (31 March 1819)



  • We think ourselves possessed, or, at least, we boast that we are so, of liberty of conscience on all subjects, and of the right of free inquiry and private judgment in all cases, and yet how far are we from these exalted privileges in fact! There exists, I believe, throughout the whole Christian world, a law which makes it blasphemy to deny or doubt the divine inspiration of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelations. In most countries of Europe it is punished by fire at the stake, or the rack, or the wheel. In England itself it is punished by boring through the tongue with a poker. In America it is not better; even in our own Massachusetts, which I believe, upon the whole, is as temperate and moderate in religious zeal as most of the States, a law was made in the latter end of the last century, repealing the cruel punishments of the former laws, but substituting fine and imprisonment upon all those blasphemers upon any book of the Old Testament or New. Now, what free inquiry, when a writer must surely encounter the risk of fine or imprisonment for adducing any argument for investigating into the divine authority of those books? Who would run the risk of translating Dupuis? But I cannot enlarge upon this subject, though I have it much at heart. I think such laws a great embarrassment, great obstructions to the improvement of the human mind. Books that cannot bear examination, certainly ought not to be established as divine inspiration by penal laws. It is true, few persons appear desirous to put such laws in execution, and it is also true that some few persons are hardy enough to venture to depart from them. But as long as they continue in force as laws, the human mind must make an awkward and clumsy progress in its investigations. I wish they were repealed. The substance and essence of Christianity, as I understand it, is eternal and unchangeable, and will bear examination forever, but it has been mixed with extraneous ingredients, which I think will not bear examination, and they ought to be separated.
    • Letter to Thomas Jefferson (23 January 1825), published in Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams (UNC Press, 1988), p. 607.


  • No man who ever held the office of president would congratulate a friend on obtaining it. He will make one man ungrateful, and a hundred men his enemies, for every office he can bestow.

  • My best wishes, in the joys, and festivities, and the solemn services of that day on which will be completed the fiftieth year from its birth, of the independence of the United States: a memorable epoch in the annals of the human race, destined in future history to form the brightest or the blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of those political institutions by which they shall, in time to come, be shaped by the human mind.

  • Thomas — Jefferson — still surv —
    • Last words (4 July 1826) as quoted in The Oxford History of the American People (1965) by Samuel Eliot Morison, p. 420; this is often rendered as a full statement, "Thomas Jefferson still survives." Thomas Jefferson died a few hours earlier on the same day, the 50th anniversary of the congressional approval of The Declaration of Independence.

  • Old minds are like old horses; you must exercise them if you wish to keep them in working order.
    • As quoted by Josiah Quincy III, in Looking Toward Sunset : From Sources Old and New, Original and Selected (1865) by Lydia Maria Francis Child, p. 431

Diaries



  • Major Greene this evening fell into some conversation with me about the Divinity and satisfaction of Jesus Christ. All the argument he advanced was, "that a mere creature or finite being could not make satisfaction to infinite justice for any crimes," and that "these things are very mysterious."
    Thus mystery is made a convenient cover for absurdity.
    • (13 February 1756)


  • Spent an hour in the beginning of the evening at Major Gardiner's, where it was thought that the design of Christianity was not to make men good riddle-solvers, or good mystery-mongers, but good men, good magistrates, and good subjects, good husbands and good wives, good parents and good children, good masters and good servants. The following questions may be answered some time or other, namely, — Where do we find a precept in the Gospel requiring Ecclesiastical Synods? Convocations? Councils? Decrees? Creeds? Confessions? Oaths? Subscriptions? and whole cart-loads of other trumpery that we find religion incumbered with in these days?
    • (18 February 1756)

  • No man is entirely free from weakness and imperfection in this life. Men of the most exalted genius and active minds are generally most perfect slaves to the love of fame. They sometimes descend to as mean tricks and artifices in pursuit of honor or reputation as the miser descends to in pursuit of gold.
    • (19 February 1756)

  • A pen is certainly an excellent instrument to fix a man's attention and to inflame his ambition.
    • (14 November 1760)

  • This is the most magnificent movement of all! There is a dignity, a majesty, a sublimity, in this last effort of the patriots that I greatly admire. The people should never rise without doing something to be remembered — something notable and striking. This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important consequences, and so lasting, that I can't but consider it as an epocha in history!

  • Virtue is not always amiable.
    • (9 February 1779)

  • By my physical constitution I am but an ordinary man ... Yet some great events, some cutting expressions, some mean hypocracies, have at times thrown this assemblage of sloth, sleep, and littleness into rage like a lion.
    • (26 April 1779)

A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1765)

A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1765)

  • I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design in providence, for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.

  • The poor people, it is true, have been much less successful than the great. They have seldom found either leisure or opportunity to form a union and exert their strength; ignorant as they were of arts and letters, they have seldom been able to frame and support a regular opposition. This, however, has been known by the great to be the temper of mankind; and they have accordingly labored, in all ages, to wrest from the populace, as they are contemptuously called, the knowledge of their rights and wrongs, and the power to assert the former or redress the latter. I say RIGHTS, for such they have, undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly government, — Rights, that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws — Rights, derived from the great Legislator of the universe.


  • Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers.

  • The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.

  • Be not intimidated, therefore, by any terrors, from publishing with the utmost freedom, whatever can be warranted by the laws of your country; nor suffer yourselves to be wheedled out of your liberties by any pretenses of politeness, delicacy, or decency. These, as they are often used, are but three different names for hypocrisy, chicanery, and cowardice.

  • Let us tenderly and kindly cherish therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write.

  • Let every sluice of knowledge be opened and set a-flowing.

Thoughts on Government (1776)

Letter to George Wythe, April 1776


  • We ought to consider what is the end of government, before we determine which is the best form. Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all Divines and moral Philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man. From this principle it will follow, that the form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.

  • Fear is the foundation of most governments; but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.

  • When annual elections end, there slavery begins.

  • Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.

  • The judicial power ought to be distinct from both the legislative and executive, and independent upon both, that so it may be a check upon both, as both should be checks upon that.

A Defence of the Constitutions of Government (1787)

A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (3 Volumes, 1787), republished in the 10 volume The Works of John Adams (1850 - 1856) edited Charles Francis Adams

  • The rich, the well-born, and the able, acquire an influence among the people that will soon be too much for simple honesty and plain sense, in a house of representatives. The most illustrious of them must, therefore, be separated from the mass, and placed by themselves in a senate; this is, to all honest and useful intents, an ostracism.
    • Vol. I, Preface, p. xi

  • Children should be educated and instructed in the principles of freedom.
    • Ch. 3 Marchamont Nedham : Errors of Government and Rules of Policy" Seventh Rule

  • The moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the law of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If "Thou shall not covet," and "Thou shall not steal," are not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society, before it can be civilized or made free.


  • The right of a nation to kill a tyrant, in cases of necessity, can no more be doubted, than to hang a robber, or kill a flea. But killing one tyrant only makes way for worse, unless the people have sense, spirit and honesty enough to establish and support a constitution guarded at all points against the tyranny of the one, the few, and the many. Let it be the study, therefore, of lawgivers and philosophers, to enlighten the people's understandings and improve their morals, by good and general education; to enable them to comprehend the scheme of government, and to know upon what points their liberties depend; to dissipate those vulgar prejudices and popular superstitions that oppose themselves to good government; and to teach them that obedience to the laws is as indispensable in them as in lords and kings.

  • A single assembly will never be a steady guardian of the laws, if Machiavel is right, when he says, Men are never good but through necessity: on the contrary, when good and evil are left to their choice, they will not fail to throw every thing into disorder and confusion. Hunger and poverty may make men industrious, but laws only can make them good; for, if men were so of themselves, there would be no occasion for laws; but, as the case is far otherwise, they are absolutely necessary.

  • The proposition, that the people are the best keepers of their own liberties, is not true; they are the worst conceivable; they are no keepers at all; they can neither judge, act, think, or will, as a political body.
    • This is attributed to Adams in The Life of Thomas Jefferson (1858) by Henry Stephens Randall, p. 587

  • There never was yet a people who must not have somebody or something to represent the dignity of the state, the majesty of the people, call it what you will — a doge, an avoyer, an archon, a president, a consul, a syndic; this becomes at once an object of ambition and dispute, and, in time, of division, faction, sedition, and rebellion.

Discourses on Davila (1790)

Discourses on Davila : A Series of Papers on Political History first published in the Gazette of the United States (1790-1791) ; (Downloadable PDF of 1805 edition); republished with modernized spelling in The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States vol. VI, (1851)


  • A desire to be observed, considered, esteemed, praised, beloved, and admired by his fellows is one of the earliest, as well as the keenest dispositions discovered in the heart of man.
    • "Discourses on Davila: A Series of Papers on Political History," No. 4 Gazette of the United States (1790-1791)

  • The world grows more enlightened. Knowledge is more equally diffused. Newspapers, magazines, and circulating libraries have made mankind wiser. Titles and distinctions, ranks and orders, parade and ceremony, are all going out of fashion.
    This is roundly and frequently asserted in the streets, and sometimes on theatres of higher rank. Some truth there is in it; and if the opportunity were temperately improved, to the reformation of abuses, the rectification of errors, and the dissipation of pernicious prejudices, a great advantage it might be. But, on the other hand, false inferences may be drawn from it, which may make mankind wish for the age of dragons, giants, and fairies.
    • No. 13

  • Are riches, honors, and beauty going out of fashion? Is not the rage for them, on the contrary, increased faster than improvement in knowledge? As long as either of these are in vogue, will there not be emulations and rivalries? Does not the increase of knowledge in any man increase his emulation; and the diffusion of knowledge among men multiply rivalries? Has the progress of science, arts, and letters yet discovered that there are no passions in human nature? no ambition, avarice, or desire of fame? Are these passions cooled, diminished, or extinguished? Is the rage for admiration less ardent in men or women? Have these propensities less a tendency to divisions, controversies, seditions, mutinies, and civil wars than formerly? On the contrary, the more knowledge is diffused, the more the passions are extended, and the more furious they grow.
    • No. 13

  • The great art of law-giving consists in balancing the poor against the rich in the legislature, and in constituting the legislative a perfect balance against the executive power, at the same time that no individual or party can become its rival. The essence of a free government consists in an effectual control of rivalries. The executive and the legislative powers are natural rivals; and if each has not an effectual control over the other, the weaker will ever be the lamb in the paws of the wolf. The nation which will not adopt an equilibrium of power must adopt a despotism. There is no other alternative. Rivalries must be controlled, or they will throw all things into confusion; and there is nothing but despotism or a balance of power which can control them.

What do we mean by the American Revolution? (1818)

Letter to Hezekiah Niles (13 February 1818); Adams had previously expressed similar assertions in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1815, quoted above.


  • The American Revolution was not a common event. Its effects and consequences have already been awful over a great part of the globe. And when and where are they to cease?
    But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. ... This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.

  • By what means this great and important alteration in the religious, moral, political, and social character of the people of thirteen colonies, all distinct, unconnected, and independent of each other, was begun, pursued, and accomplished, it is surely interesting to humanity to investigate, and perpetuate to posterity.
    To this end, it is greatly to be desired, that young men of letters in all the States, especially in the thirteen original States, would undertake the laborious, but certainly interesting and amusing task, of searching and collecting all the records, pamphlets, newspapers, and even handbills, which in any way contributed to change the temper and views of the people, and compose them into an independent nation.

  • The colonies had grown up under constitutions of government so different, there was so great a variety of religions, they were composed of so many different nations, their customs, manners, and habits had so little resemblance, and their intercourse had been so rare, and their knowledge of each other so imperfect, that to unite them in the same principles in theory and the same system of action, was certainly a very difficult enterprise. The complete accomplishment of it, in so short a time and by such simple means, was perhaps a singular example in the history of mankind. Thirteen clocks were made to strike together — a perfection of mechanism, which no artist had ever before effected.
    In this research, the gloriole of individual gentlemen, and of separate States, is of little consequence. The means and the measures are the proper objects of investigation. These may be of use to posterity, not only in this nation, but in South America and all other countries. They may teach mankind that revolutions are no trifles; that they ought never to be undertaken rashly; nor without deliberate consideration and sober reflection; nor without a solid, immutable, eternal foundation of justice and humanity; nor without a people possessed of intelligence, fortitude, and integrity sufficient to carry them with steadiness, patience, and perseverance, through all the vicissitudes of fortune, the fiery trials and melancholy disasters they may have to encounter.

Disputed


Misattributed

Statements originally made by others, that have become wrongly attributed to John Adams


  • If we do not lay out ourselves in the service of mankind whom should we serve?
    • Abigail Adams, his wife, in a letter to John Thaxter (1778-09-29)

  • There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live.
    • James Truslow Adams; sometimes rendered : "There are two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."

  • Think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity!

Genius is sorrow's child — to want allied —
Consoled by glory, and sustained by pride.

  • As the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen … it is declared … that no pretext arising from religious opinion shall ever product an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries. … The United States is not a Christian nation any more than it is a Jewish or a Mohammedan nation.
    • Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli (1797-01-04, which was carried unanimously by the U.S. Senate and signed into law by John Adams (the original language is by Joel Barlow, US Consul); This phrase has also sometimes been misattributed to George Washington, and has also been misquoted as "This nation of ours was not founded on Christian principles."


Spurious quotations:
Statements which evidence indicates are fabrications; in these cases they seem derived from some which are known to have been made by Adams, but have significant alterations and additions.

  • The "divinity" of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity. Nowhere in the Gospels do we find a precept for Creeds, Confessions, Oaths, Doctrines, and whole carloads of other foolish trumpery that we find in Christianity.
    • Attributed to Adams in Spirit (1988) by William Edelen, p. 4, this seems to paraphrase portions of two diary entries (more extensively quoted in the "Diaries" section above):
Mystery is made a convenient cover for absurdity. (13 February 1756)
Where do we find a precept in the Gospel requiring Ecclesiastical Synods? Convocations? Councils? Decrees? Creeds? Confessions? Oaths? Subscriptions? and whole cart-loads of other trumpery that we find religion incumbered with in these days? (18 February 1756)

  • The doctrine of the divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity.
    • Attributed to Adams in Pathway to the Stars (2007) by Rev. Ernest A. Steadman, p. 66; this seems to be another paraphrase of the entry for 13 February 1756.

Quotes about Adams



  • He is vain, irritable, and a bad calculator of the force and probable effect of the motives which govern men. This is all the ill which can possibly be said of him. He is as disinterested as the Being who made him. He is profound in his views and accurate in his judgment, except where knowledge of the world is necessary to form a judgment. He is so amiable that I pronounce you will love him, if ever you become acquainted with him. He would be, as he was, a great man in Congress.

  • The President's title, as proposed by the Senate, was the most superlatively ridiculous thing I ever heard of. It is a proof the more of the justice of the character given by Dr. Franklin of my friend. Always an honest man, often a great one, but sometimes absolutely mad.
    • Thomas Jefferson on the proposed presidential title of "His Highness the President of the United States and protector of their liberties" advocated by Vice-President Adams in the Senate; in a letter to James Madison (29 July 1789)

  • What for me makes people like Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt and John Adams and George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan such extraordinary leaders is that they had integrity through and through. What they were on the inside and what they said on the outside was harmonious. There a lot of people like that. I think that if people try to live a very different personal life not consistent with the role they've assumed as a governor or senator or president, we lose something as a nation.
    • Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, in the September 2005 The Atlantic

  • Among all our presidents from Washington downward, not one was a professor of religion, at least not of more than unitarianism.
    • The Reverend Doctor Bird Wilson in a sermon (23 October 1831) published in the Albany Daily Advertiser (29 October 1831), as quoted in Discussion of the Existence of God and the Authenticity of the Bible (1840) by Origen Bacheler and Robert Dale Owen, Appendix, p. 231. The presidents mentioned here would include, beyond Washington and Adams: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson; also quoted in George Washington & Religion (1963) by Paul F. Boller, p. 14 – 15.
    • Disputed variant: The founders of our nation were nearly all Infidels, and that of the presidents who had thus far been elected not a one had professed a belief in Christianity.
      • This has been attributed to Bird Wilson from the same sermon, but it seems to be a summary of the above quotation which may have originated in Six Historic Americans (1906) by John Eleazer Remsburg which has been cited as its source.
    • Disputed variant: The founders of our nation were nearly all Infidels, and that of the presidents who had thus far been elected (George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson) not a one had professed a belief in Christianity.
      • This has also been attributed to the same sermon, but seems to be an even further paraphrase of the above quotations, as rendered in Jesus : Myth Or Reality? (2006) by Ian Curtis, p. 250.

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