Jefferson to Adams, October 28, 1813


Thomas Jefferson to  John Adams

 Monticello Oct.  28. 13.


According to the reservation between us, of taking up one of the sub­ects of our correspondence at a time, I turn to your letters of Aug. 6. and Sep 2.

The  passage you quote from Theognis, I think has an Ethical, rather than a political object. The whole piece is a moral exhortation,‘Ttapatveat<;,and this passage particularly seems to  be a reproof  to man, who, while with his domestic animals he is curious to improve the race by employing always the finest male, pays no attention to the improvement of his own race, but intermarries with  the  vicious, the  ugly,  or the  old, for  con­ siderations of wealth or ambition. It is in conformity  with the principle adopted afterwards  by  the  Pythagoreans, and expressed by  Ocellus in another form. ncpt OE  -r <;  EK   -rwv  aA.A.lJACilV av8pCilTICilV   YEVEOECil<; etc.­ oux  t’]oovl]c;    E.vEKa  t’]  [ll tc;. Which, as literally as intelligibility will admit, may be thus translated. ‘Concerning the interprocreation  of  men, how, and of whom it shall be, in a perfect manner, and according to the laws of modesty and sanctity, conjointly, this is what I think right.

First to lay it down that we do not commix for the sake of pleasure, but of the procreation of children. For the powers, the organs and desires for coition have not been given by god to man for the sake of pleasure, but for the pro­ creation of the race. For as it were incongruous for a mortal born to par­ take of divine life, the immortality  of the  race being taken away, god fulfilled the purpose by making the generations uninterrupted  and con­ tinuous. This therefore we are especially to lay down as a principle, that coition is not for  the sake of pleasure.’ But Nature,  not trusting to this moral and abstract motive, seems to have provided more securely for the perpetuation of the species by making it the effect of the oestrum im­ planted in the constitution of both sexes. And not only has the commerce of love been indulged on this unhallowed impulse, but made subservient also to wealth and ambition by marriages without regard to the beauty, the healthiness, the understanding, or virtue of the subject from which we are to breed. The  selecting the best male for  a Haram  of well chosen females also, which Theognis seems to recommend from the example of our sheep and asses, would doubtless improve the human, as it does the brute animal, and produce a race of veritable aptcr-rot  [“aristocrats”]. for:. Experience proves that the moral and physical qualities of man, whether good or evil, are transmissible in a certain degree from father to son. But suspect that the equal rights of men will rise up against this privileged Solomon, and oblige us to continue acquiescence under the  ‘At:.taupcucrt<;fEVEo<;  O:mcuv  [“the  degeneration of the race of men”]  which Theognis complains of, and to content  ourselves with  the  accidental aristoi pro­ luced by the fortuitous concourse of breeders.

Here is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. Formerly bodily powers gave place among the aristoi. But since the invention of gunpowder has armed the weak as well as the strong with missile death, bodily strength,  like beauty, good  humor, politeness and other accomplishments, has become but an auxiliary ground  of dis­ tinction. There  is also an artificial aristocracy  founded  on  wealth  and birth, without either virtue or talents; for  with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of  nature for the instruction, the_trusts, and government of society. And 1deed it would have! been inconsistent in creation to  have formed  man or the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of society. May we not even say that  that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?

The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and pro vision should be made to prevent its ascendancy. On the question, What is the best provision, you  and I differ; but  we differ as rational friends, using the free exercise of our  own  reason, and mutually  indulging it’s errors. You  think it best to put the Pseudo-aristoi into a separate chamber of legislation where they may be hindered from doing mischief by their coordinate branches, and where also they may be a protection to wealth against the Agrarian and plundering  enterprises of  the Majority  of  the people. I think that to give them power in order  to prevent them from doing mischief, is arming them for it, and increasing instead of remedying the evil. For if the coordinate  branches can arrest their  action, so may they that of the coordinates. Mischief may be done negatively as well as positively. Of this a cabal in the Senate of the U. S. has furnished many roofs.

Nor do I believe them necessary to protect  the wealthy; because enough of these will find their way into every branch of the legislation to protect themselves. From  I 5. to 20. legislatures of our own, in action for 30 years past, have proved that no fears of an equalization of property are to be apprehended from them.

 I think the best remedy is exactly that provided by all our constitutions, To leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the real good and wise. In some instances, wealth may corrupt,  and birth blind them; but not in sufficient degree to endanger the society.76

It is probable that our difference of opinion may in some-measure be produced by a difference of character in those among whom we live. From what I have seen of Massachusets and Connecticut  myself, and still more from what I have heard, and the character  given of the former by your­ self, [vol. 1. pa. II1.] 11 who know them so much better, there seems to be in those two states a traditional  reverence for certain families, which has rendered  the  offices of  the  government  nearly  hereditary  in  those families. I presume that  from an early period of your  history, members of these families happening to  possess virtue  and  talents, have honestly exercised them for  the  good  of the  people, and  by  their  services have endeared their names to them.

In  coupling  Connecticut   with  you,  I  mean  it  politically  only,  not morally. For having made the Bible the Common law of their land they seem to have modelled their morality on the story  of Jacob and Laban. But altho’ this hereditary succession to office with you may in some degree be founded in real family merit, yet in a much higher degree it has pro­ ceeded from  your strict  alliance of church  and state. These families are canonised in the eyes of the people on the common principle ‘you tickle me, and I will tickle you.’ In Virginia we have nothing of this. Our clergy, before  the  revolution,  having  been  secured  against  rivalship by  fixed salaries, did not give themselves the trouble of acquiring influence over the people. Of wealth, there were great accumulations in particular families, handed down  from  generation  to  generation  under  the  English law  of entails. But the only object of ambition for the wealthy was a seat in the king’s council. All their court  then was paid to the crown  and it’s crea­ tures; and they  Philipised in all collisions between the  king and people. Hence they were unpopular; and that unpopularity  continues attached to their names. A Randolph, a Carter, or a Burwell must have great personal superiority  over a common competitor  to be elected by the people, even at this day.

At  the  first session of  our  legislature after  the  Declaration  of  Inde­pendence, we passed a law abolishing entails. And this was followed by one abolishing the privilege of Primogeniture,  and dividing the lands of intestates equally among all their children, or other representatives. These laws, drawn by myself, laid the axe to the root of Pseudo-aristocracy. And had another which I prepared been adopted by the legislature, our work would have been compleat. It was a Bill for the more general diffusion of learning.   This proposed to divide every county  into wards of 5. or 6. miles square, like your townships; to establish in each ward a free school for reading, writing and common arithmetic; to provide for the annual selection of the best subjects from these schools who might recieve at the public expence a higher degree of education at a district school; and from these district schools to select a certain number of the most promising subjects to be compleated at an University, where all the useful sciences should be taught. Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and compleatly prepared by education for defeat­ing the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.


My proposition had for a further  object to impart to these wards those portions of self-government for which they are best qualified, by confid ing to them the care of their poor, their roads, police, elections, the nomi­ nation  of  jurors, administration  of  justice in  small cases, elementary exercises of militia, in short, to have made them little republics, with a Warden at the head of each, for  all those concerns which, being under their eye, they  would  better  manage than  the  larger  republics of  the county or state. A general call of ward-meetings by their Wardens on the same day thro’ the state would at any time produce the genuine sense of the people on any required point, and would enable the state to act in mass, as your people have so often done, and with so much effect, by their town meetings. The law for religious freedom,79  which made a part of this system, having put down the aristocracy of the clergy, and restored to the citizen the freedom of the mind, and those of entails and descents nurturing an equality of condition among them, this on Education would have raised the mass of the people to the high ground of moral respect­ ability necessary to  their  own safety, and  to  orderly  government; and would have compleated the great object of qualifying them to select the veritable aristoi, for  the  trusts of  government, to  the  exclusion of  the Pseudalists: and the same Theognis who has furnished the epigraphs of your two letters assures us that ‘oUOEf.llav   ‘ITUJ,  Kupv’ O:yo:SoL  ‘ITOAlV wA.e.­ crav O:vope..;;    [“Curnis, good men have never harmed any city”]’. Altho’ this law has not yet been acted on but in a small and inefficient degree, it is still considered as before the legislature, with  other  bills of the revised code, not yet taken up, and I have great hope that some patriotic spirit will, at a favorable moment, call it up, and make it the key-stone of the arch of our government.

With  respect to Aristocracy,  we should further  consider that, before the establishment of the American states, nothing was known to History but the Man of the old world, crowded within limits either small or over­ charged, and steeped in the vices which that situation generates. A govern­ ment adapted to such men would be one thing; but a very different one that for the Man of these states. Here every one may have land to labor for himself if he chooses; or, preferring the exercise of any other industry, may exact for it such compensation as not only to afford a comfortable subsistence, but wherewith  to provide for  a cessation from labor in old age. Every one, by his property,  or by his satisfactory situation, is inter­ ested in the support of law and order. And such men may safely and ad­ vantageously reserve to themselves a wholesome control over their public affairs, and a degree of freedom, which in the hands of the Canaille of the cities of Europe, would be instantly perverted to the demolition and destruction  of every thing public and private. The  history  of the last 25 years of France, and of the last 40. years in America, nay of it’s last 200 years, proves the truth  of both parts of this observation.


But even in Europe  a change has sensibly taken place in the mind of Man. Science had liberated the ideas of those who read and reflect, and the American example had kindled feelings of right  in  the  people. An insurrection  has consequently  begun,  of  science,  talents  and  courage against rank and birth, which have fallen into contempt. It has failed in it’s first effort, because the mobs of the cities, the instrument used for it’s accomplishment, debased by ignorance, poverty  and vice, could not  be restrained to rational action. But the world will recover from the panic of this first catastrophe. Science is progressive, and talents and enterprise on the alert. Resort may be had to the people of the country, a more govern­ able power from their principles and subordination; and rank, and birth, and tinsel-aristocracy will finally shrink into  insignificance, even there. This however we have no right· to meddle with. It suffices for us, if the moral and physical condition of our own citizens qualifies them to select the able and good for the direction of their government, with a recurrence of elections at such short  periods as will enable them to displace an un­ faithful servant before the mischief he meditates may be irremediable.


I have thus stated my opinion on a point on which we differ, not with a view to controversy,  for we are both too old to change opinions which are the result of a long life of inquiry and reflection; but on the suggestion of a former letter of yours, that we ought not to die before we have ex­ plained ourselves to  each other. We  acted in perfect  harmony  thro’  a long and perilous contest for our liberty and independance. A constitution has been acquired which, tho neither of us think perfect, yet both consider as competent to render our fellow-citizens the happiest and the securest on whom the sun has ever shone. If we do not think exactly alike as to it’s imperfections, it matters little to our country  which, after devoting to it long lives of disinterested labor, we have delivered over to our successors in life, who will be able to take care of it, and of themselves.

Of the pamphlet on aristocracy  which  has been sent to you,  or who may be its author, I have heard nothing but thro’ your letter. If the per­son you suspect 80 it may be known from the quaint, mystical and hyperbolical ideas, involved in affected, new-fangled and pedantic terms, which stamp his writings. Whatever  it be, I hope your quiet is not to be affected at this day by the rudeness of intemperance  of scribblers; but that  you nay continue in tranquility to live and to rejoice in the prosperity of our country  until it  shall be your  own  wish to  take  your  seat among the aristoi who have gone before you. Ever and affectionately yours.




Leave a Reply